Fabricating the Digital Contemporary Moment: A Book Review

Going through the projects in Lisa Iwamoto’s newly published survey, Digital Fabrications: Architectural and Material Techniques (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009. 144 pages) gives me the impression that much of the contemporary outlook in architecture, especially in its schools, has a lot to do with the rediscovery of Gottfried Semper. Here we have a frenzied revelry in the assembly of various independent components, an exploration of the textile properties of materials, and a recovery of skins as something wanting a glorious independence from mundane structures.The book publishers, on their part, quietly present this book in a small note before the index as a part of the Architecture Briefs series. This means “basic principles in design and construction.” But Iwamoto rightfully went further than this directive. Iwamoto, along with her partner Craig Scott, have been one of the most ambitious young practices of recent years.* So, almost in a manifesto voice, Iwamoto makes the case that today’s design approach should be conceived out of a rich interplay between digital files and on-site fabrication. This encounter, we’re led to believe, makes it possible to, in fact, close the gap between the textile and the structural—not separate them—sometimes intermixing the two without any distinction. However, it’s hard to buy that part when so much of the work featured operates in the safety of a gallery space or as a temporary pavilion (and usually both) without major seismic, climate, or equipment loading concerns. True, as Iwamoto is quick to point out, the installation scale and the one-to-one experimentation going on in offices and schools of architecture affords students experiences with unprecedented construction difficulties and provides a petri dish of sorts to test structural limits. That’s been amazing to see. But the ambition is to go out and up in scale—and do so faster and cheaper than if working primarily with manual labor. Whether that’s technologically or administratively possible, or economically feasible, is still very questionable.The driving logic of digital fabrication, according to Iwamoto, is one that brings the design mind and the ultimate product closer. One part of that logic means that materials can be exploited for their inherent structural properties, and therefore skin and structure become one.Although the book is divided into five chapters that separately focus on an overarching logic of making (i.e. folding or tessellating), what unifies these works is their surface property and their smoothness. In short, this outlook is about domesticating a project, no matter what sort of programmatic thorniness, into a strong clarity of unit aggregation. Be they ribs, bricks, folds, polygons or whathaveyou, these projects promise to sweep you away with their unquestionable beauty and order. It might sound like I’m resisting that sweep, but I must plead guilty to really liking it—in some contexts and with certain caveats.Time and again, projects like Tom Wiscombe’s Dragonfly or IwamotoScott’s own InOut Curtain drive the point home (maybe to a fault) that any number of design considerations can be sieved through a software and amalgamated into a self-supporting surface. This loose cohort of architects and their disciples is taken by explorations of lattices, cellular patterns, and self-similar repetition, to name a few. If this book is to serve practitioners and students, as the publisher promises, interested in these lines of investigation—or perhaps in being seduced by them—then the book clearly succeeds, and does well in introducing some of the principles behind all this.But what if you’re not sure you want produce architecture in this way, yet still are interested in digital fabrication? Indeed, there still is quite a bit of instructional material in here. However, it’s one thing to adopt the mechanism, and it’s entirely different to end up with something that resembles the wing of a dragonfly or some Alice-In-Wonderland-derived pattern. It’s yet another issue to take many of these projects into a more permanent, programmed, urban scale. Are these projects actually about the directness of their constructability and a control of material economy—the so-called streamlining—as seems to be insisted upon? (Actually, if we take a glimpse at the work of small studios like Machinehistories outside the covers of this collection, we start to note that not all has to be so peaceful and direct in the translation from file to material).Besides, can this total-building agenda be recalibrated? Need architects shy away from the legitimate decorative potential in this work, bifurcated from the overall structural system of a building?There is some kind of disconnect here between the promise and the delivery. Most of the projects in the book remain in a gallery or school hall setting, and the few that push against the harshness of nature in a more permanent way, such as ____, are not all that complex in terms of mechanical building systems or program complexity.These are some of the hanging questions that this otherwise luscious book has in store, at least from my perspective. I have a suspicion that there’s something else beyond these surfaces, and may also lead the reader to ask: How did we get here? Answering that question is beyond the scope of the Architecture Briefs series, and also might go against the streamlining impetus, but it shouldn’t escape the mind of these designers or those who come after. It’s not just Semper’s ghost that lurks around these projects, but also the accumulated discussions of the past decade or two about, for instance, “landscapes of intensities” (as Stan Allen called them), the Deleuzian “fold”, and the “smooth and striated.” Bringing in these intellectual histories into the process might disrupt the clarity and directness of the work, leading one to question wether the “scalability” of these works, though maybe technically possible, might even be objectionable on other bases. It may very well be unavoidable to add some measure of political interference in the transmission line as these techniques get broadcast out of the screen and beyond the summer pavilions and gallery installations.For many, many years now —and time to blog this will not suffice to ramble about it, nor do you want me to— discussions in architecture about meta-concepts like the projective landscape, the Deleuzian fold and Deleuze and Guattari’s “smooth and striated”*[full disclosure: I often partake in Iwamoto and Scott’s academic panels at Berkeley and CCA respectively, and know them professionally and socially].However, this narrative usually has us believe that the only obstacle faced by these practitioners is client reservedness and conservatism. But is it? The argumentation usually has us believing that the mechanical will save the day and that these constructional principles, aided by technology are scalable. In other words, no extra man-power, affordability, organisation. But one of the paradoxes of computation as a social force is the scales of service that it tends to generate, and architects often neglect this. everything might be numerically-controlled but quality control and the administration of the construction becomes more complex, not less.Which leads me to ask, does it matter? What if we embrace these projects for what they are? If we embrace their qualities as drapes, as skins, as perhaps Semper could inspire us to, we can forget about their desire to be total buildings.
