Five Finger Exercises

Written and spoken numbers are represented differently. In English numbers are usually written with Arabic numerals or as a transliteration of the spoken version, for example 342 or three hundred and forty two.

Rod counting provides a written representation of number and a mechanical calculating process that like the abacus takes advantage of the subitising effect, the ability to just glance at a small group of objects and without effort be immediately aware of how many objects are in the group. Continue reading

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Chocolate Fireguards

A very short post on Chocolate Fireguards, which as the name suggests are objects which subvert their own function.

The first example is a real fireguard, though not one actually made of chocolate. It is an example of an object part of which unitentionally subverts its own function.

Graham Shawcross: Scoughall Fireguard 2010

Graham Shawcross: Scoughall Fireguard 2010

Continue reading

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The school report of Emily, our 4 year old grandchild, said that she could subitise up to the number 6, and I had no idea what this meant.

Subitising is a technical term that comes from the Latin root subito meaning suddenly or immediately. It describes the ability to just glance at a small group of objects and without effort be immediately aware of how many objects are in the group. For instance you can look at a dice and realise that three is showing without having to count the number of dots.


The strong Gestalt of the arrangement of the pips (spots) on dice almost certainly aids subitisation due to the high degree of symmetry and the gridded nature of their location.


The task gets a little more difficult with randomly located spots. These were located with a Dart Throwing Poisson Disk distribution to avoid overlapping pips (see Find Your Own Space for details


And perhaps even more difficult if the pips are arbitrarily colour coded.


Or allowed to overlap, with their location just randomly selected with the proviso that each pip must be completely within the bounding square; pips that would overlap the boundary just being rejected. This ignores the possible pathological cases were randomly selected locations are more or less coincident.


It should not be surprising that this arrangement looks rough and clustered (see The Aesthetics of Aperiodic Tiling )

Subitising ability is usually measured by recording how quickly the number of objects in a group is recognised. My assumption with the examples above is that with each example it progressively takes longer to identify the numbers represented, but that it is still possible to do so.

The objects to be counted can obviously be anything at all, all be different, and not have the strong Gestalt form of primary coloured discs, as used above. These strong forms probably aid feature recognition as thought of in Attention Theory. On the other hand the effect of a regular canonical arrangement of  pips is summarised in the graph below. (Piazza et al. 2002)


As perhaps might be obvious, with 1-4 spots there is little difference between random and canonically arrangements but with 6-9 spots there is a marked difference, showing that the canonical arrangement aids subitisation.

Subitising Range

Both reaction time and accuracy are subject to a subitisation effect. The graph below summarises the effect on accuracy were the number of spots presented ranged from 1 to 200, and in this case where subjects were prompted to carry out the task as rapidly as possible. When subjects were asked to concentrate on accuracy the results were very similar. (Kaufmann et al. 1949)

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 21.29.04

Accuracy is high, and reaction times low, when the number of dots range from 1 to 5, 6 or 7, the subitising range. Accuracy falls off rapidly above 10 spots with larger numbers startlingly underestimated. Within the subitising range response times increase by approximately 40-100ms per extra item whilst outside the range they increase by 250-350ms per item. These rates are somewhat higher for children but similarly separated.

The subitising range also increases with age, 3 week old children can subitise 1-3 objects and 7 year old children 1-7. (Dehaene & Cohen 1994) Subitising is thus a learnt automatic response. That is a skill that requires no conscious effort but needs to be learnt.

Neurophysiological Basis

There seems to be evidence that subitisation is a separate but overlapping neurophysiological feature of enumeration. Part of the evidence for this is that people with Ballint’s syndrome, who are unable to perceive visual scenes properly, or position objects in space, cannot accurately enumerate objects outside the subitising range but within the range can subitise normally. The disorder is associated with an area of the brain responsible for spacial shifts of attention, something that is thought necessary for counting. Some research has questioned this, suggesting that attention is also required for subitisation. (Piazza et al. 2002)

There is evidence that new-born children have an innate subitising ability and that this is shared with other genera such as fish, indicating that subitisation has a deep primitive evolutionary basis.

Dominoes and Cards

With the addition of a blank half tile the same regular pip arrangement familiar from dice is also used in the design of dominoes.


A slightly different arrangement is used with playing cards where a different and pictorial mnemonic strategy is used for what might be considered the numbers above 10, the Jack, Queen and King. The 7, 8, 9 and 10 are also more difficult to subtise than the lower numbers and the numerical cues in the corner of the cards are probably made more use of with these cards.


