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Antoine Picon

Digital Culture in

Rn rntroduct ron
DesLgn professLons

2 q JUN



Pcoplc, Computero and Architecture: A Historical Oveniew

of the socLetg of i.nformatLon

rhe rLse of cotttputer epLstemoLogg
tgblrnettcs Ln archLtecture and pLannLnS: patterns, sgstems and netuorks


rhe formaLLst turn Ln postmodernLsm and crLtLcaL theorg

oLgLtaL cuLture, space and socLabLLLtg
nrchrtecture as Lnterface



Experiments in Form and Performance 59
rhe seductLon


LnnovatLve geometrLes



rhe surface as archLtectuce

crom anLmatLon




aLgorLthmLcs 9\
eLegance? r00

From Tectonic to Ornament: Towards a Different

Materiality rr5


Lnvent Lng



n dLfferent materlaLLtg



Library of Congress Control Number' 2Oo994I379

u LL

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Thig took is also available in a French language edition (ISBN, g78-3-o946-oz6l-7)

2oro Birkhauser GmbH

robot Lzat Lon take command? r64

The City in the Digital Spraw1 r7r

urban features Ln the dLgLtaL age t72
n cLtg of IndLvLduaLs 171
nn augmented uIban reaLi"tg
events, sLlnuLatlons and scenarL0s
rouacds a sPLLntered cLtg?



Conclusion 2o9


P.O. Box r33, CH-4oro.Basel, Switzerland

Metcrial Qontinuity and the Derign Practicc

Printed on acid-free paper produced from chlorine-free pulp. TCF

Prlntcd in Gcrmany


ISBNr 9f8-g-o346-ozd9-4



uaterLaLs bg desLgn 159

perspectLves t6z
oesLgn str^ategLes

Editing, Henriette Mueller-Stahl, Berlin


contelnporarg technoLogg as Landscape rr6

The crlsls of scale and tectonlc 124
FTorn netnorU

Layout and Cover Design, Sandrine Roodard, Paris

Litho and Typography: T ticht&Tiefe, Berlin



oLgLtaL age sublectr"vLtg, perfor-mance and meanLng


nvtw,blrthrurrr-rrchltroturr, oom

On thr


Author er*

Frorn Tectonic
to Ornamen.t:
Towards a Different


r\. "
t.L .,



Digital architecture's formal and r:t l t'rpt li t t tt' l :, u i n r', 1'
arable from a series of changes that h:rve:ilfcctcd tt'c'lttrolor',r' ttr llr, 1' ,
decades. These changes are not only a nratter of ittttov;tti,,tr', ltl ' rl,



rnassive diffusion of digital tools, the developrnent of qcrrt'ti1

1 111' 1;1,

I- T;;;

oped countries has been accotrtpltttit"rl l,i , ,i

transformations of the perceptiol) rlrr(l rrrrrl, r I r,,.!
oftechnology. The shiftingcortter)t ol, rr rlrl
crisis of tectonic and the risirrg irttpotl,rrrr r ,r ,
mental practices are atnollg thc pltt'ttorrr, tt t l,,,
nect what is happening itt arcltitt't lttti t,, rlr,



I I IIIrll I!{I tr IIItttIIuur iIrH Ir I r I I i r tii i i i,i Iiiilt

'"E'l!' r+iEiixldl r**tdll
,;;tt,frin ;;
,i,l',tt; ,,ttrrlrl!,r'.1;lr .,r!rrrr!r,r1n,


t r r.

. a,

r [,

I t


,,-,"llri1i11 1.,."iiliil -iitill _li ir .rt ,,-r

tr*'llllittt rt*-ltllllir
6 lti g S '{ iX * 1g,



=tf lr'"


_ .
{ .' r -rt
. t h I F . dr. r. * t.

ing orthe newperspectives opctrctl bv tlrt t t'1,1,,, ,t,",

ofnanoscale structures. Path brc:rkir)q:rr)(l \l)( ( I r, ,l ,,
though these innovations nray btr, tltc1, .rri .ttlt 1',,r
of a more global evolution that prestrrrts ,r slr( )r" ,
temological dimension. In other wot'rls. il i:, rr,,t,,,,1
the content oftechnology but its very tlt'lirrrt t.rr t
has changed during the past decades. Wlt.rt rr,
call technology diflers radically frorrr tlr, li, lrrr,,l,
cal world that defined classical furtrts ol, ,l,
tion, from early-nineteenth-centttry lltrr',l,rrr,l r,, r,,

twentieth-centurylJnited States,-frrprrrr .rrr,l (,, r r r,,

Although we are not yet living in 11-1;lv lror,l ttt,l,, r '
societies, contraryto the assumptiott ttt:ttlt rrr l"
sociologist Daniel Be1l,1 since inc-lttstrirrl lrt.,ltt, t t' ,,
not so much disappeared as relocalizt'tl tr) ( (,rrrrrr' l,
China, the rise of a ser-vice ccolt()tlr) trr rr rr' l'

.r:I- r i,












rr, l ts l r$

n ft i s & s t! & tr,!t


tl,& fr & s

$ ;r il & * rr f, fi fi !r il it !{




r; -:;i"
i - .,


E x


general scientifi c and techtrol,rgir',t I r'r'oI t t r,, r,

The first noticcrble clt,tttq, lr(:. rrr ! , , , ,,,
of relevance oltr:rtlitiorltl It't'lttt,,l,,r',r, .rl ,,1 I ,

lVicroprocessor (CRISP) Diagram and

Correspond ng SilicOn [iIicroch p, ] 986
(l\4anufacturer: AT&T Bell Lall0rator'ies, conrpany



O 2009. Ditt lrtl irlla.]e llro l\,{ttlrrrL tt ol

IVlotl(llt AtI NcwVrtkr'llt;ril;r I otr)u:r I n lir\,/rtrrl
0 r1;ttt rttliott rtl r'rtt|lI |l lt;t t1wlt,' 1rI r,"1 ,'l t
|r rl lt r ,t l ; il l|t r r r l[l rr] ll,l ,,i


11,, I ,', r,.

York, l\4use!nr of lVodr,:nr Arl



'r -""

I .'





, l,'

, .I'


r":. . ,

:l[l t







a t,



Srilart Plrcrrte. (O 2(XX). ah0ft)llyl.


cars or airplanes.

In the cvcryclly

experience of technology, obj ct'ts

are no longer as deternrining rrs
they used to be. They have beerr
superseded by more comPrehell*
sive and at the same time abstract
entities such as networks ancl

fields. Most of the artifacts that

surround us today seem to


afraction only of the autonomy

that machines ofthe industrial agc
were imparted with. We tend to
live among quasi-objects, connectors or terminals that exPress

il rilt(.nll)()r:lry o[tjccts or nttltcr rltrtrsi o[l.ict:ts ('llllll()t Lrc t:otlsitlct'ctl
" rrr,lrvrrlrr;rls".1 Itt c'ollllllctc (:()lltrest t() lllxlly oIthcir tirrcrttttltcrs' sttt:lt
charlctcr iD Enrile Zolrr's
.r., tlrt. l()r.ttnrotivc thet:rppetrs as a fully-fledgccl
effltlrcsce tlcc
il,rrrt'1. I-rr lllttt F{uttainL:,a their existence appears as a l)lero

lil Nlil rtltltt

tlrt'livcrs of networks and fields'

is probloss of relevance of traditional technological artifacts
.rl,l\, :rt tlrc core of the perception
r rrttr:rlity, an issue thati will return to in the
perceptible than
.rrr,l licltls that are superseding them are less immediately
actuobjects. They seem to generate possibilities awaiting an




use without a phone Plan and

provider's coverage. Interestingly, decades before the development of wireless communlcation, Richard Buckminster Fuller
had already used the phone to illustrate the partial loss of relevance of
objects in a society dominated by service. As he noted with great clar'w'hat mattered was to subiry, to own a phone had no real significance.
scribe to a phone plan.2 Contrary to what the French philosophcr
Georges Simondon stated in his classical book on technological artifacts,




t) t)
Martin Pawley, Btckminster Fuller (London:' l'u'liil, l 0),


I cantt)tlr;, llll'0 I ii

Ittttttdlttll lttYrrt rtl

teclttxtlol;lr:ltl tr:itlllY

are nevertheless dePrived ofreal

autonomy since they would be of



llow:; ltitvtt

crystallize strong desires; but they

Photo: Phil Sussman,

tl lt ll

suporstttltxl ltitrillIrttttl
arlllttt;ll; r;ttt;lt it:i
tttacltitttt:; it:i lltrt

or fields, like the strength of the

signal displayed by cell Phones'
The case of cell phones is bY the
way telling. Some of them, sucl't
as the ever-newest smart Phone,

A traditional


l)roll)(;l, i'()01,
Nrdwork:i. lktklll ;tttrl

properties belonging to networks



Wittllttlil; lttlttt ttttl

inlottliilY ilt;ttlllr; llttt


nefwork needs
.rlrz.rtiott through quasi-objects like terminals' A wireless
to its users'
l, I r r r rstallce computers or cell phones to become

itlxttltlrrt\l, Mll,

(,\lnill IluitIt'ity 1t"", lt)')t')
I I.tttii lola, l,r ltcrr.llIrrr.rrrrc (l,,rrl,r lllt)0, l,t.tlitltttt|$lnlio,t N|rt''lirrl'r


Ant>tlrcr firrrclarnetrtnl r:hunrr:tr:ristic: of'tltc Itcw tccltttologicll clrvirttrt

ment that surrounds us is its scettrlcss l)ttllrc. Wirelt:ss ntrtwtlrks arc tltcrt:
again emblematic of a world in which networks and fields scenl to lllcrgc
in a more and more fluid way. This continuum explains the success of
metaphoric uses ofverbs like "to surf', "to browse" or "to drift" whelt
dealing with realities like the Internet. They convey something about
the attitude to adopt in a continuous technological world. The smoothness of elegant digital architecture form can be read as a metaphorical
transposition ofthis fluid character. The eye is supposed to su{ browse
or drift on its sudace, enabling affects, in the sense discussed in the previous chapter, to pervade the space that extends between subject and
In this environment, components oftechnological objects are less
and less assembled according to schemes based on geometry and mechanics. Structures and engines, with their carefully designed elements that
answered each other like the instrumental parts of an orchestral piece,
used to encapsulate the fundamental principles of technological ingenuity. Nothing was more admirable than the systemic or synergetic
arrangement of elements that characterized a Gothic cathedral or a bicycle. Computers and more general electronic equipments are no longer
designed according to these principles. They appear as layered assenlblages of hardware and software. In these stack-like assemblages, systemic or synergetic organization is replaced by a different and in some
ways looser type of relation based on intefacing. Interfacing has more
to do with problems of code-writing and translation from one code to
another than with traditional structural design.
From another point ofview, the structural dimension is jeoparclizedby the rise of information. Indeed, structure used to be defined lt
an intermediary scale between the microscopic and the macroscopic,
From anirnal skeletons to buildings, structure was supposed to embocly
a fype of order characteristic of a specific position in-between these two
extremes. This specific position is challenged in a world in which inftrrmation seems to follow similar patterns at every level of scale. Tlril

t'xplairrs thc r:rrrblcrrmtic xrlc

plrrycd by fractals in nrany

('ontemporary discourses. No
longer seen as geometric oddities, &actals are now perceived
:rs embodying an essential
t'ltaracteristic of a world ruled

by information, namely its

irrdifGrence to traditional hier,rrchies and scales.s

Another disturbing
.rspect oFthe present situation

is the blurring that often

()('curs betr,veen what used to
hc infrastructural and what was

onsidered as superstructural.

lrr a transportation company,

tlrc software application used

t() manage the fleet is often

rrrore important than the

vt'hicles themselves. In a similar way, to change one's operating system,
rwitching from'Windows to Linux for instance, represents a more fun,l.rrnental move than to buy a hew computer. In many instances, the hardrv:rre is actually the softerpart ofthe organization. The history ofthe Interr r('t perhaps offen the best illustration ofthe blurring between infrastructure
rtl superstructure, for the


backbone a few times

,ltrring the first decades ofits existence, suggesting that its real infrastructrrrll level was that ofthe users connected to it, as ifthe small branches and
tlrt' leaves ofa tree were situated at a higher hierarchical level than its trunk.6
The crisis of architectural tectonic that will be evoked here must
l',' replaced in this context. Another factor adds to the evolutions listed
,rlrove: the radical redefinition of the limits between the natural and the
,r r tificial that is taking place simultaneously, a redefinition epitomized

1') \, ftfiul l\vir: ltliluutdtior,

<t1t. tit.

