of Artificial Art, Amsterdam
Towards an architecture of chance
reader of Immanuel Kant's Kritik der Urteilskraft, it is
striking that his discussion of the esthetic experience is not primarily concerned with works of art, but with natural phenomena
-- its paradigm examples evoke flowers, crystals, landscapes, stormy
seas and starry skies. As Jean-François Lyotard has pointed out, this is not a coincidence.
It is connected with essential features of Kant's theory. For Kant,
an esthetic experience is a coherent cognitive process which nevertheless
does not correspond to a concept that can be articulated
explicitly. Esthetic reflection is disinterested contemplation.
The beautiful has the structure of the purposeful, but involves
no practical purpose whatsoever.
When we are dealing with the products of human artists, these conditions
for the esthetic experience are usually not fulfilled. The artist does have practical aspirations, and often the work betrays
this all too clearly. In many cases, the artwork does embody
an explicit idea, and a dedicated observer may in fact reverse-engineer
the work and reconstruct the idea.
großen Schauspiele der sich in Unordnung befindlichen Natur
sind ein beispiel dafür, daß die menschliche Kunst niemals
etwas derartiges hervorbringen kann. Denn alle menschliche Kunst
ist immer nur Mimesis und letztlich suspekt, weil immer die möglichkeit
besteht, daß sie mit einer absicht konzipiert worden ist und
von daher ein Begriff und eine Zweckmäßigkeit mit Zweck
auf ihr lastet." 
motivated art thus faces a curious challenge: if it is created by
humans, it will always be inferior to nature! In the course of the
twentieth century, this challenge has been taken up by many artists.
Several artistic traditions have developed art-generating processes
of some sort -- processes which are initiated by an artist who does
not try to control the final result that will emerge. Indifferently
chosen readymades, chance art, écriture automatique,
physical experiments, mathematical algorithms, biological processes.
artist's will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea
to completion. [...] The process is mechanical and should not be
tampered with. It should run its course." 
A new kind
of mimesis: no artworks imitating the external appearance of nature,
but artists imitating the blind mechanism of natural processes.
Does this answer
Kant's challenge? Not immediately, because the artist still chooses
the processes that are to be carried out. And the subjectivity of
that choice can be painfully clear. Usually, the choice is at least
partially determined by considerations which work against the esthetic
experience; it always involves conventional or anti-conventional
stylistic decisions which deflect the observer's attention to the
art-historical positioning of the work and to its chances of success.
This problem is illustrated most clearly by mathematical chance
art. The idea of mathematical randomness addresses Kant's problem
in a very direct way. If the esthetic insufficiency of human art
is caused by the unesthestic, practical considerations which determine
people's subjective decisions, then we can try to avoid that problem
by making random artworks, which have not been subjectively constructed
or chosen by a human person. But, unfortunately, mathematical randomness
can only operate within a completely explicit, definite framework.
Most chance art is therefore conceived in terms of a rather narrow
and schematic stylistic category.
Paradoxically, the extreme simplicity of chance art ends up displaying
various artistic clichés with unusual clarity: the idea that
an image is a grid of pixels; that it consists of a number of elements
scattered over the plane; or that it is ultimately one line. Looking
at a series of chance art works, it never takes long to see what
they have in common, and to spot the artist's subjective decisions
Because in the case of chance art these decisions tend to be so
conventional and unsurprising, it is immediately clear that they
cannot constitute the "point" of the work. We thus end
up empty-handed: the artwork has collapsed under our analytical
gaze. The only thing left is a metonymical representation of the idea of "chance".
The philosophically oriented art movements of the sixties were deeply
nostalgic. Most clearly in the case of the art that celebrated nothing
and passivity: fixated on ideals from the past, and obsessed by
their current irrelevance: paralysis. The chance art from
this period partakes in that feeling: it asserts the idea of an
aleatoric art production that is not controlled by humans, but it
does so without any conviction. Chance art seems an absurdum,
the conclusion of a train of thought that must be somehow
mistaken. It is demonstrated through childishly simple little systems,
and the idea of taking it seriously is not addressed.