The Abacus

The ability to subitise up to 5, plays an important part in the design (or evolution) of the abacus. In the Chinese and Japanese abacus the singles are counted up to 5 and recorded as sets of five as illustrated in the diagram below which also shows the carry mechanism.


The carrying mechanism is illustrated by adding 2 to the displayed number 715408.

Step 1 is to move 2 beads up the singles section (row) of the units wire (column). This leaves 5 beads recording the number 5.

The number 5 can be represented by 5 beads at the top of a singles section or 1 bead at the bottom of the corresponding fives section.

But the bead in the fives section of the units column has already been used to represent the number 8, as 3 singles plus 1 five.

Step 2 is to move all 5 beads down to the bottom of the singles section of the units column.

Step 3 compensates for this by adding 5 to the units fives row. This is done by moving the fives bead to the top of the column preparatory to recording the carry.

Step 4 records the carry by moving 1 bead up the singles section of the tens column.

This is a very visual way of doing maths that relies heavily on being able to to effortlessly recognise up to five objects.

Cognitive Evaluation

Those of us getting on in years are more likely to encounter subitisation as part of an assessment of cognitive ability as recommended in SIGN 86. Management of Dementia. A National Clinical Guideline. (SIGN 2006) which recommends the use of the Addenbrook’e Cognitive Examination (ACE-R) part of which is illustrated bellow. (Mioshi, Eneida, et al. 2006)


Given the previous discussion these high numbers, displayed without any canonical patterning, represent quite difficult tests of cognitive functioning. The distributions also look suspiciously un-random with very little clustering as should be expected. I have noticed that in psychological experiments very little attention is given to the design of random arrangements.


It is interesting that the primitive ability to subitise seems to form the basis of the design, or design evolution, of cultural objects such as dice, dominoes, playing cards and abacuses. Reinforced in the case of the games by strong Gestalt type patterning.

In the design of playing cards a completely different pictorial mnemonic strategy is used for the face cards and an auxiliary aid added for all cards but of most use for numbers usually considered to be outside the subitising range. The design thus subtly takes advantage of subitising whilst also using other strategies and auxiliary cues where subitising would be unlikely to work.

The design and efficiency of the Chinese and Japanese abacus, relies directly on the  ability of an individual to visualise one to five objects without conscious effort.

Neurophysologically subitising seems to relate to enumeration in a way that is similar to the relationship between face recognition and visual perception. That is subitisation and face recognition are both separately identifiable, specific skills that fit seamlessly into a more generalised skill.

A recognition of subitising in architectural design could prove useful in making groups of architectural features and units more easily read and understood by utilising an automatic, unconsious  visual response in the observer, with playing card design providing a useful exemplar.

In aesthetics subitisation helps to identify Gestalt groupings particularly those relating to proximity, form or colour.

See for what amounts to a discussion of such Gestalt based aesthetics related to housing design.


Dehaene, S., & Cohen, L. (1994). “Dissociable mechanisms of subitizing and counting: neuropsychological evidence from simultanagnosic patients”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 20 (5): 958–975.

Kaufmann, E. L., Lord, M. W., Reese, T. W. & Volkmann, J. (1949) The Discrimination of Visual Number The American Journal of Psychology Vol. 62, No. 4. pp 498-525

Mioshi, Eneida, et al. 2006 “The Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination Revised (ACE‐R): a brief cognitive test battery for dementia screening.” International journal of geriatric psychiatry 21.11 (2006): 1078-1085.

Piazza, M., Mechelli, A., Butterworth, B., Price, C. 2002. “Are Subitizing and Counting Implemented as Separate or Functionally Overlapping Processes” NeuroImage 15 435-446

SIGN 86, 2006, Management of Patients with Dementia: A National Clinical Guideline Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network. NHS Quality Improvement Scotland

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Severely Constrained Design

When a design problem is severely constrained it becomes possible to generate all solutions to the problem. That is, it is possible to close out the problem.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the design of British Local Authority 2 and 3 story house types became so severely constrained that it became feasible to think about generating all possible house type designs.

Three different groups became involved with this endeavour: the National Building Agency (NBA),  the Scottish Special Housing Association (SSHA) in collaboration with the Edinburgh University Architecture Research Unit (ARU) and the University of Cambridge Land Use and Built Form Studies Group.

