Archi Alternative

By Shamus Posted Sunday Nov 7, 2010

Filed under: Links 69 comments

One of the quickest ways to irritate an artist is to suggest that her work could be duplicated by a computer. And the fastest way to piss her off is to actually attempt it.

So when I did Pixel City I always wondered what a real architect would think of it. I would have to say that this is about the best response anyone could hope for.

Do read the post. I wasn’t even aware that people were trying to procedurally design real-world spaces. I’m not sure what the utility is in that. I can’t imagine that people need lots of generic stuff designed in bulk, which is what automation is good for. If I was populating the world of FUEL, I’d use procedural generation. But if I was just setting up my own driveway and garden, I’d want to take the time and put things exactly where I want them.

Interesting stuff.


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69 thoughts on “Archi Alternative

  1. X2-Eliah says:

    Wait. Architects are actually moving towards using procedural methods themselves?

    Slackers – isn’t the purpose of an architect to create non-procedural stuff?

    On the other hand – maybe we’re both thinking of Interior/Exterior designers, and an architect is a different beast?

    1. Sumanai - a grouchy ball of bile and cynicism says:

      Architects are a different beast.
      After exterior designers make it stand out, architects make it stand up.

      Edit: So I decided to check out that I wasn’t talking out of the wrong end, and apparently architects are supposed to design buildings visually as well. But they’re still supposed know about the actual physics involved, which I’m pretty certain exterior designers don’t do.

      1. acronix says:

        Exterior designers are to buildings what stickers are to folders, then.

        1. Sekundaari says:

          Exterior designers are Spidermen/-women?

          1. Tse says:

            Both interior and exterior designers are doing just a part of the architect’s job. As a future architect I will have to be able to control the whole project, decide on how to achieve the form and function of the building/complex, make the exterior and interior design or decide to allow an interior designer(this may be decided by the client) do part of my work. Of course, in a multistory residential building every owner/tenant decides on the interior design and whether to hire an interior designer.
            P.S. Bigger projects require a collective of architects and specialists, of course, only smaller buildings are designed by a single person (and even they need several different engineers).

      2. Fists says:

        To adapt your statement with xkcd style hyperbole, the exterior designer makes it stand out, the engineer makes it stand up and the architect makes it so you can stand [in] it, i.e. makes sure there is an appropriate and coherent compromise between looking good, being sturdy and being useful as fundamentalist design students and engineers don’t care much for how livable a building is.

        1. Will says:

          Far too many modern architects forget that one of their jobs is to ensure that the building is functional as well as pretty. This is not the Engineer’s job, the Engineer’s job is to tell the Architect that he has designed something that breaks the laws of physics and will need to change these bits if he wants the building to be constructable.

    2. Felblood says:

      If you were a developer building several blocks of business parks, which way would you go. You don’t want them to all look the same (giving the neighborhood a creepy, orwellian vibe), but you want cheap, modular, structures that can be adapted to a variety of tenants.

      Somebody in the industry once told me that the Architect and the Structural Engineer do basically the same job on a project, but the Engineer has an Engineering degree and the Architect has an Art degree.

      I’m not sure how literal that statement is, but it’s always felt like a satisfying summary of the dichotomy of priorities.

  2. FatPope says:

    Reading this reminds me of why I studied Engineering and not Architecture

    1. Tse says:

      And I decided to study Architecture because I was sick of doing math problems :).

      1. Sekundaari says:

        How’s that working out for you? I decided to study Engineering Physics and Mathematics because I like math problems, but there’s an Architecture program too, and I can’t imagine there being a program in this university that doesn’t involve a lot of math.

        Actually, from what I’ve gathered while studying, the only other explanation is that the Engineers solve the math problems for you Architects. ;) (I won’t be doing that, this program is a more theoretical one.) Jokes aside, I guess your run-of-the-mill engineers could design a building that definitely won’t collapse, but we’re all better off when you add the efforts of architects and perhaps exterior designers too.

        1. Jarenth says:

          Amusingly, I study at a Technical University that also has an Architecture program, and that program’s often sort-of-mocked for including very little and fairly easy Math courses. Especially in comparison with the rest of the university, but also just in general.

          1. Sekundaari says:

            Round here, it’s otherwise the same thing except the sort-of-mocked one is the Department of Forest Products Technology. I don’t know how true it is. Actually, given that the program that I’m in is probably the one with the heaviest math studies, I’m not sure why we single out “Wood” as the easy one.