I do think that mathematical chance art is the medium that can answer
Kant's challenge, and create an artificial nature which displays
a complexity and a serenity that can compete with natural nature.
Mathematically formulated image-generation processes can easily
be combined and generalized. This makes it possible to put large
numbers of chance-art ideas together into one super-chance-art-machine,
which can reach a complexity that cannot be surveyed any more by
To take a simple example: In the chance art of the sixties one often
encounters programs which repeat a particular shape (usually a square
or a circle) in an arbitrary, unorderly manner on different positions
on the plane. Other, similar algorithms create arbitrary closed
shapes by combining line segments. These two algorithms can be combined
in an obvious way, so that both the shape and the position of the
image elements are determined at random. Other algorithms generate
a multitude of different regular patterns or regular shapes; these
can also be integrated. We may thus gradually abolish choice, by
avoiding the exclusion of any choice -- by affirming every choice,
and by putting it on a par with all other choices inside an all-encompassing
consequence of this approach would be a computer program generating
all possible images, with probability distributions that
yield maximal diversity. It will not be easy to develop this program.
But it is possible in principle, and we already have the technology
for making significant steps in this direction.
was driving out to the country once with Carolyn and Earle Brown.
We got to talking about Coomaraswamy's statement that the traditional
function of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation.
This led me to the opinion that art changes because science changes
- that is, changes in science give artists different understandings
of how nature works." 
In their metonymic
symbolizations of "chance", "nature" and "objectivity",
the process artists of the sixties manifested a deeply felt emotion
-- the desire for an art that does not originate from the whims
of the individual, but from a deeper necessity. The project of a
total, all-embracing chance art can now initiate the process of
actually satisfying that desire -- by treating absolute randomness
as the deepest necessity.
man in control of nature or is he, as part of it, going along with
it? [...] Not all of our past, but the parts of it we are taught,
lead us to believe that we are in the driver's seat. With respect
to nature. And that if we are not, life is meaningless. Well, the
grand thing about the human mind is that it can turn its own tables
and see meaninglessness as ultimate meaning." 
has engendered a multitude of artistic "isms" which is
not just rich and varied, but heterogeneous and incoherent. The
art of this period now seems arbitrary, ill-motivated and mannered.
Individual artists may work in this tradition and yet maintain a
sense of inner necessity, to the extent that they are naïve,
crazy or dishonest. From a more distanced point of view, the inner
necessity of the art activity is difficult to discern.
suche doch die großen Persönlichkeiten, welche die Behauptung
rechtfertigen, daß es noch eine Kunst von schicksalhafter
Notwendigkeit gebe. Man suche nach der selbstverständlichen
und notwendigen Aufgabe, die auf sie wartet. Man gehe
durch alle Ausstellungen, Konzerte, Theater und man wird nur betriebsame
Macher und lärmende Narren finden, die sich darin gefallen,
etwas - innerlich längst als überflüssig Empfundenes
- für den Markt herzurichten."
besitzen wir heute unter dem Namen 'Kunst'? Eine erlogene Musik
voll von künstlichem Lärm massenhafter Instrumente, eine
verlogene Malerei voll idiotischer, exotischer und Plakateffekte,
eine erlogene Architektur, die auf dem Formenschatz vergangener
Jahrtausende alle zehn Jahre einen neuen Stil 'begründet',
in dessen zeichen jeder tut, was er will, eine erlogene Plastik,
die Assyrien, Ägypten und Mexiko bestiehlt."
