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PRINT September 2007

A VIRTUAL REALITY: THE LEGACY OF DIGITAL ARCHITECTURE

SOME FOUR YEARS AGO I was standing on the terrace of the Art and Architecture Building at Yale University when I witnessed a remarkable exchange between Patrik Schumacher, architect Zaha Hadid’s principal collaborator, and Charles Jencks, the architect and writer who pioneered architectural postmodernism. No doubt referencing the latter’s pivotal role during the 1970s in championing the new architectural language of ornamentation and references to historical styles, Schumacher pointed at his computer-designed Nike watch, saying: “This is the future.” Then, looking up, he pointed at Jencks and said, “You are the past.” With that, he encapsulated the position architects enamored of the wonders of computing have held for two decades: that emerging technology was going to bring us into an unprecedented era of swerving, curving forms, freed from the need for the columns and beams that had held up the old rectangular world.

On the face of it, Schumacher’s statement was absurd. But it was nonetheless a succinct distillation of widespread if not universal sentiments in the profession. Seduced by the bulbous shapes evident in such mass-produced objects as the Nike watch, digitally minded architects have for some time posited that computers will let us build the radically new—opposing themselves to a previous generation of postmodernist theoreticians who, they claim, want merely to extend the hold of the past on our present. Indeed, already by the late ’80s, when personal computers first became readily available, several architects were going so far as to argue that previously hidden truths about the physical world would be revealed as computation allowed the rendering of form before any consideration of material, site, or even structure. The organic, molecular, and geologic realities of the natural world would now shape the built environment, rather than the straight lines of which the man-made world had been constructed for millennia. Others claimed that the computer would make it possible to create optimal forms that needed to answer only to abstract combinations of needs and desires. But all of these architects were in agreement that technology would free us to design never-before-seen forms without worrying about how the resulting structures would actually be built. You could design whatever it was possible to imagine, and then bring it to life simply by pushing a button and sending your digital vision through filters of calculations directly to robots churning out building components in far-flung factories.

Yet while the contoured design that characterizes the Nike watch has now been with us for more than a decade, appearing everywhere from kitchen appliances to cars—such that we accept their blobby forms as the veritable image of the new, as well as of today’s production techniques—one wonders whether architecture has in fact lagged behind. (As it always has, one might add: Buildings are more difficult to make than other objects.) Architects may have led the way in speculating what the computer could do for us in theory, but have the heralds of the digital age been proved right in practice? Are we actually witnessing the emergence of an architecture that makes apparent physical laws that were previously unseen due to our limited abilities to translate ideas into form? And is contemporary architecture in fact fashioning the perfect monument to the Internet era, mirroring the unprecedented efficiency in both production and consumption that is the most obvious result of the confluence of modern computer and communication technologies? Or is what we are seeing merely the latest attempt by architects to build a kind of utopia—in other words, the discipline being haunted, once again, by the desire to build a better world, and refusing to accept that it is a service profession beholden to its clients? Put another way: If we look at the field of architecture today, weighing the ideas of the past two decades against their actual manifestations, should we conclude that the digital revolution in architecture has remained unrealized—a mirage, the stuff of science fiction?

IRONICALLY, TODAY’S COMPUTER-DRIVEN architecture has its roots in the paper visions of the ’70s. The oil crisis and the subsequent worldwide economic slow-down made it hard for many architects to find work, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the midcentury surge of utopian thinking in architecture had resulted in overreach: Robert Moses turned out to have created slums; the grand concrete structures designed to represent the heroic aspects of a technocratic age— such as Boston’s City Hall, New York’s Penn Station, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Washington, DC—now loomed over their surroundings as barracklike monuments to bureaucracies out of control. And so architects turned inward and, rather than producing drawings intended to result in buildings—for which there was, after all, no call—they imagined a free, nonphysical, purely notional world. The headquarters for such thinking was the Architectural Association in London, where architects such as Peter Cook, Rem Koolhaas, and Bernard Tschumi were deliberately eschewing designs for actual buildings, instead proposing cartoons or murder mysteries as architecture, or melding their fascination with space travel and Pop art with the media and cultural theories of Situationism. In New York around the same time, Peter Eisenman was leading a group of students and faculty members at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in a similar departure from previous architectural practices, searching within architecture for Chomskyan “deep structures” beyond the language of the everyday. For Eisenman and others, this led to their exploring mathematical relations beyond the logical constraints of geometry. The resulting forms were sometimes distinctly impractical: One of Eisenman’s houses famously had a column in the middle of the bedroom that precluded a bed, and other designs incorporated staircases leading nowhere. Such projects served primarily to reveal the many different architectonic structures that are usually hidden in a building, by highlighting the overlaps between various grids. Other architects—such as Raoul Bunschoten in London or Robert Venturi in Philadelphia—became interested in the sign as a separate element that could replace the very building with its own indication. In all these cases, designing the boxes we might live in was less interesting than attempting to use architecture as a means of making sense of the world.