The Ministry of Housing and Local Government Circular 36/69  brought together and modified a number of important earlier pieces of work. (MoHLG 1969a)

It made the minimum whole house Parker Morris space standards into de-facto maxima. (MoHLG 1961)

It also introduced lists of furniture, from Design Bulletin 6: Space in the Home (MoHLG 1963), which had to be accommodated in each type of room.

Design Bulletin 16: Dimensional Coordination in Housing (MoHLG 1969b) also made 300mm external and 100mm internal planning grids and 2600mm floor-to-floor heights mandatory; the latter enabling the plan size of vertical elements like stairs to be standardised.

It soon became apparent to people designing house types that the task was becoming so severely constrained that it was very difficult or impossible to design certain house types without breaking one or more of these rules.

Generic House Types

In the late 1960s the National Building Agency (NBA) was concerned about low house building productivity. The NBA attempted to close the problem out by generating an array of all possible house types with 300mm increment shell sizes that met Circular 36/69 requirements and then proposed a reduced set that would give additional productivity gains to contractors. (National Building Agency, 1965).

Unfortunately later research by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) showed that the shell was not the main determinant of house building productivity. The initiative was not widely taken up and had very little effect, although the tools developed in the effort were sometimes used by others.

SSHA / ARU House Design Program

The Scottish Special Housing Association (SSHA) and the Edinburgh University Architectural Research Unit (ARU) took a different approach and developed a Computer Aided Design program, called House Design. (Bijl et al 1971)

This allowed experienced designers to interactively design house types within Circular 36/69 restraints, which had already been incorporated, with some minor variations, into the Scottish Building Regulations.

All location, component and assembly drawings and bills of quantities were then automatically produced, without any further interaction, by reference to a complete set of standard component and assembly details. That is all possible assembly details had been identified, detailed and quantified in advance of their being required.

Design Bulletin 16 recommended (probably required) that internal components be located with one of their finished faces on a 100mm grid line. Somewhat surprisingly it was thought that this would aid the location of components on site.

However it greatly increased the number of possible assembly details that were required. The enumerative analysis that follows was used to justify locating interior components symmetrically within their grid space rather than face-on-grid.

The diagram below shows all the possible ways internal components can meet when they are located symmetrically within a grid. The numbers in brackets indicate the number of ways that components in that configuration can meet if they are located face on grid.


The following diagram shows the ways the components of the circled arrangement can meet when the components are located with their faces on grid.


In House Design the components were either a load bearing partition (structurally 74mm wide) , a non-load bearing partition (structurally 50mm wide) or an internal door. Giving a requirement for a library of the following assembly details.


In summary, locating internal components symmetrically within their grid space reduces the number of assembly details required by a factor of almost 8 and avoids the need for lots of otherwise very similar and potentially confusing details.

Locating internal components centrally in their 100mm grid space meant that location plans could be automatically dimensioned, with dimensions to the structural face of the components; that is before plasterboard etc were applied and exactly as site operatives handled them. This had the added advantage that grids could be ignored on site; their work having been done in organising the system, they were no longer needed.


SSHA Automatically Dimensioned House Type Plan

Automatic Generation of Minimum Standard House Plans

The paper The Automatic Generation of Minimum Standard House Plans, (Steadman 1970) proposed a more fundamental method of generating all possible minimum standard house plans. As Steadman put it:

“it would be possible – given requirements for minimum sizes for rooms and constraints on the permissible shapes they might take, as well as ‘adjacency requirements’ – to produce quite systematically all possible plans in which those requirements were satisfied.”

The intention of this study was therefore to systematically generate all possible standard house plans.

It follows a method used to find squares composed of smaller unique sized squares, using Graph Theory and Kirchhoff’s Laws for electrical flow in wires. (Tutte, 1958).


The diagrams below show how a plan can be represented as a graph. The graph below shows the vertical distribution of the room dimensions in the plan. A similar graph, usually the dual of this, can be produced for the  horizontal distribution.


The distance from the bottom edge of the plan is added to each node of the graph (circled below)


The ‘current’ in the Kitchen ‘wire’ is its horizontal dimension 7. The ‘voltage’ at the two ends of the wire are 21 and 7. Their difference is 14 which is the vertical dimension of the room.


In spite of the NBA having earlier produced minimum room layouts for all room types (see bedroom example below) this interesting proposal seems never to have been implemented.


Further work on this idea was reported in Synthesis and Optimization of Small Rectangular Floor Plans (Mitchell, Steadman and Ligett 1976), and this went a long way to explaining why this interesting method was not implemented.

