Procedural Shading for Architecture: Adoption, Fabrication, and Implications


Dr Matthew Lewis, BA, BSE, MSc, PhD.

ACCAD, The Ohio State University, Columbus, USA.







While the use of generative modeling processes has become well established in architecture for creating experimental forms and volumes, there is significantly less creative usage of procedural techniques for specification and control of localized variable surface qualities such as color, reflectance, pattern and deformation. The field of computer graphics has a long history of developing advanced processes for algorithmic specification of such shading properties in virtual environments for film and video games, but there has been minimal adoption of these techniques in architecture. This paper considers approaches for making this shift feasible, motivations for adopting such techniques, and conceptual implications and opportunities. Contemporary generative modeling tools permit interactive parametric modeling via recursive hierarchies, iterative traces, particle and cellular artifacts, as well as myriad additional techniques.  While some architects are adopting algorithmic approaches to form generation, there are few comfortable points of entry into procedural shading that don’t assume a great deal of mathematical and graphics programming knowledge. This paper presents an effort to contextualize the core concepts of procedural surfacing into an architectural framework, mapping relevant computer graphics constructs into a lexicon more aligned with experimental architecture. Extrapolations from current 3D physical fabrication technologies are considered in the context of the performative capabilities and evaluation of generatively produced surfacing properties with intelligent localized behavior. In addition to modulating attributes such as color, density, or displacement across a surface in response to curvature, structural proximity, program, etc., integration with emerging responsive technologies that permit reactive light, color, and sound are also mentioned. Finally, a number of theoretic research directions emerging from the above concepts are introduced. The meta-design of spaces of procedural surfaces/materials is discussed, as well as their visualization and navigation via interactive evolutionary design. The radical shift from explicit representations of discrete forms and materials, to the specification of implicit surface properties in terms of localized differences (as mandated by both virtual representation and physical fabrication) is considered in terms of Deleuzian metaphysics. Finally, the issue of pedagogical strategies for integrating interdisciplinary theory is raised.


The field of 3D computer animation over the past two decades has produced myriad techniques for generating complex interactions between geometric form and the visual and functional properties of surfaces and volumes [2]. Software and techniques for specifying color, reflectance, opacity, density, pattern, etc. (“shading”) are routinely used in feature films and contemporary video games. Effects and games designers make creatures, machines, vehicles, and buildings arbitrarily transform with the adjustment of a few parameters, making them more menacing, futuristic, or ethereal.  While the tools used by architects exploring the frontiers of form design continue to advance (particularly in interfaces for parametric design) there has been relatively little adoption of the procedural shading and surfacing techniques from the computer graphics field.

Naturally speculative investigations of form can be independent of the visual surface properties of materials. Explorations using specific materials often dictate homogeneous surfaces with more or less uniform qualities. But as always, constantly developing fabrication technologies point to the eventual feasibility of physically outputting arbitrarily heterogeneous construction components.  Designing surfaces that can vary their qualities across a surface (or through their volume) in response to form, time, or environment is not simple. As is still the case with parametric form design, learning to use procedural shading techniques and tools can be particularly challenging. Texts, tutorials, and courses almost uniformly assume a context and language of film or game production. More often then not the degree of knowledge of programming and mathematics assumed represents a significant hurdle for non-computer scientists.

There are currently a wealth of books explaining specific software interfaces, equations, and technical details [1][6][7][9][16]. Most of these also abstract their software tutorials and example implementations into more generalized techniques. Only rarely do they then venture into more theoretical concepts. That is, technique descriptions are presented assuming detailed knowledge of technical/mathematical process, and concepts in turn assume comprehension of these techniques.  There is a tendency for how to precede what and only occasionally be followed by why. Having identified this, a reversal is proposed: to move from concepts, to general techniques, to specific technologies. It is hoped this will enable more rapid and efficient evaluation at a high-level, as is discussed in the conclusion.

