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Extended Play


Antoine Picon

The digital-minimal exhibition, opened February 10 at Wolk Gallery, MIT, brings together several projects from the SENSEable Cities Lab and carolorattiassociati. What will be the legacy of the digital revolution in architecture and planning? The exhibition explores a number of alternative directions for our digital future, from the use of mobile devices that describe urban space in real-time to new tangible user interfaces that redefine the design process. "What many designers have had in common is the belief that architectural form must express the intrinsic complexity of the invisible electronic networks and fields that surrounds it," architectural theorist Antoine Picon writes in the article below. "Carlo Ratti and his colleagues and partners have taken a different course. Their mapping comes prior to any architectural endeavor. It reveals a level of complexity with which design should not even try to compete."

Despite their apparent diversity, the research and projects of Carlo Ratti and his associates revolve around one central issue: what spatial consequences should be drawn from the pervasive presence of digital media in the world that surrounds us? Carlo and his colleagues from the Media Lab or his Turin-based architectural practice are by no means the only researchers and designers to address such a problem, but their approach and their conclusions differ noticeably from other better known attitudes and answers. Their refusal of the "blob", or to be more accurate of the formal researches that the New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp once characterized as a new Baroque, (1) is certainly among the most striking aspects of their position. Although disputable, it raises stimulating questions about the true range of possibilities that should be considered by designers when dealing with the digital world.

Prior to this strong anti-blob stance, Carlo Ratti's work is rooted in the ambition to map the invisible flows and networks that are constitutive of the digital realm. The Senseable Laboratory that he created has charted for instance the distribution of cell phone calls in cities like Graz, or the structure and use of the MIT wireless network. The dynamic fields shown by these maps, the ever-changing surfaces and volumes they reveal possess a formal complexity that is both enticing and challenging for the designer.

Photo by Pino dell'Aquila.

How should the latter cope with an electronic and informational reality that seem to possess a dynamism and an expressive quality –once it is made visible through mapping techniques like those which have been elaborated by Senseable Laboratory- that far exceed what usual buildings can convey? The advent of the digital represents an even greater challenge for design than what the early stages of mechanization had meant for modern architecture. Contrary to what was the case with the automobile or the airplane, (2) today's mobility is not indeed epitomized by objects that can be a direct source of formal inspiration for the architect. The digital age is populated with quasi objects rather than fully-fledged "technological individuals" like traditional machines. (3) The networks and fields these quasi objects belong to are more significant than their appearance and inner structure. For the first time perhaps, architecture has to confront itself with a deeply non tectonic reality. This reality displays properties, such as a high degree of redundancy, which are furthermore adverse to the qualities that usually valued by architecture. Despite the multiple analogies that one has tried to establish between the organization of virtual spaces and the layout of architectural projects, the design of information networks obeys principles that are profoundly different from the conception of buildings.

Given these premises, how can the designer be in deep accordance with the invisible flows of information that constitute the bones and flesh of the digital world? Until now, the most common answer has been to emphasize the participation of the design process to this fluid world in which everything is always in motion. Greg Lynn's theoretical writings -his Animate Form book in particular- revolve around the architectural potential of the use of the computer in such a perspective. (4)

The main ambiguity of this kind of approach lies in the fact that in order to express spatially the fluidity of the digital realm, there seems to be no other alternative than to freeze at some point the computer-generated geometric flows manipulated by the designer. The blob may thus be compared to a footprint, a projection, or better a snapshot or still frame. The implicit gamble lies in the hope that if the moment is well chosen, the complex geometrical form obtained by freezing the digital flow will retain something of its initial dynamism.

Photo by Pino dell'Aquila.

The ambition is also to communicate this dynamism to the body and the mind of the spectator. Digital architecture is inseparable from the quest for a new spectrum of sensations and emotions that justify the provisory suspension of the question of "meaning". For the development of the digital dimension in architecture often has been accompanied by the refusal to refer oneself to a set of conventions and symbols exterior to the realm of design. (5) Robert Venturi and his Las Vegas lesson seem to be definitely gone. This had led among other consequences to a reinterpretation of the ornament sometimes as a topological accident, more often as a surface condition based on effects of light and texture.

From the approach of form as a frozen geometric flow to the concern with ornament, what many digital designers have had in common is the belief that architectural form must express the intrinsic complexity of the invisible electronic networks and fields that surrounds it. In such a perspective, form appears in turns as an indicator of the networks and fields intensity, a resonator in tune with their invisible rhythm, or a terminal enabling to visualize their fundamental patterns of organization and behavior.

In their work, Carlo Ratti and his colleagues and partners have taken a different course. First, the visualization of the electronic networks and fields occurs on another level than form finding. Their mapping comes prior to any architectural endeavor. It reveals a level of complexity with which design should not even try to compete. Actually, their conception of design seems to have more to do with the longing for a pacified environment in which to pick up these networks and fields than with the desire for a direct spatial translation of their dynamism.