,' t I I'utd ,4h[uk,


has changed its

Patricia Pkx;hrlrrl,
Protein Lilllkxl
Subset Red, Porltilll,

1997, Dioltal r; lylrrr

photograph, 0(nI l(]:ry
Patricia Pkrclrrlrrl,
Which oilr) hi lll0
more arllfk;ill: llrrr
transgenio mrru;rr trr

the modcl'/ llollt ilit\/




soplrIilk)irlr]( I
produr;ls trl llrrrlr
respectivo lrxfu l;lr


biotrxJrx)k)gy iurl

by the possibility of taking I pirter)t fbr-livirrg

o.g"rirrrrr. With these changes, we are confronted
to a technological world that is no longer easy to
grasp using univocal categories' We live in a

Iechno-natural environment that is closer to what

philosophers like Bruno Latour or Peter describe in their essays than to the traditional
,rision of a human sphere circled by a foreign

Although system analysis has known

recent return to favor, this environment can no

longer be approached using systemic analogies' A
system is almost always a collection of discrete
parts or Actors the relations ofwhich can be charicterizedin terms of information processing and
feedback loops' Despite their appeal to designers'

cybernetics or neo-cybernetic models are probaRev6lutign
bly no longer relevant to understand contempotechnologicat sysrem,
like historians
rary technology. More iraditional systemic approaches
(eoltor)' fl/sru/re ues - '
nn.,*+.I.i,c nr
Bertrand Gille's attempts to clescribe technologior Rcrrrrr
Lewis Mumford's
sibiiothdqr.oe lu
., .rrolution as a series of systems are even less satisfying. While the

simplilied diasram
the First lndustrial

Pleiade, 19/u. (9

calimard. First Industrial Revolution could indeed be described

According to




as a

system based

coa1, iron and

on the interactions between three fundamental elements:
there is
the steam engine, as Mumford and Gille argued convincinglv,
that can in a comparable way summarize our
,"I of

no lirnited
[:H:Xl3i[i',$ff,. sprawling technological
was based on the '
Dlaling witha seamless technological world' it is tempting to
interactions between
and history' For
anarytical catelories borrowed to landscape theory
three fundamentat
transitions' has
elements: coal, iron environment, with its pervasive
Its neta
more features in common with a landscape
engine. sllcn a
analogous to a topography punctuated
simplified sysremic works and fields are
description is hard t0 obiects like terminals, just like an ordinary countryside is animated
be misg.irr", and cottages. But mentioning the countryside here may
Giile, the

uclirrg, bct::rusrr 111q 1:llrrtr'rrrporary tcchnologiclrl lnrrclsc:apc is firndlrrrrcntally urben, alrnr>st identical to the city. Even ir: the nrost relnotc:
places, in secluded mountain valleys for instance, some of its most
ernblematic devices like computers and cell phones can generate an urban
bubble, a kind of "instant city" rcpTacing its users in the metropolitan
rhythm like Archigram's eponymous project.e To envisage the ciry as a
landscape has become moreover one ofthe most promising paths towards
the much-needed renewal of urban thinking.tolust like key technologicaT artifacts, beginning with the computer, appear less and less as geometrical and mechanical assemblages, the city is no longer manageable
in terms of urban composition or even urban zoning. Its future seems

to lie in approaches merging seamlessly different and often contradictory dimensions, like the visually disordered and the carefully planned,
or the productive and the pleasurable.
Contrary to the critical distance or disinterestedness that was presupposed by former landscape aesthetics, by Kantian theory in particular,11 the contemporary technological landscape does not imply a neutral distance on the side ofthe subject that perceives it; it requires to the
contrary a commitment from him. This landscape is indeed inseparable
fi'om the redefinition that affects the subject. 'W'e have already seen a
number of possible characterizations of the new subject that is emerging today, like the cyborg that presupposes a link bet\,veen man and technology so intimate that it leads to their hybridization. The cyborg
hypothesis might very well represent a convenient starting-point to
simultaneously reexamine technology and the Notions of spatially distributed subjectivity and affect rnay clearly indicate why Kant's
disinterestedness is clearly out of the question when dealing with contemporary technological landscape. How could today's individuals contemplate from outside a scene that is in continuity with their inner self?
l)igital architecture and its advocacy of mediated and distributed sub.iectiviry is in that respect paradigrnatic of the new relation that prevails
lretween man and his technological and urban environment.




seeJor instance:

MumJord,rechnics and


civiliz*ion 1N"*io'u'


oJ this proiect - *rli;:::lr:::,t:!r::i:r.*::;,:;
vista, 1922), p 86 in plartkular. 6n'the paradigmatk ch)rutter

(London: studio


Charles Waldheim (ed.), Tlr,e Landscape IJrbanism Reader (Neu York: Pinceton Uniuereity Pres, 2006).
Coat Trait6 du Ptystge (Pais: Callimanl, 1997).
l2 On the cyborg and its releuance to architectuml and urban questiorc, see Antoine Picon, La Ville Teritoire des Cyborgs (lltstttyrt:
l.ts Editions de l'Impimeur, 1998), WilliamJ. Mitchell,Me++t The Cyborg Self and the Networked City (Carltril,gt,
A,lusachusetts: MIT Pres, 200i), Mdttheu Candy, "Cyborg (Jrbanization: Complexity and Monstrosity in the Conturlnrary Oit1,",


SeeJacques Roger,

irr frrtcnrationalJournal oflJrban and Regional Research, uol. 29, no.1, 2005; Eik Suryngedouw, "Circulatiols unl
(llybrirl) Natures and (Cyborg) Cities", in Science as Crkrre, vol. 15, no.2,June 2005, pp. 105-121.



One of the most striking features of the contemporary architectural scene

productions. Its most conspicuous source is the blurring of the traditional

distinction between infrastructures and buildings that has given birth to
programs like giant airports or super-shopping malls. Renzo Piano's
Kansai Airport, Norman Foster's Chek Lap Kok Hong Kong Airport
or Maurice Sunderland's'W'est Edmonton Mall, are emblematic of this
trend that challenges the traditional definition of architecture.
Digital culture and the various computing tools that come with
it do not only make these gigantic projects manageable by architectural
is the crisis of scale that seems to affect some of its most emblematic


ofEces. They also create the appropriate cultural context for their recep-

tion. This context bears the mark of the profound incertitude about
dimension generated by computer imagery. On computer screens, forrns
without definite dimension. Frangois Roche's neo-cybernetic urban megastructure, "I've Heard About", looks for instance like
a midsized coral formation. The same incertitude is detectable in games
and films that make an extensive use of computer images. Take the second Star Wars trllogy.13 Its supposedly colossal architecture is actually
without clear scale. It evokes both the sublimity ofthe pyramids and the
skyscrapers and the precision of reduced scale models. One is torn
between contradictory impulses to step back in order to get the full picture ofa giant architecture
seem to float



Chek Lap Kok Hong

Kong lnternational

Airpod, aerial view,

Hong Kong,19921998. @ Dennis


arld at the same time look

closer at the minute details
of a reduced model. The
impression produced oscillates between awe and

curiosity, thus adding to

the incertitude regarding
the scale of the spectacle.


Ceorge Lucas (dir.), Star'Wars, Episodes

I, II, AI G999, 2005, 2008),

"l've Heard About",

From early blobs to more recent elegant design, the innovative

character of many digital projects geometry also contributes to the cri'Whereas
sis of scale.
the eye has been trained since the Renaissance to
appreciate the length, width and depth of rectangular shapes, it is far less
accustomed to evaluate the size of smoothly warped surfaces and volumes. Flence the impressionthat rcdtzations like Asymptote's HydraPier

in Haarlemmermeer, Netherlands, or Zaha Hadid's BMW Central

Building inLeipzig, Germany, are like momentarily landed futuristic
spaceships. With spaceships they share a streamlined appearance, and
above all an enigmatic scale that appears as a consequence of their nonconventional geometry.

Courtesy R&Skr(rD,
The comprrirrr
generated lrnll{I,
does not rovoal llr{}
exact scalo o[ tlllli


tural prirrciples and tectonic played an organizational role even when

they were reduced to a mere spatial ordinance. They were instrumental in conveying the plastic and expressive dimensions of architecture,
even to the extent that structural detail progressively replaced traditional
ornament during the first half of the fwentieth century. Their key aesthetic and symbolic function was to attain its climax with Mies van der
Rohe's ornamental use of tectonic articulation in projects like the Illinois Institute ofTechnology (IIT) campus.
the use of the computer began to spread throughout the
architectural world in the mid-1980s, it was expected to reinforce the
predominance of structure and tectonic in architecture because of the
new possibilities it offered to pass almost seamlessly from the first sketches
to detailed technical solutions. The smooth process it promised to establish seemed at the time synonymous with a deeper degree of coherence
between design and structural decisions. This coherence was also supposed to benefit from systematic parametric exploration. A new field
was unfolding under the eyes of

the designer, a field where multiple solutions couldbe envisaged

in order to

reach a perfect

Mies van dor Roho,

Alumni Memorlal Hall

at lllinois lnstltuto of
Technology, detall of

corner beams arll

bricks, Chlcago,

TAprll 194/,
Hedrich Blossln0,
@ The Chlca0o
History Museun'r. Tho

constructivo detoll
possesses somothhll

almost ornamental.


between form and technology.