The words surface and surfacing are used distinctly in this context from questions of geometry and modeling. They rather refer to the visual properties that modeled geometry takes when rendered (or perhaps eventually, when fabricated). Note that shaders, the small programs that define surface qualities, can also modify the shape of geometry, sometimes very drastically. This offers both some problems and opportunities for architecture. One can generate images showing much more complex forms than can easily be interactively modeled.  This is problematic for 3D output however. We will always be able to render and visualize forms that only show surfaces, without the full geometry necessary for fabrication being representable in memory. This remains a somewhat odd concept: distinguishing between a virtual form that is “actually” represented, as opposed to a form that only appears to be fully represented.

Procedural Shading

This section collects and assembles significant concepts, techniques, and technologies in three subsections. The first will present key terminology, beginning a concise cross-disciplinary lexicon for procedural shading from architectural concepts. Groupings of primary shading techniques are then developed using this terminology. The section concludes with a brief survey of technologies in which these techniques can be implemented and used.

5.1             Concept


Despite the relatively recent introduction of interactive tools for procedural shader authoring, the educational situation required for adoption is in need of improved interdisciplinary terminology. A typical starting place involves learning the vector math necessary to navigate descriptions looking something like "calculate the dot product of the forward-facing normal and the cross product of the negated normalized vectors from the eye and light".

Most interactive 3D design proceeds in explicit stages of modeling objects, specifying the properties of those objects, positioning them within an environment, graphing their changes over time, etc. A procedural design paradigm can also take this approach: a software algorithm uses rules, functions, and iteration to algorithmically complete each of the above tasks. For example, generate tree geometry, distribute copies of them around the hillside, paint their leaves green, and make them sway in the wind. Regardless of internal representations (e.g. NURBS, polygons, etc.) design largely proceeds in the way we commonly think of our physical world: collections of objects and their (animated) properties.

By contrast, specifying procedural shaders requires a mental shift to a world model more analogous to perhaps particle physics – requiring an implicit paradigm where objects are barely acknowledged. Instead the properties of a single localized point are considered, generally in isolation, sometimes with reference to its immediate neighbors. This is represented as a massively parallel simulation with each point determining its properties simultaneously and independently. Instead of explicitly drawing a red circle on a blue surface by indicating a position and radius for the new shape to be drawn, each point that will be visible on the surface simultaneously considers, “am I close enough to that point over there? If I am, I’ll make myself red, otherwise I’ll just stay blue.” Object identity becomes an emergent perceived property of the behavior of collections of coalescing fragments. Shifting to this implicit representation is a core concept of procedural surfacing [1].

The surfaces and volumes to be visualized have a potentially unlimited set of qualities. A few (potentially intersecting) classes of qualities will be considered. Local qualities include physical/formal traits at a specific point, e.g., color, position, light emission, shininess, or, translucence. These qualities are largely independent of other locations and can be considered in isolation, potentially in a distributed fashion. A second category of qualities of a location is qualities dependent on knowledge of qualities at other locations. Such regional qualities include visibility, illumination, curvature, orientation, or whether it is in the interior or near the profile. Note that most if not all of these qualities could be treated as binaries (up/down, (un)seen, lit/dark) or as continuums. There are also highly subjective qualities. Traits such as whether something appears organic or mechanical, futuristic, or feminine are impossible to universally formalize, and yet arbitrary mappings of parameter values to other formal qualities is routine. For example, increasing a “retro-futuristic” parameter could be made to cause a surface to become more metallic, rounded, shiny, and glowing.

Having considered the above qualities, a significant number of techniques will rely on concepts of difference. For example, transitions from one quality to another are manifested in many ways: the manner of blending, the velocity and accelerations of changes, the way shapes intersect with or without discontinuity. Repetition as a fundamental concept appears in patterns based on tiling, subdivision, and branching. Most importantly, the (ir)regularity of difference within a pattern is continuously adjustable. This is usually not an instancing operation: iterative copies/instances, but is rather a property of a point in space. Synchronization then can be perceived between transitions of different qualities.

An additional cluster of concepts revolves around relationships in the environment. Most techniques have one or more elements of proximity at their root: differences in qualities that emerge based on distance and perceived groupings are controlled with synchronized quality transitions. Openings through surfaces and volumes create connections between separated spaces. Finally, direction is perhaps second only to repetition as a key building block for procedural shading. Directions that are frequently useful at the surface point being considered include the direction to the viewer, to a light, or away from (or along) the surface. Again continuums between binaries are commonplace: toward/away, collide/blend, attract/repulse, influence/ignore.

