The term digital in architecture carries a certain connotation: the promise of improved collaboration, efficiency, and ease. So often, the use of digital is qualified by “in the future.” Greg Lynn inverts the idiom by examining “the recent past” in his curatorial and editorial compilation, Archaeology of the Digital, by discussing four prominent architects at their creative apex in the 1980s. Along the way, a fifth star dominates the conversation—the unsung heroics of the machine, computer, code, and scripts.
As Mirko Zardini points out in the introduction, the term archaeology suggests a great sense of loss. Lynn’s ambition, in conjunction with exhibitions and seminars by the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), is to challenge how we think about preservation of digital iterations, even permitting access to digital records for future use and research. How can currently inaccessible byproducts of architectural design, such as a digital model, be curated alongside the classic documentation objects (sketches, physical models, and drawings) to heighten the interactive delivery experience of future research and curated exhibitions? Archaeology of the Digital is one format that relies heavily on static documentation and anecdotal interviews about a time distant from the present—a time when computers were limited by speed.
The 1980s was a decade where interest in the digital world existed among many forward-thinking architects, but was not commonplace. Perhaps the most notable early adopter was Frank Gehry’s office, Gehry Partners. The Fish, a sculpture located on Barcelona’s waterfront for the 1992 Olympics and one of the first public projects by Gehry, pulled in aerospace industry veteran Rick Smith to develop methods to model and build complex shapes. When Gehry asked the question if the structure could be built, Smith responded with “a fish is kind of aerodynamic… sure.” And so it began. Utilizing digital modeling, Gehry Partners proceeded to projects such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, leveraging the digital model to bring the most sculptural of forms to life. Prior to project bid, the office educated six bidders in CATIA software, resulting in a one percent spread and 18 percent below budget. Though the value of digital tools and process was clear, Gehry never lost sight that it was personal intervention that transformed computer information into the built form.
At the time, aerospace and engineering industries would design directly within the computer environment, but leaders in architecture like Gehry were still heavily reliant on physical models. Tensho Takemori explained the extensive efforts to mold physical sheets of velvet, lathered with beeswax, to achieve the complex ripples of the proposed Lewis House roof, then translate the sculptural shapes via a digitizing arm into the computer, and finally proceed with documentation. Fundamentally, the processes adopted from aerospace and automotive industries were not commonplace in architecture because the ability to prototype for a one-of-a-kind building is cost prohibitive compared to a 747, for example.
The dialogue continues with several perspectives from the team of Peter Eisenman’s competition design for Biozentrum, including Eisenman, Benjamin Gianni, Chris Yessios, Joe Tanney, and Lynn himself. Though the project did not seek to be parametric, the parallel role of the computer, alongside traditional methods, was used to perform macrotransformations (consolidation of multiple transformations into a single operation) on forms seeking to provide variations resulting from DNA strand algorithmic inspirations. As Eisenman states, application of form from diagram “was so dumbly literal.” It was not the digital process or computational algorithms, but instead, the diagram that interested him. As Gianni points out, Eisenman’s interest in the diagram was its potential ambiguity and ability to be misread. While the project was being designed in Eisenman’s New York office, student’s in his Ohio State University studio were facilitating the computational iterations that would be sent overnight by FedEx on a daily basis. It was an iterative feedback loop of optioneering, whose breadth and speed were made possible through the application of computational analysis.
The interviews proceed with Chuck Hoberman and Bill Record regarding kinetic forms and artwork they’ve collaborated on, and Shoei Yoh regarding the application of computational structural analysis on long span structures in Japan in the mid-1980s. Hoberman’s work is founded on mathematics, geometrical understanding, and kinetics, and he even states that the computer is not necessary to his process. Yoh acknowledges that the computer allowed the building to be thought of “more as a machine or organism” permitting iterations and refinement. Ultimately, forms were driven by the programmatic layout and the importance of light in his structures, not by the computer or computationally derived roof structure. Though both designers’ works could be achieved without computers, the integration of computer analysis and visualization changed the process by which the structures were developed.
A distinguishable characteristic of Lynn’s compilation is the side-by-side, parallel presentation of discussion and visual representations with Field Notes on the left side and Project Files on the right. This ingenious layout allows the reader to flip through sketches, project documentation, analytical output, and model photographs about the projects being reviewed without losing one’s place. This notion of parallelism, however, is a theme that goes beyond the book’s physical format and surfaces in the work of the four designers. Whether it was the tandem modeling in physical and digital by Gehry, or the OSU students and computational files FedExed to Eisenman’s office in New York, translations and iterations between mediums were integral to facilitating design process but with multiple digital and analog formats explored simultaneously.
Another almost shockingly consistent message that emerges is the four lead architects’ hands-off approach to integrating the digital into the offices and processes. In some cases, it is almost described as despise for the computer. As Takemori noted, Gehry learned the computer’s capabilities, but relied on the physical artifact (the model) because it possessed honesty, or inability to misconstrue like the computer screen. Yessios describes Eisenman as “anti-computer,” though Lynn credits him as thinking like a computer and parametrically. Hoberman flat-out disregards the computer (and even pencil and paper) as being essential to his process. Strangely enough (and to their credit), these sentiments did not prevent these pioneers from supplementing their process with the digital, integrating perhaps what they were most uncomfortable with, leveraging the talents of the fifth star—the machine, computer, code and scripts—and their creative operators: the Rick Smiths, Benjamin Giannis, Chris Yessios, Bill Records, and Kenshi Odas of the world.
The book is astute in identifying the challenge presented in documenting and preserving the digital nature of architecture practice today. However, beyond the clever side-by-side format, the booklet medium misses an opportunity to pull in digital documentation. Could the book be supplemented with a link to digital models hosted on the cloud? This raises questions about how successful the curatorship was in gathering digital files from these nearly three decade old projects. Were they lost or does one have to visit the exhibit to engage with these files? Would it have been more successful of a collection if more recent projects were used? How about the side-by-side format? How does that translate to an eBook format?
Lynn and contributors have laid out the problem. Now, as a community, how do we move forward in digitally archiving the abundance of information we generate day in and day out, in a time where computers and analysis are not necessarily limited by speed, but by our ability to navigate, understand, and store data?