In many
Anne Couture,
The Netherlands,

2002. Photo:
Courtesy Christian



happened is the opposite ofthese

Asymptote: Hani
Rashid and Lise
HydraPier Pavilion



Along with the crisis of scale goes a gradual loss of relevance of

structure as a guideline for design. To put it differently, one can invoke
after Kenneth Frampton the notion of tectonic that corresponds in broad
terms, beyond Gottfried Semper's somewhat idiosyncratic definition,la
to structure translated in architectural terms, that is, structure as spacedefining dimension. Ifwe are to follow Frampton, tectonic was a guiding principle of modern architecture.ts It is certainly true that many
modern buildings freed themselves from the strict rules of structures,
beginning with some of Le Corbusier's major realizations.16 Yet struc-

14 On Sempey's interprctdtioft oJ tectonic, see Harry Mallgraue, introdrction to GottJried Semper, Style in the Technical
and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics (Its Angeles: The Cetty Research Institute, 2004)' pp 1-67.
reJerenes made to Semper by contemporary architectwal theory, the common underslandin! tf rcrtofric is quil(
Despite the


Kuntth l;rttnplott,





overoptimistic scenarios. ManY

signature buildings are marked by
l striking discrepancy between
architectural forms and tectonic.
According to the architect's initial statements, Toyo Ito's Sendai
Mediatheque was supposed to
ervoke a liquid milieu in which
weeds floated. Although the realized building has retained part of

I h 'l'his k Jor instance the case with the Convent of lt Toufftte. See Sergio Fcno, Chcnf Kebal, Philippc
( lrrrlrrrsicr: I-e Couvent de La Tourette (Marcillts: I'aruthlxs' 1988)

notit n

Strrtlics irr 'l'cr'lrrttic (lttltttrc.



l\tti(, Oyrillc Sintonrt,l t

'l'he conclusion

the irtitial tlllbitiolt, it is lt:ttrally

made ofhc:rvy-duty steel plates thrt
evoke ship construction, as ifdesigrr
choices were to a large degree inde-

whatever the cost.

Beside Frank Gehry's architecture,
there are many other instances of indiffert:nce to or even rejection ofstructural con-


between the soft fabric suggested

the initial digital presentation and
the constructive realiry ofthe building can be observed in the case of

Associates, Sendai
N,4ediatheque, 2001

the Yokohama Terminal by Foreign O{fice Architects. From

straints. What is at stake is also a critique of

the rype of legibility that these consrraints
imp1y. This critique is present in Michele

Sendai Mediatheque to Yokohama


Terminal, there seems to be no

alternative than to radically distinguish the domains of architectural
form and tectonic. This distinction
is at work in many other contemporary signature buildings. Zaha
Hadid's Phaeno Center all-concrete external aPpearance is for instance
contradictory with the structural importance of the floor and roof steel
girders grids. In that case also, one notes a discrepancy between form
and tectonic.

There is something paradoxical to observe that the computer

indeed allows, as initially expected, to articulate intimately conception
arld realization, while at the same time it recreates a striking distance
between architectural imagery and the reality of building techniques.
This is indicative of a present state of suspension or even crisis of traditional tectonic assumptions, a situation closely related to the incertitude
that affects scale, for it was scale that granted to structure its foundational

role. Frank Gehry's practice probably constitutes one of the best illustrations ofthis crisis with its spectacular buildings in which architectural
form comes first and foremost with little regard for structural constraints.

new fagade for the Drugstore Pub-

licis in Paris in which the undulating g)azing is in complete contrast with the rigid

liame of the original building. Although

tl're deconstructivist agenda has stalled as a
whole, its rejection of traditional structural

organizing rules is stil1 very much present

today. Revealingly, such an attitude is

like Cecil Balmond
who see it as a quest for an alternative tectonic based on "non Cartesian" or "inforshared by engineers

rrral" principles.lz Engineered by Balmond,

with its complex maze ofposts and beams

tlrat defies conventional structural understanding, Herzog & de Meuron's Beijing
t )lympic Stadium appears as an illustration
of this quest. It often uses randomness, or at

what appears


such, as a countermea-

srlre to tectonic habitus. Randomness seems

,'specially conspicuous in another structure

tlcsigned by Cecil Balmond in close coop-



conlplex geometries and at the same time provides the structural engirreer and the contractor with the necessary information to build it

pendent from the technologies of

their realization. A similar distance

Toyo lto &

seenrs to be that the computer makes the realization

fi.rnrr possible, even if it is far from optimal in structural terms. The use
.lcatia enables the designer to give a rigorous definition to the most

/ ( itil

I .t,, )

llalmond. Informal.

Michele Saoo, il0w

faQade ol llxl

drugstore Publk;ll;,
Paris, 2004

Iuyu llu & Arirlx;iitIri, wlllt cnlylttrrrt

0rx;ll Brrlrrxrrrri, S0rJ){nrllrx) (irrlllry t'ilvillrrr,

crati()ll with urr ilrcllitcct, Toy()

Ito's 2002 Serpcntinc Pavilion
in London. Randomness also
explains the success of schemes
Iike Voronoi tessellations which
offer important latitude ofvariation in the size and shape of
their cells. Defined by the distances to a discrete set


a Voronoi tessellation may

indeed appear as the result of
the cast ofthese points like dices

haphazardly thrown on a sur-

Herzoq & de Meuron,

National Stadium,
Beiiing, China, The
Swiss architects led,
in cooperation with

engineer Cecil
Balmond, the quest-for
an alternative, "nonCadesian" tectonic

rrral choice into a viable constructive assemblage reinforces the possibilities offered to the architect to play with forms without worrying about

their structural implications too much. Given the financial limitations

that weigh on much of the everyday building production, such a possibiliry is of course lirnited to relatively expensive commissions like those
entrusted to Ito, Foreign Office Architects, Gehry or Herzog & de Meuron. For reasons of cost control, traditional structural guidelines still rule
the building industry at large. But projects like Ito's Sendai Mediatheque,
Foreign Ofiice Architects' Yokohama Terminal, Gehry's Guggenheim
Museum or Herzog & de Meuron's Beijing Stadium are the indicators
of an ongoing shift.

The new requirements linked to the quest for sustainability

concur to this shift. Sustainability is indeed relatively indifferent to the

Relayed by theorists and practitioners as diverse as Neil
Leach, David Turnbull orJesse Reiser, the search for an alternative tectonic, however, proves to be ambiguous.18 One may
indeed wonder whether it is truly tectonic in essence. If one puts
aside Balmond, who remains undoubtedly an engineer preoccupied with structural calculations, what seems at stake most ofthe
time is a new poetics based on a ballet of forms yet unheard of, a
poetics that has not much to do with considerations of loads.
The tendency to break away from traditional structural
guidelines must be considered within the broader frame of a technological world in which the distinction between structural and non-structural levels is becoming increasingly porous. As a cultural production,
architecture reflects trends that extend far beyond the scope ofthe building industry. Closer to the realiry of this industry, recent technological
developrnents enable practicalTy anything to go. With the new possibilities offered by advanced welding or glues many a traditional rule of

18 Neil Leach, Dauiil Tumhull, Chis Williams (eils.),Digltal. Tectonic,Jesse





Alisharr lorrrlrl
Routes, liriwilrr,

2003, podostrlrrrr

their increased per{ormances, materials also play a crucial role in this evolution. Epitomized by Gehry's
architecture, the capacity ofthe computer to transform almost every forassemblage can be disregarded.

Jessc llolsor

Nakano Utnorrrolu,


'J'hcrrcfirrc, thc crisis of tcctorric: principlcs of'orgarrization

is rrot
r l cccssl rily syll on ynlotls with thc denrise of stru ctllrel
constrair r ts, clcspitcr

soundness of load-bearing trajectories and the translation of structural

choices into legible tectonic. It involves factors like ecological footprint

or dynamic energetic behavior that obey another type of logic, a logic

that involves the entire environment instead of remaining within the
limits of the built object like traditional structural requirements.le There
again, the computer is instrumental in enabling designers to identiS, and

tlrc glib attitude ofmany a contemporary digitaldesigner towards thenr.

further, one may even suppose that some new tectonic princi-

( i<ling

Thus the weakening of structural considerations is linked to a

more general shift in the understanding ofwhat matters in the physical
world, what represents challenges not yet addressed by human ingenuity. It does not mean however that mechanics has lost its relevance, but
rather that its status is changing. Mechanics and structural requirements
used to be at the cutting edge ofman's science and technology. In comparison with biological and ecological stakes, they are slowly receding
into the background. But this background is more constraining than
what it might seem at first; one can even consider it as a new limit, of a
different nature than the one that cutting-edge science deals with. Two
examples rrray facllrtate the understanding of what this status means in
practice. The first is hard disk mechanical failure. In the domain ofhardware, pretty much everything can be fixed except a hard disk mechanical failure because of the difficulty to restore the exact speed at which
the disk used to rotate before the accident. The second example is provided by the potentially dramatic consequences of the poor shape of
civil engineering works in the lJnited States. The scope of the problem
was suddenly revealed by the New Orleans catastrophe.2o In both cases,
the mechanical and structural dimension represents a new kind oflimit.
By extrapolation, one may very well imagine a world in which structural achievements are no longer synonymous with advanced technology, while structural factors remain determining, more determining in
some ways than cutting-edge scientific and technological achievements
the applications of which are less pervasive. After all, before displaying
"green" characteristics, a building must still resist static and dynamic

will emerge

itr is

not only structural legibiliry that finds itselfjeopardized; the link

at some point, even ifthe present altematives to straightlirrward structural rules are not totally convincing. There are strong reasorrs that lend credibiliry to this hypothesis, such as the relation that used
to exist between tectonic expression, memory and monumentality, a
lation on which I will return in a moment. 'with the crisis oftectonic,

master these factors.



[rc,g1vss, architecture and memory is also compromised.



'l'lre issue is part of a more general problem, namely the loose

.f the relation between digital culture, memory and history. Although
prradoxically part ofit is actually an archive, the Intemet is typical of the
tendency to be oblivious ofmemory and history. On the web, the fluidity of circulation generates an impression of levelness adverse to historical depth. More generally, the "flat" world of globalization evoked
by Thomas L. Friedman in his bestselling book is also a world in which
lristorical trajectories seerh to matter less than before.21 Beyond dtgital
t:ulture proper, the new technological landscape that is unfolding under
oLrr eyes seems relatively indifferent to the flow of time and to the historical changes brought by it, as if this landscape was bathing in an everlasting present. This is a somewhat disconcerting situation, for traditional
tcchnology, despite the cult ofprogress that had become associated with
it on the dawn ofindustrialization, was actually inseparable from memr>ry, let it be the remembrance oflong-practiced productive gestures and
.perations or the awareness that time had brought drastic changes to
techniques of fabrication and organizatior, of labor.zz


19 SeeJor instance on that theneJacques Ferier,Useful: The Poetry of Useful Things. Utile: La Po6sie des Choses Utilcs
(Bael, Boston, Berlin: Birhhduser, Paris: Ante Pima, 2004).
20 Nkolai Ouroussof, "How the City Sank",ln The New York Times, Sunday, 9 October, 2005, sect. 2, p, 1, 35,

J I 'l'homas L. Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History

oil Oiroux, 2005).