Synthesis and Optimization of Small Rectangular Floor Plans

The analysis in this paper is based on the dimensionless dissection of a rectangle into n parts, the assignment of room names to the parts and then satisfying adjacency requirements between rooms.


The number of possible dissections grows exponentially with the number of rectangles, as illustrated below for 1 to 8 rectangles.


But for 9 rectangles it was estimated that there were approximately 25000 possible dissections. A future post will show how this figure can be accurately calculated.

Most realistic house types  have 8 or more spaces (rectangles) per floor as exemplified by the SSHA house type plan shown above. The requirement for doors to be only in certain restrained locations also means that further transition-spaces would be needed.

There also seemed to be difficulties in reconciling adjacency and dissections graphs.

Whilst stating that the method is easily extended to multi-storey buildings the only examples given are of single storey trailer designs.

This leaves a catalogue of the bisections of a rectangle into 2 to 6 rooms.

DissectionPlansThat is a list of dissections unsuitable for generating most house types.


The Ministry of Housing and Local Government Circular 36/69 unintentionally brought together all the requirements for the design of 2 and 3 storey local authority house types to be automated.

Most importantly this included the adoption of Parker Morris space standards as de-facto maxima, the requirement for particular room types to be able to accommodate standard lists of fixed sized furniture and the mandatory imposition of dimensional coordination.

The National Housing Agency Generic House Types were manually produced. The furniture lists of Circular 36/69 were built up into collections of minimum sized rooms (as in bedroom example above). These in turn were assembled into the house types. However a desire to exactly match Parker Morris space standards, particularly the complex storage requirements often lead to the integrity of the shell being violated as shown below.

NBA_Storage_KeyAnd as mentioned earlier, later research by BRE showed that the shell was not the main determinant of house building productivity.

Based on its complete set of assembly details, the Scottish Special Housing Association / Edinburgh University ARU House Design Program became a fully operational system that automatically produced all location, component and assembly drawings and bills of quantities from interactive screen based input. Its demise came about through the Thatcher Government abandoning Parker Morris space standards and Local Authority house building in general.

The University of Cambridge Land Use and Built Form Studies perhaps more intellectually ambitious Automatic Generation of Minimum Standard House Plans never  became a working system. This was probably because they had no one with experience of actually having designed house types and apparently did not know of the work done by the NBA. Even working at the MoHLG R+D Group we had to obtain their minimum room layouts surreptitiously. But more importantly they had no way of dealing with the explosion of intermediate and preliminary results their method required. A problem that will be addressed in later posts.


Bijl, A., Renshaw, T., Barnard, D. et al., 1971. ARU research project A25/SSHA-DOE: house design ; application of computer graphics to architectural practice

Mitchell, W.J., Steadman, J.P. & Liggett, R.S., 1976. Synthesis and optimization of small rectangular floor plans. Environment and Planning B Planning and Design, 3(1), pp.37 – 70.

MoHLG, 1969a. Circular 36/69. London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.

MoHLG, 1963. Design Bulletin 6 Space in the Home. London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.

MoHLG, 1969b. Design Bulletin 16 Dimensional Coordination in Housing. London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.

MoHLG, 1961. Homes for Today and Tomorrow (The Parker Morris Report). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

National Building Agency, 1965. Generic Plans: Two and Three Storey Houses London: The National Building Agency

Steadman, P., 1970. The Automatic Generation of Minimum Standard House Plans Working Paper 23 University of Cambridge Land Use and Built Form Studies

Tutte, W. T., 1958. Squaring the Square from ‘Mathematical Games’ column, Scientific American Nov 1958.

Posted in Architecture, Design, Design Methods, Enumeration, Housing | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Embodied Materiality

This is another list, probably even a listicle, of objects with eccentric properties. In this case objects that are, or were originally, named for the materials they are made of.


Richard Wentworth was the curator of the highly influencial 1999 Hayward Gallery travelling exhibition Richard Wentworth’s Thinking Aloud (Wentworth 1998)  but this is from Marina Warner’s monogram Richard Wentworth. (Warner 1993)

“Wentworth likes objects that are called after the stuff they are made of: a rubber, a glass, a straw, a tin, a cork, a cane. But this aesthetic should be seen in the context of a broader rejection of representation itself and representation’s traditional connections with anthropomorphism and the pastoral — with dream conjurings of ideal bodies and other places.

