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.