Strongly indebted to the Media Lab philosophy as expressed in books like Negroponte's Being Digital or the more recent William J. Mitchell Me++, (6) Carlo Ratti believes that the digital is first and foremost a mode of being, a human condition that will eventually permeate all aspects of life. Being digital is not primarily about using a computer in the design process, nor about making this use visually conspicuous. It is an everyday state that goes in hand with gestures as simple as being called on a cell phone or listening to an mp3 player. In direct proportion to its pervasive character, such a condition is synonymous with an overabundance of stimuli and information that may become rapidly tedious.

Photo by Walter Nicolino.

In a world saturated with invisible flows of information that form intricate patterns, do we really need to add to the ambient complexity with architectural objects overloaded with plastic and emotional intentions? One may of course be tempted to play this card. It has led to seductive results like some of Foreign Office or Nox projects. Carlo Ratti's answer is as for it negative. His digital/minimal stance is to be understood as an attempt to restore a peace of the body and the mind somewhat reminiscent of Jean Prouvé's quest for simplicity, a quest in complete contrast with the more exuberant forms of modernity the author of the Buvette d'Evian was contemporary with. (7)

By doing so, Ratti is also returning to an alternative present in earlier architectural history. This alternative reveals itself when one examines closer the contrast between seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Baroque and late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Neoclassicism. It is well-known that baroque architecture may be interpreted as a hymn to movement. But the movement baroque architects were concerned remained essentially visual. It was also of a limited scope, having not much to do with the physical circulation of men and goods on the roads and waterways of early modern Europe. Even more than the body, it concerned primarily the mind of the subject that experienced architectural space. If it was obsessed by questions like the trajectory of light inside churches and its spiritual meaning, baroque architecture remained indifferent to circulation at large. Actually, it is with Neoclassicism that architecture began to confront itself to the modern imperative of mobility and its translation in terms of transportation infrastructures. This confrontation was already present in the seminal projects of these late eighteenth-century pioneers of Neoclassicism, Etienne-Louis Boullée and above all Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. (8) It is no hazard if both designed bridges at some point in their itinerary. The reference to modern circulation was to play an important role in the subsequent work of the great Prussian architect Friedrich Schinkel who envisaged his monumental new Berlin in close relation with preoccupations of industrial and commercial development. (9)

Photo by Walter Nicolino.

Now, on a formal standpoint, Baroque captures movement through a series of fluid and rhythmic spatial sequences, while Neoclassicism adopts a more rigid geometry that is supposed to act both as a landmark and a regulating device in the mobile world that surrounds it. Baroque buildings undulate as a series of waves, contrary to neoclassical compositions that remain voluntarily rigid in order to be functionally more efficient.

How is one to conceive architectural efficiency and effectiveness in relation to the theme of movement? The example of Baroque goes with the ambition to incarnate movement, to entrap it using purely architectural means. Neoclassicism exemplifies a more distanced attitude. For the latter, architecture is not movement embodied but movement controlled. Its purpose is to canalize the circulations without carving their envelope in the stone. Baroque entertains an imitative relation to movement, whereas Neoclassicism ambitions to locate itself at the level of the principles that generate mobility. At that level, a strange peace is supposed to reign: the peace of mind that settles in when reasons are made visible, so that one may stand still for a moment in the middle of a world in constant motion.

Is such a peace possible in the midst of the digital world? Can we experience it with detachment instead of being in the immersive mode that has been so often striven for by artists and designers? Ultimately, the digital/minimal attitude is about the suspension of unwanted agitation, the possibility to experience the digital with a certain degree of serenity.

Antoine Picon

1. Herbert Muschamp, "When Ideas Took Shape and Soared", New York Times, Friday 26 May 2000, sect. B, p. 32. On this notion of baroque applied to the electronic world, see also S. Perella, "Electronic Baroque: Hypersurface II: Autopoeisis", in Architectural Design, vol. 69, n° 9-10, 1999, pp. 5-7.
2. See J.-L. Cohen, Architecture et culture technique au XXe siècle. Bilan international, research report, Paris, Ecole d'Architecture de Paris-Villemin, 1990.
3. We have borrowed this notion from the French philosopher Georges Simondon: G. Simondon, Du Mode d'Existence des Objects Techniques, Paris, Aubier, 1969.
4. G. Lynn, Animate Form, New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.
5. See for instance Jesse Reiser's and Nakano Umemoto's Atlas of Novel Tectonics, New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2005.
6. N. Negroponte, Being Digital, New York, A. A. Knopf, 1995; W. J. Mitchell, Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2003.
7. On Prouvé's attitude, see for instance R. Guidot, A. Guiheux (ed.), Jean Prouvé "Constructeur", Paris, Editions du Centre Georges Pompidou, 1990.
8. Cf. A. Vidler, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Cambridge, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1990; A. Picon, Architectes et Ingénieur au Siècle des Lumières, Marseilles, Parenthèses, 1988.
9. See B. Bergdoll, Karl Friedrich Schinkel. An Architecture for Prussia, New York, Rizzoli, 1994.
The pictures illustrating this page are from the Cinato Penthouse (Turin, Italy, 2005), designed by carlorattiassociati (Chiara Morandini, Walter Nicolino, Carlo Ratti). The design team also included Anna Frisa and Gabriella Giungato; structural design is by Studio Vittorio Neirotti, Turin, Italy; construction by Impresa Carriere. Photo by Pino dell'Aquila and Walter Nicolino.



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