Is digital architecture the new architecture?


The problem
The other day I was reading a post in an architect’s blog called “The Archinaut” which inadvertently made me itchy. It was basically a short reflection on how the media society in which we find ourselves today, where many architecture projects are not materialized, is giving way to a new world – a digital one – where drawing gains more importance and enables a rethinking on architecture by the creation of alternate realities or Utopias that will enable the anticipation of the future as well as open new market niches for architects.

Having a declared aversion to a certain degree of software technology because I truly believe it messes with my brains ability to be creative (however I have no scientific proof of that) I immediate start “attacking” the poor blogger, questioning why is digital technology leading to new Utopias if they existed way before computers, and what would be the purpose of finding new Utopias based on a digital world that is not real? If the Utopias of the past all went down the drain when authoritarian states and capital decided to use their headlines as statements to convince audiences, detached from their true meaning or purpose, why do we wish to repeat the same mistakes? (dont get me wrong I’m actually very saudosist for a new, groundbreaking utopia these days, but history is supposed to teach us things).
As soon as I realized I was acting a little bit lunatic, mixing completely different subjects I decided to analyze what was really bugging me in this matter and it goes like this:
1.The generalized idea that digital technology creates new architecture vision and/or Utopias;
2.The idea that the unmaterialized architecture is architecture – this so called digital world;
3.The general confusion between architect profession and web/virtual reality designers profession.

1.Digital as the tool not the means…

Once upon a time a wise man said:
“I find it hard to believe that the machine would go into the creative artist’s hand even were that magic hand in true place. It has been too far exploited by industrialism and science at expense to art and true religion.” Frank Lloyd Wright in The Living City, pt. 5, Night Is but a Shadow Cast by the Sun, 1958.

Of course, this was in 1958 and the world has change drastically, since then but that’s the beauty of wisdom – the lesson lies in the principle not in the exact statement.
Another example to support my view:
In 2009 Daniel Libesking gave an impressive TED conference where he reflected on the “17 words of architectural inspiration”. I particularly remember his reflection on hand vs computer: the computer should not be just the glove of the hand, the hand should be the driver of the computing power, because the hand follows strange and unknow forces (…) (I guess these are the forces of the mind, of our creativity) How can we make the computer respond to the hand rather than the hand responding to the computer? He asked.
51 years after F.L. Wright, Libeskind is, I believe, making the same reflection: digital technology is a tool to materialize our ideas not a means to achieve them which is very different.

I have no dought that digital technology as well all technological developments are changing the way we understand our world, how we live, and what we believe our cities should be in the future, but that is nothing new.
From mid-nineteen century onwards, when new inventions, scientific breakthroughs, and the rise of industry inspired amazement, and profound confidence in the perfectibility of society and the progress of culture *1, Architects, Philosophers and Thinkers in general, were reflecting on how this should translate into a more suitable social organization. Owen, Fourier, Garnier, Corbusier, Wright…are just some of the most recognized names of a long list of those people that saw technological development as a two sided blade: as a tool to enhance and/or facilitate people’s work and life, as well as a the responsible for a new social and urban organization that needed to be thought out, a new man adapted to the new world technology was creating.
Human infinite critical spirit and imagination is what allowed such reflections, not technology – it is a tool that allowed architecture and urban visions to become reality, not a means to generate those ideas. Many concepts of this time weren’t even possible: just look at the Globe Tower, the helicopters in Broadacre City, or Walking Cities but that didn’t prevent the human mind to imagine them.
George Lucas imagined an entire galaxy without a single computer for God’s sake!

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Samuel Friede, The Globe Tower, 1906 *2
Frank Lloyd Wright, Broadacre City, 1958 *3
Archigram, Walking City, 1964

2.Virtual architecture is not architecture…

Today it is possible to create virtual images that simulate this “alternative” worlds with great realism and it became mandatory for any architect who wants to win a competition or important client to represent their visions as real as possible, the market demands it.

However as Libeskind said:
real vs simulated: we can simulate almost anything, but we will never be able to simulate human heart/soul, the same way we will never be able to simulate the experience of architecture because we are all born somewhere and we all die somewhere. The reality of architecture is visceral, it does not come from books or theory, it is the real that we touch: the door, the window, the wall…

The images are not real, and they do not help the architect to create, they are the architects tool to translate the language of architecture into a language that the rest of the world can understand. I think people tend to forget that architecture can not be completely translated into words or images, it’s about a complex and intricated game of material, color, light, shape, space that can only be perceived when experienced all together, so what are we really experiencing when we look at a series of virtual realities?

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Mies Van der Rohe, Friedrichstrasse, 1919
John Wenrich, RCA building, Rockefeller Center, NY, 1930’s *2
Tony Garnier, Une Cité Industrielle, 1917

This is how governments and investors were convinced in the first half of the twetieth century, amazing images for the time I imagine whose goal was to represent a concept and "sell" it. Today we see this:

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Yongsan Business Center, Seoul, Korea
D.Libesking, Harmony Tower
BIG, # Tower
MVRDV, The Cloud
Not that different is it?

