The Architecture of Humeurs
New modes of architectural structuring and transaction
David Edwards + Valérie Abrial, May 3, 2010
Architecture des Humeurs/R&Sie(n) - Matthieu Kavyrchine
Architecture des Humeurs/R&Sie(n) - Matthieu Kavyrchine
David Edwards: Your work in applied mathematics is on numerical analysis and, with respect to your work here, the creation of ‘optimal’ forms which respect certain physical and geometric rules. This could be useful in the aeronautics industry or, obviously, in the field of architecture. Do you see the value of your work as lying in its potential practical applications or, rather, in a purely intellectual context?

François Jouve:
The two aspects are not mutually exclusive, and the border between so-called ‘pure’ mathematics and applied mathematics, which for a long time was clearly delineated, is now becoming increasingly fuzzy. Today, traditionally ‘pure’ domains of mathematics, such as the theory of numbers, have extremely concrete applications whereas others who have been labelled ‘applied’ mathematicians have become interested in questions quite distant from any practical application. Concerning myself, I have always considered that I am an applied mathematician whose points of departure are practical problems; from this, I develop methods, some of which have a truly theoretical basis; I then move back to the concrete application. There are, however, any number of possible approaches.

D.E.: How did your initial encounter with François Roche come to pass?

F.J.: Thanks to the internet, François had seen the results we had reached in our work on numerical simulations and the calculations of optimal forms. He had found these forms ‘monstrous’ enough (I use his own words here) to become interested in the methodology used to generate them and contacted me. I liked his description of the results.

Architecture des Humeurs/_Robots_Matthieu Kavyrchine
Architecture des Humeurs/_Robots_Matthieu Kavyrchine
D.E.: In what way could your area of research interest him for his own research?

F.J.: What interested him was not so much my area of research as the forms that came out of it, some of which were in fact rather comparable to forms he had used in one of his previous exhibitions (‘I’ve heard about’) and which had been created using techniques having strictly nothing to do with my own.

D.E.: Had you ever collaborated with an architect before? Aren’t there problems in understanding each other’s professional jargon?

F.J.: This is the fi rst time I’ve collaborated with an architect, so naturally, we had to find common ground in order to communicate with each other. I have in the past worked with doctors, and so I am used to the communication problems that can arise when two unrelated fields are brought together. I’m all the more sensitive to this given that it is often particularly difficult to render mathematical terminology accessible to the non-specialist. Compared to my previous collaborations, the major difference in this particular adventure within the field of architecture concerned the goal that was established. Traditionally, when an applied mathematician decides to collaborate with other scientists, he is expected to provide a model for some phenomenon (physical, chemical, or biological, for instance) with as many details as is possible to obtain.

Then, when the model is considered satisfactory, he must solve (often with the help of a computer) the resulting equations in order to simulate the phenomenon in question. In this case, however, since the goal was purely ‘artistic’, the ultimate criterion was not the intricacies of the model or its accuracy with respect to certain results of the experiment; the criterion, here, was simply aesthetic. We didn’t really care what the equations said – the only thing that counted in the end was the form we were able to obtain. In a way, this raises questions that many people may ask themselves: when you observe certain natural structures – take, for example, the growth of a tree – you come across forms which obviously resemble optimal forms, or rather pieces of structures you sometimes find when you calculate the optimization of forms. It is then logical to assume that nature must somehow be ‘optimising’ something. But what, exactly? There are, in the end, few cases for which we can give a satisfactory answer to this question. The results we achieved within the framework of this exhibition necessarily lead us to the same sort of reflection: there is obviously some from of calculation for optimization at work here, but we do not really know which criterion has been optimised.

Architecture des Humeurs/_Matthieu Kavyrchine
Architecture des Humeurs/_Matthieu Kavyrchine
D.E.: How did you work with François Roche on a day-to-day basis?

Mathematics is often presented as a kind of solid, unshakable edifice constructed stone by stone and using a form of reasoning that is coherent and inflexible. This image of the discipline is especially widespread in secondary and even higher education. And it is true that a demonstrated theorem is accurate and remains so ‘forever’ – indeed, this is what separates mathematics from the other sciences, for a theory in physics, for example, is often called into question by a new, more modern, more complete theory. This monolithic vision of mathematics, however, is discouraging, not to mention false if one considers the history of the sciences. For the most part, results in science have been the fruit of much trial and error – we end up having a linear view of the process that does not reflect the actual stages of research. Even in our own modest approach, we constantly had to go back and forth, both of us attempting to figure out what the other wanted and was capable of.

D.E.: You recently gave a seminar on this project to your colleagues at Jussieu (University of Paris). How did they react?

This kind of subject is somewhat unusual in the field of mathematics, but people in general tend to be rather partial to applications that lie outside what is ordinarily done. They were more sceptical when I suggested we replace the Montparnasse Tower with the tower I presented to them on the screen.

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