Digital Culture in Architecture

Daniel Davis – 19 February 2012

I am sorry it has been almost two months since my last post. Spending every day writing my PhD has killed all my desire to blog when I get home. And my plan to create blog posts from my PhD (a new-media way of testing the ideas before submission) didn’t work out since extracted chunks of the PhD don’t really make sense without the context of the whole argument. In the future I think I will do a series of interview posts (if you know any interesting subjects get in contact) but for now I would like to share a book I came across whilst writing:

I was pretty excited to find Digital Culture in Architecutre by Antoine Picon (on Amazon). No one has ever written a full history of digital architecture but this promises to be the book. On first flick through it seems to deliver, pictures of the Hypersuface and early diagrams of the internet, snapshots from Second Life with photos of Stelarc, all in one book. The introduction is exciting too, as much because Picon is an eloquent writer (a rarity for architectural historians).

The book is broken into four sections, starting with a historical overview and followed by three perspectives of contemporary practice: Experiments in Form and Performance; From Tectonic to Ornament; The City in the Digital Sprawl.

The historical overview should have alerted me not all is well with this book. The chapter starts quite happily talking about punch cards and Turing but at the point where Sutherland comes into the story, the chapter instead spends 3 pages talking about city planning in the United States for atomic attacks, never even mentioning Sutherland. And at the point where John Frazer becomes relevant, Cedric Price is instead discussed. Completely missing are Antoni Gaudí, Frei Otto and Heinz Isler. I know one book is never going to be able to include everyone, and Picon explains in his conclusion that “rather than trying to review everything … my ambition has been to map the main issues to the development of digital design.” It still seems inexcusable to write a 44 page historical overview of the main issues in the development of digital design and never mention Sutherland or Gaudí or Otto. Unfortunately this historic overview sets the tone for the rest of the book.

In analysing contemporary digital culture, Picton makes many strange correlations and often leaves out salient facts that would much better explain what he is observing. An example is his section on “The Surface as Architecture” (84-94). Picton begins by saying the focus on surface in digital architecture “is tempting to relate to postmodernist theory and the insights it provides on the changing identify of the human subject.” Thankfully Picton does not give into this temptation and instead discusses surface with reference to superficiality, the complexity of contemporary spatial programs, clothing and fashion, a preference for flows instead of geometry, the binaries of exterior and interior, and the folds of Deleuze’s theory. No where does Picton discuss the manufacturing processes of surfaces, or the economics, or the structural implications.

I agree with Picton’s observation that digital architecture does have an obsession with surface but I disagree with what he cites as the cause. To me it is pretty simple to see why architects often confine digital practice to surface: punching a metal screen into a pattern and hanging it on the facade of a building is many orders of magnitude cheaper than messing with the geometry and structure of the building. These are not enlightened architects reading Deleuze, these are architects reacting to much larger trends in manufacturing and building economics.

These larger trends in digital culture are missed by Picon who is reluctant to examine the digital side of digital culture. This critique could be extended to the rest of Digital Culture in Architecture, where time and time again Picon discusses the superficial cultural outcomes of digital architecture without digging into the technical causes. As a result, Picon draws questionable conclusions about the significant moments in digital design. Nevertheless, Digital Culture in Architecture is still one of the most complete books I have read on the history of digital architecture, although it is by no means the definitive history.

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12 comments

  • Evgeny Shirinyan 20 February 2012 at 2:41 am

    Great post.
    Obviously the formfinding methods of morphogenesis had a big influence on what we call “digital” architecture. But I’m really wondering is that type of architecture digital or it’s more about material systems. Well, the weaving techniques are tightly connected with architecture in many traditional cultures. But these techniques are not directly connected with a digital realm, although this is a kind of formfinding process too.
    I’d say that the main issue is about a definition of the digital culture/architecture. IMHO
    For instance – now we have a variable 3d-printing technology, simulation and generative software. And we able to make a column so its structure is bonelike one and efficient according to load distribution. Well, I would call it more digital than the Gaudi excercises. Maybe I’m wrong

    • Daniel 22 February 2012 at 8:47 pm

      I think you have picked up on an important point here, Digital Culture is probably the wrong title for the book. Picon is not talking about any type of digital drawing, he is talking more about computational projects. Again this is an area where the technical stuff is quite important, for the culture arises not from virtue of being digital but rather from virtue of the design process digital now allows.