Richard Wentworth’s List

a rubber: This still seems to hold true even though the material may not now always be natural rubber.

a glass: Certainly holds true even though the concept might be expanded to include plastic glasses, for instance you can usually take your (plastic) glass into the cinema. 

a straw: A stale metaphor, today drinking straws are nearly always made of plastic rather than straw. I prefer stale metaphor rather than dead metaphor because I think the latter should be reserved for when the reference has become so weak that it can only be traced or understood with the help of an etymological dictionary. For most people however, I think the straw metaphor is  quite near to being dead.

a tin: Fairly straightforward, but see for a discussion of the Container for The Thing Contained a special type of metonymy  much loved by James Thurber as in his story Here Lies Miss Groby (Thurber 1942, 1954)

a cork: Probably fairly secure, though there are now an increasing number of ‘plastic corks’. 

a cane: For most people I think quite arcane, perhaps only remembered, if at all, through song lyrics such as “Hand me down my walking cane”.

Possible Additions

a quill: Accurate but a fairly archaic and uninteresting object.

an iron: For pressing clothes; these were historically made of iron,  often designed to be filled with hot coals, otherwise a very stale or dead metaphor.

an iron: A type of golf club, a metonym with the whole being named after a part, the head of the club.

a wood: Another type of golf club, also a metonym, but modern woods are now more often made of metal, a stale metonym?

a slate: Another archaic object but I do have a picture of me sat in Junior School, aged 5, with a slate in front of me, learning to write (extreme left)


This object is also capable of being a metaphor, as in a political “slate of candidates”.

a chalk: Useful for writing on slates and literally or metaphorically “chalking things up”. Note also the cloths on the desks for “wiping the slate clean”.

coppers: True for coins but not for policemen. I think this cannot be singular, “give me a copper” does not really work.

silver: True for coins, for instance the biblical “pieces of silver”. Again I think cannot be singular if referring to a coin.

a nickel: True for a coin or coins, that is, can be plural.

ivories:  True when referring to the actual piano keys, including the black ones? More usually a metonym as in “tinkling the ivories” meaning playing the piano, a part giving its name to the whole.

a bronze: A sculpture, bas-relief etc.

a canvas: For painting on, but also used metaphorically in  computer graphic programs such as Photoshop and many others

cotton: Thread: including, cotton, polyester and cotton covered polyester threads?


strings: For puppets etc

a paper:  A newspaper in colloquial usage, a metonym. An academic paper sometimes written directly onto paper, a metonym, but now more often produced electronically and that may never even be printed onto paper, a stale metonym?

a fur: Now being worn again on models’ backs.

a fleece: Clever marketing-speak use of metaphor, but have always been made from polypropylene or other artificial materials.

leathers: As worn by Hells Angels and other motorcyclists.


I appeciate that I am, tongue in cheek, not using embodiment in the usual way, but rather to represent a certain type of self coding or self reference.

Generally there seems to be a tendency for the materiality and  self coding embodiment present in these objects to be fading fairly rapidly as new materials are substituted for those  that the objects were originally named for. Leaving these objects to become stale and eventually dead metaphors.

However there is also the interesting case of objects that are just self coding such as plastic lemon juice bottles made to look like fairly realistic lemons. I particularly like the leaves.


And finally visual puns, for example this money box in the form of a loaf of bread.



Wentworth, R.(1998)
                    Richard Wentworth’s Thinking Aloud
                    Hayward Gallery Publishing
Warner, M. (1993)
Richard Wentworth, page 12
Thames and Hudson in association with The Serpentine Gallery
Thurber, J. (1942)
                    Here Lies Miss Groby
                    The New Yorker
                    March 21 1942 p 14
Thurber, J. (1954)
                    Here Lies Miss Groby
                    The Thurber Carnival p 75
                    Penguin Books
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Archetypes and Visual Pangrams

This follows an earlier post on Visual Pangrams here


To recap, ordinary pangrams use every letter of the alphabet at least once to form a more or less meaningful sentence, for instance: –

Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz

This English pangram includes all 26 letters of the alphabet with only 5 reuses of letters; with a used three times and with s, i and o each used twice and it therefore has a letter count of 31 (26 + 5).

There do not seem to be any adequate English pangrams that use all 26 letters exactly once; that is having a letter count of 26. [Augarde, 1984]

Pangrams  exist in most alphabetic languages. For instance, this is the shortest French one with a letter count of 29. [OuLiPo, 1981]

Whisky vert: jugez cinq fox d’aplomb

By slight extensions the concept also makes sense in some ideographic languages.

