Academic Trend #2: Digital Fabrication, Emergent and Parametric Design

I consider myself to have been “raised” (i.e., attending architecture school) during the historical moment when the use of computers in architecture really began to take off. Before I had even learned the design process, I was caught up in a world of TLAs (three-letter acronyms): first it was CAD, then BIM, then CNC. But that was only the tip of the iceberg: I quickly was faced by a Rhino, a Grasshopper, then some species called a Kerkythea. Recalling the scores of conversations I had only eight years ago or so about the epochal shift from (2-D) Autocad  to  (3-D) Revit now seems horribly nostalgic. In today’s schools, it’s all about laser cutters, 3-D printers…I’ve probably already dated myself by referencing the technological obsolete! Yes, I have worked with plenty of designers who could survive with pens and paper if all the computers on earth stopped working overnight–those lovingly referred to as ‘dinosaurs’ but who are not yet extinct. But for my generation, the choice between digital and analog design modes is rarely considered a choice at all. We’re taught analog techniques (most of us, anyway) only to brush them aside like we did with cursive handwriting in elementary school. Those drafting boards sit in the corner of studio collecting dust–our gray-haired studio faculty unable to convince us of their long-term value when none of the job listings say “must know how to operate a Mayline.” Many students now opt for a hybrid approach, digitizing all of their analog work for purposes of editing, reproducing, or archiving. But it is difficult to know whether or not this is just a passing aesthetic as we transition to a fully digitized profession. My sense is that the days of hard-copy portfolios, plotted presentation boards, even hard-copy construction documents are numbered, and I’m sure that in many places this is already the case. For most, though, none of this seems inherently problematic (unless you have a pencil fetish or something): hey, we’re just making up for lost time–all those years when the automobile and aeronautical industries were using 3-D technology and we were left behind with our arcane drafting software.

But if all students have jumped in the (digital) pool, submerging themselves to varying degrees, a certain subset of students is truly in the deep end. Again, like the previous trend, there isn’t a singular term that encapsulates this segment of the population: digi-fab, emergent design, parametric design–these are mostly methods that may or may not have an overarching epistemology or ethos. But anyone who has spent time in an architecture program lately knows who I’m referring to: they’re the students who spend more time in the shop than in studio, the ones who gravitate towards studio faculty whose briefs have no site or program, the ones who are guided more by the question “what’s possible?” than “why would I possibly do that?” In his book Architecture Depends, Jeremy Till lambastes this very mindset: “In a classic display of technical determinism, new shapes are evolved because they can be there…and not because they need to be there” (86). This conception of architecture has fostered its own self-referential community of form-making: “The contemporary obsession with morphologies and formal taxonomies arises because the generative power of the computer has created a vast array of new shapes which apparently need classifying, a tsunami of form that overwhelms any critical faculties. There is so much visual noise in the internal systems of architecture that one cannot hear the external world” (87-8). If someone from outside the world of academic architecture were to look at the work created in some of these studios, their initial reaction would probably be, “How is this architecture?”, and for good reason. But more often than not, there isn’t a very good response to such a question. Instead, the work often reflects a sequestration from everyday life and the values of the public. Granted, no architect or architectural student can be expected to be interested in all of the aspects of the field–its internal division of labor, if you will, is part of what makes it such an exciting and dynamic discipline. But from my perspective, a perspective that sees architecture primarily as a political and cultural series of events, the trend of digital form-making (whether it be through algorithms, sculpture, or ‘smart skin’ technology) tends to favor making at the expense of thinking. Setting aside ethics, users, place?–the line should be drawn somewhere. I’ll admit that I’m constructing a straw man out of this caricature. In reality, students interested in digital fabrication and new technologies could certainly be driven by legitimate ethical positions. The problem, in my mind, is that there does not appear to be enough critical engagement with these very questions that underlie the trend. In fact, criticism is almost completely stripped of its abilities, scoffed at with the sort of reaction you’d have if someone asked you why you needed a new cell phone.

A couple other issues arise that parallel some of my thoughts on public-interest design from a previous post. First, aiming criticism at students who are passionate, engaged, and curious is perhaps not the best tactic here. If this many students are getting into digital fabrication, there must be a whole set of social, economic, and cultural circumstances that make that so. Rather than pigeon-holing them or writing them off completely, the best approach would be to find ways of meeting them where they are while seeking ways of importing some form of criticality to their work. This could start with increasing time for self-reflection, as is the case for so much of the work being produced in architecture schools. Indeed, despite my previous claim that this group sits on the extreme end of the digital spectrum, there is an interesting blend of analog and digital in this trend: actual, 3-D and full-scale products often get produced in their studios–something that, for a lot of students, can be more gratifying than mere 2-D representations or scale models. But just as the public-interest design movement challenges conventional definitions of architecture, this trend seems to be moving away from traditional notions of what architecture is and what architects do–away from the realm of ‘multiple representations of a set of ideas that form a whole with the architect as the idea conveyor’ into a) ideas restricted to singular parts (i.e. a wall system) and/or b) the architect actively engaging in the process of making. If this is indeed the case, the question than becomes: is the (urban) scale of architecture even a significant factor? I’ve even heard recent architecture students claim that when they graduate, they intend to apply for jobs in digital fabrication studios. Maybe the diversification of the discipline is just a symptom of the over-saturation of architects already in the workforce. A possible future direction, then, might be that this trend splinters off from architectural education altogether, joining forces with industrial and furniture design, for instance. But, as I noted in the previous post, any disciplinary splintering of this sort has its drawbacks for both sides: you can imagine the shop leaving the architecture department altogether along with the last vestige of tangible testing of forms, and any hope for clinging onto critical thinking skills (plus, history and theory courses) in this new ‘digital production’ major would be left behind.

I have too rarely gotten into deep conversation with those students and faculty that are firmly within this camp. And this might be my biggest fear of all: that we have all complicitly begun to draw fairly arbitrary boundaries between subcultures in the academy to the point where we lack a shared language. As much as the architecture discipline is a “black-box”, can we afford to become multiple, smaller black boxes? Likely not. So I will make it one of my own priorities to try to bridge these gaps, to find middle grounds between the digi-fab/emergent design/virtual reality world and whatever world I live in: critically examining our judgments of each other together, then finding ways of sharing knowledge and collaborating so that we all might maximize our value, regardless of whether we disagree on what that means.

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