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On the consequences of technical and cultural change in architecture. A postface to The Alphabet and the Algorithm

Mario Carpo

On the occasion of the publication of his latest book The Alphabet and the Algorithm (The MIT Press, 2011), Mario Carpo also wrote a postface, that first appeared on www.berfrois.com last February 25th. We are glad to present it to the readers of arch'it, as a way to announce the book's release and its thoughtful opinions about the evolution of architecture thinking and production in the digital age.

The main thesis of The Alphabet and the Algorithm is simple--symmetrical, almost. In the beginning it was hand-making. Most handmade things, even when made sequentially, are different from one another, because that's the way human hands function. Think of a signature: most signatures made by the same person are similar, but none are identical. Then came mechanical machines. Mechanical machines use casts, molds, stamps, or matrixes, and all imprints of the same matrix are the same. But matrixes may be expensive to make, and once made their cost must be amortized by using them as many times as possible. This is the world of mass-production, economies of scale, and standardization; at its core, this is the technical logic of industrial modernity.

Digital technologies do not work that way. Digital making in most cases does not need mechanical matrixes. Each digitally manufactured object is a one-off, and in digital production serial variations often come at no extra cost. Digital variations may be random and accidental, automatic or machine-controlled, or actually devised by someone. And this applies to all that is made digitally: to media objects (such as texts, images, or music), as well as to physical objects (shirts, chairs, automobiles, soft drinks, even).

Many complex objects of manufacturing (including architecture) have two lives: first as media objects (when they exist only as notations, or design), then as physical objects (when built). The new paradigm of digital variability applies first and foremost to the design process, where in many ways digital tools are often recreating an almost ancestral, primeval and tribal mode of conceiving and making at the same time. Think of an archetypal shoemaker of the pre-industrial age. The artisan cobblers of old did not keep stocks of ready-made, standardized shoes waiting for feet that would fit. Quite the contrary, they waited for their customers' feet to walk into their shops, and only then they started to make a pair of shoes to fit, in consultation with their customers and in dialogic compliance with their requirements and quirks--and their feet's.

Sure enough, important works of architecture (unlike mass-produced, prefabricated items) have always been custom-made. But the new digital way of conceiving and making them is already creating a new, digitally supported artisanal shop of sorts, where--in lieu of a cobbler and his customer--we find teams of specialized technicians, engineers, consultants, clients or patrons or end-users, contractors, builders, fabricators, controllers, accountants, and so on--including, in theory, even citizens, communities, and their representatives. And in many cases, many of these constituencies can design and make objects by working simultaneously on the same digital files--and on their multifarious interfaces and eventuations.

The consequences of this technical and cultural change are extraordinary. New families of geometrical and non-geometrical forms, which would have been inconceivable (or, rather, unmakeable) until recently are now as easy to make as a square box--and often almost as cheap. Variations within a digital series (a "non-standard" series) cost little, and theoretically nothing. Serial production can be customized ("mass-customized") at little or no extra cost. And all agents that have a stake in a product can now theoretically interact on its design and making, seamlessly, and right from the start: from the first idea or sketch; from day one.

This is where the design professions are increasingly feeling some discomfort. Designers like to design. They like to be in charge of all aspects of what they create. Many designers are notoriously control freaks. And rightly so: being in control is their raison d'être. Traditionally, designers "authored" objects and "authorized" their production, reproduction, or modification. Their signature had (it still has, by the way) binding, legal value--implying authorial privileges protected by law, and all the liabilities resulting from that. But once again, digital technologies do not work that way. When so many people can work together, who is in charge? Who reaps the honors? Who pays the damages?

In many domains, today's digital technologies are shaping a new, untested, post-authorial creative environment. An environment where objects (and media objects) have no identifiable author, because they have too many; and no identifiable form, because forms change too often. When I finished writing this book, in the fall of 2009, I concluded it on a fairly optimistic--or at least hopeful--note. In the last chapter of the book I spoke of a new mode of "generic" authorship, which seemed to me the most suitable and promising for digital design in today's parametric environment. I compared this new form of hybrid agency to a curatorship of sorts; similar authorial metaphors are not infrequent in the more libertarian culture of the open-source movement. I pointed out that many architectural masterpieces were built before the early-modern rise of the authorial paradigm in architecture--Gothic cathedrals, for example. If this non-authorial way of building was so common in the history of humankind, I argued, then it may not be quintessentially alien to, or incompatible with, human nature. And the redemptive power of this new mode of shaping and making the objects we use and the environment we inhabit could be as profound as it is fascinating. Seen in this light, digitality promises, nothing less, to eradicate many of the modern evils that came with industrialization--while retaining most of its benefits. Quite a deal, one would say.

That was little more than one year ago. I am less hopeful now. The new digital workshop I was alluding to looks less and less like an incubator of new forms of participatory creativity, and more and more like a playground of corporate interests, bureaucratic opaqueness and technocratic megalomania. A new, digitally empowered form of design by committee is around the corner, and this goes counter to all that designers like to do--or at least have been doing with gusto since the rise of their modern status as artists and authors. The profession of the designer was a cultural invention of early modern Humanism; as it was invented then, it could be de-invented now. The design professions will have to reinvent themselves to avoid the fate of the music industry, of daily newspapers in print, the fax machine or--you name it: the list of things we no longer need in the digital age is already a long one.

Karl Marx thought that the evils of the industrial age could be cured by changing the ownership of the "means of production." John Ruskin thought it best to eliminate all mechanical technologies, starting with print. Lewis Mumford thought that the sins of mechanization would be redeemed by electricity, and Marshall McLuhan that (analog) electronic communications would finally heal the rift (in Marx's term, "alienation") that had been opened by the mechanical revolution. But, in hindsight, it appears that none of them may have been entirely right, and no one can prove that today's digital turn is going to be friendlier to humankind than electricity and electronics were over the course of the twentieth century. Designers cannot duck the digital turn; but neither can they keep basking in the juvenile optimism that accompanied the first age of digitality in architecture. That optimism was perfectly warranted around 1999. In 2011, the digital is not necessarily our friend. In fact, it may turn out to be the most formidable foe the architectural profession has met since its early modern, Florentine beginnings.

Mario Carpo
[April 4, 2011]

  ARCH'IT books consiglia:

Mario Carpo
The Alphabet and the Algorithm
The MIT Press, 2011
pp. 190, $21.95 $14.93

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