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Antonino Saggio

Christian Pongratz/Maria Rita Perbellini
"Natural Born CAADesigners, Young American Architects"
(The IT Revolution in Architecture)
Switzerland 2000
pp96, $12,50
preface by Antonino Saggio

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[in italiano]

In 1962 a television came to my house. This was a real event since the waves of information on that black and white screen brought me closer to other children both near and far. At school we could all joke about "Gallina Trik&Trak" or "Giovanna la nonna del corsaro" [Trans. note: early Italian television characters] and all of us would take a trip together on the flying carpet of Italian children's TV. Perhaps, as they later explained to us, we were being homogenized, but at the time it all seemed great.

Along with the light of day, my son not only saw the light of the television screen, but from his very first moments also had another screen at his disposal. It was in a brown case and was primitive compared to today's standards. Steve and Bill gave birth to it in 1984. I created a hypertext on that first computer so that drawings, animations and sounds appeared by clicking on "mamma" or "papà". And for hours on end Raffaele interacted with the computer. He was 14 months old.

Today's teenagers play on-line with others in Tokyo or Reykjavik, just as I spoke about the TV characters of Giovanna and Battista the Butler, indifferently with either the children of my small village or a large city. If my generation experienced the arrival of television, that of my son was "born" with a TV and computer.

Now, does being "born" when an object or an important technology is already part of the landscape of our life characterize our vision of things and the world? The basic question of this book is precisely that, even if, naturally, more specific. Natural Born CAAD Designers studies the architects of the generation that has arrived on the American scene over the last five years and accompanies the reader through the various aspects of that question. For those interested in understanding the architectural imprinting of these new designers, Maria Rita Perbellini and Christian Pongratz have performed a very useful task. They have restricted their selection to ten architecture studios, after having studied many more. They have read the texts, spoken with the architects, analyzed what they have designed (and in some cases built) and offer the reader a unique, new and fresh outlook.

CLOUDS OF IDEAS. In situations that are ongoing, there are many ideas; situations are fluid and at times confused. Pongratz and Perbellini can not nor do they intend to clarify completely this mass of ideas and experiments. But they do present the architects who characterize them one at a time along with the guiding theories that inspired each one: the research into fluids, anthropomorphic and animated shapes, modal and behavioral states, the search for new amphibious forms, the new virtual dimensions, the search for a complexity drawn directly from contemporary life. One thing becomes very clear; this generation is searching in new territory. We could turn the issue around and imagine our authors on the Florentine scene at the beginning of the 15th century at work on "Naturally Born with Perspective". Then we would have the ideas of Masaccio and Brunelleschi, Alberti and Donatello, and would hear talk of vanishing points, horizons, proportions, of ancient texts and rediscovered heroes of thought such as Plato and Aristotle in the difficult though feasible search for a new, totally human space, totally governed and measured by man and no longer by the Holy Spirit.

This book shows that Karl Chu, Greg Lynn, Reiser+Umemoto, Nonchi Wang, Neil Denari, Diller+Scofidio, Winka Dubbeldam, Marcos Novak, Hani Rashid and Lise Couture, Thomas Leeser and critic/architects such as Stan Allen have set up their research camps in lands faraway from those of the preceding generations. In order to see this, we need only skim through the absolutely indispensable Glossary: What is topological geometry or neo-darwinism? What is an epigenetic landscape or deterministic chaos? The tangle is complex and disconcerting, but it is on these inaccessible lands that the theories of more effective work will probably emerge.

Aside from the "Further Reading" section, the authors have also assembled biographical notes that are a treasure trove of information. Not only bibliographical facts but also Web Sites and e-mail addresses, giving the chance to directly contact that Masaccio or Alberti of tomorrow.