We are experiencing a dream, someone’s dream, and as all dreams, is a collage of bits and pieces that create one image, a picture of a future, generally an optimistic vision of a future.
But you can be sure that no matter how real is your picture ou virtual reality, each independent viewer will create is own reality, because that is what humans do, we imagine! So in the end, independently on the reality that was promised to you, you will have to trust the creators vision, that he can make it happen, not the exact picture but the vision.
Because between vision and materialization lies a very long road, and the end result is always different, surprising, unpredictable and then, there is time and people that give character and change creating new realities and stories.
That the profession of the architect is diversifying into diferent areas, I consider perfectly normal, that architects consider digital or ephemeral architecture as the new means of exploring new architectonic languages and new visions or Utopias is just impossible for me to understand. To consider that a virtual world can give us the same experience that the real world is to ignore the complex experience of architecture in the first place. And even if the world is changing people still born and die in buildings.

This is why I stopped classifying architecture some years ago. I realize that books, photos, videos are great means of communication and carriers of knowledge but they cannot replace the experience of a building or city. So many times I was surprised by buildings which I new everything about, for the good and the bad, that I decided to only opinionate what I have experienced. I guess architecture is made with the heart and soul and thus it can only be understood in presence.

3. Architects are not Web/Virtual reality/Motion Graphics designers (or any other expertise that you may consider suitable to fit on the list) …

Everytime I read the requirements for a job positions I smirk. I can’t stop wondering if companies are asking for an architect or a software expert. Everytime I had to select a new architect for my own practice the criteria was always based on creativity, architecture history knowledge, expertise in licensing, detailing, organizations skills, personality… because we considered that a software can always be taught, good architecture skills no (nor in the same time period at least). One day I directly asked one of my research supervisors what was his selection criteria in his private practice since I was starting to suspect I was being an idiot trying to fight the system alone. His anwser was as I suspected: “why hire just a young architect, when you can hire a young architect with the software knowledge you need. After all a young architect takes a lot of your time to be trained, he better bring other assets that you can use.”
I understand the logic behind it and if we think back, before computers, young architects were hand drating, making presentation drawings and models, now they are making 3D images.
My personal problem with this is: I cannot create architecture and draft it (or virtually construct it) at the same time. Whenever I try to do it, the end result is simply worst, poorer, because, for some reason that I stil haven’t grasp, my brain is not able to deal with questions of proportions, light, materiality, space at the same time as it tries to figure out how to virtually and technically construct it. The best way I can describe it is, my brain cannot process concept of a building and construction of a building at the same time, because for you to think ahead you have to free yourself from the constraints of technology, you have to let your mind be free, run wild. If you are concerned with technical details, you will conform with poorer solutions. Our hand is too quick, in seconds it is able to represent images that pop in your brain, so quick that allows you to continue, drawing after drawing, until you have a group of sketches that, even if apparently incomprehensible, are actually, your guide to the next process – drafting.

Now there is a different kind of creative – the IT software creative – people dedicated to create virtual worlds for games, films, or whatever needs a virtual reality. These people use their imagination to create scenarios for stories or both, creative, real scenarios and characters, able to transport our imagination temporarily to another place and time. Sometimes, these people are architects, many other times, they are not.
So why da hell, do we tend to associate architect with these IT designers (please forgive me if I’m being to reductive)?
The best example I can think off is the movie “Inception”: the architect recruits an architecture student to create a virtual world, because he cannot do it anymore. Here the perfect situation presents itself, the virtual world is created by your mind and others can be a part of it, all happening in a dream so there is no gap between imagining a constructing, right?
No, wrong, what they create is not architecture, it’s a reproduction of credible scenarios for your mind, like in a dream, and has taught in the first lesson, the main secret is to learn how to trick your mind. They don’t deal with issues that concern architecture: gravity, light, materials, proportion and first and foremost, time and people. People use, live, interact, change, basically give meaning and soul to architecture without that interaction architecture is nothing but a set, a meaningless object, nothing.
The fact that they are architects, it’s just…well, Hollywood stories or the simple recognition that architecture is a vast discipline that doesn’t deal only with the construction of buildings and cities.
The fact that architects may actually be considering this has a new means of creating architecture might mean the death of materiality and space, which is way more serious.

*1 Architectural Positions: Architecture, Modernity and the Public Sphere, edited by Tom Avermaete, Klaske Havik, Hans Teerds, SUN Publishers;
*2 Delirious New York, Rem Koolhas, GG Publishers;
*3 The Earth, a Good Domicile: Ambivalences of the Modern City, Karin Wilhelm, in A Utopia of Modernity:Zlín, edited by Katrin Kligan, Kerstin Gust, Jovis Publishers.

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