The landscape shifted when Tschumi became dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University in New York in 1988, bringing his own psychologically based architecture to the United States. (That same year saw the completion of his design for the Parc de la Villette in Paris, which was conceived around the Freudian notion of “transference.”) Once in New York, he melded his interests in Parisian Situationism and London punk–related street imagery with his desire to make buildings. He also displayed a zeal for computers and in 1994 instituted a “paperless design studio” for the department. The Columbia architecture faculty soon attracted many of the younger generation of experimenters—Greg Lynn, Hani Rashid, Bill MacDonald, and Sulan Kolatan among them. Various paths began to articulate themselves, and two friends—Lynn and Rashid—ended up forming the two poles with their different approaches. Pursuing the line set up by Eisenman, Lynn argued for the organic aspects of digital form, which he believed could mimic or trace the ways in which material and energy organized themselves. He became particularly interested in the blob, which he described in a 1996 Any Magazine essay titled “Blob Tectonics, or Why Tectonics Is Square and Topology Is Groovy” as “a thing which is neither singular nor multiple but an intelligence that behaves as if it were singular and networked but in its form can become virtually infinitely multiplied and distributed.” (It is no coincidence that Lynn has since progressed to floral forms.) Rashid, for his part, was more interested in the computer as a tool for gathering information—first scanning it in or plotting it on the screen— and then using a kind of digital collage technique to create architecture as an abstraction and condenser of the built world that would make new shapes out of familiar forms. This seems to be the rationale behind I.Scapes, 1999, a series of “digital drawings” made by Asymptote Architecture (a collaboration between Rashid and Lise Anne Couture), in which a sneakerlike shape morphs into something resembling a car or a building, forming in-between shapes along the way.

If it was at Columbia’s paperless studio and in the debates that swirled around it that the idea of a computer-aided revolution in architecture initially had the greatest force, the program’s alumni and various other architects around the world soon began pushing things further. Out of a reading of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus, as well as through an assimilation of then-popular chaos theory, theoreticians such as the Texas-trained, Los Angeles–based computer wizard Marcos Novak and the Dutch architect Lars Spuybroek speculated that a new kind of architecture would arise—one that, like Deleuze and Guattari’s “Body without Organs,” could not be reduced to its constituent parts; or one that would arise from the understanding that all reality is nothing but data that can be manipulated to grow forms in the most fundamental manner. Architecture would not only involve inserting buildings into a landscape but also be “emergent”: It would grow out and extrapolate from the world as it was; abstract data would lead directly to organic forms.

Nor were these the only possibilities. On the West Coast, architects Wes Jones and Neil Denari became interested in the ways in which computer drafting and modeling could simply let one make larger, smoother, and stranger buildings. Jones called it “Boss Architecture”: bigger, more expressive, and more rooted in a science fiction–inspired fascination with spacecraft and military technology than in the theoretical premises of the New York school. Jones and Denari were particularly fascinated by the ways in which computers were letting engineers in other industries come up with composite materials that more efficiently served their purposes and with devices that made machines operate more smoothly—significantly, they paid particular attention to the ways in which the aircraft industry was using computers.

Several young architects from both coasts were soon working for Frank Gehry, the most adventurous architect who was actually building at the time, and they brought with them the know-how that let Gehry build the forms he had been dreaming of for decades. The Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, for example, made use of a technology developed by Dassault Systèmes for designing fighter aircraft. When it opened in 1997, this building immediately captured the public’s imagination with its free-flowing forms. Indeed, it is still the icon nonpareil of computer-aided design. One should note, however, that its curving shape is primarily the manifestation of Gehry’s highly personal style, based as much on his earlier research as on the evolution of technology.

IN FACT, THE BUILDINGS that resemble what the movement’s early theoreticians dreamed of are still few and far between—the important examples can even be enumerated here. There is Lynn’s Korean Presbyterian Church, in Queens, New York, designed in collaboration with Doug Garofalo and Michael McInturf and completed in 1999. This building is, however, in part a renovation of a ’30s factory and shows its digital generation primarily in a series of telescoping scales on one side of its exterior. Even these elements seem crudely constructed, however, and bring to mind the work of the modernist Alvar Aalto more than any computer rendering. More resolved in its curved surfaces is Asymptote’s 2002 HydraPier Pavilion—a prow-shaped exhibition space floating in an artificial pond, in Haarlemmermeer, the Netherlands. Also noteworthy is Kolatan and MacDonald’s (Kol/Mac) 1997 interior of bright curving plastic within an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—a design that broke through the usual compartmentalization of New York apartments with a flowing sequence of continuous forms containing everything from beds to bathtubs. The London-based firm Foreign Office Architects built a ferry terminal in Yokohama, Japan, in 2002, whose undulating form is covered with a vast public space two football fields long over the areas needed to process cruise-ship passengers. Cook, an elder statesman in architecture who fairly recently latched onto the movement, worked with Colin Fournier to make a blob-shaped museum in Graz, Austria, that opened four years ago. One might also be tempted to cite Hadid’s latest buildings, such as her 2005 lightning bolt of high-strength concrete in Leipzig, which masquerades as the plant where the BMW 3 Series is assembled, and the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany, also completed in 2005, since they exhibit some of the traits long present in her drawings and computer models. But in truth, the spatial experience of Hadid’s buildings comes more from pushing existing materials and forms than from the production of something truly new.