große Ornamentik der Vergangenheit ist eine tote Sprache geworden
wie Sanskrit und Kirchenlatein. Statt ihrer Symbolik zu dienen,
wird ihre Mummie, ihre Hinterlassenschaft an fertigen Formen verwertet,
gemengt, vollkommen anorganisch abgeändert. Jede Modernität
hält Abwechslung für Entwicklung. Die Wiederbelebungen
und Verschmelzungen alter Stile treten an die Stelle wirklichen
trotzdem kommt dies allein, der Geschmack von Weltleuten, als Ausdruck
und Zeichen der Zeit in Betracht. Alles übrige, das demgegenüber
an den alten Idealen 'festhält', ist eine bloße Angelegenheit
von Provinzialen." 
says here, is known today as the "postmodern" position,
which declares all expressions of contemporary culture to be meaningless,
and asserts that there is no way back. That the only way we can
construct an image is by appropriating material from other cultures
and periods, and that that's OK. That art has become theatrical,
commercial and dishonest, and that that's OK.
This situation is often considered to be static, stable, and therefore
definitive. Without a driving force with a particular direction,
there cannot be any development. Repetition, recombination, eclecticism.
The end of history.
party-line is that that's OK too. The end of history = complete
meaninglessness = Utopia. That makes a certain amount of sense,
but not everybody is equally happy about that. For the Faustians
among us, stasis is death -- and to acquiesce in its victory is
perverse. (Spengler clearly didn't like it at all. That's where
he differs from the postmodern party-line.)
was Nietzsche von Wagner gesagt hat, gilt auch von Manet. Scheinbar
eine Rückkehr zum Elementarischen, zur Natur gegenüber
der Inhaltsmalerei und der absoluten Musik, bedeutet ihre Kunst
ein Nachgeben vor der Barbarei der großen Städte, der
beginnenden auflösung, wie sie sich im Sinnlichen in einem
Gemisch von Brutalität und Raffinement äussert, einen
Schritt, der notwendig der letzte sein mußte. Eine künstliche
Kunst ist keiner organischen Fortentwicklung fähig. Sie bezeichnet
das Ende." 
cannot be further developed in an organic way. But it can
be developed in a systematic, scientific way: as artificial
art. If art moves to the realm of science, its history has not yet
come to an end -- because we will need at least a few more centuries
to formalize and implement all our insights about perception and
At the same time, the scientific approach to art makes it possible
to take the postmodernist position seriously. Eventually, the development
of powerful art-generation software may indeed bring about the end
of current art forms. When arbitrarily large quantities of innumerably
many kinds of absolutely interesting, complex, beautiful, horrible
and indifferent images are automatically generated, accompanied
by solid warranties of complete meaninglessness, then many of the
currently practised art forms will be rendered obsolete.
If it is true that nothing means anything anymore, and all we can
do is play with forms and styles, then this game may become a lot
more interesting if we try to put the whole thing on the computer
-- because even an unprejudiced play with existing signs seems to
be beyond the power of a purely intuitive art activity. So far,
the practical effect of postmodern theory has not been much more
than a kind of neo-victorianism.
So that is the challenge of science to the postmodernists. If we
believe that expressive art is finished, we should be prepared to
move art to the domain of science. This will take art out of its
isolated, marginal position. Art will be different, but better --
science and technology just happen to be the strong points of our
current western culture. ["In der Generalversammlung irgendeiner Aktiengesellschaft
oder unter den Ingenieuren der erstbesten Maschinenfabrik wird man
mehr Intelligenz, Geschmack, Charakter und Können bemerken
als in der gesamten Malerei und Musik des gegenwärtigen Europa."
Our arts evolve
in the direction of verbal, explicitly articulated, scientific forms.
One by one, the various art forms will be taken over and rendered
superfluous by their own simulations.
developments mentioned above have started already, and will continue
at an accelerated pace. But we do not know yet to what extent they
will take place in the "art world" rather than in the
cultural realms of video-clips, screen-savers, Hollywood-movies,
techno-gadgets or house-parties. I noted some ideological connections
with current highbrow art: the Kantian ideal of pure esthetic experience,
the postmodernist awareness of cultural history, and the Hegelian
trend toward concept art. But one may wonder whether such ideas
will indeed determine the future developments within the highbrow
art tradition. They must compete with the idea of art as communication,
which is still alive as well. And there are other contingent factors:
fashion, commerce, power politics, generation conflicts.