Digital Fabrications: Architectural and Material Techniques
By Lisa Iwamoto
144 pages, 175 color illustrations
Princeton Architectural Press, (publication date 8/1/2009). Series Architecture Briefs.
Going through the projects in Lisa Iwamoto’s newly published survey, Digital Fabrications: Architectural and Material Techniques gives me the impression that much of the contemporary outlook in architecture, especially in its schools, has a lot to do with the rediscovery of Gottfried Semper. Here we have a frenzied revelry in the assembly of various independent components, an exploration of the textile properties of materials, and a recovery of skins as something wanting a glorious independence from mundane structures.
The book publishers, on their part, quietly present this book in a small note before the index as a part of the Architecture Briefs series, defined as “basic principles in design and construction.” But Iwamoto rightfully went further than this directive. Iwamoto, along with her partner Craig Scott, have been one of the most ambitious young practices of recent years.* So, almost in a manifesto voice, Iwamoto makes the case that today’s design approach could (should?) be conceived out of a rich interplay between digital files and on-site fabrication. This encounter, we’re led to believe, makes it possible to, in fact, close the gap between the textile and the structural—not separate them—sometimes intermixing the two without any distinction.
Nonetheless, it gets harder and harder to purchase that claim when so much of the work featured operates in the safety of a gallery space or as a temporary pavilion (and usually both) without major seismic, climate, or equipment loading concerns. True, as Iwamoto is quick to point out, the installation scale and the one-to-one experimentation going on in offices and schools of architecture affords students experiences with perhaps unprecedented construction difficulties and provides a petri dish of sorts to test structural limits. That has been amazing to see. But the ambition is to go out and up in scale—and do so faster and cheaper than if working primarily with manual labor. Whether that’s technologically or administratively possible, or economically feasible, is still very questionable.
Although the book is divided into five chapters that separately focus on what is argued to be an overarching logic of making (i.e. folding or tessellating), what unifies these works is their surface property and their smoothness. In short, as an architectural thesis, this outlook is about domesticating a project, no matter what sort of programmatic thorniness, into a strong clarity of unit aggregation. Be they ribs, bricks, folds, polygons or whathaveyou, these projects promise to sweep you away with their unquestionable beauty and order. It might sound like I’m resisting that sweep, but I must plead guilty to really liking it—in some contexts and with certain caveats.
Time and again, projects like Tom Wiscombe’s Dragonfly or IwamotoScott’s own InOut Curtain drive the point home (maybe to a fault) that any number of design considerations can be sieved through a software and amalgamated into a self-supporting surface. This loose cohort of architects and their disciples is taken by explorations of lattices, cellular patterns, and self-similar repetition, to name a few. If this book is to serve practitioners and students (as the publisher promises) interested in these lines of investigation—or perhaps in being seduced by them—then the book clearly succeeds, and does well in introducing some of the principles behind all this.
But what if you’re not sure you want produce architecture in this way, yet still are interested in digital fabrication? Indeed, there still is quite a bit of instructional material in here. However, it’s one thing to adopt the mechanism, and it’s entirely different to end up with something that resembles the wing of a dragonfly or some gorgeous Alice-In-Wonderland-derived pattern. It’s yet another issue to take many of these projects into a more permanent, programmed, urban scale. Are these projects actually about the directness of their constructability and a control of material economy—the so-called streamlining—as is insisted upon? (Actually, if we take a glimpse at the work of small studios like Machinehistories outside the covers of this collection, we start to note that not all has to be so peaceful and direct in the translation from file to material). (Besides, could this total-building agenda be recalibrated? Need architects shy away from the legitimate decorative potential in this work, bifurcated from the overall structural system of a building?)
These are some of the hanging questions that this otherwise luscious book has in store, at least from my perspective. I have a suspicion that there’s something else beyond these surfaces, and may also lead the reader to ask: How did we get here? Answering that question is beyond the scope of the Architecture Briefs series, and also might go against the streamlining impetus, but it shouldn’t escape the mind of these designers or those who come after. It’s not just Semper’s ghost that lurks around these projects, but also the accumulated discussions of the past decade or two about, for instance, “landscapes of intensities” (as Stan Allen called them), the Deleuzian “fold”, and the “smooth and striated.” Bringing in these intellectual histories into the process might disrupt the clarity and directness of the work, leading one to question the promised “scalability” of these works,  which may be technically possible, but might even give pause on other bases. It may very well be unavoidable to add some measure of political interference in the transmission line as these techniques get broadcast out of the screen and beyond the summer pavilions and gallery installations.
*[full disclosure: I often partake in Iwamoto and Scott’s academic panels at Berkeley and CCA respectively, and know them professionally and socially].

