Thursday, March 30, 2006

Technology and its several definitions in Architecture

Over the past several days the following quotes have been sitting together in a document waiting for a clever person to find the thread that links them. This is an open invitation to find the missing link.

The first quote is from a current RIBA Journal article, one of many singing the praises of Building Information Modeling (BIM). It speaks directly to the parametric heart of the medium and is quite possibly the best way to approach the second quote. First, from Martin Reise…

While the palette of tools has decades of 3D-specific design development, you have to remember that with Digital Project, you're not inputting just lines or shapes, but rules and knowledge. They can adapt and evolve and have incredibly powerful generative capabilities.

The focus of the quote is not about BIM, but about the development of a rule set. The focus of much of the last few decades of architectural theory has focused on rule sets, syntax, and the shared grammar that enables our communication, not only with sounds but also with posture, fashion, and building materials.

Which is why this second quote, again from Leon Krier, is worth pausing to consider. Prudence suggests always giving ample reflection to those statements, starting with “That is my main ambition, to…” These are the statements we’re all prone to toss out in a moment of bombast, however, here we’re given a rare moment to reconsider what we so quickly take for granted. This is Leon Kreir describing the work done by recent students interrogating structures already several hundred years old…

We go through so many steps of analysis [in this studio], not only of geographical structure, but also building logic and symbolic structure. And it is impossible for any human to accumulate so much knowledge in three months. An apprenticeship for the Beaux Arts lasted ten years. You started by scratching the floor and you finished by doing sublime things in watercolor. The problem is that these [students] are already grown-up people. They may look young, but they are grown-ups. And they are netting this knowledge. So in three months they get this overload. For this reason they will completely reject it. But at least they know what the system is. […] They will of course have to give copy to what is now fact, and they will get into this, and I think we will be able to break down the barriers, which stopped them to see this as history. But from now on, my hope is that they will see this as technology. That is my main ambition, to turn traditional architecture from being a historic subject to [the] subject of technology. To understand this.

Here Kreir is qualifying his studio as still significant, even if the material studied has been cast aside. What is interesting is that he does this by making an unusually Hidegarrian arguement. One of those trademark Hiedigarian ideas was enframing – that uniquely human impulse that runs out in front of man’s actions and orders the world for him. It’s the impulse that turns forests into dimensioned lumber before we know the wood's use – or divides up land into giant subdivided grids before we know the land's use. As a result, architects just know that wood comes in 2x’s and a townhouse in New York will stand 16’-0” x 50’-0”. By lumping traditional architecture (read ‘vernacular architecture’) in with other technological achievements, Krier changes the battlefield ever so subtly.

Instead of approaching the traditional like historians, with catalogues and dates, Krier invites listeners to attack the body of work with the same skepticism that we reserve for the deployment of nuclear energy.

By claiming traditional architecture is a technology he invites speculation about how we understand our aesthetic achievements, how conventions are adopted and reused, and how architectural conventions have grown to reflect the order in the rest of society… These are broad statements, but have their bearing here, the same way that the car has reorganized our landscape or the clock has reoranized our social relations. At the heart of these broad questions is the assumption of progress. Progress is the engine that drives technology, but it’s a little more rare to here an aesthete (very indirectly) claim that progress is driving investigations in Architecture.

This post began with a quote about rule sets though, and that is where the disconnect lies. With parametric modeling allowing us to act with potency on the rules that organize our compositions, why isn't traditional architecture the first and easiest model to make? Why is the result of such modeling ‘conventional’ office buildings or swooping swerving blobs? Why does Resolution: 4 Architecture have scores of modernist prefab homes on their site (a la ArchiKluge), but there is no killer app to spank out all the possible greek temples according to Virtruius? What is the missing piece? Or what is not being said between the two quotes?


Blogger doctor said...

interesting topic and question . . .

alas i have no input . . .

9:56 AM  
Blogger Norman Blogster said...

Firstly, I wouldn't say that an app that spanked out (nice phrase!) all the possible Greek temples according to Vitruvius was particularly "killer". Or even useful. This is what Bill Mitchell was writing about in his "Logic of Architecture" (1990), which I was soooooooo disappointed in, because I wanted something more creatively generative when I was researching evolutionary design. He takes his cue from Koning and Eizenberg (Environment & Planning B, 1981) where they generated a bunch of FLW prairie houses from a set of rules and grammars.

If I were to link these two quotes, (and I have to admit I have absolutely no idea what a "Hiedigarian idea" is), my gut instinct would be to go for the human angle and talk about how we used to measure things using our bodies, our environment, the passing of the seasons and so on (this is vernacular), but now we measure things in abstract terms and make abstract machines (clocks, computers etc.) in order to put a number on something that was originally just experienced. We're moving further away from the raw materials of architecture and the technology has moved from manipulating the raw material to manipulating numbers which represent the raw material.
I guess it's what they call progress.
So, in short, I would attempt to link them through mensuration.
I would offer more detail, but it's late here and I was actually just passing by in order to procrastinate stuff I really do have to do for tomorrow.