Architecture is a special case, however,
since it is the realm of a deep-rooted yearning for the objective,
the unpersonal, the impartial. Architecture often feels it must
justify itself in the context of society at large, and transcend
the conflicts of interest which exist within that society. The personal
interests of the architect are suspicious. One wants pure functionality
and pure esthetics.
material environment can only posses a pure beauty (i.e.,
be healthy and satisfy utility in a truly direct way), if it no
longer reflects the egoistic feelings of our small personality:
if does not even have any lyrical expression any more, but is purely
Functionalism was an attempt to develop such an objective style.
An attempt that failed: the architect who focuses completely on
functions that can be articulated explicitly, turns a building into
a commodity which has a lot in common with a cupboard or a file
cabinet. But this metaphor can also be recognized by the user of
the building, and be experienced as offensive. The "objectivity
of simplicity" thus gives rise to a design-language with an
poor person walking through Paris two hundred years ago could look
at, say, Tuileries Palace, and think to himself, that's an achievement,
I can aspire to that greatness and grace. A black kid today looking
at, for example, the CBS Black Rock building, gets one message from
such a monstrosity: Fuck you. You're not wanted. You're never allowed
in here, you're not meant to know what goes on in here, and you'll
never be a part of it. It is violent architecture, and it begets
a violent response." 
to appreciate the clarity of functionalist thinking, but foresaw
its problems: "For the present moment I see no possibility
for arriving at a purely 'plastic' expression by only following
the organism of what is to be built, focusing only on utility. Our
intuition is not sufficiently developed for that, and too involved
with the past. [. . .] For instance, utility often requires repetition
in the way of nature (in workers housing, for instance), and in
that case the architect needs the concept of plastic expression
and the power to go against what the practical goal seems to indicate.
Because there are always possibilities for architectural solutions
which satisfy the practical goal and the esthetic appearance."  [Metrical repetition and
symmetry are excluded by Mondrian's "laws of neo-plasticism".]
Architecture must make esthetic choices; functionalism is not a
way around this. How can these choices be made, if we want them
to be objectively valid? The complexity of this problem is illustrated
by the failure of Mondrian's neo-plasticist solution.
Especially in Mondrian's own paintings, the "neo-plasticist
laws, which determine the pure means of expression and their use,"
succeed marvellously in his aim of realizing a concept of visual
equilibrium which does not evoke associations with the "egoistic
feelings" of a "small personality". They are based
on a sharp analysis of objective properties of human perception,
and yield an experience which can bear comparison with the experience
of nature precisely because neo-plasticism does not imitate
visible nature in any way, but merely represents properties of our
own perceptual process.
The most important point of departure of neo-plasticism is, that
pure expression is not concerned with the elements of an image,
but with their proportions. Because the composition is constructed
out of elements which are carefully chosen so that they are all
perceptually equivalent, an experience at a different level emerges,
where the individual identity of the elements has become irrelevant.
By applying a clear and well-considered principle in a subtle and
intuitive way, Mondrian created his unusually serene paintings.
But what happens when this idea is applied on a large scale in the
architectural context? Then it becomes apparent that Mondrian has
ignored a fundamental property of human cognition. The principles
of neo-plasticism may hold very well when a "contextless" image is observed attentively, under the right conditions, by a
person without preconceptions or relevant related experiences. But
when the neo-plasticist principles are are applied more often, cognitive
short-cuts emerge in the mind of the observer. The resulting images
are not experienced any more in terms of their constitutive principles,
but the image is recognized and that is a completely
different experience, which completely overthrows the neo-plasticist
story. The image itself becomes an element. There are no
proportions any more inside the image there are only proportions
relative to things outside of it, in the broader spatial context
or in associations with past experiences. Proportions which are
not controlled by the architect, and which not necessarily very
harmonious. (Metrical repetition, for instance, becomes almost unavoidable
now, unless we can also overthrow the structure of labour process
and leisure habits.)
