Surform: An Architectural Vocabulary of Morphogenesis


  • Jack M. Rees



The term morphogenesis in architecture is usually associated with parametric design strategies. I intend ‘morphogenetic’ in a different sense. Architecture in general, and architectural education in particular, are awash in proposals that might be best described as ‘biomorphic.’ Yet, in my experience, students and practitioners have neither fundamental understanding of shape-as-surface nor the vocabulary necessary to describe such designs. This vocabulary, including a powerful generalisation of biomorphic shape, is readily available in the work of Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855). Gauss’s generalisation recognised that there are only three types of surface: positively curved, negatively curved and surfaces of zero curvature. This paper offers a concise exposition of Gauss’s formulation, a proposal for a vocabulary sufficient to clearly discuss such shapes in design contexts and a plea for an architectural pedagogy that moves beyond notions of space as bounded emptiness (i.e. beyond perspectival constructions). These reflections are a product of an educational experiment conducted in a first year architectural studio during the spring of 2017. Surform is a neologism, shorthand for ‘shape conceived as surface.’

Author Biography

Jack M. Rees

J.M. Rees directs a design practice based in Kansas City, Missouri. Within the framework of a business established in 1958, Rees designs envelopes, interiors, furniture and surfaces. His approach is analytical, site specific and multidisciplinary. Rees edited and contributed to the books The Sixth Surface: Steven Holl Lights the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (2007) and Urban Stories of Place (2006). He has shown in New York and Kansas City. Since 2008 Rees has been collaborating with clients, contractors, architects, engineers and manufactures to develop the next generation of high performance homes tuned to conditions particular to Kansas City.


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