Just my stab, I'm sure there are plenty of more valid ones!

5:53 PM  
Anonymous c said...

are you wondering why a technology emancipated from taste doesn't give us the primitive sublime? are you assuming the primitive sublime is the "standing reserve" (nature interpreted at one numerical remove and always already instrumentalised for action, like norman says) of architecture? are you giving technology too much credit?

i don't understand the question.

10:56 AM  
Blogger sevensixfive said...

"... there is no killer app to spank out all the possible greek temples according to Virtruius?"

A friend of mine has made a parametric Greek temple in solidworks based on Vitruvius. He had it on the web for a little while but I can't find it now.

I don't think Krier understands that he's confusing the representational with the operational. Traditional architecture is treated as a set of symbols, it is a kind of technology, but it's more of a communications technology than anything else, and an outdated one at that. There's no test for success or failure outside of Vitruvius for traditional form. I don't need to remind you that parametrics are used to model economics and structural performance as often as they model formal variation.

Contempo architecture can be seen as primarily communicative as well, but again here I would say that it's always important to keep things advancing formally so we don't get stuck in old ways of communicating and thinking.

So I think Krier loses on both points: traditional form isn't operational technology because it's generated with old tools (and I don't buy Krier's insistence that we'll have to revive those old tools and hence old forms once the oil runs out and the sea levels rise). And traditional architecture loses in the communicative arena because it can only be used to say the same things in the same ways.

If it's conservative nostalgia and reassurance that people want, that's fine, it's out there, but if it's progressive form and technology, there's a lot of that to be had as well, and you and I both know there's a lot more to it than "swooping, swerving blobs". When are we going to stop using "blobs" as the straw man for everything we don't like about contemporary architecture?

11:52 AM  
Blogger J said...

Thank you all for these comments. They are far more valuable than my attendance has treated them.

On more reflection, I think this was a poorly thought-through post. The incredibly open-ended questions were rather irresponsible. I apologize.

NB, I have to wonder if the human angle is the right approach to link the quotes. My heart is with the sentiment -- that any artificial way that man organizes the world is the subject or battleground for architecture. With that I 100% agree. Indeed it is how architects participate in organizing the world that we are at our most valuable. It feels as though that is the realm of classification, which is the first step towards the abstraction you allude to at the end of your comment. What I was trying to focus on (and woefully failed to do), was the approach that classical or regional building "styles" themselves could be re-approached as technologies. In the same way that the 16'-0" to 20'-0" lot-size in typical American cities are based on wood-frame construction (and that agglomerating these lots creates sizes receptive to concrete and steel grids), I was wondering if one could rethink(?) those algorithms you and I share a deep curiosity about as just such an organizing technology. Is this not what Christopher Alexander’s work in the 60’s and 70’s alluded too? I guess your responses might be "Yeah, but look where that research is now." -- a valid reply -- but we've just begun to abstract design decisions into code (in our field). I'm wondering why we're not returning to that work, or at least referencing its failures.

765, yours are stinging comments too, but I think we would agree that *merely* addressing architecture as a language or system of languages is not very productive, right? Certain professors of Architecture in the Northeast U.S. have made whole careers on exploring this communicative ability and "swerved" right around centuries old questions of how architecture legitimates itself or offers benefit to society by staying so wonderfully myopic.

The note about algorithms being used for optimization (structural, economic, etc.) is the one I find most fruitful. Sadly this has been parsed out to the realm of engineering decades ago, and not since Hilbesheimer or Meis have we looked at ‘social engineering’ at the once grand scales that optimization could become architectural.

When studying the Hagia Sophia, or the Pantheon, or even the Rudolph A+A, the production of the artifact -- as the product of calculated human intelligence, as the product of the tools that shaped it (thanks Norman), or as a sequence of decisions -- taking into account the tools used to shape these buildings becomes pivotal to understanding them. Perhaps this is not so with "blobs." As you hint, the very arbitrariness of blobs makes them a great threat to designers. "Arbitrary" is (perhaps) *the* singularly antithetical concept to Architecture. Organization is how we communicate.

It is in that theme that Kreir's trenchant vocabulary holds value. Is there a way to re-examine the buildings he holds dear as a linear series of decisions. Is that not what he is accidentally(?) espousing? Wouldn't that be a valuable way to equate buildings otherwise incomparable by technology, manpower, material or economic resources?

I regret that these sentiments are not posted and that these (still very open-ended) questions require example and explanation. However, the next post beckons. I thank you again for your comments.

10:54 PM  

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