Total chance can thus be viewed as an attempt to realize an important
ambition of neo-plasticism after all. The only way to ensure that
the experience is concerned with proportions rather than with elements,
is the absolute absence of style. In a chance art algorithm which
may realize this ideal, the repertoire of elements and the repertoire
of image structuring principles should both be as large as possible.
And ever varying selections from very large as well as very small
random subsets of these repertoires should be chosen to generate
In a chance architecture generated according to these principles,
the visual structures are not intended to evoke a harmonious equilibrium.
That may emerge at a more abstract, conceptual level or it
Once more we
see that the chance art machine is the technological elaboration
of the postmodernist project. Postmodernism continues functionalism
and neo-plasticism in its concern with the ideal of an objectively
justifiable architecture but it approaches this ideal in
a different way. It recognizes the inevitability of style, and wants
to realize objectivity nonetheless by equating all styles,
and combining them arbitrarily. A style to end all styles.
But I indicated already that today's postmodernism isn't much more
than a neo-victorianism. It merely cites and juxtaposes some existing
styles. Intended as a way to transcend the dilemma of stylistic
choice, in practice it yields a narrow, fashionable neo-style.
Mathematical chance-architecture is the first direct answer to the
demand for a genuinely style-transcending meta-style it embodies
the postmodernist idea at the right level of abstraction. In the
chance-architecture project, all existing styles would have to be
precisely analysed and generalised. On that basis, a mathematical
definition of the space of all possible styles may be developed
a space comprising not only all existing styles, but also
all their syntheses, interpolations and extrapolations. Computer
programs employing that definition may then actually realize the
ideal of stylistic arbitrariness.
In our first instantiations of this approach, the definition of
the class of all possible styles will not be maximally precise and
all-encompassing, but this can be gradually improved in the course
of the next few centuries. And there is no need to postpone the
application of this system until it is perfect and complete. Tentative
initial versions will yield interesting results already, which can
compete with the work of human designers.
So far I focused
completely on the formal aspect of architecture, and pointed out
that recent ideas about artificial art may be applied in this realm.
Now I must raise the question whether that made sense, because the
formal aspect of architecture cannot be treated independently of
the functional aspect. If we write a computer program which designs
arbitrary three-dimensional shapes, many of its outputs will be
useless for most practical applications.
Within a large-scale architectural design problem, one may sometimes
be able to split off certain purely formal subproblems which may
be treated by chance art algorithms. But I would now like to consider
the possibility of a more ambitioous set-up, which interweaves formal
and functional decisions and which leaves both kinds
of decisions to a computational algorithm. I thus would like to
discuss the integration of mathematical chance art with procedures
for automatic design.
The automatization of design processes is one of the success-stories
of Artificial Intelligence but not because the behaviour
of human designers has been simulated so well. Design programs work
in a different way than humans. They use a typically "computational" approach: they find the best solution by systematically considering
Design turns out to be one of the areas where the dumb but accurate
and systematic approach of the computer has advantages above the
sloppy and conventional application of the human expert's intelligence.
People find it difficult to survey a space of possibilities, if
this space is defined by abstract, general rules. People conceive
and interpret new situations in terms of their resemblances with
situations that were experienced before. Human thinking is intrinsically
conventional. A human designer therefore works with a limited repertoire
of prototypes and conventions which are usually adequate, and considers,
if necessary, very small variations on this repertoire.