For instance the Iroha (いろは?) is a Japanese poem, that is a perfect pangram containing each character of the Japanese syllabary exactly once. It is used as an ordering method for the syllabary in much the same way as A, B, C, D, ….. is accepted as the ordering of the Latin alphabet.

One of Japan’s ‘National Living Treasures’, Serizawa Keisuke, has produced a stencil printed, fabric design that uses every character of this syllabary.


Somewhat similarly the Chinese character 永 (yǒng), meaning permanence, incorporates every basic stroke needed to define Chinese characters as described in The Eight Principles of Yǒng.


The numbers on the right indicate the order in which the strokes are to be  made.

This can be thought of as a template, stencil or series of stencils that can used to generate the other characters.

Visual Pangrams

The earlier post included this example of a visual pangram, from the front endpaper and frontispiece of A Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe. [Peterson, Mountford and Hollom, 1974]

Flyleaf of Collins Birds og Great Britain and Europe

The suggested formulation for a visual pangram is that the individual features of a complete field of interest correspond to the letters of the alphabet; and that the overall pictorial representation of the complete field of interest corresponds to a more or less meaningful sentence made up using all the letters of the alphabet at least once.

In the image above the complete field of interest is commonly found birds, the individual bird silhouettes correspond to the letters of the alphabet and the arrangement of the silhouettes into an overall pictorial representation corresponds to all the letters being used at least once to create a meaningful sentence.


The introduction to the Field Guide also includes a Typography of a Bird diagram, in which a more or less realistic bird is overloaded with all the named parts a bird might have, but that no single bird could possibly have.

bird_parts_1Highlighting these differentiating features with attention lines, as shown below, aids identification in the field; so that, with distribution maps and species specific notes, you do not usually need to know or learn the names of the features.


For instance within the Finch family, the Hawfinch has a large heavy beak that uniquely identifies it (marked with an attention line); the male Chaffinch similarly uniquely has a grey head whilst male Bramblings have white rumps and rusty carpels in summer and winter.


I want to argue here that whilst the frontispiece to A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe and The Typography of A Bird diagram are superficially similar, they are in fact quite different.

It is clear from the stencil like nature of the individual strokes of the Chinese character 永 that it can be seen as a generative mechanism for producing all the other characters.

Similarly in The Typography of A Bird diagram the individual named features can be seen as a generative mechanism, in which individual features can be selected and combined to create particular instances or separate species of bird.

In contradistinction the visual pangram shows representative bird types in pictorially related locations where they might be seen; on telephone wires, in trees, on fence posts or on the ground.

That is the visual pangram is relational whilst the Typography of a Bird diagram is generative; an archetype or prototype from which particular species are patterned. In this sense, an archetype is a morphological ideal that exhibits all the general characteristics of a group of organisms, here The Birds of Britain and Europe.

Both diagrams are similar in that they have lists of visual features combined into an overall image, but the arrangement of these features in the archetype is definitive, functional and generative whilst the arrangement in the visual pangram is purely pictorial and at best just indicates where certain types of bird may be found.


A perhaps more familiar example of an archetype is Goethe’s Urpflanze or Original Plant. [Goethe, 1790 trans 2009]

‘Seeing so much new and burgeoning growth, I came back to my old notion and wondered whether I might not chance upon my archetypal plant. There must be such a plant, after all. If all plants were not moulded on one pattern, how could I recognize that they are plants?’


Later the notion became more abstract as a theoretical model of plant structure with the stems acting as axes of growth, along which a generic leaf was transformed into different shaped leaves, petals, seeds etc.[Steadman 1979].


Augarde, T, (1984) The Oxford Guide to Word Games Oxford University Press

Goethe, J. W. (1790) Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erkläre Gotha: Ettinger

Goethe, J. W., trans Miller, G. L. (2009) The Metamorphosis of Plants  MIT Press

OuliPo (Association) (1981) Atlas de Littérature Potentielle Gallimard, Paris

Peterson, R., Mountford, G and Hollom, P.A.D. (1974) A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. Third Edition; Collins

Steadman, P (1979) The Evolution of Designs Cambridge University Press

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Audio Illusion


The following diagrams illustrate the way, until recently, our television was setup. The television and speakers were connected to a Media Centre, with both Speakers markedly offset to the left of the Screen.

With this setup, when the television program is speech based the sound “appears” to come from the Screen. That is, there is a strong illusion that the words being spoken are coming directly from the Screen, and in fact the speaker’s mouth, and not from their physical source.

This is an automatic response, that is even if you ‘know’ the sound is coming from the Speakers you cannot, by effort of will, make the sound appear to come from anywhere other than the Screen.