2) ()n tha rclation betwaen technology and nrruory, scc Banmrd Slieglcr, Technics
tnlbnl : Snmfrtrd ( hiwrsity Prrss, I 9() 8).



of the Twenty-Fint Century (Nrrz yorh:







1994, litlglitlt tntrltrirut

lrr tlrc urcltitct:ttrrrrl rcalrrr, tlrt. strong

connection betwc.c,u tcrcl-r n ol o gy lu cl nr c rrr t>ry
found a privileged expression with tectonic.
Indeed, tectonic had to do with questions like
the origin and the development of the art of
building. This had been made clear by various
theorists like the French abbot Marc-Antoine
Laugier whose mid-eighteenth-century Essai
sur I'Architecture was centered on the link
between tectonic and the emergence and
development of architecttre.23 The question
would remain fundamental, dealing for instance
with the interpretation of Greek Doric and its
alleged lineage from wood construction, an
issue upon which nineteenth-century theorists

rrrrrrrbcrs, thltt tcr:torric rchtcd to tiure, histtlry atttl tttclltory. Thcsc rlrtr(:tll.ttiorrs lracl sourcthirrg to do with the way the humau body was utrclerstoocl rrt the time oftheir design, a link well conveyed by the Spanish struc-

(rlral cngineer Eduardo Torroja when he declared that "vain would be

tfie undertaking of he who hopes to succeed at laying out the structure
without having assimilated, all the way to the mar:row of his bones, the
principles that govern all the phenomena of internal equilibrium-"2+
Through the analogy with the body and his skeleton - an analogy that has
become more problematic today - tectonic held firmly to a temporality

hrlrrll lirtlxttl
(1733 l8()ll),

"lmaginary Vlcw ol lhtr

Grande Galurlo of llttt

direct and unambiguous manner the issue ofthe

ruin brought up ofthe relation between architecture and time. 'What the ruination process
ultimately revealed was the tectonic dimension
Marc-Antoine Laugier,

E$ai sur
I'Architecture, 1755,
frontispiece. Laugier
traces the origln of

architecture back to
the tectonic
organization of the
primitive hut.

of buildings. Often deprived of their former

omaments, the bare walls and columns and partly collapsed vaults bore
testimony ofthe dissolving effects of centuries. Imbued with an expressive power almost equal to the human skeleton, the ruin epitomized the
flow ofhistorical conditions. Like the skeleton, it conveyed ideas of death
and mourning. But it could carry also notions of rebirth and regeneration, hence the frequent use of ruins as the setting of nativiry scenes in
order to symbolize the redemption ofpagan humaniry with the advent
of Christianity.
Above all, it was through its arriculations, through the interplay of
vertical, oblique and horizontal parts, between supporting and supported

Wofgang Hermann, Laugier and Eighteenth Century French Theory [andon: Zwerume4 1962).


1 7,(]11,

Parls, I ottvrtt,



m 0t

20(X), Whlt(r


sharply disagreed.
Tectonic had another connection with

memory through the theme of the ruin. In

[ouvro lrt llultts,"

24 Erluardo Tonoja, Les Structures Architecturales. Leur Conception, leur R6alisation (Burgos, Madid: 1960'
French translation Park: Eyrolles, 1971), p. 28. I am translatingJrom French into Etrglish.



marked by notions of birth, growth, clecline and rcttcwal, :t tctttpor.rlity

in profound accordance with the dimensions of mernory ancl histttry.
Even though tectonic articulations, at the time of their broad recog
nizance as a fundamental characteristic of architecture, did not constitut('
strictly speaking a language, they followed a kind of syntax. For thcir
designers as well as for the public accustomed to decipher the interrelations of structural parts, they held a discourse on the very possibility t<r
construct an argument about how things were sustained, that is again.
about time, memory, and history. From nineteenth-century architectural
theorist Eugdne-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc to twentieth-century German historian of art Erwin Panofiky, the temptation was great to relate
this discourse to the general structures of reasoning prevailing in a given
cultural context. Both Viollet-le-Duc and Panofsky tried to interpret
Gothic structure in the light provided by mediaeval ways of thinkirg."
Among the factors that challenge the possible analogies between
structure, discourse and memory, one finds the tendency to replace constructive parts by parametric relations. As George Liaropoulos-Legendre
observes: "parametric relationships are not parts (...). Thus a form shaped
by parametric modulation has no discrete limb to speak of- you cannot
chop it into pieces, nor indulge in the separate application of perrnuta-

tion, substitution and scaling of parts."z0 Not only do smoothness and

elegance lead to forms that lack immediately recognizable scale; they are
adverse to syntax-like tectonic expression.
From the nineteenth century on, the link between architecturc
and memory was often doubled by a connection to writing as the privileged medium of memory and history. Despite Victor Hugo's famous
statement in Notre-Dame de Paris that "ceci fitera cela",27 meaning that
writing and printing had replaced architecture as the privileged instrument
of collective memory, nineteenth-century architecture was still trying t<t
rise to the challenge represented by writing, often in the very literal way
of making an abundant use of fagades inscriptions. Henri Labrouste's
Bibliothdque Sainte-Genevidve in Paris is typical of that endeavor witlr
its lists of famous people carved on its external wa1ls.28

25 Eugine-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Entretiens sur l'Architecturc (Pais: A. Morel E Cic, 1 I63- 1 tl7 2), I )rwitt l\tnolsky, ()<trln
Architecture and Scholasticism (Latrobt', Ptttu:yhurtit: 'l'lrr tlnh,thlrl) l'ft'\t, 195 l)
2(i ()coryt l,itrcportlos I t.grrt,lrt. <'1t rit . l). .a, /


l'rris(/',rrirr lllll,rrttltrlitiottl\\tlt,

lt)')fi) 1t..lli't

( )n llr:rl



,rrurtl .rlso, lltt'

('s('nt tligrl.rl

! ()n(


.rr r'Ir

itct'trrllrI t'xprcssiort





rrrr,,.'l'orluy, writirrg is irrtlt't:tl


l)r'('s('nt. irr various projccts, btrt

rrrost of tlrc tirrrc it is rclrtccl to

l,rlltrorrrcl like displays oltrrcws irr

r, ;rl tirle or akin to an ornrtrren'Writing seelns to
t.rl practice.

stltrlish a connection to the

lrrcscnt rather than a relation to

lrrstory that would raise issues of

rIl('il1ory and commemoratiorr.

\urrtrltaneously. the very notion
, rl'nronument, that is, a building



ll ll

Il Il tt




has a strong relation with

rcruory and history, has become

of Herzog & de Meuron or

/,rrha Hadid truly monuments? Despite their cultural appeal, one nr:ry
rr rtlced wonder what they are commemorating. To celebrate culture arrcl

,'lt.gant design is certainly not the same as to remember, a dimension that

rrirrcteenth-century architecture had tried to preserve even in its n,rost
,,.rlrowly udlitarian equipments.
This state of oblivion represents perhaps one of the strongest argu
rrrcnts in favor of the reemergence of an architectural dimension akin to
tcctonic. Beyond Balmond's or Leach's proposals, the issue is probably
lrrrked to the question of the body and its senses. How can we rec()n
';t nlct a dense web of intuitions and analogies between digital architccrtrrc and our physical experience of the world, intuitions and analogi..s
rlrlt may enable us to rebuild an understanding of how architcc:ttrrc
rt'lates to our individual and social destinies? As we will see lltcr, tlrc
,rnswer might lie in a new notion of r.r'rateri:rlity that is crrergirrg urrtlcr
I )rtr cyes.


Iltti I ;rlrrll' ll

tlclltil rtl lltc l;rr.rrri,,,rl

,rrrrbiguous.2e Are the spectacular projects




llrrt lltlrltrrllrrrlr


Iiltlttlr: ( irlrvrlvr,.
l'iilrrt, I11',l
I ollowttrr; I ;rlrrrrLr,l,'
vllt i{)ur;



r0illilry;itr ltlr!


illr;rilrrrrl ll l', ol
llttttotir; lrlriIrr rrlrl lr

wtllcl; lnrl ;ulr llrrr

lltc wirl|; ill lrl)r,ilrr".
lttttl tt r,:r,tttrl

Souorbruch ftutbn, PhormEcologlc!

nassarch Leborutodet
lllltutirr;h, (ior rrrury, ?{)0!
Plroloi O l)llhrrl,ro(ll.rln

Among the consequences of the suspension of traditional tectonic
assumptions, one finds a spectacular return of ornament as something disdoes not
with the concept that prevailed before the dawn

finct from tectonic arliculation. Today's architectural omament

have much in common



concept that presented sculptural and above all symbolic

dimensions. In conjunction with the new importance of surface, the
omament is today generally conceived as an integral part of a pervasive
condition that brings it closer to a pattern than to a sculpted decoration.
Sauerbruch Hutton's Pharmacological Research Laboratories in Biberach, Germany or Office dA's Obzee Headquarters project in Seoul are

typical of this reinterpretation. Even when the ornamental element is

actually an image or a series of images, like on the fagade of Herzog &
de Meuron's Ebenwalde Technical School Library in Germany, the overall eftect is that ofpatterning or tessellation.
In the past years, an abundant literature has been devoted to the
return or rather the reinvention of ornament. Among this production,
a special mention must be made of Farshid Moussavi's and Michael
Kubo's book, The Function of Ornament, because ofthe clarity with which
its states some of the assumptions currently associated with the ornamental trend.3o The first assumption is that contemporary ornament is
not associated to a symbolic meaning exterior to architecture. In the
name of a global culture that can no longer recognize necessarily local
and particular symbols, Moussavi and Kubo particularly reject the postrnodern obsession with historicist and vernacular significations. The crisis ofmemory that we just pointed out is also a crisis of some of its rec-

ogrrizable ornamental markers.

In direct connection with


performalist trend at work in today's architecture, their second assumption is that ornament should actually be considered as a fully operative,
or to use their vocabulary, a functional dimension of architecture. One
should, however, keep in mind that what they call function is actually
much broader than what was implied by traditional functionalism.

30 Cf. Farhid Moussavi, Michael Kubo,'Ihe Function of Omament

(Barcelona: Actar, 2006).