      • Evgeny Shirinyan 22 February 2012 at 9:22 pm

        Thank you for the comment, Daniel
        Totally agree. However, I’d like to emphasize certain milestones of the book. As my phd studies are connected with classical notions in modern discourse, I was happy to get the Picon’s comparison of the classical tectonic and the digital one in a rather interesting way. Or there is a great article on memory and oblivion. These underlying fundamental issues really map the contemporary situation. I think the dialogue between old notions and the new ones is important(maybe only for me).

        Why I’m focusing on Burry’s studies on Sagrada Familia? That’s a clear example of a such dialogue, full of critique and enthusiasm.

        >To me it is pretty simple to see why architects often confine digital practice to surface: punching a metal screen into a pattern and hanging it on the facade of a building is many orders of magnitude cheaper than messing with the geometry and structure of the building

        Agree, Picon is not a practician. Maybe he puts too much philosophical ornament on his investigations.

        BTW, you are the champion of the cluster at SG2012. Daria Kovaleva who wrote you an e-mail recently is my colleague, we work together (+ her bf at GSAAP). Looking forward to the cluster start 😉

  • Ben 23 February 2012 at 6:30 am

    Daniel,

    I’ve seen Picon speak a few times and noted myself similar reservations about his approach to the computational design community. After raising my hand and asking some questions (he’s a very nice person) I actually think the areas where we, as practitioners, feel he has ‘got it wrong’ are very telling. He is writing somewhat from the outside of this community (although obviously he is NOT an outsider to the academic community in general). As such many of his observations have to do with what he has seen in lectures, symposia and student presentations. If we feel that this book is misrepresenting the history and aspirations of computational design, it is because as a community we are the producers of this misrepresentation. What we have is an intelligent, curious person attempting to make sense of a new, vibrant, form of architectural culture. I feel that, some academic distortions aside, he is writing what he sees. If we want to move this conversation in a more productive direction, we are responsible for making him see something different.

    • Ben 23 February 2012 at 6:37 am

      Also, the fact that I’m referring to you as a “practitioner” when you are in the middle of writing a PhD thesis might be worthy of discussion – computational designers have a somewhat uncomfortable, shifting relationship with the wider academic community (this is very obvious at Harvard). There are very few places currently where the wider academic world is touching on computation in a meaningful way. This is one of them and I’d like to see more.

      • Daniel 23 February 2012 at 5:27 pm

        I have always been slightly bemused that I do ‘research through practice’ when my practice in architecture to-date largely comprises of finishing my undergraduate degree. A sudo practitioner.

        I hadn’t previously considered your point of view but you make a very valid point. Perhaps Picon is just holding a mirror to our culture – the book certainly looks like one on first glance – and the perceived errors are just distortions between the interior and exterior of computational design. You are certainly right that Picon’s book reflects what is “seen in lectures, symposia and student presentations”. I guess this ties into a much larger discourse on the state of architectural discourse and what we celebrate in architecture.

  • Mohannad el abbasssi 15 February 2017 at 9:23 am

    Hii Daniel I’m An architecture and I have a course who asked us to summarize the book can u please help I have to make a summary as presentation for the book “digital culture in architecture” for uni and
    I can’t read the whole book is that enough for 5mins presentation or u can help me in giving me the good summary thank u very much for ur understanding and help
    I have to *Read and present:
    * – a 5 to 7 minutes presentations
    * – findings and lessons learned
    * – principles of design discussed in that particular book
    * – what is the take away message
    Please please I beg u help me in that

  • Mohannad el abbasssi 16 February 2017 at 11:29 am

    Is that a good summary that u have wrote thank u

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