DE-FORMATION OR IN-FORMATION. The book organizes ten offices into a detailed analysis of the two main trends: the architecture of De-formation and the architecture of In-formation (a structure that follows an indication that Jeffrey Kipnis gave in 1993). This is a significant methodological indication. In reality, at least initially, and with all the caution of research in progress, the two main lines of development that those Natural Born CAAD Designers are following can be effectively identified. One regards form and therefore the absolutely extraordinary possibility of manipulation and deformation that the computer allows. Manipulating and deforming, as the text clearly shows, not merely for pleasure but rather in search of new substance and new ways of thinking that are embedded in those theories of life, science and thought which seem to be nearer to the present. On the other hand, the rechanneling of concepts from different disciplines towards a common direction is characteristic of each age of change. The fact that art, literature, architecture, design and philosophical, scientific and economic thought are today closer and more interconnected than they have been for decades may be new proof of the IT Revolution.

The other trend used to group the designers under consideration is that of the architecture of In-formation. Certainly, the first meaning is that of an open form, never concluded, in other words "un-finished", to use a famous, well-known and well-loved term. But the second meaning may also important. The Architecture of Information.

THE NEW TRANSPARENCY. Information is the greatest commodity of this age. The vegetable we buy at the supermarket is 90% information (research, marketing, distribution). The same, only more so, goes for appliances or automobiles. In addition, more and more people are producing goods that are "pure" information. In other words, information is the key to this age and electronics are its main tool. Now in order to talk about the Architecture of Information, because of the very nature of the subject, we must necessarily take a short step backward.

This book is the sixth in the IT Revolution series. The first book contains an Afterword called HyperArchitecture which lent its title to the entire volume. We must now reconsider this line of thought.

HyperArchitecture means conducting a search for an architecture characteristic of the Information Age. This can not be done without going deep into the heart of the Computer Revolution. This is not so much the bits of information themselves, their immense number and continuing mutability, as much as their capacity to interconnect and interrelate. The structure of the Hypertext is the key. There, the bits of information are connected by channels through which we can freely search, freely find, freely construct our own story.

So the challenge is not only how to create an architecture that is narrative and metaphorical, as is a part of all contemporary architecture, but how architecture itself can be effectively interactive.

But just a moment; the problem here is not of a technical nature. We know that smart houses exist in which the environment changes depending on the situation. There is the "host" scenario in which certain lights are dimmed and doors opened, several sliding walls or double ceilings are moved, a temperature or air flow is created and then the DVD starts up with a certain film or musical selection. Perhaps, and this is already on its way to us with microfibers in wall coverings, the physical characteristics of the walls may also be able to interactively change in grain, porosity and their capacity to absorb sound or color. And the opposite "house with children" scenario could also be obtained in which everything is changed, or even a "sleep" scenario or a thousand others. As in the house of William Gates, we can create a scenario for every situation. Furthermore, the architecture can interactively mutate with the external environment; with the wind, the light, noises, the flow of visitors, and temperature.

The real problem, as always, is not of a technical nature, which is easy and almost banal - even if it well deserves our attention and admiration - but rather of an aesthetic nature. In other words, how to construct an architecture that would have the "knowledge" to be capable of being interactive, of being able to have structures, spaces and situations that are as navigable and modifiable as a hypertext.

Using steel-reinforced cement in the new architecture of the Twenties did not require in itself a new aesthetic. Old buildings could be made with support pillars and beams and then re-covered with a coat of stucco following the classic Renaissance perspective.

But through a collective effort progressing from the Glass Pavilion by Bruno Taut to the Maison de verre by Pierre Chareau and passing through Gropius, Mies and Mendelsohn, architects understood that perhaps the transparency permitted by the punctiform structure was the key to a different vision of the world. No more interior-exterior separation, but a freer way of relating to the environment. Transparency, precisely since it represented the fundamental aesthetic of the new architecture, also became the ethic: the willingness to objectively open up toward the new world.

Today we not only have a very powerful method for conceiving, manipulating and building but are also faced with great, new theme: What is the aesthetic sense of interactivity? Will the breakthrough role played by transparency in the new architecture of the Twenties be held today by interactivity? Will the new architecture allow everyone to be both actor and protagonist? Will our children be able to interact not only with the monitor but with the environment and the world and especially with the space of architecture in a new dimension of our being?

We have taken many steps forward from the first book in the IT Computer Revolution series. New books will fascinate and surprise you because of the small but very vital group of people who are working on these questions.

Antonino Saggio

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