fabcover

Going through the projects in Lisa Iwamoto’s newly published survey, Digital Fabrications: Architectural and Material Techniques (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009. 144 pages) gives me the impression that much of the contemporary outlook in architecture, especially in its schools, has a lot to do with the rediscovery of Gottfried Semper. Here you have a frenzied revelry in the assembly of various independent components into elaborate skins, an exploration of the textile and foldable properties of materials, and a recovery of surface as something wanting a glorious independence from mundane structures.

The book publishers, on their part, quietly present this book in a small note before the index as a part of the Architecture Briefs series, which means “basic principles in design and construction.” But Iwamoto rightfully went further than this directive.

Iwamoto, along with her partner Craig Scott, have been one of the most ambitious young practices of recent years (IwamotoScott).* So, almost in a manifesto voice, Iwamoto makes the case that today’s design approach could (perhaps should?) be conceived out of a rich interplay between digital files and on-site fabrication. This encounter, we’re led to believe, makes it possible to, in fact, close the gap between the textile and the structural—not separate them—sometimes intermixing the two without any distinction.

However, it’s hard to purchase that part of the claim when so much of the work featured existed in the safety of a gallery space or as a temporary pavilion (and usually both), without major seismic, climate, or equipment loading concerns. True, as Iwamoto is quick to point out, the installation scale and the one-to-one experimentation going on in offices and schools of architecture affords students experiences with unprecedented construction difficulties and provides a petri dish of sorts to test structural limits. The driving logic of digital fabrication, according to Iwamoto, is one that brings the design mind and the ultimate product closer. And it’s been amazing to see this going on. But the ambition is to go out and up in scale—and do so faster and cheaper than if working primarily with manual labor. Whether that’s technologically or administratively possible—or economically feasible—is still very questionable.

