Thursday, June 17, 2010

Theoretical Discourse on Digital Architecture & Technology

Brent Allpress, "Surface Values"in AR: Digital Architecture
Andrew Benjamin (Guest Editor)
Andrew MacKenzie (Editor)
Architecture Review Australia
Special Issue, no. 90, September 2004

(Key ideas in Allpress' text we were inspired by, are outlined in yellow)

>>>Digital technologies have developed rapidly across a broad range of creative industries in the past decade. The impact on the architectural discipline has been pervasive but uneven. The term “digital architecture” presents obstacles for any clear or shared definition. The diversity of different approaches to the adoption and adaptation of the technology currently encompasses “virtual space” modeling, digital drawing and modeling as a documentation tool, digital rendering as a communication medium, digital representation as a component of a generative design process, and digitally-controlled manufacturing as a new mode of materialisation and post-industrial production.

To date, digital technology has mostly manifested in architecture through shifts in modes of architectural representation and drawing. This began in the 1980’s with the development of Computer Aided Design (CAD), which introduced high levels of efficiency in the management of the documentation of buildings. No representational system is neutral. CAD is primarily an orthogonal Cartesian modeling system that operates with and in relation to x, y and z co-ordinates. A tendency remains for this means of drawing to promote a certain limited instrumental Cartesian spatial thinking as a default.

Most CAD packages are primarily effective documentation tools, but are not particularly flexible as a generative design medium. The adoption by architects of improvisatory modeling and rendering software intended for 3D animation applications promised a more significant shift in design practices in the late-nineties. The iterative form-generating capacity of this software mapped all too readily onto an existing American academic bias towards abstract formal compositional methodologies. A pre-digital lineage is readily traceable from Greg Lynn’s recent concretized diagrammatic buildings back to Peter Eisenman’s 1970’s and 1980’s projects that involved analogous methodical formal displacements of autonomously generated diagrammatic geometries.

Local practices such as Melbourne-based Ashton Raggatt MacDougall (ARM) have explored a more operative generative role for this 3D modeling software in projects such as the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra. Modeling operations such as Boolean subtraction and extrusion enable formally ambiguous and spatially complex outcomes to be achieved by highly efficient and direct representational operations such as the direct excision of one complex form from another to gain the negative void figure of the giant knot in the NMA Great Hall. ARM’s attitude to this technology is opportunistic and resourceful. Cheap packaging software was used to unfold the complex 3D figures into buildable cladding surfaces. The generative process allows for a qualitative outcome to be achieved that could not be readily achieved otherwise.

The relationship between digital representation and materialisation has become a significant emerging practice and research question. The recent adoption of parametric modeling software such as CATIA gives digital representations of architecture a different status. This technology was initially trialed by Ghery’s office on the Bilbao Guggenheim project, and is currently being used extensively by researchers and students working with Innovation Professor Mark Burry at the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL) at RMIT in Melbourne. A parametric model sets up a series of parameters for the design that are both calculable and alterable. Relationship rules can be established between elements where a change to one component causes a corresponding change to another. The process of design development and articulation no longer involves shifting from a malleable generative medium to a more rigid and instrumental documentation medium. The mutable parametric model is already compatible with digitally-controlled manufacturing machinery. Design generation, design development and manufacturing production can potentially be brought into an intimate dialogue.

Modernist architectural theory forced a conflation between the efficient economies of scale of standardised mass-production and the reductive aesthetic of modernist architectural composition. Walter Gropius called for a new mass-produced aesthetic of primary forms and colours that were universally legible to all regardless of culture or context.(1) Significant shifts have begun to occur in the technological and economic constraints of architectural prefabrication through the introduction of computer-aided architectural representation and digitally controlled manufacturing production processes such as Computer Aided Design Computer Aided Manufacturing (CADCAM) and robotic laser cutting. Prefabricated components can potentially be mass-produced with variable or differentiated configurations without significant extra cost. These technological developments have design implications that cannot be adequately accounted for solely in technical terms. Developing compositional criteria for prefabricated differentiation is an emerging design problematic.

Melbourne architect and RMIT academic Shane Murray has nominated this as one of the key research questions he has addressed in his PhD by Project that was publicly exhibited in May of this year. Murray argues that Colin Rowe was effectively one of the last significant architectural theorists to address composition. In the 1980’s, architectural theory increasingly drew on critical discourses outside the discipline and was often employed as an external authorisation of practice, not a theorization of practice.

