Order AND Complexity
I’ve been thinking a lot about Order and Chaos…
If you haven’t read the Slate article A Unified Theory of Muppet Types, find time to read it after you’re done with this post (or pause and read that before continuing). It was transformative for me. I am a Chaos Muppet married to an Order Muppet. End of story. But however much Order and Chaos are an interesting yin and yang to dissect, there is an equally interesting and more appropriate dichotomy for us BIMgeeks to investigate. Mastering BIM is not about Order and Chaos, but Order and Complexity. You might recall I first mentioned this in my post on 10 ways you can make the transition to BIM and ArchiCAD smoother. It is finally time to elaborate (well start to…).
Order and Complexity is subtly different from Order and Chaos. A dense introduction to this concept is Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science. It’s a hefty read, but the concepts of simple rules yielding complexity and continuous iterations have been major tenants of my work and interests since my physics-major college roommate introduced me to Wolfram’s book back in 2002.
As designers and creative-types we often fear Order. Instead we celebrate Chaos and Disorder; we love messy and loose (hand sketching, for instance). Perhaps this is because chaos makes us look smart, because in the moments between intention and accident we can call ourselves geniuses. Er, maybe. In Architecture School, we were always told to complete assignments and follow directions. But then praised for rule breaking. The good projects were by students who tried to complete the assignment. The great projects were by students who ignored things they didn’t like. As designers why do we often shun order and the promotion of following rules? What is it that makes us run screaming? I’ll tell you: The fear that rules will stifle our creative spark, that order will kill our artistry (the common condemnation of digital tools). And to some extent, as a Chaos Muppet I agree. Those rule breaking classmates of mine weren’t shutting down the creative ideas they had that didn’t fit the brief. Instead they embraced and explored them. As part of the creative process, I’m a huge fan of that method (and have some posts brewing about that). HOWEVER. The best resolutions of those rule breaking projects still had a rigor to them. It wasn’t just whim and flights of fancy. The best were about harnessed chaos. Those projects that really succeeded showed the great value of logic and order, of valuing processes over happenings.
Parametricism is a good example of perceived Chaos bred from Order. Beneath those crazy forms is (hopefully) some magic logic that produces those forms. And it’s that computer script that interests me more than the final form. The order beneath the complexity. And here’s where it’s important to differentiate between Chaos and Complexity. Chaos is the opposite of Order. Complexity is the opposite of Simplicity. Complexity and Order can and should (need to?) exist together. Chaotic Complexity–unintelligent complexity–I find rather droll. What’s the point? I know it’s sometimes just point of view. One person looks at a Jackson Pollock painting and sees only Chaos, others see the Complexity of his working method.
The diagram above has four quadrants. Each represents high or low order and high or low complexity. The high order quadrants also represent processes (I could describe to you how to create those quadrants with words, a simple illustration, or a few lines of code). The low order quadrants are happenings. They might have beauty to them, but they are random and shallow. There is no shortcut to the description of them. They are non-repeatable. The quadrants also easily represent four classic methods of production within our industry. And this reveals the difficulty faced by many firms making the switch to BIM. Going from 2D to 3D is the easy part of the switch. Moving from either low to high order or simplicity to complexity is hard. Moving from low order and simplicity to high order and complexity requires a Herculean effort.
Low Complexity, Low Order – 2D production without office standards (this could be flatcad or hand drafting)
Low Complexity, High Order – 2D production with office standards, templates, codified rules for how work gets down
High Complexity, Low Order – BIM free-for-all. Each project just happens, with little regard to what came before or comes afterwards
High Complexity, High Order – BIM with office standards, templates, and clear best practices.
Ordering of simple processes is easier and less stressful than coordinated complexity. And complexity based on chaos feeds on our desire to not follow rules, to be creative geniuses. But both will fail under large stress and strain. Harnessing the added complexity of BIM in an ordered fashion is the hard part. Remembering that to battle complexity one must embrace order is no easy feat. The most difficult quadrant in the diagram to live in is the top right. But that’s also the most fulfilling. Think about people you know who have struggled with BIM. What do they do? Or what do they complain about? In their journey, they lose control of order and spiral into the chaotic complexity of no rules, standards, or templates. They drown in the unyielding chaos of the top left quadrant. Lacking order, the complexity of BIM overwhelms. Conversely the desire to follow the rules becomes oppressive. Designs suffer as everything becomes subjected to Order (“I need to know everything! Now! In Schematic Design!”). These users live in the BIM version of the lower right quadrant–where the program and the rules stifle creativity. It’s their voices which yell most loudly about how BIM is not a design tool. Finally there are the individuals that just retreat to the bottom left, to the realm of easy, the land of low reward and low risk.
Adding the 3rd dimension to this diagram adds even more complexity, but it also adds clarity. Take a look at the second image. It’s the same elements (columns in ArchiCAD if you’re wondering), but more information is revealed. The High Complexity, Low Order area becomes more nonsensical (though arguably more beautiful). The High Complexity, High Order better reveals its underlying pattern (hint: follow the blue squares). And this is where a slightly heavy-handed analogy for BIM appears. While all the 3D views, linked sections, automatic elevations, etc. can be a headache to deal with for people new to BIM (“I have to be aware that drawings I don’t see might automatically change based on what I’m doing?!”), they are also the salvation for mastery. A change or design move that is hard to resolve in one view (plan) might be obvious and easy in another (3D view or section).
Where do we go from here?
Now that we know moving to BIM requires a deeper respect of both complexity and order, what are some things we can do to help smooth the transition? And how can we prevent complexity from breaking order or order from stifling complexity and creativity? I’ve got plenty of thoughts I’ll be sharing in future posts (this one is too long already), but I’d love to hear your experiences with Complexity and Order in BIM.