DIGITAL(ISM): FROM PRAXIS TO THEORY
(IMPACTS ON ARCHITECTURAL PRACTICE AND EDUCATION)
The formation and production of architecture had always been intimately related throughout the history of the profession. The construction technologies and the media of representation had defined the critical bridge between the formal vocabulary and the design methods, organizational principles and theories that had been taught and practiced. Just like the formal vocabulary and design thinking of the most part of the 20th century, which was formulated to reflect the technology of the time, industrial mass production. Recent advances in architectural design and adoption of CAD/CAM technologies in the building industry can be considered as one of the most radical shifts in architectural history concerning their immense formal and procedural implications. While digital media have provided means to generate, describe, communicate and produce complex architectural forms defying the orthogonal dogmatism of the industrial mass production, new organizational structures and role definitions started to emerge between the design professionals and across disciplines. The adoption of digital technologies today are currently challenging both architects and educators to formulate a new understanding of the relation between architectural design and technology. And in the light of these new developments, architectural profession is currently going through a fundamental transformation trying to reconcile the repercussions of advanced technology with the ideological dimensions of the modernist legacy that has shaped our design thinking for more than a century both in education and professional practice.
Current Directions in Professional Practice and Academy
Digital technology has affected architectural design on three distinct planes. The first is the skills level and second is the level of work processes and organization of professional culture . Until recently, architectural practice and academia have started to build separate discourses about the use of computers and information technologies. In architectural practice, the digital media has started to serve as a vehicle for the changing relationships among partners in the design process. This had given way to new design/build documentation and bidding processes, organizational culture, and structure. In academia, divergent but interrelated discourses have been developed about computerization which mainly focus on 5 distinct areas : The first one, computational approach, focuses on the creation of intelligent software and methodologies to aid enable and even replace certain elements of intelligence in the design process. The second focuses on the use of CAD software mainly as a visualization tool that merges with the traditional modes of teaching and practicing architecture. The third attitude, called paperless architecture, concentrates on the computer graphics to transform design techniques and geometric compositions of the built environment with a new formal vision. The fourth approach, information architecture, carries the discussion of architectural space into a virtual plane, claiming that architecture should not only be concerned with designing analogue space but also digital space. And finally, virtual studios explore both asynchronous and synchronous techniques of remote collaboration in studio exercises.
Although these technologies have been employed at various scales for over 30 years, architectural education is still lacking a critical perspective upon the changes occurring in the curriculum. In this confrontational era, the misperception of digital tools as simply electronic versions of analog systems or as merely image processing tools is a big danger for the architectural education. In order to fully benefit from the potentials that these technologies offer, there is a need for new methods and theories for a complete integration of media with the conceptualization, realization, communication and production of designs . Not only in practice but also in the education and in the training of the future digital architect.
Frampton draws attention to the two choices that is facing the architectural profession today . One is â€śto embrace the technique of the spectacular without any reservations; to enter, under the rubric of avand-gardism, the generation of unprecedented plastic visual effects, preferably derived from digital processes and dependent seductive effect on the extravagant use of high-tech materialsâ€ť. The second choice, as he mentions, is â€śto establish a distance from the technological whirlwind without denying the potential capacity of advanced technology and the unavoidable effects of its influenceâ€ť. The second choice opens of new research areas with a holistic understanding of the computational techniques in a new epistemological framework which requires the re-definition of the link between the architectural theory and practice as the main sources of emerging design knowledge and its integration into architectural education. In this framework, we need a critical and conceptual understanding of the emerging knowledge domain.
Emerging Themes and Relations: The Sources of Emerging Knowledge
One of the most striking characteristics of the new medium is its â€śpluralistic approachâ€ť. As Bandini points out, â€śdesign is no longer perceived as an organized or organizable set of notions which can be taught within recognazible patterns and hierarchies of complexity â€ť . Design knowledge becomes interdisciplinary and interpretive. The integration of material and mental processes of creation re-defines the role of architect and his/her relation with other disciplines.
Generative Design Tools: Today we are offered with an immense set of generative design tools, each requiring not only new skills but also introducing an enormous influence and biases on the creative act of the users contributing to the emergence of new design strategies. A student who is exposed to e.g. MAYA, CATIA, or RHINO will obviously have a different design approach that is imposed by each software. Accordingly, architectural student needs to be trained differently to cope with the changing nature of tools, being aware of their potentials and limitations, and above all having a critical understanding of the theories behind these tools to use them effectively . Digital media is also enabling new kinds of design thinking processes. â€śOn the one hand, they enhance creativity and intuition through ambiguity and abstraction, and on the other hand, they capture and control complexity, as well as providing dimensional precision based on real physical materialsâ€ť .
Parametric design is one of the emerging field of generative design based on the development and sharing of geometric relations of complex shapes . The idea behind parametric design is that one can manipulate a particular shape or form and study many alternatives by changing the variables, or parameters set by the designers. These parameters can be purely geometrical, or based on various performance criteria (structural, constructability, etc.).