()llkn lur Muhr4roliLut Ar;ltilu,lutrr (t)MA), Nlw,Jrttltlitlt lltlutttalkrtul Altpotl

(l(nrl{riy 0l llto t)llk:ri furt Mlltr4xrlihttt Att;ltlktt;lttttt (0MA).
l)r(rrx)1, 2001).
I lrrl cxplir:ll tolrlrtttr;rt kt llttllliotttl rtltlr[; ittt;ltiI;r;ltttrr
:i(x)nri I0 rx)llra(lt{il lvl0lljsavi't; itttd Kttbo'l; t;lltittt lltitl (t0tlllttlll)0rilly
0rnarnent is no loilgcr syrnbolic,

ttltivc tlttot:ttiorts of

rt sornc:wltltt
fictional culturel past likc thc irrtri-

t-...* *' I F. H:Et

lIi;3..r i:*rlit,
)' ,' --:-\ --i-si'
i3-i;tr.i;it **';;

cate embroideries



project or the moucharaby-like

skin ofSkidmore Owings





North Mosque


Moussavi and Kubo are

much more convincing when
they relate contemporary ornament to sensation and affect. In
their book, sensation and affect
are in their turn connected to
the growing importance of
materials and textures as defin-

r-, * q!

ofOMA's 2005

NewJeddah Intemational Ailport

-t -,

ing dimensions of contemporary

architecture. That ornament has

to do both with digital

techniques and with materialiry is

especially evident in the case of
Herzog & de Meuron's recent
work. From the Basel Schaulager
to the San Francisco De Young
Museum, ornament becomes a
pervasive surface condition, the
Even ifwe live in a provisory state of historical oblivion, is it possible to totally leave the symbolic aside? In a penetrating article published
in the spring/summer 2008 issue of Harvard Design Magazine, architect
Robert Levit stresses the ambiguiry ofsuch a position.:1 Symbolic meaning, he argues, always comes back in a way evocative of the Freudian
return of the repressed, and the attempts made to check it often lead to



Lcvit, "Contemporury '.ornament': The Return oJ the symbotic


variations ofwhich are based on

levels ofpixelTization, a technique directly linked to the use of the com*

puter to determine the grain of the materials employed.a2

The new link that has emerged between omarnentation and materialiry may explain why ornament often appears as more foundational
than traditional tectonic. Such a situation also accounts for the strange
impression to be facing a giant jewel-like ornament that is conveyed by

12 l:or a penetrating study oJthat qilestion, see

*il"itr7iir:;;:tr x:r;;i;,


Rimi Rouyer, Architecture et Procds Technique: Les Figurcs tlc I'lrrrrgirr:rirc

disscrtation, Universitb de Pais l-Sorbonne, 2006.

s:tvi, '1 7rr' l:rutrtiort pf Iiorttt, r't'vt';rls tlrt'lirll s< opt'ol'tlrt't orrlirsrorr. Irr tlrrs
cssry, irrtcnrlccl lrs ,r sctyucl t<> 'l'lrc l;ttrttliort ol-( )ntttttrtrl, strtrt'trrr;rl Iirrnrs
Ito lt>ttgcr:rl)pr:ar rs lr:llcl bcering, lu iurprcssit-lr rcirrfirrccd [ry tlrc sr:rplrit'
codcs usecl to rcprcscnt thern.13 They are interpretecl in geornctric: tcrnrs
strongly renriniscent of those used by Moussavi to characterize onrrrrnental effects and alIects. Ultimately, the function ofstructure seellls t()
be strikingly similar to the function ofornament, thlrs making their par

tial mix-up unavoidable.

The term materiality that I have used already a number of times in this
essay dcserves at this point some clarification. To the unabashed positivist mind, materiality seems to be determined by the sheer organization of the physical world, by the laws that govern it and rule the relation we have with it as human beings. In this view materiality is
Herzog & de

Meuron, night
rendering of
National Stadium,

Beijing, China,
Copyright Hezog &
de l\,4euron.

a realizatior, like the Beijing olympic Stadium, as if the alternative tectonic order researched by Balmond was actually ornamental. There is
perhaps no better illustration of the multifarious inversions between
infrastructure and superstructure characteristic of the contemporary
world than this gigantic piece ofarchitecture whose real scale is blurred
rather than revealed by random-looking oblique posts and beams. Its
precious aspect is evocative of the similarly jewel-like appearance of
some of the global maps of the Internet. 'Why not consider the Internet, or at least the web as a giant ornament?
In a world in which web pages and their design ofien matter more
than the hardware organization ofthe server that hosts them, ornament
confuses the perception ofwhat is infrastructural versus superstructural,
ornamental versus tectonic. Another theoretical essay by Farshid Mous-

objective, based on nature and nature alone.

But the word nature should immediately make us cautious in an
age marked by the proliferation of ambiguous hybrids of nature and technology. For nature is partly a cultural construct bearing the mark of a
specific, historically determined vision ofthe physical world. This vision
is partly shaped by our concrete experience of our environment, frorrr
immediate sensations to sophisticated scientific experiments like those

conducted in the field of genetic engineering today. In that respect,

nature is dependent on objective though changing factors. But the vision
we develop ofthe physical world is also perneated by cultural representations and values. To give an example of the latter dimension, our earlythird-millennium interpretation ofthe world tends to rely on the notion
of information. According to this dominant paradigm, biotechnological creations are ultimately DNA manipulations analogous to decoding and coding practices.3a By contrast, the nature that contemporarics
of the First Industrial Revolution were dealing with had much nrorc to

l.l l\rrshirl ,t/rrtt-wrll, Thc Ftrrt-tior of forrr (Iirrclrlrt: Aotr, 2009).

l'l *t Lily I(ay, Wlro Wr()t( llr( liroli ol Iili: A llistory ol'Llrc (lcrrcLic Oorlc



.\tutlrt,l Itttirtt'ir1

do with ettergctit: c:ottsitlcrlttiolts.

Energy was often seen as thc sourcc
of life. In Mary Shelley's famous
novel, Frankenstein's creature was
for instance animated through an
electrical discharge. And ifone goes
back to the time ofthe seventeenth-

century scientific revolution, prior

to industrialization, one rediscovers
another nature, based primarily on
movement. Movement was indeed
central to Copernican astronomy or

nrlrtcli:rl usctl to [)('rlr()r('< orttplt'r. Mcrr livt'tl itt:t worltl irr rvlrit'lr tlrt'rt'

wls lirst ot-1ll rro t'lc::rr t:rrt tlcrrr;trcrttiott linc bctwt't'rt tltt'ittorgrtrtit'rttttl
the organic, or bctwccrt a lcvcl of orgalrizati()lr (:harllctcristic of':r Ittlttcr
ial and a lnore strrlctllfal level. Today, wc are probably rctttrttitts to rl
conception closer to the pre-industrial one, with all the rese:rrclrcs ort
composite and smart materials and the tendency to solve more and nlorc
problems at the level of material design rather than structural design.
Thus, the very definition of what we consider as a material opposecl t<>
what we interpret as a structure is a cultural construct. Materials are culturally and socially constructed at many levels. Their properties, for

Cartesian physics.35

From nature, let us pass to

as an important step towards
the question ofmaterialiry proper. At
first sight, materials too seem defined


almost exclusively by objective

physical laws. Even when they are
artificially produced like concrete or
plastics, they follow for sure these
laws. But already the very notion of

material is dependent on cultural

factors. For instance, the implicit

Ren6 Descartes,
vortices, from

Principes de la
Philosophie, 1647

definition of a material that was

comrnon at the time of the First
Industrial Revolution was based on
a relatively low degree oforganmaterials
the assumption
ization, when compared to rnore sophisticated natural or human structures- Steel was a material in that sense. The case of wood was more
ambiguous because of its organic origin and its fibers, but a beam was
clearly made of something less structural than the assemblage that con*
stituted a roof. Now, in times before the industrial era the notion of
FranEois Hennellique, experim0lltill llLlll(l0l ll ylll(l (rl I I'lirrr
lBgB. Fotlds Iltlltttll; ilrrrl('rii | []rrlrllri(1rr'

lMarche, Paris,

35 This


studied inJean-Pierre

Siis, Machine et Comunication (Pais:


CNAM/DAF/CII6 de l'architecltttrr ul tltt ltltltittto tlrr / /\tr lttvlr,

d'architecture du XXe siCclt:. A ltitttlirt:t ol ltriltltttt:trtl t rrtlr tll,
construclton, llettttrthitlltl; ttr;tll; lllil; lyltt: trl ltttltlit; lrxlrrtttttrrttl ltr
l(xlilillli/0 lll0 llli0 0l lllil ll|w lll,lli'lr,rl






instance, appear as the result olcr>rrrplcx rrcgotiati<ln pro(:cssc:s betweerr

different actors.
does it mean to be hard, waterproof or durable?
Each of these terms implies experiments, negotiation on the results of
these experiments, normalization processes. It is through that kind of
process that reinforced concrete, at first seen as a structural system,
became gradually a rnaterial,.36
This brings us up to rnaterialittl. What is usually meant by this
loosely defined term is the relation we have to what appears tangible in
the world. Materialiry is about the way we perceive materials, but also
objects as stable persistent realities. If entities like nature or materials are
social constructs to a certain extent, materiality cannot escape their fate.
Materials and objects appear through the filter of culture and language.
Their perception is always to a certain extent dependent upon linguistic factors. In French for instance, the same term applies to beams and
trusses, entailing a reading of tectonic elements that differs in a significant way from the American one.
Materiality is not, of course, exclusively constructed through
words. On the contrary, like nature, materiality is about the *ry *. p.-.ceive what is around us with our five senses. It is inseparable from the
sensory education one receives in a given culture. It is well-known that
the perception ofcolors dift-ers from one cultural areato another. As historian Michael Baxandall puts it: "Living in a culture, growing up and
learning to survive in it, involves us in a special perceptual training. It
endows us with habits and skills of discrimination thataffect the way we
deal with the new datathatsensation offers the rnind."37 Materiality is as
much about the way we see, hear, touch, smell and taste in a certain way
a.rd not another than about the intrinsic quality of what is seen, heard,
touched, smelt and tasted. Finally, like nature again, materiality depends
on the operations we cany out on our physical environment. Our definition ofmateriality owes a lot to what we can actually make ofthe materials and objects that surrounds us.
There are multiple connections between these difterent approaches

itttprlrtlrtt ortcs. Nr>t orrly tlo

irrstnrn.rcrnts ancl nrachiues pr<tviclc tlrc

nrcans to translbrnr our environrnent; they also contribute to shape otrr

ri(rlsory experience as well as the words and notions used to convey its
strtrstance. In order to make that point clear, let me return to the case of
tlrc automobile that I briefly mentioned towards the end ofthe first chaptcr. The case is especially interesting insofar as the automobile has been
oflten accused to lead to an impoverishment of everyday experience. It
is quite common to oppose, for instance, the richness of walking to the
sirnplified sensations one feels during a car ride. A loss of materiality
seems to be expressing itself through this simplification, leading to
:rbstract notions of space and time.38 Those accusations bear a striking
similarity to some of the critiques that have been made against the use
of the computer in the past decade.

Jantos l)oolIr,

72" x 1 ltl",
Courtesy Kuplln l)ol
Bio Galkrry, I orr
Anqolos, 0A

to materiality. Instruments and machines embody some of the most

i6 A

Jound ln Antoine Picon, "Construction History: Between Terhuologkal aul

Cultural History", ir Construction History, rol. 21, 2005-06, pp. .l- l().
37 M{chael Baxanilall, Patterns of Intention: On the Historicai Explanation of Pictures (New Harcn, l-ondon: YilL'llilifttsity
more detailed dkctssion of these questions can





.)8 See.for instance Man Desportes,

(l'ark: Gallimard, 2005).




(19U6), oll


Paysages en

Mouvement. Transports et Perception dc I'Espacc XVlllc,XXc Siir


By comparison, and contrary to the computer, we have almost a

century of car use behind us. 'What this century-long history teaches us
is that the situation is far more complex than what anti-automobile
ideologues rypically assume. Infact, instead ofbeing synonymous with
a dematerialization of the space we inhabit, the automobile has trans-

formed our notion of materiality. It is not my intention to enter here

into a detailed discussion ofthis transformation. I wouldjust like to insist
on some of its key aspects that can be transposed to what is currently


happening with the computer.