The situation is much the same with music, when the sound being heard is synchronised with the moving image, the music “appears” to come from the Screen.

However if the sound source is changed, to something that does not correspond to the image, then the sound “appears” to come from the Speakers and not the Screen.



Firstly on a trivial level it is difficult to avoid using the word “appears” when it comes to talking about the location of sound, but this does somehow also suggest the primacy of the visual. This is probably just a personal bias; in this context, “sounds as if it comes” probably does just as well as “appears to come”, even if a little more verbose.

The automatic nature of this phenomena however means that it is similar to optical illusions such as the Müller-Lyer illusion where knowing the answer does not overcome the effect. So it does not seems inappropriate to call the observed phenomena an audio illusion.


This seems to have some resemblance to the McGurk-MacDonald effect where seeing someone’s lip movements effects the sound that one hears, again this is an automatic response.


  1. How far away and in what configuration can the Speakers be placed and the illusion continue to work?
  2. Is the illusion learnt or instinctive? If learnt at what age?
  3. What, if anything, does the illusion indicate about the internal representations of sound and moving images?
  4. How do transition states work, for instance a transition from someone speaking to hearing background music that has no obvious source? In this respect does the illusion have a sort of after image?
  5. What is the effect of increasingly poor synchronisation of speech and music on the illusion? cf Gillian Wearing’s 1997, 10–16 where adults lip synch the voices and act out the physical tics of seven children.
  6. Many more.


McGurk H., MacDonald J. (1976). “Hearing lips and seeing voices.”. Nature 264 (5588): 746–8

Deutsch, D.(2003) Phantom Words, and Other Curiosities. La Jolla: Philomel Records

Wearing, G. (1997) 10-16 Whitechapel Gallery 28 March-17 June 2012

Chion, M. (1999) The Voice in Cinema. Trans. C. Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press. First published in French in 1982.

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Merely Conventional Signs

During a recent seminar on Vilém Flusser, organised by Ella Chmielewska and Fiona Hanley the discussion got round to the Borges story of Cartographers producing maps of larger and larger scales. I thought that Lewis Carroll had produced something similar in  the Hunting of the Snark (Carroll 1896) which I looked up later

Fit the Second – The Bellman’s Speech

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best–
A perfect and absolute blank!”

bellmans_speech_mapThe full Hunting of the Snark text is here.

Unfortunately  this is the wrong Lewis Carroll map, a better one is described in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (Carroll 1893).

“And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr. “The farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

This chimes well with my rather acerbic response to being asked by the Scottish Special Housing Association in the 1970s to produce a detailed  database of their 100,000 properties

The following link has lots of other examples including the Borges one On Exactitude in Science which adds a little versimilitude by adding that

 “In the deserts of the west, there are tattered ruins of that map, inhabited by animals and beggars, in all the land there is no other relic of the disciplines of geography.”


Flusser, V. (1965) On Doubt trans Noveas, R. M. (2012)

Flusser, V. (2012) To Photograph is to Define in The Journal of Philosophy of Photography (in English, issue 2.2)

Carroll, L. (1896) The Hunting of the Snark, An Agony in Eight Fits The Macmillan Company

Gardner, M. (1967) The Annotated Snark Penguin Books

Carroll, L. (1893) Sylvie and Bruno Concluded

Borges, J. L. (1954?) “On Exactitude in Science.” in Collected Fictions (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998), p. 325

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Haptic Interfaces: Extending Object Capabilities

Whilst looking for more up-to-date scanning devices I came across this nice haptic interface that extends the capabilities of everyday objects. It comes from the Fluid Interfaces Group of the MIT Media Lab and uses my favourite definition of a haptic device as a device you can use in the dark (or with your eyes closed).

Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 12.13.52

I think they were more interested in identifying objects that were ubiquitous, simple and obvious to use rather than in their specifically haptic nature.

But what is interesting about this proposal is that it allows such simple devices to be given extra powers, to for instance to allow the light switch to change the colour of the light.


Heun, V., Kasahara, S., Maes, P.
“Smarter Objects: Using AR technology to Program Physical Objects and their Interactions”
ACM Intl. Conf. Human Factors in Computing (CHI 2013), Work-In-Progress
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Smartgeometry 2013

The tenth annual smartgeometry event has just finished in London, and was held at the Bartlett School of Architecture. Previous years’ events have been held at Troy, Copenhagen, Barcelona, New York and San Francisco with institutions bidding for the privilege of hosting the event. This year’s sticking point was wether UCL had a conference auditorium that could hold 900 people.