            1. Mari says:

              Perhaps because “Wood” is fun to say?

              Actually as I was reading your comment I found myself wondering what, precisely, a “Department of Forest Products Technology” does. Is there an entire degree program based upon finding uses for wood, really and truly?

              1. Sekundaari says:

                Basically, yes. See here for the official site of the department (“wood” in Finnish is “puu”). Amongst all the current reform here, it seems that the program is changing its name into “Bioproducts Technology” (my translation). Maybe that will change its reputation.

                1. Tesh says:

                  I doubt it. There are plenty of “bioproducts” that could easily become jokes.

    2. Dave says:

      Reading this reminds me why, when studying Civil Engineering, I decided to concentrate on building roads, instead of buildings. That, and masonry design couldn’t penetrate my thick skull.

  3. NonEuclideanCat says:

    That’s a pretty cool thing, Shamus. Getting recognition for your work from someone who is in an entirely different field of work than you must be pretty satisfying.

    I wonder if this will lead anywhere. Like some big-name architect wanting to use Pixel City to generate cityscapes for a project. It’d be downright awesome if your work was used to design a future city.

  4. Amarsir says:

    I’m sure a few premiere landmark-type structures would always be manual. But procedural generation for your average use gives the feel of uniqueness without cost of custom design. I suspect it’s less about a procedural way to design a new World Trade Center and more about a cheap way to develop without rows of cookie-cutter homes or businesses.

    Anyway, quite the compliment! And I hadn’t watched that video in a while so it was cool to tour it again.

    1. Sumanai - a grouchy ball of bile and cynicism says:

      It would be possible to save alot of time by having a building first procedurally generated, and then adjusting it case-by-case. Someone want’s a building with x floors, rooms size A,B,C and couple of Ds. You could just have it generate the base, adjust as necessary and you’d have a custom one much faster. Would be really nice when a building plan is too large for a lot and you’d just have to move the wall, rooms would be generated again and the architect would then just have to go around sanity checking everything. As opposed to first going through all possible locations for rooms/support pillars and so on before getting to the “is it practical” phase.

      Think about it, how many actually want to fiddle with every detail of their house? Some don’t care about the wiring (where sockets are and so-on, though they really should) so you can just generate those and touch up only what you personally care about.

      As mentioned below though, he most likely meant that the building generated were made properly. Not overtly showy, for the sake of showy. Not full function, with nary a form. But a balance.

  5. Stiltskin says:

    I wasn't even aware that people were trying to procedurally design real-world spaces.

    Reading the guy’s rant linked there, it doesn’t look like he’s talking about procedurally generated real-world buildings. He’s talking about buildings where it looks like the designer decided to slap together ridiculous shapes in a 3D modelling program and pass that off as “creative” architecture.

    1. Tse says:

      I think he was talking about urban planning. He said that Shamus’ program is a better urban planner than some of the star architects. I agree, the program doesn’t rely on specific buildings that somebody in the future may build. That’s what I hate about urban planning, the architect has to assume that something resembling his idea may be made.

      1. Sean says:

        I think Stiltskin is right, the article is complaining about architects who make 3d models of impractical or impossible structures, then call them creative architecture. The point is that Shamus’ program is more true to the spirit of architecture than those “starchitects”.

  6. Noah Lesgold says:

    For what it’s worth, I still use the Pixel City screensaver on my desktop. It’s pleasant.

    1. Michael says:


      Sometimes I force the screensaver on just so I can watch it.

      1. andy_k says:

        Me three. And whenever people see it they are blown away, and then I show them the youtube video…

        And then I get sad because all my programming side projects – be they 40 – 50 hours or more seem incredibly lame.

        Still – good to see Shamus getting kudos for something that is really neat.

    2. El Quia says:

      Me too. It even rekindled the interest of a friend in 3D programming with C++, a thing that ended up burning him a long time ago…

    3. Same here. (Although I’ve got the version that generates the same city every time- was that ever fixed?)

  7. Gary (RedRedKrovy) says:

    Shamus I have been following you since I came across your DM of the Rings strip and at the time you were not even finished with it so I know I’ve been lurking around your blog for years now. I rarely post any comments because I generally do not have anything I can add that you have not already said. However I would like to take this moment to tell you congratulations. To be not only acknowledged but praised by someone in another field for something you created is a great achievement.

    In a way I am reminded of Leonardo da Vinci. He was most popular at that time for his war machine inventions but it was his art that transcended time and continues to be awe inspiring today.