First, in a car, we do not perceive the exact same objects as when
we walk. Seen from a freeway, a building is generally different from the
vision we have when we stroll by. Above all, at the speed of the automobile, objects regroup in order to form new perceptual entities. Our
contemporary urban skylines are for instance qtpical products of the
automobile age, just as the landscapes produced by the rapid succession
of billboards along major urban highways.
The automobile experience is also synonymous with a series of
sensations, from the accelerations and decelerations to the feeling provoked by the wind. Some of these sensations are intimately linked to
the use of the engine. 'We have become so accustomed to horizontal
acceleration that we tend to forget that the sensations it creates were
almost unattainable in former non-mechanized societies, where slow
and regular movement was the rule.
In our mechanized environment, between the exhilaration of
speed and the perspective of accident, we have both an impression of
power and a Geling of vulnerability. James Graham Ba_llard's famous
novel, Crash, is centered on this new status ofthe human body, or rather
ofthe hybrid being composed ofthe body and its mechanical extension;
it is a hybrid being both empowered and vulnerable, making nothing of
miles and always on the verge ofbeing bruised. In Ballard's perspective,
this m6lange ofpower and r.rrlnerabiJity is heavily sexually connoted. For
his characters, the accident, the fatal crash that gives its title to the novel,
is comparable to a new, technologically mediated

39James Craham

form of coitus.3e

Ballail, Crash (Inndon:

The very notion of

space is altered through the

redefinition of perceptual

entities, through sensations

like acceleration and the
change in the existential status of our entire body that we

experience while riding a car.

Roadmaps reflect this altered

spatiality just as the various

signs that help us ro orienr
ourselves when we drive. The
most important feature ofthis
situation is perhaps the subtle
changes that the use of the
automobile infuses in our everyday experience of space. Even d.uring
walking, the driving experience is always there, as a linrit that defines
other modes of apprehension of space.
In short, the automobile has not diminished ourphysical perception of the world. It has modified it. It has displaced the content and
boundaries ofmateriality. Using the automobile as a metaphor, it is now
tempting to interpret the computer as a new vehicle that induces another
displacement of physical experience and materiality. The computerassisted architect is perhaps like a driver or a passenger embarked on a
journey that generates a new type of experience, an experience symp_
tomatic ofan evolution ofthe relation to the physicar world that extends
far beyond the realm of design. what are the salient features ofthis experience, how do they relate to the broader picture of an emerging new
materiality? one should, of course, avoid taking the metaphor too 1iterally. But the automobile analogy is not without interest to approach
the digital world and some ofits consequences regarding ,,rr..irtiry.
Just like the automobile, the computer presents its users with new
perceptual entities and objects. In various contexts, beginning with

Cape, 1973).



Tangihlo Morll




SandScapo, 2{)0i
Counesy Cnrlo


Tho lrrtorfnr:

enablo$ usofti I
construct larllsr;itpr

models, ilshl(J i

ductile supporl,


three-dlnror nkrt rrr

gtrorrtrlr y h

capturorl il rorr
time usin1l ir lirllrr


rrncl sn.roothness, thus transli.rrrrrir'rg

to geometric flows. Defor-

tlctile exercise. The accent Put oll surface and ornatuetrt by coutertr*

mations acquire a kind ofevidence that traditional graphic

means of representation did
not allow. They can indeed
be generated and followed in

porary digital architecture appears as a direct consequence ofthese new

possibilities oflered to the designer.
Light and textures can, of course, be defined in extremely different ways, from mere superficial e{fects like the "hypersurface" projections made possible by the factthatin the digital world any form can be
textured with any image, as Stephen Perrella puts it,41 to the mathematically more substantiated creations of Bernard Cache and his Objectile
practice.a2 The computer can also be used to program light and textures
as part of a responsive environment. Again, what all these approaches
have in common is the accent put on surface and sensory conditions,
with theirpotential for omamental effects, as opposed to volumetric and

real-time on the screen. In

that respect, the use of computers to produce and manip-

ulate shapes and volumes is

strangely close to practices
like clay modeling, and it is

no coincidence if

Mark Goulthorpe,
dE00i; Aesis

Birmingham, UK,
1 999-2001 . Photo:
Mark Burry, The

faceted metallic
surjace can deform
physically in
response from
stirnuli from the

environment such
as movement,
sound or light.

architcctuntl clcsigrt itrto rut lltttt>st

clcsign, static lbrnts give way


some dimensions like

attempts have been made to

couple the latter with three-

the superficial conditions

dimensional manipulation.

become essential, others appear more

Especially significant in that

respect is the work ofHiroshi Ishii and his Tangible Media Group at the
MIT Media Lab. Ishii and his colleagues have been able to associate physical interaction with variouS materials, including clay and sand, with realtime production of computer data.a0
The possibility to design deformation constitutes a new source of
dynamic architectural effect or rather affect since it can give birth to
responsive environments in which surfaces and volumes change shape
in relation to the activity of the public. Mark Goulthorpe has been
among the first to explore in a systematic way this possibility with his
2001 Aegis Hyposurface.
With the computer, beside flows and deformation, other phenomena become so easy to manipulate that they assume the status of
quasi-objects for the architect. E{fects of light and texture are among
them. The computer allows intensi$/ing or dimming ofthe light, varying its parameters, playing in a similar way with degrees of roughness

40 See Jor instance Hiroshi Ishii, Cailo Rattl, Ben Piper, Yao Wang, Assal Bideman, E. Ben-Joseph, "Bringing Clay and Sand into
Digital Design - Continuous Tangible User lnterJaces", inB'I TechnologyJournal, vol. 22, no. 4, October 2004, pp. 287-299.



problematic. In the case of the automobile, the emergence ofnew pertinent objects is accompanied by the
loss of the ordinary sense of distance
in favor ofthe notion of accessibility.
The crisis ofscale and tectonic epitornizedby digital architecture may be
interpreted in a similar way. Again,

computer imagery is in profound

accordance with a world in which
information and complexiry are to be
found at every level, a world organized according to fractal instead oftraditional geometry. In such a world,
there is no fixed scale at which things
must be deciphered in prioriry.

41 Stephcn Penella, "Elcctronic llaroEtt. Hypcrsufoce lI: Autopoiesis", in Stephen Penella (cd.),
"HypmwJaa: Arehitrcltrc I1", Arcltitcc(uril I)csi1;lt, pp. .5-7.


moro gonorally tho

betweon caoBe

abstract considerations.


Loronz athoctor, Ail

emblemath llgunr ol
a physlcnl world lrr
whlch scnlo on(1


effect aro no longot


Xefrrotaroh (Herniirr
D[az Alonzo),


Hotel, Playa Grande,

Dominican Repulllic,
2006. Courtesy

'l'his displuccrttcrtt is irtscp:rr:r[rlt'fiorrr :r r-t'tlr'lirritiorr ol rlr'srgrr pr',r

cedures. The digital world rccluircs a rrcw vistrrl pr:r< tit't' lr:rst'<l ou tlrt'
capaciry to follow the complex maze ofintcractit>rrs lrctwccrr tlrc glolr:rl
and the very local, the general definition of thc pro.;cct arrd thc sr>rrrc
times minute, sometimes dramatic changes brought on paralretric v.rri
ations. In this world, the smaliest change may affect the design as a wholt',
just like the famous fluttering of a butterfy in one part of the world rrr:ry
cause a storm

in another, according to popular presentations ofchaos

theory.a3 The sensibility generated by this dependence on parametrit'

variations is again not without analogy with the heightened sensory
experience ofsomebody driving at full speed on an uneven surface whcrt'
the tiniest obstacle can be full of dramatic consequences. As Marc<:ls
Novak puts it after he has compared the digital to a liquid state of things:
"the operations associated with the idea of the liquid suggest that parameterization leads to radical variabiliry within a continuum implied by
a thing and its opposite."++ Computers plunge us into a fluid, eminently
variable world that gives a special intensity to some ofour sensations an(l
the decisions they lead to. Its fluidity is well expressed by the projects

of Hernin Diaz Alonso's architecture firm, Xefirotarch, like the Art

Hotel in Playa Grande, Dominican Republic, or the Busan Concert
Hall in South Korea, in which supple organic forms merge seamlessly
like joining streams.
Of course, the automobile is only a metaphor that should not bc
taken too literally. Although it comes first to the mind, the objection
linked to the disproportion between the millions and millions of car
drivers and the relatively small number of computer-equipped architects is not the most decisive one. For designers appear in many ways as
pioneering users. Their engagement with the digital world announccs
broader evolutions beginning with the systematic use of computcrimagery. The very nature of their work raises important issues such as
the articulation between physical and virtual realities.
Other differences must be taken seriously. Contrary to the line:rr
track followed by the automobile, the digital world that unfolds untlcr


* ffiIdtr


4jJames Gleicl<, Chaos (Ncu York: Vikitt.q l'nv, lt)fii)

44 Marcos Norat, op. cit., p. 72 irt 1t,ttti,trl,n


"..*,rqell, #it




the eyes of the computer user is multidinrensit>rral. It fkrws in all dircctions; it is also, at least theoretically, fully reversible, in contrast with the
irreversibiliry ofphysical movement. But the most important and valid
issue in the comparison with the automobile remains the contribution
of the computer to our changing notion ofmateriality.Just like the automobile, the computer has become inseparable from the way we experience the world as a totaliry involving the senses and the perceptions
associated with them.
Obviously this way of seeing things is in complete contradiction
with what has been for a long time the dominant take on the machine.
For decades, the computer has been presented as a mere extension of
the mind, a super-memory, a calculator and an enhanced tool for logical exploration. Such was for instance the way the French anthropologist Leroi-Gourhan approached it in Le Geste et la Parole, a spectacular
evocation of human progress through the use of technological tools,

from the Neolithic period to the twentieth century, from the first
trimmed and polished stones to the early For LeroiGourhan, human progress was marked by the gradual externalization of
It all began with stone knives and axes that
extended the capacity of the hand. The final stage was the extemalization of mental functions like memory with the computer.
There is no doubt that the computer has something to do with
the extension of the mind. But beyond that, the computer alters our
perception of objects; it extends the realm of our sensations.'With the
new interfaces that are developing today, it will soon a{fect our motor
schemes. It is already striking to observe how the mere use of a mouse
has created new kinds of gestures. Among teenagers, the development
ofvideogames has fostered even more speci6.c kinds ofreflexes, an evolution that has led some neurologists to wonder whether our mental
maps have not evolved with the abiliry to make a virtuoso use of computer keys and joysticks.
films llkeJohnny
Our perception of space is already affected.
Mnemonic, The Matrix or Minority Report, cinema has repeatedly envis-

functions through tools.