The event is organised loosely round a theme, this year constructing for uncertainty, and round a series of 10 clusters or workshops which organisations also bid to host. This year there were 40 bids of which the following 10 were accepted.

Scanned Image

Starting on Monday the event consists of 4 days of workshops culminating in an exhibition on Thursday evening followed by a Talk-shop day on Friday and a full-blown Conference on Saturday.

Clusters champions largely come from university research groups such as ETH Zurich and Singapore, RMIT, The Bartlett etc. Workshop participants mainly come from the large London architectural practices that have computational design groups, Fosters + Partners, PLP Architects, AECOM, Grimshaw Architects etc. The Bartlett also provided access to their really excellent workshop and two graduate assistants for each cluster.

Projections of Reality

I took part in the Projections of Reality cluster which was championed by ETH Singapore. The concept sketch prepared before the workshop was as follows.


The idea was to have a physical block-world model on a 1m x 1m table. The position and size of the boxes to be sampled by 2No Kinects and processed into a CAD model which could have a variety of analyses applied to it; the results of which would be displayed back onto the physical block-world in real time. The idea being that the physical block-world could act as a very natural and intuitive interface to computer based applications. That is you could rearrange the blocks and immediately see how the new arrangement affected the application.

PR-1It was decided to limit the world to rectangular blocks but to allow non orthogonal placement. After a lot of discussion an interesting decision was made about what to do when blocks touched and joined together. In the style of Processing, which was driving the scanning, it was decided to make joined blocks into new entities with no knowledge of their  past.

This was particularly useful for a simple application which coloured the blocks according to their size.

The method of calibration of the 4No Projectors had been largely resolved in Singapore so the group was able to get the scanning, building the CAD model and projecting the analysis results to work in a pretty satisfactory manner and were able to get a number of applications up and running.

This included a very nice shadow application were the Kinect scanned the position of your hand representing the position of the sun; one visiting partner of a large practice delightedly said that he had always wanted to play God in this way.


A number of attempts were made to provide a pointer device for some of the applications that required a start or end point to be indicated particularly for an agent route finding application. Laser pointers and LED pucks were tried but the relative shallowness (128 levels) of the colour space of the Kinect RGB  camera meant that the brightest point search always found something that was as bright as possible before it found something that was accually physically brighter.

Since the end of smartgeometry 2013 it appears that simple physical interaction with a virtual model is something of a hot topic with a short article in this weeks New Scientist and this neat way of calibrating projection display surfaces being published.

Seems strange that the car has to be instrumented, when it would do just as  well to instrument the surface it sits on.

The other clusters that I found particularly interesting or just plain peculiar were.

Computer Vision and Freeform Construction

This used a simple webcam and fixed QR Codes to guide the construction of complicated freeform shapes from common building materials.

In one example a master bricklayer was guided in the construction of a freeform vault using hollow flooring tiles and in another un-trained students built a flower shaped form from glasscrete blocks. In both cases the delight was in a simple application of technology being applied to an essentially craft process in order to facilitate the production of a complex form.

DSC_7897 (Kopiowanie)

Robotic Foaming

This had 3 expensive looking robots manipulating a ball of polyurethane and I think plaster that was mixed in a dirty bucket and stirred by hand with a stick.

DSC_7854 (Kopiowanie)

This cluster was hosted by  the Institut for Experimental Architecture, Innsbruck and produced objects like this:-

DSC_8152 (Kopiowanie)

Adaptive Structural Skins

This workshop was hosted by the Bartlett and produced a number of full scale enclosures. This example, although it did not use actuators, showed how the use of different length connectors and standard shaped panels could be used to change the shape of an enclosure.

DSC_8164 (Kopiowanie)

General Observations

  • Computational Design is well established in large Architectural Practices.
  • There is a loose, craft type, approach to programming and scripting that is very democratic.
  • Grasshopper, a plugin for Rhino, is ubiquitous and seriously attractive to users even though it is maintained by a single individual and only available on a Windows platform and uses and C# for scripting.
  • There are a number of individually produced plugins for Rhino/Grashopper such as the acoustic plugin Pachyderm the author of which, Arthur van der Harten,  was at the conference and has recently become Fosters in-house acoustic expert, an interesting career path.
  • Kinect devices are popular, usually driven by Processing and the SimpleNI library, but sometimes through Eclipse and the NI library but less often through the Microsoft Kinect SDK.
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