  8. Gravebound says:

    I lost it when he wrote “funky fresh” like some cheesy, early-’90s rapper.

      1. ehlijen says:


        1. Bit says:


          1. Pontifex says:

            “You gots to get up on your vocab, you gots to have vocab
            Letters makes words, and sentences make paragraphs”


            Start at 3:08 or so for the magic moment :-D

    1. Jeremiah says:

      Does anyone speak jive?

      1. Doug Sundseth says:

        “Oh stewardess! I speak jive.”

  9. KremlinLaptop says:

    I’m going to echo a few other comments here…

    And say that having someone completely outside of your usual field recognize your work and praise it must be incredibly gratifying and an honour; so congratulations are very much in order.

    It’s always nice when someone outside looks in and says, “This thing here, this has merit.”

    …One which note I’ve always thought Libeskind’s looks-like-that-3d-screensaver-from-win98 style of buildings was annoying. It makes it look like the reality engine is experiencing glitches in rendering certain buildings more than anything else.

  10. Gandaug says:

    I think you may have found your answer to money, Shamus. Make custom procedural programs for companies.

    I loved Pixel City. Used it as my screen saver for a long time. I remember it having some memory link or something though. It would crash after some time. Is that still the case?

    1. Veloxyll says:

      Well the only problem there is that Pixel City doesn’t have any land textures, so I dunno how it’d deal with putting buildings on hills and around the funky curved roads that plague reality! Unless now combining the two is the purpose of Project Hex…

  11. Johannes says:

    First time I saw your PixelCity clip, Shamus. I must have missed something… Anyway, looks way cool! I admit to admiring your creativity in this matter. Also, 50 hrs into making this? Sounds good!

    That said, I’m a bit confused as to the writer of the blog at Archi. To be honest, he sounds quite arrogant. And a bit confused. Obviously professional architects can do no good, but one creative programmer is praised straight into heaven and may even serve as a complete alternative to the pros… Well, never mind the pros that don’t design buildings as extravagant as those of Koolhaas and Liebeskind then!

    I live in what’s considered a large city in the Netherlands, but it’s nothing compared to the big metropolises of the world. Architecture-wise, this has some consequences. For example, in a big metropolis one can afford to mix up all kinds of styles. Try this in a smaller city and you’ll have an ugly mosaic nobody likes. Not to say my home town is like that, but I wouldn’t consider it particularly pretty, mostly because of the mix of styles, which can get pretty awful at times.

    So, I’d much rather have professional architects think about how my city is to develop itself than someone who’s not one, even when we’re talking creative people… After all, there’s more to architecture than just the outside of buildings.

    But never mind my rant, which wasn’t meant for you anyway. I’ll keep an eye on your blog for other interesting tools – which obviously are created by someone with too much time on his hands!

    1. Tse says:

      Actually, that’s the problem with city planning, the architects decide something but it’s never built! Every owner builds what they and their architects like. The only things left from the original idea are the streets, parks and squares.

      1. Zukhramm says:

        Well if I’m going to build a house I wouldn’t want some architect saying it doesn’t fit how he planned the city.

        1. Johannes says:

          Then you probably won’t build one inside a crowded city, since there are regulations for how your house should look (at least there are here). You can’t just buy ground and build anything you like.

      2. skd says:

        Which brings into perspective the way games like SimCity and Cities XL work. You don’t design individual buildings, you just layout the roads and make zoning decisions and then the businesses that occupy the land choose the buildings. Never thought of it that way before.

  12. Samkathran says:

    High praise indeed, Shamus! Congratulations! Might I make a recommendation for your Escapist article signature thingy?

    Shamus Young is the highly creative and gifted person behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning. Beat that, normal person.

    You know you want to >:)

    1. Jarenth says:

      Damnit, that was almost verbatim what I wanted to say.

      Comment seconded, then.

  13. Hello, people. Wow! I'm speechless. I couldn't imagine that it might resonate through the professional world of high-tech… as I was writing it just for the narrow circle of the low-tech architectural design professionals.

    So first of all, thank you Shamus: (a) for a wonderful piece of Architecture (glad, I can say it directly) and (b) for putting my post up “on the air” for a wider audience. Thanks to all people who have decided to comment. Including (of course!) those who thinks that my wording is cheesy (sorry for the style, maybe it's because Eng. is not my native language?) and for those who thinks that I praise programmer's work because being “arrogant” I don't want to praise my colleagues architects. (You might read through my blog a bit deeper then; especially funny to hear it from the Dutch guy ““ as I think the Dutch school of modern architecture is the best architecture in world nowadays and I loudly express it in few of my essays and comments). Well… as for the “arrogant”… I might agree. A bit. I'm a bit arrogant and confused (who isn't?) indeed, but let's call it philosophically arrogant, ok?

