The Portman Variations: A Critical Approach to Entelechy I Mediated by Shape Machine

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Ligler, Heather Michelle
Economou, Athanassios
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John Portman’s work is perplexing and polarizing. Characterized by his atria that captivate the popular imagination and his hybrid practice as architect-developer that redefined skylines throughout the world, but also ambivalently caricatured and dismissed for these same moves, the question of his impact remains blurry. This tension in Portman’s assessment has been described as paradoxical and in fact, a closer look at the scholarship on his work reinforces this as an ongoing condition – one that highlights the challenges of interpreting the work. Yet, Portman’s own imaginative account of his practice emphasizes another perspective. In reflections throughout his life, he referenced his 1964 house, Entelechy I, as the generator informing his entire corpus and the key design to understanding his architectural principles across all scales and programs. The research here takes on the productive myth of Entelechy I – and its presumed adaptable and repetitive logic – as the impetus to develop a shape grammar on the plan of the house. This grammar is then the basis for generating variations that address the transformation of spatial relationships in the house revisited for other design contexts. Significantly, this two-stage procedure is mechanically (and automatically) implemented in Shape Machine for Rhino, a new shape grammar interpreter developed at the Shape Computation Lab (SCL) in the School of Architecture, Georgia Institute of Technology. Subsequently, the implementation of the Entelechy grammar reproduces the design of the original house and a series of new designs too – here proposed as Portm-Inoes to systematically recontextualize the house as a postmodern reinvention of Corbusier’s Dom-Ino. In addition, the corresponding adaptation of parts of the grammar under different predicates yields transformation grammars that generate a series of plans at various scales to interpret Portman’s broader corpus of interior, hospitality, urban, and residential designs. The contributions of the dissertation are: a) a critical compilation of perspectives on John Portman encompassing various interpretations that have remained so far distinct including connections to the Aristotelian and Emersonian philosophical underpinnings of the work; b) a formal approach to interpret Entelechy I in an automated shape grammar; c) a series of implemented transformation grammars that further redescribe Portman’s architectural language in interior, hospitality, urban, and residential designs; d) an assessment of Portman’s work derived by correlating the predicates, transformations, and shape rules in the grammars with fundamental aspects of design including the use of Platonic geometries, self-similarity, figure-ground reversal, boundary ornamentation, offset forms, and their combinations; and e) the setup of a constructive cycle of design propositions and evaluations achieved in Shape Machine to mechanically execute line drawings in an automated environment.
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