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The Digital Design Ecosystem:Toward a Pre-Rational Architecture
by Paul Seletsky
Thirty years since its introduction, the personal computer’s impact on visual and industrial design has been unprecedented; changes in productivity and form-making have been pervasive. Digital technology’s impact on architectural practice, however, has not yet significantly altered the established landscape of paper-driven documentation or design process. Increased productivity, moreover, now threatens architects as primary leaders of the design process. This particular dichotomy beckons closer examination and discussion.
An Architecture of Our Time
Every generation seeks to create art as a manifestation of its time. Industrialization, and the concomitant increase in production of goods and services, implied that life – and thereby architecture - could no longer be viewed as before. One can ascribe Modernism’s advent to this equation. Adolf Loos would admonish architects to abandon “ornament as crime,” while Le Corbusier chastised those with “eyes that do not see.” Science, it was held, offered no room for equivocation, on the premise that advancements in knowledge led to broader advancements for mankind. Enter an heroic era.
The writings and work of Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies sought to instill architectural meaning through representational embodiment of industrialization, alluding to what might someday be achievable and portending vast social and political consequences. Modern architecture’s new raison d’être, in particular, was improving public health. The clean white surfaces of Aalto’s Paimio Sanitorium, devoid of bacteria-laden crevices, offered rehabilitation from tuberculosis. Frank Lloyd Wright focused on new formal and spatial expressions. He envisioned the human spirit uplifted by architecture (as the Church historically had), in turn promoting a new social order - in this case utopian democracy. Louis Kahn’s inspiration from the performative conditions found in ancient Roman engineering encouraged him to disseminate its spirit to others, albeit through an implicit metaphorical dialogue, “I asked the brick what it wanted to be….”
From the mid-twentieth century onward, architects sought artistic and social currency posited on a variety of theoretical merits: Exposed programmatic function and structure; reference to historical elements and proportional formulae; embodiment of ideas espoused in avant-garde film, literature, and alternative social behavior. The personal computer not only heightened this dialogue but permitted architects to conduct new formal (blobby) as well as superficial (surface-as-sign) experiments. Today, an elitist cadre holds certain architects in esteem as purveyors of the penultimate collectible art. In the broader public spectrum, such matters are inconsequential. Architecture remains a luxury and, when considered at all, is expected only to deliver “firmness, commodity, and delight.”
Elitism and Epiphany
Minimalist Modernism’s ongoing appeal as an aesthetic favored by many talented young architects may seemingly preclude such dismissal but only inasmuch as certain established musical genres may be considered progressive or ‘classic.’ The comforting familiarity of boundless interplays of geometry and surface are today paraded fashionably by a photogenic retinue. Image merchants foist monthly publication in design journals. A portrait of the architect as young aesthete generates little traction toward social awareness beyond an urban middle-class’s fascination with ‘cool’ (albeit unobtainable) prefab housing, and those institutions desiring upscale architectural ‘branding.’ Architecture as cultural phenomenon may raise public awareness as to its creative genre but the portrayal is short-lived as one more form of retinal stimulation in a media-saturated society.
Frank Gehry’s use of technology can be viewed in a different manner. The computer enabled his practice to design and construct buildings of great formal complexity, borrowing other industries’ methods, and delineating the work into chapters preceding or following its inception. An underlying epiphany, however, arose through other architects observing that his use of technology could reinvigorate and empower architectural practice, dispelling notions (to some) that architects served merely as ‘exterior decorators.’ Gehry’s exemplar, comparable to Brunelleschi’s approach during the Renaissance, merits closer examination.
Gehry Technologies, the commercial software enterprise complementing Gehry’s success in formal practice mirrors a similar venture by SOM in the early 1980’s. Both suggest architects have much to gain exploiting the opportunities afforded them by the PC; both altruistically seek to reestablish the creative and technical primacy of architects.