    Of course, I don't suggest replacing professional architecture with Shamus' work. What I've meant is that methodical and hierarchy-logical (call it procedural) approach of the Pixel City to the spatial/visual (!) issues (city blocks/night lighting) solved the problem (a purely architectural problem!) in a very efficient, obviously mathematically calculated and yet very creative way. It has prioritized the geometrical elements, took in account different 3d masses and shapes and even included dynamic components. Everything was smartly overlaid (as we would say in the architectural office using CAD drafting slang) and presented as a fundamental conceptual solution which took in account ALL major architectural characteristic such as: master-planning, (city grid: streets, urban landscape) scale and proportions (building heights, their grouping), massing (principal geometrical volumes of the buildings and architectonics), lighting and dynamics (transportation venues, i.e. those funky “red lights”).

    I don't know if there could be a practical implementation for such type of software. I didn't think of it, as I said I enjoyed it rather as a concept. But seeing people raising the issue of potential commercial use for such soft I might say that simulation like Pixel City (being presented as some kind of a comprehensive product) could really help in terms of the practical design studies for the urban planners and governmental entities related to the massive new developments. It might be very interesting for the developing markets such as China, Brazil, Russia, India, Ukraine… I have participated as foreign architectural consultant in some conceptual urban development in Russia and Eastern Europe, for example an Olympic Village in Sochi, Russia 2014 and I might say that having such tool could be handy and useful. Yes it is much more appropriate for an urban scale (master planning as we call it) rather than for the individual projects and separate buildings where much more uniqueness is required. Nonetheless a “procedural approach” smartly correlated with the real 3d world qualities (general massing, architectonics, site planning solutions) is relevant and attractive.

    I haven't mentioned the terrific and intelligent sense of humor that made Pixel City such a fun. But it's really unnecessary. We are not blind. Cheers, dear people from another professional field.

    I hope I didn't put you asleep with my lengthy nonsense.


    1. Kdansky says:

      They pretty much do the same, but professionally, for movies and games, mostly. Shamus did 90% of what they have in 50 hours or so. He’s that awesome.

      1. Abnaxis says:

        I guarantee the last 10% would take 200+ hours, though….

    2. TSED says:

      I do want to point out to you that this is not essentially a technical blog. While Shamus IS (was?) an industry professional, nowadays 95% or more of his actual audience is here for his other projects – his humour, his playing around with games.

      If anything, he’s become a rather interesting (and occasionally but not always technical) niche market in the entertainment industry, which is a… strange thing to consider. Strange, indeed.

      Not trying to insult anyone here; I just thought you may be under a false pretense.

      Also, Archi, screw those guys who think you write cheesy. It’s AWESOME.

      1. Avilan says:

        Well to be fair it is a very large “niche”. It seems far more people are aware of Shamus than are actually reading this blog; I have actually pointed quite a few people this very weekend to this blog since I caught them discussing DM of the rings.

      2. Gravebound says:

        I don’t remember what link I originally followed to this site years ago, but I know that it is the technical posts that keep me coming back.

        And, to be fair, I never said his writing was cheesy; just the use of ‘funky fresh’ (which is INCREDIBLY cheesy). :D

  14. ehlijen says:

    I just hope that when they eventually build that city, they’ll name it something better than Shamnopel. Or Shamopolis.


    1. Shamusburg (let’s keep it a-la Europe classic style)

      1. Jarenth says:

        I for one would go live in Shamusburg.

        1. ehlijen says:

          That works. Better than Shamburg anyway.

          1. Ryplinn says:

            But then we could create delicious delicious Shamburgers.

    2. Bit says:

      Having a city that procedurally regenerates itself every one minute would be a very strange place to live in.

      1. Now I really want to read a book set in a city like that. And it would just be completely normal to the inhabitants, and they’d have developed awesome ways to cope.

  15. RCN says:

    Wow, how have I missed Pixel City?

    This is impressive work, Shamus. Impressive.

  16. Bit says:

    I just checked out Pixel City for the first time, and it’s truly fantastic. Unfortunate that I can’t get it working on my current computer, but from what I’ve seen from videos and such it looks utterly fantastic. This kinda stuff has made me genuinely anticipate “Hex,” not that I expected anything less wonderful out of you beforehand.