These examples underscore not only that there is a rather small crop for a movement that swept over the field of architecture with such vehemence, but that the dreamers have still had to make use of existing building technologies. Indeed, what is built most often today is a more conventional architecture stretched and deformed through the application of computer technology, as in the case of Norman Foster’s 1998 Hong Kong International Airport—a sinuous, sensuous form that would not have been possible without the use of massive computing power in everything from drawing to engineering to fabricating the glass and steel elements, but that retains all the basic elements and the look and feel of a conventional airport. In many cases it is engineering firms, rather than architects, that are behind many of the most startling structural innovations one sees in work that seeks to express the digital age—companies such as Arup, the London-based multinational firm that produces Foster’s stretched surfaces and continuous curves. Even so, in many digitally designed buildings, fasteners and connections between different planes, for instance, remain problems that are solved only by using multiple layers of curved plastic or metal panels to hide the real structure. In addition, true curves are very expensive, so most of these buildings are made up of straight segments set in long arcs. How you enter and exit a continuous surface, and how you look out through it—windows and doors, in other words—is another issue that has until now not been adequately resolved. Not only is it hard to integrate them into continuously curved surfaces, but they also conceptually interrupt the flowing forms envisaged on the computer screen. The question of how to outfit the interiors of blobs or organic extrusions—to say nothing of how these forms fit in with surrounding older buildings—has also not been answered.

Perhaps it is then most accurate to say that the visible evidence of a new computer era in architecture comprises a few tricks and themes; a way of working; and, interestingly, an enabling of high-modernist monumental abstraction. Among the themes, the most obvious are the continuous surface, or “S”—of which the newly constructed Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is probably the most sophisticated built example—and the continuously molded surfaces familiar to us from Bilbao. The requisite construction technology has become increasingly accessible: Speculative office buildings more and more often sport panels that bend in at least two directions at the same time. Theoretically, this allows a building to respond to several geometries—a skyscraper may start as a square in a city grid, twist to respond to the height of buildings around it, and wind up as a circle—showing that a building can transform itself in the way an organic shape does, and respond to the different conditions at ground level and ninety-nine floors up in the air. (A design for the World Trade Center site competition—by United Architects, a collaborative team that included Lynn, Ben van Berkel, and many other leading lights of the digital architecture movement—proposed just such a configuration.) Another motif showing up in more buildings of late is the bulge or sac—which is very much in evidence at the Hessing Cockpit and Acoustic Barrier, completed in 2006 by Kas Oosterhuis and Ilona Lénárd of ONL to serve as a car showroom in Utrecht, the Netherlands. It is a glass-covered tube whose slithering line through the landscape is a perfect illustration of an emergent structure—in this case out of a sound-abatement wall next to the highway.

That the new undulations in buildings are mostly just stylistic moves applied to otherwise more “normal” buildings does not mean that the formal inventions are not important, or unrelated to the theoretical ambitions of architects steeped in the digital. But we should also be wary of our preoccupation with the new: Consciously or not, the work of many of the blobbists and other proponents of computer-based or -aided design recalls the sinuous evocations of geologic and organic forms that were the architectural embodiment of the high point of the French state’s power in the mid-eighteenth century. In other words, we appear to have arrived again at a rococo moment, when we want our buildings to represent a deeper connection to our nature, our bodies, and the fantastic sense of freedom we believe has been created by globalization (overlooking the ever more rigid restrictions and separations that are the flip side of that dream). This is a familiar cycle, in which the latest wave of money and technology frees architects to experiment, allowing them to wallow, as it were, in a sea of possibilities—as they did when they took advantage of the resources of the French court, and again at the end of the nineteenth century, when they exploited glass, metal, and the economics of the industrial revolution in Art Nouveau and Jugendstil experiments. One difference is that we seem less able to translate the possibilities of our own time into built form in an elegant manner.