The concepts identified above prototype a framework for experimentation and discussion, but they are far from a comprehensive list. They are familiar terminology for most spatial design contexts and are useful in describing techniques for procedural shading such as those below. Having only a few pages limits the scope to naming and describing techniques rather than providing tutorials. It is hoped that collecting and contextualizing them into an accessible overview of core ideas will facilitate further investigation of the processes found to be appropriate and useful.


5.2             Technique

Emerging from the language of the above concepts are the techniques with which procedural shading can be approached. There are a number of books containing detailed methods for various aspects of algorithmically creating and manipulating surface properties. One way of grouping many of these follows, using the conceptual framework above.

A number of techniques relate to the assembly of the infrastructure of a surface. As in most design domains, a substantial amount of effort goes into analysis of the sub-components needed by several hierarchical processes of decomposition. Surface qualities are usually divided into realms of “color”, “illumination”, or “displacement”. At this point, common language of computation aligns with that of physical construction: decisions must be made regarding what is “lightest or cheapest” rather than “heavy and expensive”, in this case with respect to computation resources. For example, high-resolution, pre-computed texture maps might be found to much more “expensive” than procedural shading options. Displacement is almost always much “cheaper” than equivalent geometry, but it can be difficult to work with from an aliasing perspective in many implementations. Bump mapping is generally cheaper and easier, but it can yield poor visual appeal under many circumstances.

The hierarchy of a surface’s qualities is often constructed in layers, with each layer consisting of some form of element repeating in a pattern. Elemental forms such as bumps, cracks, or shapes usually have their qualities determined by proximity-based transitions. Surface locations might become yellow within a certain distance of a location, but become transparent and black outside of that range, forming a circle. Patterns of such elements are not created by iteratively drawing one, followed by another, as is commonly the case with procedural modeling. Rather, a location on a surface whose qualities are being determined has its position remapped from a global space into a more local coordinate system, given a desired frequency of repetition (perhaps varying). These patterns of collected elements can be accumulated in layers, placed over one another. The means of combining them might be as simple as averaging or dissolving between each layer’s values, or using more complex synchronizations such as weaving or cloning [10].

Usually once established, a pattern-based shader is subjected to different manipulation techniques. Displacement is used to fold, twist, and deform the rendered geometry, adjusting the form in specific directions with controlled transitions. In addition to moving sections of geometry, material removal is simulated by manipulating opacity to create holes, cracks, and slices, further sculpting surfaces, and creating openings. Additional visible geometry is sometimes accumulated by rendering volumetric hypertextures with techniques like “ray marching”.

Each of these techniques raises the distinction between the actual geometry modeled, stored in memory, and rendered, versus the rendered apparent geometry that might be made to look completely different. This becomes particularly critical when fabrication is considered below.  Perhaps most importantly, qualities of nearly all techniques can be controllably altered by gradually increasing irregularity using parametric “noise”. This allows arbitrary aspects of repetition to be concealed as desired. Injecting irregularity gradually quickly reveals that it is much simpler to move a surface toward apparent chaos than to bring random qualities into organized alignment.

Finally, there are techniques related to the behavior of the procedurally defined surface. How do the surface qualities transition in response to the properties of other qualities (e.g. does cracking increase with curvature? Does the floor appear more, or less shiny in areas of high traffic?) An interface for controlling shading behavior is created via parameters. Appropriate parameterization will allow interactive control over all qualities of features, patterns, and layers. Qualities can be set uniformly for all locations at once, or they can vary across sub-regions of a surface (e.g. based on proximity, direction, noise, etc.) Techniques are then used to vary specific qualities based on other potentially complex surface properties making such traits dynamically responsive. Such synchronized mapping techniques in which one quality of the form, environment, or surface drives another (usually requiring value scaling and offsets) are the glue of procedural shading.