45 Andri t*roi'courhan' Le Geste et 1a Parole


i,;,*;;; ii\;:z:; ,)i,'r:^ il::;',ii,"',i,'rf;,tilrii,'

lgccl thc changcs irr thc pcr-

(:cption of ordinary space

that can be expected with
the development of increasgly sophisticated interfaces


blurring the distinction

between the physical and
the digital.+o The notion of
augmented realiry is insepa-

rable from the notion of a

different materiality made
possible by the hybridiza-

A cottoolrl furt iur

tion of three-dimensional

augmotttori rrrrrllly

and electronic realities. This hybridizationis not yet firlly there, but some
features of the displacement of materialiry can aTready be observed.
For instance, visual codes are changing at a surprising speed. 'W'e
no longer marvel at the capacity of digital media to create effects like
zooming in and out with a simple mouse click, and we tend to perceive

our ordinary three-dimensional realiry as if it were the result of a provisory compromise, or rather the product of a middle-range lens focus
between the very small and the extremely large, between atoms or rather

pixels, and galaxies. Regognizable forms and objects apper at this

middle-range scale while surface and texture effects predominate at the
microscopic and macroscopic levels. Forms and objects are so to say suspended or caught between closely looked at sufaces that evoke some
kind of abstract art, and equally abstract satellite*like views. The curious status ofform in the digital age, both eagerly sought after and somewhat distrusted for being unavoidably imperfect, is to be put in this perspective. Form has not only become relative, dependent upon geometric
flows, it has also turned provisional because of the permanent option to
zoom in and out.
Is this development sustainable in the long terrn? Will we get adapted
to a totally clickable or zoomable world in which every configuration

Srcucn Spielherg (dir.),

Minority keport


mohlkr ltlrrrtrr
Photo: l-oonarl I ow,

provisional, suspetrclcc.l botwcclr lrrrgcr ;trrtl srrr:rlle r irrst:rrrt:t:s? A rrccrl

for stability might very well arise and call for thc rcirrvcrrtion, et least ftrr
certain purposes, ofnon-clickable or no zoomable entities. A ncw forrrr
ofauthenticity could go along with this non-clickable or non-zoomable
status; after all, paintings in a museum are not clickable, neither
Leonardo's Mona Lisa at the Louvre nor Vel6zqu ez' Las Meninas at the
Prado can be viewed at every possible scale. Conforming to the impulse
to click or zoom, but also ready to see this impulse frustrated, the new
materiality that is emerging under our eyes will not be simpler nor more
homogeneous than the state of affairs that it is gradually superseding.
The instabiliry of form, as discussed above, can be related to the
cultural context created by globalization. Globalization can indeed be
understood as a strange short-circuit between the local and the general, a
short-circuit that destabilizes middle-range institutions and practices.4T Irr

image over

our global world we

things either from very close or from an extremely

distant point ofview, a phenomenon mirrored by the use of Google Earth:
despite the variety ofscales it prosee


to its users, the attention


usually drawn towards local details

or general geographic features. lt

certainly no accident, ifthe computer has been instrumental in the
process of globilizaaon. Zooming
might be a mere consequence of
the crisis of the traditional notion
ofscale that is related both to computer-use and to globalization.
The specific form of perceptive
instabiliry that it generates is an

inherent feature of digital architecture that again finds itself in profound accordance with the world
that is unfolding around it.

47 Cf. Piene Vehz, Mondiaksation, Villes et Territoires: L'Economie d'Archipel (Paris: PUF, 1996)

Such irrstability seems to blur the distinction between abstracti<>tt

.rntl r'<r)r:rctcrrcss. Nothing is more abstract and at the same time more
r ()n( rctc tlrarr a texture that challenges interpretations based on the ordirr.rly crrtcgories ofform and object. The new materiality is located at the
rr rt t'rscction of two seemingly opposed categories, the totally abstract, based
, ,rr sigrrals and codes, and the ultra-concrete, involving an acute and almost
g,.rtlrological perception of material phenomena and properties.
Besides zooming practices, there is perhaps no better illustration
,,l.this blurring of abstraction and concreteness than the evolution of
rr r r rsical recording and play entailed by digital culture. On the one hand,
rrotlring is more abstract than computer-encoded music, AIFF or MP3
lrlcs being nothing but pure information. On the other hand, the same
lilcs processed by a digital player become synonymous with an intimate
cxlrcrience the concrete character which enables teenagers to speak of

"llrcir" music when referring to the content of their iPod,


if part

rl'this content has been bought on commercial websites like Apple's

r'l'trnes or Amazon stores. The digitally processed has become thus indistrnguishable from the deeply experiential.
Digital design targets a similar blurring of abstraction and con( r'cteness as it becomes more and more immersed in programming, up
to algorithmic level, while at the same time seeking to maintain an
.rlrrrost tactile relation to the spectator. Architectural affect, a fundament;rl notion of digital architecture, is not only meant to bridge the gap
lrr'tween subject and object, as discussed above, it is also supposed to
lrring together the abstraction inherent to computing and the concrete,

of architectural experience.
From the crisis of scale and tectonic to the reinvention of ornarncnt, many aspects of digital design are related to key features of the difli'rcnt materiality that is emerging. Its exploration is among the most
rnportant tasks imparted to digital designers. Form, despite its spectac'W'hen
rrlur character, comes only second to this exploration.
w ith issues of materiality, digital architecture expresses broader trends at
work in the architectural discipline. This is where computer-aided


cutting-edge projects meet with larger neo-avapt-gardist and even with

it comes to materialiry, archiparts of mainstream production.
tecture shares this agendawith various other domains, from the digital
arts to sectors ofscience and technology.
Such a convergence between the disciplines is perhaps at the core
of a new interest taken in design by scientists and engineers. Today,
design is no longer supposed to contribute to scientific production only

through the conception of buildings meant to foster intellectual

exchange, like the MIT Stata Center. Design procedures and methods
represent a source ofinspiration for branches ofscience and engineering dealing with problems of creative conception.48 Issues of design in
this creative meaning are also fundamental to the emergent materialiry.
The dense web of relations that connects today's arts and architecture
to science and technology rnay remind us of the Renaissance period.

The Renaissance was also a moment ofprofound redefinition ofmateriality, a redefinition epitomized by the invention of perspective'

The intimate relation between emerging mareriality and the design
dimension is especially evident dealing with materials. Today, materials
can be totally designed at all scales, for the first time perhaps in history.
Even for classical materials like concrete, the nano-threshold will soon
be The capacity to zoom in and out applies especially well to
material design. This should not be a surprise since digital technology
plays a fundamental role in the affair. State-of:the-art composite or smart
materials are designed with the help ofall sorts ofcomputer equipments.
There are various ways to approach this evolution. The first one
is to focus on the development of composite and smart materials that
combine properties that used to be mutually exclusive.s0 The transparency of glass, for instance, went with poor insulating and load-bearing capacities, while a composite-product glass can be transparent, insulating and even load-bearing, lending itselfto sustainable faqade
Composite and smart materials challenge received notions of
products like fabrics.52 They also blur the distinction between structures
and materials, since they possess a strong degree of organization in contrast with the vision ofmaterials that had prevailed at the dawn ofindustrialization. They are instrumental in the progressive shift from structural to material design that has taken
place in a series of domaini. One of the
most striking illustrations for this shift is
the radical change in the concept of
autornobile bumpers. Formerly designed

Frans l-lolthuyson,

Plasma otchlng.
Courtosy FranB

the lnvlslble Vlslblo"

Electron MicroscoplBt
Phlllps Rosoarch
MiPlaza, Moro and
m0re pr0c0sss8 csn
be carrlod nt

as structural protections, automobile

bumpers are now made of a composite

material that limits car-body damage by
absorbing alarge part ofthe energy generated by a collision.

Another way to make sense of

material evolution is to relate it to the

48 On the contemporary relations between design and science, seeJor instance Peter Calison, Emily Thonpson (eds ),
Mdssachusetts: MIT Pres, 1999), Antoine Pimn, Alessandra Ponte (eds ), Architcctttrc
ancl the Sciences: Exchanging Metaphors (New York: Ptinceton Architectural Pres, 200j), Akos MotauLnszk'i', Ob W
Fischer (eds.), Precisions: Architecture berween sciences and the Arts (Berlin: Jouis, 2001t).
,,Biton: IJne Entrie en Matiire", inJean-ltuis Cohen, C. Martin Moellet (eds,), Architccturcs clrr ljltott:
49 Franz-Josef LIlm,

The Architecture ofscience (Cambridge,


(NewYork:2006,Frencht'flnslationPais: I-t'Monitaur,200{t),pp 2l7-221'

.10 Sea for instance Ezio

MI'l- Prcs,

Manzini, The Material of Invention (Milan: 1986, Englkh translatktt Canilritlgr, Mtssndu$lt:
Ncw Tcchnologics firr thc Arr:lritct:trrrc lrrrl

1989), Mkhallc Addington, Danial Sr[odc&, Snrart Matcrials and

l)rofcssions (Ox.litrd : Arrhitt'tturt Prcss, 2005 ).

(Nuu York: l'rirut'tot Ardtiktlnrul l\tss,



krrttttlrlV,'( V|rlI lr

[>roadcr c()r)tcllrp()rary s(:tell

tific and technological ct>rrtcxt.

Based on multiple collabora-

tions between specialists of

mechanics. physics, chemistry
and computer science, material
design is typical of the trend
towards interdisciplinarity and
heterogeneity that characterizes the scientific and techno-

logical environment or better

landscape. A paradigmatic field

of activity, material design

presents a definite epistemological turn.s3

For the designer, the

impact ofthis evolution on his
practice is still unclear. On the
one hand, there is an evident
connection between what has
Neri 0xman, "lnfiniteD" BIACS Art and
Design Biennial,
Seville, 2008,
Courtesy Neri

oxman. An
exploration of

material organization
using computer
simulation, Beside
the attention paid to
parameters such as
structural loads and
conditions, the
sensory dimension is
extremely present,


happened in the field ofmaterial science and material design

and the renewed interest of architects for materials and their sensory Beside its contribution to the investigation ofthemes like autoorganization and performance, Neri Oxman's work is also noticeablc
for the interest taken in this On the other hand, in contrast with
domains like aeronautics, the use of advanced materials by the building
industry remains limited despite the progressive diffusion of composite
concrete or glass. Above all, some fundamental questions are left with-

out answer. Should designers themselves invest the field of material

design instead of relying upon researches of others? A practice likc
Kennedy & Violich Architecture has initiated such a move with projects
like the "Give Back Curtain", but this kind of engagement remains rarc'

On the epktemological dimension oJ contemporury mateial scienre and mateial design, see Bemadette Bensaudc-Vinttul'
Eloge du Mixte. Mat6riau Nouveaux, Philosophie Ancienne (Pais: Hatfuttt, l9t)ti)
54 See Toshiko Moi (ed.),Imaterial/Ultrmaterial; Architecture, Design and Materials (Canbidge, Massachusrtts: I lmwl
Design School, New Yorh: Ceorgt Bruzillcr, )00))
l.i Scr Neri Oxman andJesse Louis Rosenberg, "Mateial-based Design Computation: An Inquiry into Digital Similtlkvt ol l'hyi,,tl
Milt,rid l>ropt:rt:it,s a.r Drsiql Cclcrators", ir IntcrnationalJournal of Architcctural Computing, uol.5, ntt.l, 2007, py )f 'l'l

Tltc tttlilt tlttt'sti<ttt hrts to tlo witlr thc possi[>ility to rcirrverrt sorrrr.
thing akin to tcctonic principlcs. I)espite their tcudcr.rcy to substitr-rtc
themselves to structLrral organization, contemporary materials poirrt
toward the reemergence of such principles. Tectonic is based on prescriptions regarding the proper use of materials. Greek trabeation or
gothic vaults correspond to specific interpretations of the best way for
stone to carry loads. Nineteenth-century industrial architecture's tectonic principles are intimately linked to the use of iron. The properties
of composite and smart materials call for the institution of new rules,
rules probably very different from former tectonic guidelines. These
guidelines were based on antinomies that are no longer relevant,
like the opposition mentioned
above between transparency and
load-bearin g. Emergent tectonic
principles will have to recognize

their compatibiliry.