SO IS COMPUTERIZED ARCHITECTURE in the end just a dream of organic form, a way to make efficient, if slightly more complex, buildings—merely a style, like any other? Not quite—there are some other possibilities. Drawing on a long tradition of understanding architecture as the translation of social, economic, and physical data through synthetic analysis into built form, several architects in the Netherlands have been working on what van Berkel calls “deep planning.” Everything from wind speed to zoning ordinances can, after all, be brought back to zeroes and ones; if your programs are sophisticated enough, the resulting data can be combined with the inherent properties of materials and forms to produce an efficient, fluid building that bears little trace of the different forces that go into its construction, because everything has been morphed together. A key building in this regard is the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, recently completed by van Berkel and Caroline Bos’s Amsterdam-based architecture firm UNStudio. While it is difficult to see if the building is really the result of such a methodology, the structure’s strange, bulging shape and complex interior certainly seem to come from some source other than the aesthetic shaping of standard forms. In particular, the museum’s double-helix construction means that its spaces are truly continuous and mimic the flow of concrete with only minimal interference from supporting materials. As such, the building delivers on the promise that the computer is capable of producing a unified idea, which fuses structure, space, and function into a single experience.

One should also take note of a few architects who are reducing architecture to a minimal skeleton on which to hang the free-floating products of the culture that the computer and communications revolution has produced. Indeed, the success of Koolhaas’s firm OMA and its many heirs, ranging from MVRDV in the Netherlands and BIG in Denmark to MADA s.p.a.m. in Shanghai, evidences the pervasive notion of architecture as a kind of scaffolding on which to hang media-generated images—allowing popular culture, as it were, to do the morphing, so that architecture might be said to exist primarily on a kind of MTV–YouTube continuum. The architecture itself is generally cobbled together and almost invisible—but these buildings often paradoxically most show their force where the architecture does in fact intrude into the collage of images. Koolhaas in particular may want to disappear into politics, branding, and directing (he was a screenwriter earlier in life), but he winds up asserting the old-fashioned qualities of architecture in spite of himself, emerging as a master at making startling forms, such as the new CCTV Television Station and Headquarters (designed with Ole Scheeren and currently under construction in Beijing), and wonderful spaces, as in the case of the Seattle Central Library.

While the deep planners and the surfers on media images try to build, both the organic and the collage schools are now moving toward the recognition that pure computer-generated architecture might best be realized in the making of art. In many ways, they are the true heirs of those rebels of the ’68 generation who sought to break free of the servile and monumentalizing prison of modernist architecture. Just as the works produced in digital space by people such as Marcos Novak and Neil Leach are much more seductive than the idea that they will one day be built—perhaps precisely because they are more complete and more complex than anything we can build; and just as Spuybroek’s public art installations are considerably more successful than his plans for building renovations and additions, so the best things Lynn and Asymptote have produced have been artworks. Among these, Lynn’s Embryological House, 1998–99, stands out—conceived as a prototype, it is now in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Begun as an experiment in creating endless variations from a few mathematical equations spun into form, it is above all a beautiful serial sculpture. Asymptote’s installation FluxSpace 3.0, 2002, projects data streams derived from three cities (Hong Kong, Tokyo, and New York) onto a snakelike cylindrical form rotating in a mirrored room—confronting us with the sameness and infinite mutability of our urban environment.

Of course, many architects, such as Rashid or Hadid and Schumacher, seek to be both artists and architects, sometimes presenting objects for exhibition and sometimes designing buildings. Their art has some of the characteristics of built structures, and their buildings are like art. It is perhaps no coincidence that many of these designers reach back for inspiration to mid-twentieth-century visionaries such as Frederick Kiesler or the techno-dreamer Buckminster Fuller. It is worth pointing out, however, that this art is also made possible by engineers—the production of fluid forms here too comes as much out of the application of new technology as it does out of formal invention.

So in considering architecture after the past decades of computerized design, we might want to reframe our questions, recognizing that we are now at a point where architecture is falling apart into engineering, art, and the pursuit of monumental forms meant to express the spirit of our times. Plus ça change: It is this triad that has continually pulled at architecture since the discipline was formally defined in late seventeenth-century France. Every time in the history of architecture when a transformative technology or theory comes along, it promises that this compromise between form and function, service profession and art, engineering and comfort, and a host of other conflicting elements will be taken to another level, where all problems will be solved and utopia will result. “All that is solid melts into air,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels claimed in the Communist Manifesto; Piet Mondrian thought painting would dissolve into architecture and thence into spiritual abstraction; and the high priest of modernism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, said that he wanted to build “almost nothing.” Now architects just want to go with the computer’s flow to create a universe that is self-organizing and self-constructing. What actually gets built is only an intimation of such immortality, an echo of utopia. It is, to borrow the title of the most comprehensive exhibition on the subject, organized by Hadid and Schumacher in Graz in 2002, a “latent utopia.” Perhaps all utopias should remain that way, so we can actually get to live in them.

Aaron Betsky is director of the Cincinnati Art Museum.