Although the book is divided into five chapters that separately focus on an overarching logic of making (i.e. folding or tessellating), what unifies these works is their surface property and their smoothness. In short, this outlook is about domesticating a project, no matter what sort of programmatic thorniness, into a strong clarity of unit aggregation. Be they ribs, bricks, folds, polygons or whathaveyou, these projects promise to sweep you away with their unquestionable beauty and order. It might sound like I’m resisting that sweep, but I must plead guilty to really liking it—in some contexts and with certain caveats.

Time and again, projects like Tom Wiscombe‘s Dragonfly or IwamotoScott’s own InOut Curtain drive the point home (maybe too hard) that any number of design considerations can be sieved through a software and amalgamated into a self-supporting surface. At the same time, this loose cohort of architects and their disciples is taken by instinctive explorations of lattices, cellular patterns, and self-similar repetition, to name a few—and there should be no shame in that. If this book is to serve practitioners and students, as the publisher promises, interested in these lines of experimentation—or perhaps in being seduced by them—then the book clearly succeeds, and does well in introducing some of the principles behind all this.

But, what if you’re not sure you want produce architecture in this way, yet still are interested in digital fabrication? Indeed, there still is quite a bit of instructional material in here. However, it’s one thing to adopt the mechanism, and it’s entirely different to end up with something that resembles the wing of a dragonfly or some gorgeous Alice-In-Wonderland-derived pattern. It’s yet another issue to take many of these projects into a more permanent, programmed, urban scale. Are these projects actually about the directness of their constructability and a control of material economy—the so-called streamlining—as seems to be insisted upon? (Actually, if we take a glimpse at the work of still-small studios like Machinehistories outside the covers of this collection, we start to note that not all has to be so peaceful and direct in the translation from file to material. Besides, could this total-building agenda be recalibrated? Need architects shy away from the legitimate decorative potential in this work, bifurcated from the overall structural system of a building?)

These are some of the hanging questions that this otherwise luscious book has in store, at least from my perspective. But then, I also have a suspicion that there’s something else beyond these surfaces, and may also lead the reader to ask: How did we get here? Answering that question is beyond the scope of the Architecture Briefs series, and also might go against the streamlining impetus, but it shouldn’t escape the mind of these designers or those who come after. It’s not just Semper’s ghost that lurks around these projects, but also the accumulated discussions of the past decade or two about, for instance, “landscapes of intensities” (as Stan Allen called them), the Deleuzian “fold”, and the “smooth and striated.” Bringing in these intellectual histories into the process might disrupt the clarity and directness of the work, leading one to question whether the “scalability” of these works, though maybe technically possible, might even be objectionable on other bases. It may very well be unavoidable and advantageous to add some measure of political interference in the transmission line as these techniques get broadcast out of the screen and beyond the summer pavilions and gallery installations. – JA

*[full disclosure: I have frequented Iwamoto and Scott’s academic panels at Berkeley and CCA respectively, and know them both professionally and socially].

Note to Publishers: Book submissions are gleefully accepted for review, under the stipulation that time usually doesn’t allow me to review everything submitted, nor can I promise to feature a book on this blog just because. Please email me for more information (hola AT javier.est.pr).

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3 thoughts on “Fabricating the Digital Contemporary Moment: A Book Review

  1. concise review.
    i have made a point of structural aspects and so called “safety of gallery” environment in my review of their sci arc gallery installation which ended up quasi nominating it as another “shade” structure.

    thus:

    “It may very well be unavoidable and advantageous to add some measure of political interference in the transmission line as these techniques get broadcast out of the screen and beyond the summer pavilions and gallery installations.”

  2. I think it is fantastic that you question this work in its larger theoretical and historical context, I feel that this is a discussion that has generally been lacking. Digital Fabrication is often presented in a vacuum or in tandem with loosely-understood biological concepts without addressing its place in architectural history or the debt it owes to people like Semper. By referring simply to the structural properties of the designs, I believe there is a hope that a deeper critical discourse need not occur. It is very similar to the functionalist modernism of the 20th Century, where the desire to strip away ornament was presented with similar structural rhetoric. Of course, one only has to look as far as the decorative I-beams Mies attached to the facades of his buildings to see what was really going on.

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