Coffee Break


Flying Carpets

Antonino Saggio

Bruce Lindsey
"Digital Gehry"

(The IT Revolution in Architecture)
Switzerland 2001
pp96, $12,50
preface by Antonino Saggio

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[in italiano]

Frank Owen Gehry opened an efficient architecture studio in 1962. But sixteen years later, almost all at once, he overthrew the canons of his daily professionalism for a new and audacious experimentation. He began an intense research presented in 1986 at a one man show that launched him into the international spotlight. Now in 2001, his praise has become unanimous. Along with the most coveted recognitions to which an architect could aspire, dozens of constructions have followed one after the other on both sides of the Atlantic, some of them acclaimed as works that are symbols of contemporary architecture.

From the collaboration of his many traveling companions, Gehry brings together a sculptural force, a sense of shifting, jagged space, an aesthetic that reflects the turbulent evolution of society. These projects are built out of incessant experimentation with widely different materials; they encounter their spaces in a provocative and courageous manner; they present a shattering expressivity, fluid and dynamic; and finally, they communicate with the powers that finance, promote, and build the works. The many pragmatic facets of the task of designing move within the synthesis of architecture as art and not vice versa.

Gehry is an architect of “doing” (and therefore the verb that moves the action rather than the adjective that describes the results). The first verb is Assemble. He replaces the post-modern decorativism of the late 1960s with the only vital element of consumer society that seemed useful to him to pursue: waste, recycling, reuse. From his house in Santa Monica, a world left standing in the backyards of American houses was brought to the forefront of a new experience. He would call it cheapscape. The second verb is Space, because the architect sees the potential of articulating public space with his buildings in a balanced play between interior and exterior. This would become the center of his operations, a center frequently occupied by new pieces of art. But, as at Loyola University in Los Angeles, space is also a way of studying solutions and phases of construction in order to create an active dialogue with forces outside the studio, especially the clients.

Separate is another method. In works such as the Edgemar Complex the prevailing desire is to divide the volumes to give rise to new plastic results and create animated scenes that accompany, invite and imply the movements of the public. Soar is another key verb for works such as the Bilbao Museum where the masses follow trajectories that energize the environment. The project is wedged into a brown area specifically chosen by the architect; cheapscape has become urbanscape. The sculptural and dynamic volumes shape not only the contact with the greater city but also the interior spaces in a sort of “hyper-functionalism”, given that a museum of such astounding efficiency has never before been constructed. Finally, Liquefy. In the latest version of the Lewis house (or the Experience Music Project in Seattle), interior and exterior, space and volumes, atmosphere and material, are now all conceived in a fluid, continuous movement: an underwater, liquid feeling emerges.

Gehry and his studio generate dozens and dozens of models. He creates in rapid sketches and in subsequent drafts shapes the material, tests the spaces, the three-dimensional effects, the play of hollows and solids. Once a satisfying model has been built, it can then be digitized (i.e. recorded in grid points with a sort of electronic pantograph) and a new model built, this time electronic, that will then become the basis for thousands of other verifications and modifications.

Naturally, there can be infinite new three-dimensional visions; new diagrams and sections can be drawn-up; every aspect of the entire project can be studied contemporaneously in minute detail. But an electronic model is by its nature something extremely different with respect to a traditional model since it is a living, interacting (and in certain aspects “intelligent”) whole. While in one case the information is static, in the other all bits of information are dynamically interconnected. An architectural element can be modified and the effect simultaneously verified not only on the desired designs but also building codes, costs, static calculations or thermal distribution. We can verify the effects of one material with respect to another not only in its quantitative aspects but also in terms of how it reacts to natural or artificial light. Information can then be sent to those constructing the building (perhaps using equipment connected to the computer) who can then calculate how much material is needed in real time. The electronic model in this sense becomes a tool for studying, testing, simulating and constructing. It is no guarantee for success but for the task of designing it is the most important step forward since the discovery of perspective. Gehry “is frightened but completely aware”.

STREAMS OF ELECTRONS. With these observations, we left Gehry five years ago; almost at the same time the “IT Revolution” series of publications began. Now, with Digital Gehry, brilliantly written by Bruce Lindsey, we have come to the fourteenth volume of the series. I would like to sum up as clearly as possible some of the points I feel are important in this book.

Lindsey is right to concentrate on Gehry’s overall work methods since the innovation produced in his studio through digital practices comes from them. The reader will find detailed descriptions of the building process never disconnected from the aesthetic tension that the architect pursues or the digital methods at times used to pursue it; a combination of craft and knowledge that is rightly called an “exceptionally efficient entity”.