Not only the shaders are structurally hierarchical; these parameter mappings usually are as well. There are often a mix of high-level parameters that may allow many qualities to be easily modified by changing one number, and low-level parameters that allow minute adjustments to specific (sometimes obscure) qualities. Setting reasonable ranges for parameters can be extremely difficult, particularly as they begin to interact. A collection of parameters, along with their ranges of values, forms a space of possible design “solutions”.  These solution spaces are usually “biased” and sculpted to primarily contain desirable designs.

Surfaces can ultimately be made reactive to their environments, and potentially, even seemingly nondeterministic. Improvisation of behavior becomes feasible as choices, transitions and elements are chosen based on arbitrarily specifiable criteria (again: usually based on proximity, synchronization, direction, etc.) Designing such behaviors can quickly become an exercise in knowledge representation: implementing design principles such as what color to use in what context, or in what regions of a surface should bumps/cracks/dirt appear to form. Such “intelligent” local behavior can mimic the decisions a designer might choose if they were painstaking painting the surface by hand according to context and knowledge.

What knowledge can and can’t be encoded parametrically and algorithmically? Formal design and physical qualities (e.g. color theory, selective surface aging) are much more feasible to encode than associative traits requiring recognition and “common sense”. Regardless, such generative design opportunities become increasingly needed as the potential complexity of virtual environments capable of being represented grows. Adopting strategies for procedurally modulating the performance of surfaces (interior and exterior) is required when manually texturing and surfacing every point in a generated world loses viability. Homogenous qualities no longer suffice in complex, responsive environments.

Once parametric solution spaces have been developed, different approaches can be used for exploring and searching them for desirable solutions. Most commonly, an interface is provided where individual parameters can be manually adjusted. This allows for an exhaustive (and potentially exhausting) means of traversing a high-dimensional space of solutions, analogous to taking slow and careful steps down one avenue after another.  An alternative approach is the use of interactive evolutionary design techniques. In such approaches, a relatively large number of (initially random) solutions are evaluated, with more attention given to re-combinations and variations of the “best” solutions found [10]. Visualization and navigation via such genetic approaches is more like sending a crowd to search a city: the trade-off is the requirement to constantly evaluate and compare each searcher’s findings, as well as the control lost in granting each (unintelligent) searching agent autonomy.

The organization of techniques described here has been largely independent of specific software packages, hardware, etc. Most could even be deployed in traditional media, if labor were not a significant issue. The next section discusses specific technologies that provide varying degrees of accessibility and relevant implementations.


5.3             Technology

Procedural shading techniques have been in existence for over twenty years, but it is only recently that interfaces are emerging to make them more accessible. Languages for authoring custom shaders were for the most part the domain of RenderMan compliant renderers, although Mental Ray has also been an option for the more technically inclined. While it is quite difficult for non-programmer artists and designers to write raw shading code, systems have made advances in accessibility by integrating node graph interfaces (e.g. Pixar’s Slim, and both Mental Ray and RenderMan integration with Maya’s Hypershade interface [9][15].)

One slowly emerging advance is the ability to develop procedural shading interactively without needing to software render to evaluate results. Real-time programmable graphics processing units (GPUs) are increasingly offering massive parallel processing capabilities allowing the techniques above to be generated and modified at interactive rates [7][16].  Driven by rapidly advancing video game technology, support for authoring real-time procedural shaders is being integrated into most 3D animation software, although fairly high-end graphics card requirements remain. Architecture, performance, and procedural shading are slowly coming together in the technology emerging from collisions between VJ performance software, 3D real-time graphics, and responsive environment installation. Software like Jitter and Processing allows synchronized, reactive mappings between motion, networked data, projected video, and sound [3][8]. These technologies are enabling real changes in visible and aural qualities of actual physical surfaces and volumes to adapt in response to dynamic sensed environments.

The potentially most significant frontier however is physical fabrication of the surface and volume qualities resulting from the above techniques. While expensive rapid prototyping approaches have long existed in the manufacturing world in many forms, the shift from computer simulation to physical embodiment is quickly becoming more accessible. Routine use of very high-end processes like laser sintering and stereolithography are generally cost prohibitive for most form designers with machines costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and material costs being problematic as well. “Desktop 3D printing” however has become affordable in recent years, with costs down to tens of thousands of dollars and using materials like starch or plaster combined with established inkjet-based technology. Most relevant to the procedures described here, full color printing is now rapidly emerging in low-end RP machines [19].