Different procedures yield different results. A technical problem
which allows different solutions that can be objectively judged
as being more or less optimal, may be solved very well by a computer
program which considers the different possibilities in a systematic
way. In certain cases (for instance in VLSI circuit design) it is
not difficult to specify the formal requirements for a design in
a completely explicit way. But the space of possibilities that must
be searched to find the design which best meets these specifications,
may be extremely large and complex. Human persons may therefore
get stuck with sub-optimal solutions, whereas more systematic computational
explorations may yield better results.
Architecture is not VLSI design, but it is another area where
the human designer does not function in an optimal way. An architect
normally solves a new problem by invoking a standard solution and
making a variation on it a typical illustration of the conventional
character of human thinking. And an architect who works differently,
and tries to think through a problem without anticipating conventional
solutions, is often punished for his hybris he may very well
overlook some practical issues, and his beautiful, daring, innovative
building may end up with staircases which are too narrow, airconditioning
which doesn't work, doors which are kept permanently closed.
It is not surprising, therefore, that automatic design technology
has sometimes been applied with some degree of success in areas
such as urban planning and interior design. It will take considerable
effort to extend this work to the general problem of architectural
design. But it is certainly worthwhile to aim for a process which
constructs optimal architectural designs by means of systematic
calculations based on explicitly specified functional requirements.
The current performance of human architects is sufficiently bad
to justify the expectation that very imperfect computer programs
may be able to achieve considerable improvements.
The solutions proposed by the computer program will often not only
be objectively better, but also surprising and unconventional. A
provably correct and winning chess endgame played by a computer
may seem bizarre and incomprehensible to a human observer. This
demonstrates that the game of chess allows many possibilities which
the human approach to chess does not easily discover. If we are
interested in surprising and unconventional results, rather than
in the repetition of human behaviour that we know already, the computer
program may thus be superior.
So far, automatic
design programs work within formally limited, conventional frameworks.
But we can relax these constraints. We can start to develop programs
which make optimal functional decisions, reasoning systematically
on the basis of explicit specifications, while at the same time
making their stylistic decisions in a maximally random way,
by incorporating the principles of generalized chance art. Programs
which generate a stylistic scheme as an arbitrary selection from
the class of all stylistic possibilities, and then employ this scheme
to dictate all formal decisions which do not follow from the functional
specifications. In this way, the integration of automatic architectural
design and chance art will give rise to artificial architecture.
 Jean-François Lyotard: "Die Erhabenheit ist das Unkonsumierbare.
Ein Gespräch mit Christine Pries am 6.5.1988." Kunstforum
International, 100 (April/May 1989), pp. 355/356.
 Sol LeWitt: "Sentences on Conceptual Art." Art-Language
1,1 (May 1969). Reprinted in: U. Meyer (ed.): Conceptual
Art. New York: Dutton, 1972., pp. 174-175. And in: R. Kostelanetz
(ed.): Essaying Essays. Alternative Forms of Exposition. New
York: Out Of London Press, 1975, pp. 279-281. And in: Sol LeWitt.
New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1978, p. 168.
 John Cage: Preface to: "Where are we going? And what are we
doing?" In: Silence. Lectures and Writings by John Cage.
Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973, p. 194.
From the same preface by John Cage, pp. 194/195.
Oswald Spengler: Der Untergang des Abendlandes. Umrisse einer
Morphologie der Weltgeschichte. Erster Band: Gestalt und Wirklichkeit.
München: C.H. Beck'schen Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1918, pp.
Spengler, p. 375.
Spengler, p. 375.
 Piet Mondriaan: "Neo-plasticisme. De Woning - De Straat - De
Stad." i10, 1,1 (January 1927). Reprinted in:
Yve-Alain Bois: Arthur Lehning en Mondriaan. Hun vriendschap
en correspondentie. Amsterdam: Van Gennep, 1984.
 Norman Mailer talking to David Frost. (Michael Tomasky: "Public
Enemies". The Village Voice, March 10, 1992, p. 14.)
From the same article we quoted above.