November 23, 2004 16:30 | Culture / Features / Montreal

Devices of Design

I attended the "Devices of Design" symposium, hosted by the CCA (Canadian Center for Architecture) and the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology (Daniel Langlois was the founder of Softimage).

Devices of Design, a collaboration between the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) and the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, was initiated in response to the increasingly widespread use of digital media and software technologies in architectural design as well as in the domain of construction. A colloquium and a subsequent roundtable discussion will address both the consequences that this shift implies for contemporary architectural theory and practice, and the urgent need for better understanding of the archival and conservation issues that such new media and technology raise for research institutions worldwide.

The general question I gather they were tackling was "now that our work, the endeavors of architecture, is virtually totally digital, what do we archive for posterity?". This got sidetracked almost immediately to "what is virtual? what is a document, as opposed to a scribble? what is memory?".

[This event was VERY densely packed with great presentations and thought provoking materials. Therefore, not only am I having a heck of time writing it all down here, time wise, but also it makes for a VERY long entry... one which I will have to come back to and add to for a little while yet...]

Derrick De Kerckhove, who was charged as moderator, started off the day-long event with a bang, launching into his special brand of McLuhanism with a presentation I believe was based on his recent book "The Architecture of Intelligence". Derrick plunged right into cyberspace, calling for the establishment of a new science, "screenology", to explore the emigration of the mind from the head to the screen.

The first two presentations following Derrick's introduction began by exploring the history of paper in architecture and the dichotomy of geometry and numbers in the architectural process:

Marco Frascari
Architectural ideas... put them on paper!

A wonderfully warm and heartfelt account of the uses of paper in western architectural practice since the Renaissance, when paper was made widely available in Europe. The ability to rely on unchanging paper drawings for scaleable measurements, as opposed to papyrus, etc, which had the tendency to expand and contract at the whim of it's environment, and how that conflicted with the time-tested practice of sketching out a project in clay, wood boards, in the dirt at the work site and even pasta!, segued nicely into the following presentation. Also mentioned was the almost immediate disregard given to paper as a technology, how it was trash, unworthy of attention, fully transparent in the process of any communication. Mark Wigley picked up on that in his presentation, Black Screens, a little later. Marco's plea was essentially "keep using paper!", which added to the original question "yes but is that worthy of archiving?".

Mario Carpo
Building with Geometry, Drawing with Numbers

While every other presenter used slides projected from their portable computers, Mario went old-school with transparencies and an overhead projector. His presentation was so engaging and historically interesting, I could only listen and be enthralled. It was educational, not thought provoking. I took no notes, but in a nutshell, he presented on the historical shift from pure geometry to "number crunching". Process and norms (a beautifully explained recipe for how to cut doric column bases) to mathematic formulae.

Peter Galison
Epistemic Machines: Image and Logic

Peter presented via teleconf from his office at Harvard. A historian of science and physics, he essentially lectured on the evolution of how we perceive and therefor interact with ongoing schools of endeavors, such as physics and architecture... and art! His observations can be applied to any such thing I believe. Here as well I took no notes as it was mostly educational. The crux of what he was hinting at was a softening of formalism and how, through visual presentation of the results of research, crosspolination and cooperation are eased, without beforehand requiring a "synching" of terminologies. In other words "show me what you've done. Oh wow, I can use that for what I am doing!"
VERY à propos to me in relation to the visualizations we are seeing of complex data sets such as email use and online interactions etc.

Lunch break.
I managed to tag along with Derrick to the lunch organized for the presenters and some others. The gentleman to my right, the curator of Columbia University's Library of Architecture started a conversation with me and we ended up talking about copyright and accessibility to information. He was very much for making everything as open and available as possible and stated that he had authorized the digitization of as much material as the Library could.

Mark Wigley
Black Screens: The Architect's Vision in a Digital Age

Mark took us on a rollercoaster tour of how the architect's view flipped from white to black, paper to digital workspace, without anyone noticing, evoking the transparency of paper in the process of creativityand how we have been trained to not see black and white, as colors and when interacting with media. We do not scrutinize the paper on which the texts we read is printed on, nor do we consider the background of our cyber medias.
Some wonderful metaphors, such as how the light of creation shines through the mind, the lines on paper being the shadows of ideas projected down onto the page (and how ideas are merely shadows of reality...). Contrasted with digital manipulation of ideas directly "in the screen", where the light of creativity is reflected "de face" before us as we work with it.
He spoke of how collecting allows thinking, and thinking demands more collecting. Put another way, the more you learn, the more you (generally) want to learn. He evoked the "non-being" of the black screen. When it is off, it is black: cyber-oblivion. "Screensavers were not created to save your screens, I assure you! They were created to save YOU!" Hehehehe. He praised Microsoft for bookending one's cyber experience between two blue screens: the start up and the inevitable BSOD. Funny guy!
He briefly went into the role of the architect, as a arrière guarde of cultural subversion. He did not go into much detail here but I have much to say about this... later.
He also mentioned the blueprint, which for a long time after it's appearance became the symbol ascribed, culturally, to the architect and his craft. He pointed out that the inventor of the blueprint coined the word "photography", literally "drawing with light".

To be continued here...

Notes and some thoughts: