The biggest change to the architecture profession of this generation – the shift from 2D computer design tools to the more complex systems of BIM– is one that has caused much confusion. What exactly is BIM, after all? Those without a clear understanding of the term commonly mistake BIM as simply a type of modelling or visualisation software. However, even those that understand BIM's nature as a collaborative process for building design, analysis, construction, and management can disagree on their definitions. These disagreements arise from BIM's tremendous power as a tool for the construction profession; its power allows it to be conceptualised in many different ways, which often reveal as much about the person doing the conceptualising, and the way they approach design, as they do about the BIM process itself.
One such way to think of BIM is as a tool that essentially helps designers to harness data in order to enrich human experience. This understanding helps shed light on the work of Dutch architecture firm MVRDV, whose long interest in data as a driver of design is now channelled through the capabilities of BIM. For MVRDV, the design of projects is often literally defined by given parameters and given data, so that architects are able to create unexpected forms that go beyond artistic intuition or predictable geometry. In this essay, five early (pre-BIM) examples of MVRDV's work will serve to explain the firm's concept of a 'datascape', and to show, step-by-step, how such datascapes can be condensed into successful designs.
To understand the nature of datascapes, there is perhaps no purer example than MVRDV's 1999 project "Metacity/Datatown". This thought experiment examines the capacity of the planet by creating an 'extreme scenario'; it is thus described as "a city that knows no given topography, no prescribed ideology, no representation, no context. Only huge, pure data."
In this landscape of pure data, only one parameter was fundamentally variable: the population density, which, in a statement of ambition, the designers set at four times the population density of the Netherlands. The size of the city was determined by the common metric that it should be possible to traverse any city in an hour or less—which thanks to modern bullet trains, allows for a city of 400 kilometres in each direction, holding a population of 241 million people. All other features of the design are a result of the data that emerge from these parameters, from the area given over to different land uses (housing, waste, agriculture, and so on, with variations dependent upon the lifestyle choices of the city's inhabitants) to the proposal of forest towers that would absorb the city's carbon dioxide emissions.
As the example of Metacity/Datatown shows, in its purest form datascape-based design thinking is about fixing a very small number of parameters and simply uncovering the implications of those parameters through data analysis. However, while Metacity/Datatown is ambivalent to the question of form, when the datascape design method meets real-world context, it usually encounters further parameters that give it a more defined formal appearance.
MVRDV'S "Skycar City" project, completed in 2006, is another extreme proposal based on a simple premise: that in the future, cars will fly. An analysis of existing cities shows that in Manhattan, for example, only 44% of the land is used by buildings, with much of the remainder given over to streets. Skycar City is a sketch of what could happen if those streets were no longer necessary, with buildings expanding to fill this extra space. When superimposed onto the layout of an existing city, though, this datascape project begins to adopt a more explicitly formal character; the parameters given by real-world context help to further define the project.
Like "Skycar City", "Pig City" is another clear example of a datascape project refined by its context. Its simple parameter is that the Netherlands should convert its entire pig-farming industry to organic methods, without giving over 75% of the country's land to pig farming. This parameter not only implies, like "Skycar City", a real-world terrain (in this case the Netherlands), but also certain expectations regarding the welfare of its porcine inhabitants (a consideration not really given to the human inhabitants of "Datatown" or "Skycar City"). Perhaps because of this, the resulting design is – though still extreme and somewhat utopian – formally more defined than either of the projects previously discussed.
To take the next step in this gradual journey from pure datascape to building, we need to exit the world of speculation and discuss a real-world project. In their 2008 "Grand Paris" project, MVRDV began with two parameters: the brief given by President Nicholas Sarkozy's competition, which outlined the desired program for the Grand Paris plan; and the proposal that this plan should be realized as densely as possible, following the principle of 'Grand Paris Plus Petit'. Strictly following these parameters resulted in a cubic megastructure six kilometres in each direction, an 'extreme scenario' (the same logic applied to "Metacity/Datatown") that most perfectly reflects the ambitions of the proposal, without yet acknowledging any context.
Acknowledging the context of the project obviously forces a reckoning with the feasibility of the 'extreme scenario' proposal – with the likelihood that Parisians would accept the world's largest structure in their city being close to zero percent – but it also adds new parameters that allowed the 'Grand Paris Plus Petit' goal to be realized through other means. The transportation goals of the brief, for example, were realised by integrating them within the existing transportation of Paris. Other programs were similarly accommodated in 17 proposals that use parameters provided by the existing context and apply them to redefine the original datascape. In order to define these 17 proposals, MVRDV created the City Calculator©, a software application which compares the performance of each region with their targeted ambitions and responsibilities by using calculations similar to those underlying the design of Datatown. This pre-BIM tool for a data-driven design process was therefore used to optimize the city according to data.
Finally, our journey brings us to a built design, and perhaps not coincidentally, one of MVRDV's most well-known and successful projects. The design for the Dutch Pavilion at the Expo 2000 in Hannover began, once again, with a simple proposal: that the building should be a series of productive landscapes, condensed and stacked into a self-contained ecosystem. Data is an implied result of this proposal, with each layer of the system requiring certain inputs and outputs, and the final design tuned in order to balance these resource cycles.
But in addition to being a vertical datascape of resource inputs and outputs, the Expo 2000 pavilion was also a functional building, with programmatic requirements and (many) visitors. Those elements of real-world context also helped to shape the building, creating the pathways through the structure and the human-scaled environments that enriched the experiences of visitors.
MVRDV did not begin to adopt BIM until around 2010; meanwhile, all five of the projects discussed in this essay were completed before this, in the span of roughly a decade from the end of the 1990s to the end of the 2000s. Yet for anyone familiar with BIM, the power that it has to aid in this design approach is likely to be clear; BIM thrives on data and parameters, and if it had been used on any of these five projects would have streamlined the design process considerably. And of course, in the years since, BIM has been used to aid this data-harnessing process in MVRDV's projects around the world.
So to return to our original question: what exactly is BIM? For MVRDV, BIM is a tool that helps to harness data in order to make enriching human environments—but only because for MVRDV, data has always existed to be harnessed, and enriching environments are always there to be made.