Just like any general, Gehry has his brave colonels who, though hidden to the general public, are essential in carrying out the projects. Lindsey speaks frequently with them and brings out, almost as if in a live recording, observations, ideas and small anecdotes: thus we discover that the legendary CATIA program arrived in the studio thanks to a “corporate garage sale” at IBM, or that at the beginning of the 1990s they had only three broken-down workstations, or the role of the Italian firm Permasteelisa, or the processes of concrete realization of the digital model. The chapter that narrates the development of the Fish in Barcelona, the first project of the studio actually guided by the computer, is very exciting and brilliantly written.

Lindsey also touches on conceptually important points. The first is one he defines as Skin in. If the modernist process begins from the structural grid toward the outside, Gehry’s process is the opposite: from the shape of the skin and therefore the exterior surface, he passes to the secondary plans and structure and then to the shaping of the spaces. Let’s consider the consequences of this approach. Does this “skin in” process bring with it a radically different method with respect to the “industrial” and “modernist” approach? Naturally, the reader should think about this a bit before proceeding with the following lines.

The answer is: yes, and how! The skin in approach is linked to a paradigmatic change in all of architecture. The modernist method was similar to an assembly line: pieces were developed that made up the machine/architecture, components were standardized and the various systems (of the structure, plants, exterior panels) were made as autonomous and independent as possible. Remember the 5 points of Le Corbusier? The system was summarizing, mechanical and absolute. Gehry’s method is instead “relational”; the secret is the relation between the parts instead of their independence. Underneath the curves of his architecture, the components of the construction are connected to each another through an electronic model also realized in coordinated layers; one that regards the exterior surfaces, one of wire that describes the geometry and structural grid and a third that outlines the interior cables. All together they form a sort of carpet: waving, electronic and, if we recall the Futurist, Boccionian trajectories we have used to describe his work, in flight. Streams of luminous electrons seem to trace hyperbolas in the atmosphere.

STAR DUST. Everything is fine up to this point. Gehry is at the cutting-edge; his studio produces top level innovations; Gehry is incredibly successful. But luckily there is also much for others to do. In order to understand at least one direction, we must concentrate on the problem of representation, one to which Bruce Lindsey dedicates several important pages in this book.

We are accustomed to representing architecture already built. To designing (or measuring) the pyramids or a Renaissance palace to put back on paper something we know as a real object already existing in space. But have we ever asked ourselves the reverse? In other words, how and how much a real object might “resemble” the method that its contemporaries had of representing it? Perhaps this question would reveal the fact that it is knowledge itself that is “represented” in the architectural object. The basic rules of trigonometry are illustrated in the pyramids; a calculation based on geometry (and not the tiring Roman numerals I, II, III, IV) is at the basis of the Pantheon; the loss of geometrical-arithmetical ability is evident in the cavernous and unsteady interior of a Romanesque church; without the lines and rules of perspective there would be no “ordered” Renaissance palace, and without the circles of a compass, the curves of San Carlino or Sant’Ivo would never have taken shape. Finally, if we “also” consider the tool, we get a clue to understanding how certain senses of space were born.

Now let us try to question our ideas of architecture “together” with the tool we have with us. And let us ask ourselves, “What if our architecture were to resemble even more the potential of our computerized models?” We would like the flexibility, intelligence, speed and, as we have said many times before, interactivity of our digital model to be the special quality of constructed architecture. A property not just of our computer screens but of our architecture, constructed exactly just as the measured, ordered and centered concept of perspective led to an architecture “in its own likeness and image”.

Now, by studying the architecture and process of Gehry, we understand that we are only at the beginning of this journey. Gehry’s architecture resembles his sketches more and more. But the electronic model is much more; it grasps the possibility of an intelligence, a mutation, a change much much greater than that of interpreting, even though brilliantly, the symbols and dreams of a genius.

Digital Gehry was written after first hand research into the studio that is among the world’s most advanced centers of architectural, structural and digital research. The small book you hold in your hands was possible thanks to the great generosity of Frank Owen Gehry and the collaboration of the many architects (and scientists and inventors) on his team. In his skillful, keen and participatory writing style, Lindsey reveals and gives examples of the fact that there can be no cutting-edge architectural research today that is not also a research into information technology. But at the same time these architects “Born with the Computer” can not let down their guard. We are only at the beginning of the creation of a new alphabet. And there is a great task ahead of us all.

Antonino Saggio

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