Digital computing has destroyed essential elements of architectural design. Digital software is killing our architecture schools and the profession. When I read about Schooomaker (king of the market processes) or the other dudes in the parametric digital tribe my eyes start to glaze over when I hear the same old stream of consciousness about how the, fill-in-the-word-space-with-a-Zeitgeist-word, is going to change fucking everything. This Zeitgeist word is sometimes computers, robots, VR, AI, AR, smart infrastructure, 3D printing or some alliance of technology with ecological systems. But then, when I look at the productive design work spat out by the adherents of the digital tendency, in the words of the former FBI chief George Comey, “I feel mildly nauseous.”
At the level of design practice the digital impetus has wrought much damage in our schools of architecture. A focus on digital practice has limited the range of what emerging architects learn. This has been compounded by the ongoing development of performance metrics related to financial outputs in our university sector. Much easier to teach a narrow version of architecture via digital computing and then dazzle everyone by pretending the design outputs are great. Usually, and on closer inspection, these outputs too often seem to be riffs on the orthogonal frame with plug-in boxes: straight jacketed versions of Cookie’s Plug-In-City with none of the fun. Too often the allure of the computer limits an understanding and practice of the design process.
So let’s raise a unique and handmade crafted beer to the old ways: to sketching, drawing, to typology and composition, and to a more mindful consideration of ecologies than just making stuff look like bones, or aortas, or slimy mucus with aerated bubbles. The best architects draw on all available media to design. and here is my list of 6 design things you can do better outside of a computer.
1. You can annotate
You can actually write words on a drawing. Its true. You can use words like “maybe” if you don’t really want to do something. You can add room names, colours, and even thoughts (yes, actual thoughts) about the design’s next iteration. A great thing to annotate on a drawing is to denote different design options and iterations. Even better you can write numbers on drawings. Annotations can help bridge the qualitative and quantitative aspects of a design.
2. You can diagram quickly
Architects love diagrams. They help to structure concepts and help you bridge the gap between a conceptual arrangement, or relationship, and an emerging form or figure. A flow chart, a graph, a complex social structure, a landscape or a site can be quickly mapped and diagrammed on a bit of paper. The smaller the better (joke).
Design diagrams can help you to remember what the fuck you are doing. Digital deisgn gives the impression that the designer is in control. But design is really about exploring the limts of control. It is about always skirting the line between the chaotic “what the fuck am I doing” and a stable and controlled order.
3. You can scribble and smash things up
Yip, smashing up your digital model in parts is limited by the software. Digital software just whispers in your ear and urges you to extend and grow things. But with a small drawing you can easily and quickly smash something up into its constituent parts or fragments. You can scribble and cross things out. You can erase things. You can do this in a sketch to test and then see what something might be made of.
There is no point producing prototypes if they aren’t dissected and smashed up. Drawing allows you to draw prototype after prototype after prototype. The problem with digital and CNC computing is that the resultant prototype are too often the result of a linear and step-wise series. With sketches you can do the prototype first and then work back from there.
4. You can stick your head into the models
There is nothing like the joy of a physical model you can hold up to your eye, stick your head into and even place your whole body into. With a physical model we can easily and very quickly apprehend the design from different scales and perspectives. We can get both in and out of the physical model.
Will VR be the same and supplant the physical model? I doubt it. This is because, we can easily get inside a VR environment, but I am not so about viewing a VR environment from afar or at different distance or scale. Moreover, physical model’s models, depending on the material they are made from, have an abstracted presence that conveys information that may not be communicated through VR.
5. You can really get fuzzy
There is a tyranny of precision inherent in digital practice. Design precision is not something architects should necessarily value all the time. But with a sketch or drawing you can draw two, three or four or more lines over or near an initial single line. Linework in preliminary sketches and drawings are iterative and help the designer explore the tolerances and limits of a design in a given context.
Its fun to put icky bits of paper over a sketch, and through further drawing change the design, ever so slightly.
6. You can colour in a lot
Colors are evocative. But, I fear the digital tribes have no need for the evocation of memory or tone. This because, colour is actually a real thing and there are a lot of colours in the world. More colors in a box of Derwent’s than there are on a colour wheel or pallete in a computer. It’s great to color code sketches to denote and then explore different tones, spaces, materials, or functions. Maybe in the digital world we forgot that real colours, like real fragrances, are actually derived from the natural world.
Spin me around and around
How did architecture become a race to spin the model around and around, to zoom in and out, How did it become such a stylistic cliché and banal mix of Frei Otto structures, Darcy Thompson geometries, Penrose tiling and fractal geometries that look like unconvincing Origami. This stuff was boring in the late 50s and early 60s and it is still boring now.
The digital tendency masks the social constructs of architectural production and privileged taste-making. Whenever, I see the parametric polemics I always think of the original Futurists Manifesto. For a few minutes, Marinetti and the other Italian Futurists, were the brightest stars in the architectural firmament. The digital tendency is worryingly a re-enchantment of the Futurist trope: an impetus that seeks to legitimise itself with a universal history, and then simultaneously populate our shimmering screens with new figurative angels and demons. A polemic with an underlying passion for imagined enemies and the technologies of war (e.g. Drones).
Despite its claims to the opposite, the digital tendency abhors ecological memory and masks this loss with a belief in a universalising human agency. The digital is the contemporary engine of the Anthropocene.
For some of us architecture is still, and should be, a generalist pursuit. By this I mean that, it is a field of knowledge that spans between disciplines as well as media. But the worst of the digital tendency is rapidly turning it into the domain of techno-nerds with no memory for politics. After all, who needs politics when you can convince yourself that the parametric gesture, through its common and seemingly literal organic images, will bind the human species to nature. This unifying concept has always been a little paradoxical because it has facilitated the project of modernity in its orgiastic destruction of the earth.
So given all of the above, what’s wrong with designing outside of the computer?