Willis and Woodward in their insightful essay, Diminishing Difficulty (Harvard Design Magazine Fall 2005/Winter 2006), call for similar technological ascendancy. They challenge architects to think beyond the PC’s current applications and assess potential impact on the conceptual design process. Failure to act, they argue, will only further erode any remaining credibility. Grandma can now produce the same sophisticated 3D kitchen models as her architect grandson or granddaughter, purchasing the software via late-night infomercial. However, the PC’s debunking of architectural mystique - deciphering floor plans as readily as hieroglyphics – could, they claim, help foster new areas of expertise. A discussion of architecture and medicine may shed some light on this subject.
Medicine, Architecture, Science and Society
A divide between architecture and medicine, encompassing similar accordance of expertise, evolved sometime prior to the French Enlightenment. Medical practitioners in France began to embrace science and scientific method to counter wholly intuitive practices stemming from Antiquity. Bloodletting, for example - a selective draining of the body’s blood supply through controlled surgical incisions - was considered a panacea for many illnesses. Scarificators, machines which automated the procedure, were devised in response to its widespread practice. Barbers eventually became official implementers, relieving physicians of the task. The barbershop pole, once-common street signage, notified the public as to available ‘treatment.’
Medicine thus evolved from crude practice to formal education and training, supplemented by aggregation of codified knowledge. Rigorous trial and error validated methodologies. Encyclopedia, such as Diderot’s pioneering System of Human Knowledge, facilitated a broader avenue for sharing information and advanced not only science, mathematics, and history – quantifiable areas – but philosophy, art, and poetry. Once disparate realms became harmonized and fostered greater comprehension of the human condition.
French social caricaturists in the mid-nineteenth century portray prevailing public opinion of doctors as ‘quacks,’ medicine as ‘quackery.’ Architects are equally derided for their intuitive methods. Doctors took such criticism seriously and responded with concerted effort to engender trust. They surpassed their architectural counterparts at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and, two-hundred years hence, have become regarded as providers of services critical to preserving public health, safety, and welfare. Architects never challenged such authority - arguing, perhaps, that an improper handling of the scalpel might entail consequences comparable to brick or steel.
Medicine’s historic rapprochement - parlaying technical knowledge into creative insight (examination), interpretation (diagnosis), and expertise (prescription) - cemented its position within society. Creativity was not subjugated but augmented, and simplicity equaled to a striving for clarity. Ockham’s Razor, a precept of scientific method, advocated ‘shaving’ or minimizing assumptions when testing hypotheses, portending the simplest solutions as resolving the most complex problems. Modernists argued similarly: Picasso sketched the bull throughout his lifetime, drawing it with great detail in his youth and, in the end, reducing it to but a few simple lines.
The public’s regard for interpretive reasoning as standard medical practice is now resolute. Radiologists, not lab technicians, are relied upon to interpret x-rays. Surgeons must correctly assess medical conditions and warrant procedures, or face malpractice claims. Action implies subsequent reactions, and comprehensive knowledge of physiology and procedures is mandatory - applied through practice, not multiple-choice exams. This foundation lays the groundwork for interpretive reasoning and, in turn, licensure.
Processor-laden supercomputing enables much of the resultant feedback and monitoring mechanisms critical to medical research. Cellular growth and behavior, for example, are studied virtually and physically, thereby augmenting experimentation. Medicine found enlightenment - and public trust - through structured knowledge and applied technology. That architecture must now do the same is the next great subject of debate.
Hammer, nails, and wood are offered to contractors and architects alike. Contractors waste no time using their tacit knowledge to instinctively hammer nails into wood. Architects, however, apply formal training to question all matters related to these objects. They refrain from taking action, relying instead on explicit knowledge from expert consultants before proceeding further. Such reticence hinders creativity and is governed by fears over liability rather than expanding knowledge. Environmental simulation applied simultaneously within the design process could augment ideas and, given their purview, substantiate architects’ expertise. Knowledge does not obviate dialogue - to the contrary - it elevates it. Authority, however, is conferred only on those willing to take responsibility for their actions.
The Digital Design Ecosystem
What if multiple design concepts could be produced in significantly less time?