Indications are that the technology will increasingly move toward point-by-point material customization for each unit of volume. As color quality increases, hopefully many of the other local qualities described above will become available as potential parameters: variable material density, opacity, reflectance, etc. As one reads of new experiments with inkjet technologies, e.g. printing conductive or biological surfaces, one has to wonder whether procedurally mapping varying physical properties such as electrical resistance, light and heat sensitivity, etc. will come to be as easy as computer controlled pigment mixing currently is, and what such capabilities will enable. These seem extremely probable when compared to the full visionary push-button custom manufacturing future “Diamond Age” being sought by slowly advancing, cutting-edge technologies such as NanoFactories and programmable matter [12][14][17].

In the meantime, current technology capable of full color printing can make use of procedural shading techniques in a few ways. The surface qualities generated by procedural shading can be converted to texture maps. This can either simply be local color, or the effects of virtual environmental lighting (e.g. incident light, shadows, reflections, highlights, etc.) can be included in the generated texture. This texture can then be used when sending the geometry to a 3D color printer. Procedurally produced surface displacement can also be printed, by converting the rendered geometry into “actual” polygonal geometry (again, with corresponding color and lighting qualities if desired.) Conversion of procedural displacement to polygonal geometry also allows other existing output technology pipelines to be used (e.g. laser cutting, etc.) Finally, normal mapping, in which a 2D texture map is produced encoding displacements as the “height” difference between complex and simple versions of geometry, may also be of use with other CNC methods. 2D painting and printing techniques might then be useful for outputting color qualities of such a constructed height field.



This effort is one example of a common challenge in a highly interdisciplinary arts and design academic research environment: generating strategies for making emergent technologies accessible in academic non-programmer contexts. A frequent lifecycle in our field is as follows: initially software implementing new capabilities becomes available, but requires a programming background to make use of it.  Recent examples include new real-time shading algorithms or a computer vision library.  In a second stage, a programmer creates an interface or tool that, although challenging and possibly requiring technical understanding of its process and implementation, no longer requires programming to use. In a final stage of development, new technology sometimes evolves into an “off-the-shelf” form, adopting a proper interface, with tutorial books available in every bookstore. It is this middle stage in which we most commonly find ourselves.

A difficult question for educators and students alike is then how to balance time and resources between these three spaces to attain desired goals. One can choose to focus attention (and substantial time) learning useful programming and scripting technologies such as shader languages, Python, Processing, or MEL. On the other hand, a majority of designers choose instead to use primarily off-the-shelf software. They concentrate on acquiring repertoires of clever tricks using the latest plug-ins and data filters, pushing the capabilities of the endless stream of new commercial and open-source products. A middle ground between these extremes would be the usage of interfaces for constructing algorithmic processes by assembling node graphs in functional equivalence to writing lines of code, using software like Max/Jitter, Virtools, Slim, and even potentially Maya’s hypershade [3][4][9][15].

The most significant factor guiding this decision may turn out to be how potential work environments value and/or necessitate collaboration between specialists, relative to generalists. An additional deciding factor for learning and using procedural shading techniques specifically has until just recently been the financial expense of the necessary software. Increasing numbers of open source renderers, node-based interface alternatives, and even downloadable educational versions of expensive commercial products are now making this less of an issue however. Given a target audience of students from a number of disciplines, current educational curricula and texts have focused on technique and technology, with analysis of underlying concepts remaining somewhat neglected. Recent collaborations with architecture have provided the impetus to re-consider useful procedural shading ontologies specifically. When combined with other disciplinary investigations, generative representations in general have opened doors to broader theoretical considerations.



