Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Submitted for the GSD's Critical Digital Conference 2009:

Given the recent global economic crisis, certain digital techniques are at risk of losing legitimacy in the field of architectural design. Tadao Ando’s comment that we have transitioned from Age of Discovery to an Age of Responsibility might similarly suggest, to some, a return to design basics and traditional values . The digitician in an Age of Responsibility however will argue the opposite, advocating a proliferative use of advanced technology – from solar energy to automation – permeating all levels of infrastructure and consumption. Even so, this kind of responsible proliferation belongs more to the realm of efficiency makers than the surface surfers, thus illuminating the possibility that surface techniques – more than any other digital technique – have indeed lost their former currency and require an alternate means of survival.

As design projects around the globe are put on indefinite hold, especially those presenting the complications so common to surface constructions, the means of survival in Ando’s Age of Responsibility seem elusive. Yet they might actually be found as a trait of the surface itself. The trait of pliancy, once celebrated in the Age of Discovery by Greg Lynn, Peter Eisenman and others, now offers the ability for the digitician to adapt his or her technique under quite different circumstances. Pliancy in surfaces can be described as “an internal flexibility and…a dependence on external forces for self-definition”, a description which might also suggest a method of digital technique that can flex under challenging external forces while maintaining an internal structure for meeting market demands . Technique-based pliancy requires not only a forceful investigation into digital techniques but also an extensive grasp of their capabilities, so that the plaint digitician might have at his or her disposal a desirable and more complete skill-set for precision and flexibility.

Perhaps the digitician’s most pliant technique in an Age of Responsibility is to double as a mathematician, to gain control over surface mathematics and to circumvent software’s graphic interface. Using a broader knowledge of the equations and calculations of a surface, the digitician gains control over his or her medium with precision and flexibility. Within the computer, flexible surface forms are generated from a complex and flexible series of computations; complex in the sense that they include a highly involved set of parts, and flexible in the sense that a simple change in values re-translates their configuration, while using the same set of computations. This mathematic structure, typical to all digital surface forms – be they polygons, NURBS or sub-divisions – is a critical tool for maintaining pliancy. By taking hold of the values and calculations behind the configuration of a surface, the digitician discloses their influence (and perhaps by extension the “external forces” of our time) as a new kind of form as the agency of plaint technique.

In support of surface mathematics and pliancy I plan to present two design projects showing the comparative range of mathematics in digital design. The first project, unbuilt and completed prior to the economic crash, questions the stability of surface research and prompts a reconsideration of the present validity of digital techniques. The second project, a small and completed product design, attempts to reaffirm surface techniques using the exact same mathematic system as the first project but with a completely different outcome, illustrating the system’s ability shift in scale, geometry, method of assembly and financial constraints. While neither project offers a guaranteed technique for the digitician to work in an Age of Responsibility, their comparison intends to affirm the adaptability of digital surface techniques, flexed under the burden of new external forces but plaint and resilient nevertheless.


Blogger chris shusta said...

If an Age of Responsibility is coming to architecture, I don't see it being the result of economic downturn. My understanding is that when architects lack paying projects, paper architecture gets a lot of attention, which is anything but responsible in terms of "design basics and traditional values." Then again, Ando might be right. We might all be living in a primitive hut this time next year.

You make an interesting argument, which I think hinges on your definition of pliancy. If you mean that the design process is more pliant (as opposed to the digital or physical surface) as a result of specific techniques/procedures, then yes, I suppose that's quite responsible indeed. The question is now, what techniques can maximize the pliancy of the architectural process?

I personally think that circumventing a graphic interface is a mistake. A user interface allows the structuring and manipulation of information in a useful manner. It not only gives you a base to begin establishing your thoughts within, but allows you to iteratively build them in a more and more complex fashion while it provides you a constant feedback of the current state of that information. You're not just working within that structure; you're also interfacing with it. You're customizing it as you go (not in the literal sense that you're altering the user interface, but in the sense that you are building your own mental model of that information during the process). A design is not just a series of vertices that exist at finite coordinates in space that are either connected or not connected. It is also the mental construct that exists outside of the computer. This continuous mental model isn't really happening when you're writing code and subsequently reacting to what it generates. The feedback is missing. The interface is missing. The pliancy, I would argue, takes a hit.

sidenote: Ando bears a striking resemblance to Javier Bardem in that photo:

February 12, 2009 at 7:50 PM  
Blogger chris shusta said...

oh yeah, and will you get to go to the conference to present?

February 12, 2009 at 7:53 PM  
Blogger // JD said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

February 17, 2009 at 7:35 PM  
Blogger // JD said...

In response to the 2 points you make:

Paper Architecture
You're absolutely right. In fact, this is a significant component of the paper, namely that the past gives us plenty of examples of great experimentation during hard times. Archigram is an easy example, but it goes further back to earlier utopians operating in so-called depressions, like Boulee, Ebinezer Howard, and the grandmaster of utopia, Sir Thomas More. But the question I'm trying to focus on mainly is not how the digitician can keep experimenting in an Age of Responsibility, but rather how his or her experimentation can maintain its validity, or more importantly its plausibility, without resorting to a paper/pixel-based conceptual practice. To put it very plainly, is form valid right now?

The Interface
The value we place on the interface is a matter of preference and process. While you might see the software frame as your interface, the coder might see the same in the code-execution window, and the hybridizer might find in going between the two. My argument isn't that Pliancy requires us to trash the interface. It's that we need to strategize the application of our techniques with cunning precision and logic, just as we do with the techniques themselves. In that sense, I agree that the interface gives us a mental model of process, and it might be necessary for architects to craft a productive sense of feedback. Then again, perhaps with the right code, one that adapts and gains intelligence (i.e. a genetic algorithm), the feedback is there. It comes down to process and technique, but this is still peripheral to the issue of Pliancy as a technique in practice.

Also, not sure if the paper is accepted yet, but if it is I probably will go to present. Tell Javier to come.

February 17, 2009 at 7:38 PM  

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