  17. Jimbo says:

    From the way the first paragraph of this post is worded I get the idea Shamus may have been so foolish as to critique some of his wife’s art?

  18. Hirvox says:

    Code is just instructions. On a conceptual level, the code behind Pixel City is no different from the various laws, regulations, standards and established best practices in the architecture industry. And just like with other artists, procedural generation can augment the architects’ skills. Instead of trying to fit thousands of offices into a building, they architects can focus on the major features of the building and let the code fill it out. Ideally, it takes the busywork out of an otherwise creative profession.

  19. oxford says:

    “But if I was just setting up my own driveway and garden, I'd want to take the time and put things exactly where I want them.”

    I’d think that the procedural approach might be applicable in this situation as well. Laying out anything is time consuming and there’s always going to be a point where the fatigue and effort to take a fresh approach is going to outweigh the necessity to just be done with the project. You’ll never get anything perfect, but you’ll get it the way you like it according to the amount of time you’re willing to put into it.

    Setting up some basic rules – driveway parms, required plant radius, plant to driveway to lawn max and min percentages – some rules for edging and grouping… You can spawn off a set of generated options that still exhibit your likes and dislikes according to the decisions you made setting up the rules. You’d certainly get far more options that you’d ever see if you were doing it manually and some of those options might surpass anything that you come up with through a regular creative process. After all, we’re fairly linear beings and once you place that first tree or decide where the edge of the driveway’s going to be, all other decisions will descend from that point. The procedural model could start by determining the location of the first ceramic gnome and work it’s way up from there until it’s saturated the rule set.

  20. purf says:

    and the circle closes – I found your site back then exactly because I was browsing around the subject of procedural design :)

  21. someguy says:

    on the topic:

    “I wasn't even aware that people were trying to procedurally design real-world spaces” – maybe I’m simplyfying a bit when I add “generative”, “code-based” and “things”, but I’m somewhat surprised that I seem to have a secret knowledge when I regard stuff being developed by Design Through Code as fairly common.

    I assissted in a workshop of Architecture and Design at my university and the interactive structures/objects (to be put up in a public park) were exclusively designed using Grasshopper, the “graphical algoritm editor” for 3d software Rhino. Which was the point, education-wise. So everything looked more or less like this – and I can see where Albert’s gripe comes from: with these generative tools becoming more and more accessible, architects just lazily, to paraphrase Stiltskin somewhere above, slap together some generators until it looks funky. In total disregard of function. Whereas Shamus’ Pixel City shows how to use procedural strategies in the architectural context to produce a meaningful, functional organization of things.

    Anyways, interesting topic, this. A nice book on the subject here

    1. Exactly. That’s the paradox.

      Professional architects (the most famous – starchitects we call them) are approaching arch. design with no concern to the professional issues. They ignore the project function (along with other professional objectives) and misuse the tool (“pixel city” kind of soft). Playing the technical tool with it’s infinite tech. possibilities becomes for them a goal. Thus the whole process turns into the game.

      While here professional programmer designing a software (a technical tool) took in account strictly architectural issues. Now, he’s not only took it into account, but has creatively analyzed it in terms of the arch. elements hierarchy, shapes generation, general organization, etc. And then, based on his clear conceptual plan, he put together a tool which served the major goal… which was a pure architecture…

      I don’t understand the technical side, I have enjoyed the way Shamus THINKS! Now I can see here that you, professional techies, are amazed with his technical talents as well. What can I say… He’s f*cking brilliant mind COMPREHENSIVELY then.

      What in Art we call a Renaissance Man. :)

    2. X2-Eliah says:

      That first linked image-collection was a serious case of “ugly”. And people are actually paying money for that to be built in real life?

      Anyway, someone will eventually design new generators (maybe ones that rely on organic morphing and evolutionary structures rather than poligonal fractions), and everyone will jump on that. I just hope that will look better than this.

      Incidentally, I always thought that the Designers are the folks with noregard for functionality or reality, engineers are drafted only to provide physical execution planning, and architects are supposedly the ones that pull the two together. Therefore, when an architect discards practicality/purpose and focuses on design, he is just a slacker. As I already said.

  22. Eric Meyer says:

    I don’t know if you’ve ever come across this quote before, Shamus, and I wish I could remember who said it, but should you ever decide to revisit Pixel City it might come in handy:

    City (n) – a three-dimensional bar graph of property values

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