In our interdisciplinary research center, interactions between faculty and students from dance, theater, critical theory, art, computer science, and architecture have been generating a set of parallel concerns that seem to appear and disappear with specific projects and collaborations. They align differently between and within individual disciplines, and especially focus on interactions with technology.  In particular, such topics include recurring (re)interpretations of performance, complexity, emergence, and perception. Each carries with it a sizeable body of knowledge that is usually approached from a disciplinary perspective, and often can only be briefly considered, as less theoretical concerns are attended to, given the practical demands and constraints of technology and time [20]. Performance, for example, recently reappeared in an architectural context: asking what does a given form do, how does it do it, and how well. An understanding of what it means to act, as well as to evaluate both method and effectiveness, seem to merit substantial consideration [13]. Developing pedagogical strategies however for practically integrating such bodies of theory into more interdisciplinary studio contexts remain a challenging problem.

A specific example: after numerous mentions in readings and collaborations (unrelated to architecture or procedural shading) it become evident that gaining some familiarity with the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze would be useful. When introduced to his metaphysics, several ideas resonated with concepts described above [5][18]. In particular, as was mentioned in the beginning of the paper, one of the greatest challenges for students when learning procedural shading is the mental shift required to move from a virtual world of individual objects distinguishable by their assigned properties, to an environment uniformly emerging from tiny sub-pixel size locations. These “micro-polygons” from which all perceived forms ultimately emerge, are colored and positioned based primarily on descriptions of their localized differences (this form of spatial description of qualities also aligns with the representation of virtual forms required by rapid prototyping.) Not only does a shift in difference appear to relate to the core of Deleuze’s metaphysics but it also relies upon an alternative interpretation of repetition, analogous to the one required by procedural shading.  Once again, the generally iterative conception of repetition used in computer graphics (“draw ten rows of triangles”) with each element being generally interchangeable, must be thought of differently when employing procedural shading’s implicit representations. The repetition used in procedural shading is not the tiled forms of repeating textures or limited categories of painted surfaces, but rather patterns emerging from the parallel accumulation of singular fragments.

So how to value integrating such related theory into interdisciplinary studio contexts? In the above case it initially seems unlikely that an analogy to Deleuzian metaphysics will provide an easier teaching approach to learning how the techniques or technology in question function. Such theories could aid with questions of what the technology and techniques do, and why however. Within the discipline of architecture, the example of Deleuze’s metaphysics has seen extensive discussion in a number of contexts [11]. But while the role of theory can be firmly established/determined within the context of one individual discipline, there is minimal precedence in more ephemeral and complex inter-disciplinary spaces.


This effort can itself be viewed as a generative design project: the effects of shifting between bottom-up and top-down approaches for teaching emerging technologies, with increased emphasis on concepts and theory remains unsure. Iteratively formalizing rules for responding to dynamic constraints within a design space between art, philosophy, and science, and then “letting the system run” will likely additionally yield unexpected outcomes. The difficulty of conceptualizing this process within the framework proposed above makes it tempting to turn the procedural techniques discussed towards concrete comparative visualizations of the abstract possibilities. Might the behavior of adaptive shaders be coaxed into revealing qualitative differences in alternate regions of solution spaces? How might dialectic and rhetoric be mapped to generative geometry and surface qualities? It seems feasible that abstract process development could benefit if explicitly revealed via parametrically models and even physical embodiment.

While technologists usually visualize complex algorithmic systems like procedural shading in a framework of inputs, outputs, and data filters, there are numerous alternatives for structuring, framing, and evaluating related tools, techniques, and concepts. A generate-and-test cycle for rapid prototyping of competing pedagogical ontologies would appear ideal. Ultimately however, one-size-fits-all learning solutions seem increasingly inappropriate. Given the extent of access to new processes, information, and resources, ambitious and industrious students can obviously now individually pursue infinite avenues of inquiry. The most valuable approach for educators then might in turn require a shift from conveying the most critical information, to teaching adaptive strategies: concentrating on exposing students to contemporary methods for broadening their awareness, focusing evaluation, and accelerating hyper-efficient adoption of emerging techniques, technologies, and concepts.



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[19] Z Corporation. Spectrum Z510 Full Color 3D Printing System.

[20] Zuniga Shaw, Norah and Matthew Lewis, “Inflecting Particles: locating generative indexes for performance in the interstices of dance and computer science”, Performance Research 11(2), Taylor & Francis Ltd, 2006.