There has been a subsequent repudiation of discursive theory by figures such as American academic Michael Speaks. In the recent work of architects such as Greg Lynn or the Dutch practice MVDVR, an empirical data-driven representational process often appears to have over-determined value as the generative ground or origin for a project that supposedly authorizes the formal outcome. The compositional procedures that curate the articulation of the outcome in the translation from scale-less diagram to scaled materialisation remain largely undisclosed and underemphasised in published accounts of the work.

Murray employed a series of projects as case-study vehicles for design research that tested an informed relationship between recurring design actions and a reflective theorisation of embodied compositional procedures. These included his competition entry for Melbourne’s Federation Square, the Cash Research office renovation and a competition entry for the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). All the projects engaged to some extent with digital representational and manufacturing technologies.

The Cash Research project is a small un-built scheme for the alteration of a mundane Melbourne brick warehouse. It combines a new office suite with existing prototype manufacturing facilities for a small firm that specialises in the research and development of precision engineering and new manufacturing technologies. The scheme thematises its program by engaging with CADCAM and laser cutting robotic technology as a design proposition.

New differentiated mass-production technologies challenge modernist assumptions of repetitive standardisation. Robotic laser cutting tools can undertake differentiated actions with no significant cost increase. This has implications for the conventional processes and procedures of a range of building industry crafts and trades.

"In this situation the traditional, trade linked restraints on material form are irrelevant. Stonemasonry, steel fabrication, ironmongery and even carpentry are both liberated and called into crisis as the traditional craft codes for their realisation have their physical underpinning removed."(2)

The architect is confronted with the possibility for "unique material arrangements at every juncture of the construction process."(3) As the cost incentives of standardisation recede, Murray proposes that issues of aesthetics and formal arrangement will take on renewed significance.

Industrial prefabrication was called into service by modernists as the exemplary means by which an integral formal unity of construction was to be achieved, refounding modern architecture as an autonomous discipline uncontaminated by previous historical styles or conventions. Without the organising framework of modular standardisation, the compositional arrangement of parts becomes a more overt design task. Establishing the criteria for any differentiation of repetitive modular prefabricated elements is a significant new design problematic.

Murray tests the limits of prefabrication technology as a tactic to explore other design outcomes not prescribed by the proprieties of modernist formalism. The additive nature of prefabricated assembly is resituated within an overall procedure of additive alteration. The existing brick building has been renovated through the layered application of a new half-mask facade made up of laser-cut steel plates with differentiated profiles. Alteration here induces altarity. The banal familiarity of this obsolete industrial context is opened to other design possibilities that redeem the everyday. The undulating linear cladding strips displace the frontal orientation of the original blank facade and actively engage with a more oblique marginal street view. The operation of laser-cutting is given figurative expression in the composition of the windows as abstract cut-out void figures that cut across the facade bands, projecting forth or receding back from the street view. The existing walls are rendered with the over-scaled name of the company as a recessed figure that is barely legible, with text acting more as ornamental surface texture. The postmodern conception of the ornamental facade as a signage that conveys meaning is confounded and problematised by this layered masquerade.

This project takes key compositional moves from Murray’s Federation Square project as found figures and knowingly reworks them in this other scale context as a focused test of compositional criteria when curating the articulation of non-standardised material elements. They are judged for their actions not their origins. His GOMA competition entry subsequently reworks these procedures at a civic scale where inevitable shifts in the museum brief would be accommodated by the compositionally mutable and flexible approach to the design development of the framing envelope.

Accounts of “digital architecture” need to move beyond the promotion of a nostalgia for the future. The rhetoric in the 1990’s that the new digital economy will supercede the old industrial economy is now more moderated and nuanced. Old debates about design, industrial production and making are taking on renewed relevance. The relationship between emerging digital technologies and techniques and existing, supposedly anachronistic disciplinary practices is becoming an increasingly productive area of enquiry.

1. Walter Gropius, "Principles of Bauhaus production (Dessau)," in Programs and manifestoes on 20th-century architecture, ed. Ulrich Conrads, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971, p. 95.
2. Shane Murray, "Cash Research," in Transition 54/55, (1997): 87.
3. ibid.

This article was published in:

Brent Allpress, "Surface Values", in AR: Digital Architecture, Andrew Benjamin (Guest Editor), Andrew MacKenzie (Editor), Architecture Review Australia, Special Issue, no. 90, September 2004

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