Design is thereby transformed from a highly linear process into an elliptical one. A holistic landscape - similar to the gauges on an automobile dashboard, or the display monitoring a hospital patient’s vital signs – enables a broader design purview through analysis, simulation, and dynamic 3D models, broadcast simultaneously across multiple screens.
The Digital Design Ecosystem implores reexamination of the collaborative design process: ‘Tags’ versus files and folders; product metadata versus specs; specialist input at project onset versus outset; component cost, availability, and delivery searched and tracked through Google; code compliance fed by automated routines; information delivered simultaneously versus sequentially. Impact of the Digital Domain on architectural information processing and delivery will be comparable to the Industrial Revolution.
Broad societal concerns, such as depletion of the earth’s resources, will focus public attention increasingly on architects’ compliance with building regulatory requirements. Ironically, the US Green Building Council, Architecture 2030, and Architects for Humanity have fostered broader awareness in this area than any of the more well-established professional organizations. Architects seeking to incorporate green design logic into their work need not succumb to intuitive green design frenzy, however. Metrics derived from the Digital Design Ecosystem will enable them to speak above the fray, similar to automobile fuel efficiency or appliance power consumption ratings.
Technologically-driven form-finding is not an attempt to pre-configure or automate design. A pushbutton, one-size-fits-all approach holds no quarter. Performative feedback is intended to increase the amount of design information available to architects, not decide for them. The Digital Design Ecosystem will necessitate training architecture students to calibrate and test the tools they are employing, in order to fully understand and validate the results being generated – as medical interns have done for years. Architectural licensure can then be governed by substantial hands-on practice, with expertise derived from implementation of fundamental design principals and metrics.
A Momentous Opportunity for Change
Medical internship is firmly rooted in performative practice. Architecture is not. Design curricula aimed at teaching architectural aesthetic self-discovery should be dramatically augmented, not displaced, by technology. Educational change will not occur via acquisition of new computers or teaching specific software but as an endemic redirection which jettisons antiquated practices and modernizes internship. Fluency in advanced software programming languages will be critical to enabling new methodologies, as will broader, less insular, dissemination of academic research. A post-graduate “low-wage for master apprenticeship” syndrome lowers architects’ self-esteem and encourages client denigration. Licensing exams which focus on comprehension of physical accessibility and safety but deny candidates the right to identify their mistakes – to learn from them - are inexcusable.
Early Modernism’s aspirations may have ended as appliqué but a momentous opportunity for change still exists. Integration of analytical technology into the design process and interpretive skills facilitated through internship will establish codified architectural science without forgoing parametric geometry or relinquishment of aesthetic ideals. To the contrary, their significance will increase and enable a coalescence of science and art.
Mies van der Rohe’s words, spoken some fifty-eight years ago at the Illinois Institute of Technology, still ring true and should serve as a clarion call to architects everywhere:
“Technology is rooted in the past. It dominates the present and tends into the future. It is a real historical movement — one of the great movements which shape and represent their epoch. It can be compared only with the Classic discovery of man as a person, the Roman will to power, and the religious movement of the Middle Ages. Technology is far more than a method, it is a world in itself, as in gigantic structures of engineering; there technology reveals its true nature. There it is evident that it is not only a useful means, but that it is something, something in itself, something that has a meaning and a powerful form — so powerful in fact, that it is not easy to name it. Is that still technology or is it architecture?
And that may be the reason why some people are convinced that architecture will be outmoded and replaced by technology. Such a conviction is not based on clear thinking - the opposite happens. Wherever technology reaches its real fulfillment, it transcends into architecture. It is true that architecture depends on facts, but its real field of activity is in the realm of significance.
I hope you will understand that architecture has nothing to do with the invention of forms. It is not a playground for children, young or old. Architecture is the real battleground of the spirit. Architecture wrote the history of the epochs and gave them their names. Architecture depends on its time. It is the crystallization of its inner structure, the slow unfolding of its form. That is the reason why technology and architecture are so closely related. Our real hope is that they will grow together, that some day the one will be the expression of the other. Only then will we have an architecture worthy of its name: Architecture as a true symbol of our time.”
© Paul Seletsky 2008 All Rights Reserved