Multiple and cross-disciplinary modes of representation: Representation refers to the representation of knowledge/information that is embedded within the design object (the 3D data). Earlier generation of CAD software (e.g, autoCAD) only represented the geometrical properties of the architectural elements. These drawing entities only included geometrical aspects of the real objects that they represent . The introduction of BIM (Building Information Modeling) extended the graphical modeling concept by adding information to the model. With the BIM generation of CAD systems, embedded information can describe the geometry, as well as materials, specifications, code requirements, assembly procedures, prices, manufacturers, vendors and any other related data associated with how the object is actually used. The geometrical information of all components and subassemblies of a design can be updated automatically in coordination with the overall configuration.
Geometrical manipulation can be integrated with analysis and simulation methods and 3D modeling. Furthermore, formal, technical, and economic implications of design modifications can be evaluated during the design process. Such advanced digital performance can also have a dramatic effect on the coordination of interdisciplinary design teams. The quality (geometrical or non-geometrical) and the quantity of this information also vary depending on the parties sharing this information, the media of exchange, and the stage of the design process. Hence, the modeling environment of the 3D geometry is very influential for the subsequent engineering and production processes and for the digital continuum for the post processing. Whether a 3D model is represented using NURBS (non-uniform rational B-splines), or using a solid modeler becomes crucial when the data will be exchanged between the architect, engineer and the manufacturer. For example, besides representing the boundary of an object, a solid model may also have associated attributes describing its density or other material properties.
File-to-factory Processes: Digital tools that bring control of data shared by the design team (the architect, the engineer and the construction mananager) can ensure continuity from generation to manufacturing. â€śCommunication of the design to collaborators is more than just passing around the file but a matter of supporting collaborative intentionsâ€ť . The spatial form is no longer defined separately in different plans, elevation, and section, but directly as a virtual, three-dimensional model that is constructed on the computer. The 3-D file that results from this process can subsequently be plotted on a 3-D output device such as a CNC-cutter, or carved out from a solid material by a milling machine. What sets CAD/CAM (computer aided design/computer aided manufacturing) technologies apart from mass-production is that a various sets of different forms can be produced in one and the same manufacturing process with the same ease. Whether a building component will be manufactured using a CNC cutter, a milling machine or any other will depend largely on the material to be processed, the complexity of the form, the architectonic expression and the availability of the specific technology in a given context. Each of these technologies pose different constraints on the length, cross-section and the size of the materials/members and may have various implications on the structural and material behavior. However, CAD/CAM technologies do not dictate a certain type of design approach nor a fixed formal language but allow a new design vocabulary to be explored by designers. This approach contradicts the modernist approach to technology which was characterized by the search for a formal language to reflect and became the stylistic expression of technology.
Integration of Material and Mental Creation Processes
The industrial approach to design was merely a linear process in which design preceded the realization process. One of the most striking consequences of such a view has been the segregation of the designers from the act of making and alienation of the architects from the processes through which the products were created. Similarly, the decision making process in the design of complex buildings had in the past been largely hierarchical and top-down, while production processes had followed a rather introverted sequence, from the bottom up . The physical sequence of production, was similar to an assembly line. Similarly, standard components and various systems of the structure and skin were created as autonomous and independent as possible.
Instead, the digital approaches to design and production are based on operative dependencies between the design and the actual production processes. The expert knowledge and experience of all relevant disciplines can be used as a collective source of inspiration and input which can be exchanged throughout the entire life-cycle of a project. Production becomes part of the design process and the constructability/poducability of one of a kind components can be tested via digitally manufactured scale prototypes and simulation programs long before the actual construction takes place. Designing does not necessarily need to be controlled entirely from the top down and making does not proceed sequentially from the bottom up. While problems can be separated into small pieces and solved individually, the solution process is set up in the broadest way possible through immediate visualization and interaction .
The Modernist school of thought dislocated the role of technology as the stabilizing force in academic design work which has been widely adapted as the main epistemological framework of architectural design education. The difference today is that the emerging interrelations between the process (means, methods, and sequence of assembly) and the form requires integration of technology at all scales of design process. The act of making and the creative act can no longer be separated at two extreme ends. Technology provide us with means to think through it, rather than its mere accumulation in the very act of designing. Architecture and technology are no longer segregated but are integral both in critical inquiry and problem solving.. This brings about the need to re-configure the role and teaching of technology in the architectural design studio, and find means and methods to integrate it at all scales.
It is certainly acceptable to take advantage of the modern technology, but we also have to retain a certain skepticism with regard to its ideological dimensions . Design studio should not merely merge design tools into the existing teaching methods, or simply be a teaching ground of computer literacy, but rather be a forum in which new design paradigms and theories can be explored and tested. In the digital age, â€śin which there are no more shared principles and manifestos to guide form making or spatial articulationâ€ť , teaching in design studio should allow students to interpret and transform rather than merely create within the given circumstances.
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