The precedence given to

surface and af{ect represents
another motive ofdeparture from
traditional tectonic principles.
the metaphor of the
skeleton was the best way to
understand what tectonic was
about, the analogy with the skin
may convey something about
what is awaiting us in terms ofits
reinvention, provided that the
skin is not considered as a mere
envelope but as a complex, often
load-bearing system of exchange
between an interior and an exterior. Such an anil,ogy also carries

"{ iivr!



t t;

tut I rlr


r r

tr)rjlx)llilvo ltrnly
tttrtIoIIrI, tr]ltrtIIitr:httlrI
by Wall lrrlcrnllitrrrirl
Kerttttxly & Vkrllr:lt

Arclrltucttuo, I lrr;
r:rrtlirlrr rulrrrrrs l11;lrl

inlo a ril)iloo itll0t

(liltk[{]r;ri ilt I lv{Il
llIor r!ll I
pltosplxrtosr;orrl riyori
and whlte I I l)s, Ari

suggosl(xl l)y llri

namo, tho nralrrrl;rl

roilctrj lo lxxlV



the possibility of a new relation between architccturc and thc hurrran

body, a relation that is not based primarily on the correspondence
between structural parts and human limbs but on the identification of
supposedly similar functions of architectural surface and human skin.


At each stage, arrthorizations to access and modify the clraracteristics of

the building stored in the database must be given or refused. At certain
points, decisions must be made to freeze some of these characteristics,
let them be geometric, structural or energetic, in order to enable the
project to move forward. Contrary to what the notion of a totally fluid
digital world tends to suggest, this rype of decision is becoming more
and more crucial. Just like a given geometry must be selected among a
myriad of alternatives, many technical choices must be solidified past a



certain stage.

Can design procedures remain the same in the broad context depicted in
this chapter? Of coune not, but one may still wonder about the extent of
the changes to expect, even ifone leaves aside the altemative between form
deterrnination and algorithrnic creation that was discussed in the previous
The most immediate transformation will probably be linked to
the need to make design procedures more explicit than in the past. Computers require a precise set of instructions at each stage of a project. For
architecture, this will represent a major change since design procedures
were seldom fully formalized despite their crucial importance in the definition ofthe discipline. In most Renaissance and baroque architectural

treatises, the methods used by authors to layout plans and fagades

remained hazy, in contrast with the abundance ofdetails regarding orders
and their proportions. Even Beaux-Arts composition, one of the most
constraining design methods ever put together, was based on a large

amount of tacit know-how.s6

The need to make design procedures more explicit will be further increased by the evolution towards a systematic constitution of a
cornmon pool of data, often referred to as a Building Information Model,
to be shared by the various actors involved in a project. Often presented
as the unavoidable future of architecture and construction, Building
Information Models require a better identification of all steps that are
to be taken from the initial sketches to the final technical specifications.

56 For a more iletailed dkcussion

oJ the issue, see

Antoine Picon, "The Chost


Architecture: The Project and its Codi,fication",

ir Perspecta, no. i5, 2004, ytp. 8-19,


In such a context, the designer's ultimate competence becomes

more and more about when to make certain states ofthings irrevocable.
By contrast, detailed processing of geometric or technical characteristics looses part ofits former importance; in many cases the machine can
run by itself and propose various geometric and technical solutions.
Another way to put it is to consider that design is becoming more focused
on the global vision, the strategy, and less on details that the computer

making easier to address.

The architectural profession is not the only one to move towards

more pronounced strategic turn.
the spectacular progress of software based on finite elements methods, structural engineering is registering a similar evolution. For the engineer, the problem is no longer to
go through tedious calculation. For him also, part of the challenge lies
in the determination of the best way to proceed, following organizational schemes that are no longer to be confused with traditional structural intuition.sT
Given this evolution, one may wonder whether the traditional
identities ofarchitects and engineers will not have to evolve in order to
adapt to the new context created by the computer. Various conflicts of
competences may arise in the meantime. The very existence of a Building Information Model raises the question of who will be ultimately in
charge of its management. Beside architects and engineers, there are

other candidates such

as professional project managers.

The computer is not the only factor that must be taken into


Conuarsation with Bemard Vaudeville, senior partner oJ TESS


Ateliq d'Ingtnieie , on 20 Ocktbu,


account in this evolution. In conjunction with its use, sustainable

requirements will play a more and more important role. For the architect as well as for the engineer, it means a drastic departure from an attitude ofrelative irresponsibility. In a world in which more and more thinp
are designed, beginning with materials, it is no longer possible to be indifferent to the broad issues raised by the built environment. As Toshiko
Mori puts it, "architects and other citizens must actively make choices
about where to build, what to build, how to build, and with what to
bui1d." 58 One should probably add to the list "when not to build", since
a lot of possible developments appear less and less desirable in the light

ofthe quest for sustainability.

The different materialiry that is emerging entails a higher degree
of awareness about the implications of design. It implies to redefine the
attitude of the designer in terms that include environmental and social
responsibiliry. The success of a designer like Shigeru Ban and his sustainable structures might very well lie in the articulation he proposes
berween a concern for materiality and technological innovation and a
social concern.



The evolution ofprofessional competences is inseparable from the transformation ofbuilding techniques. The computer is not only at the center of a sprawling set of conception tools; it appears also as the hub of a
wide range of computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines, 3D
printers, laser cutters, mills and routers, meant for rapid prototyping and
Various questions arise in this context. The first regards prefabrication, one ofthe oldest pursuits ofmodernity,se the content ofwhich
is in need of a complete reassessment. With the development of digital
conception tools, prefabrication elements can be determined in new
ways allowingfor amuch greater diversiry than before, a diversity illus-


5e seeJor

instance Barry Bersdofi, peter


Mon ftd.), op. cir., p. xv.


trated in realizations as different

Plono Huyghcrwlllr
Mlchaol [/6rdlth,

Michael Meredith's temporary Puppet Theater atHarvard [Jniversity Carpenter Center, ZahaHadid's
Hungerburg Funicular or'William Massie's American House 08. This

led theorists and designers like Bernard Cache to propose a new charrcteization of digitally-fabricated architecture as "non-stan dard", a term
tpplying both to form and the non-repetitive and often complex prelabricated pieces that it can be made of
One of the current limitations ofgeometric complexity lies in the
problems ofpackaging and shipping. AsJordan Brandt puts it in a dochas

toral dissertation defended at Harvard Graduate School of Design,

"unique components require unique packaging and curved elements
clon't stack as well as flat ones."60 As Brandt argues, some of these limitations may be overcome by the development ofon-site prefabrication,

MOS, Ptippel
Thootor, 2004.
Photor Florlfln

Holzhorr, l hle
tomporary Blrucluft,

was bullt for fl

puppot p6rfonnfiI(i6
by artlst l)k,il0


(iriilIir,,ril & [olt[,t. "1iltttr Itrt;ll (lrr tll;rllotIr,

V|iltr r, ;'{l{l/ ,'01)ll ,, r /\lr,rir,,ilrllit llrllo

' llrrr l;rrlltrlrlirl W;rll,' I lll
(ir;urir/iri ti Krrlr[rr / I


;'()()ll. ( ) (lrinril/ro &

LIII lLtttclt

btrt tlrc ()fl'sitc versus ()rI siLc ;rltelrr:ttivc

far fronr bcing dcciclccl toclly.

lVartin Bechthold,
Harvard Graduate
School of Design, use

of robotic arm for

surfacing effects,
2008. Maftin
Bechthold. With the
robot, a great diversity
of effects of texture
and light can be
obtained from a
single material.


Another major lirnitation could stenr

from the possible robotization of the build'Will
ing industry.
geometric complexiry be
compatible with automated assemblage?
Although robotization still belongs to a relatively remote future, the issue needs to be
raised in relation to the multiple experiments
that are taking place all over the wor1d.61 The
day it will take command might very well
correspond to new changes both in the characteristics of digital architecture and in the professional competences
mobilized to design and build it.
Among the changes that may affect digital architecture, one finds
the possibility ofa return to discrete elements with relatively simple and
repetitive forms, a perspective recently explored by an architect like
Greg Lynn with his Blobwall. Easier to assemble using robots than complex customized geometric components, these elements could play a
role similar to bricks in traditional masonry. Such an orientation would
make digital architecture certainly truer to the fundamentally discrete
nature of digital tools than the smooth continuous surfaces it displays
today. But despite its technical and conceptual appeal, nothing guarantees that this orientation will prevail in practice.
More generally, the long-terrn consequences of digital fabrication and construction robotization on architecture are far from
clear, despite researches by designers like
Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler at the
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in
Zurich, who try to integrate their findings
on robotized fabrication and assemblage at



Jor instance the online proceedings oJ the 25th lnternational Symposium ofr Autofrdti()l and llohotks it
(visilcd on 7January,2009).


thc cqnccption level.o2 At Harvard (]racl-ratc School of I )csigr r, M:rrt irr llt't'lr tlroltl is :r lstr
investigating the possibilities offered by robots with a special acccnt pttt on strl-fltc:ilrg
efFects. There again, the possibilities are wide-ranging, but many interrogations rcrtt;titt.
The present incertitude is well conveyed - in the same ironic vein as his M(l']i)
Bar - by Franqois Roche in another of his projects for the extension of the collection
of the Fonds R6gional d'Art Contemporain of Orl6ans, France, a museum of contemporary art. In this 2006 project conceived in association with artist Pierre
Huyghe, a robot is gradually producing a recycled-glass additional layer to
an existing building. Without recogrrizable shape, comparable to a stack,
the project questions the very notion

Iiotl",('r tll:rt

lirt lltr't't'tttvt'sttttt'rrt ol'tlt'srrt'irr llrc lrrt.t'lr:rrristit s((.n.ur()

iruugincrl [ry tlrt'tlt'sigrrr'r-. Irr-rur1'ois I(ot'lrc is lrt.rlr:rps riglrt irr
nrcrrt of whlt:rw;rits trs. []t:yorrtl firrrrr, thc firtc of'tligit:rl ;rrt.lritcctrrr-t.
rrright very well lic in thc lrnclerstarrcling <llthe lirrk bctwccrr (.()l)stnlc

tiorr robr>tization :rnd clesire.

of architectural form, while

machine becomes "the vector, the
vehicle, for a constructive subjectiviza-

Extension for the Fonds R6gional

d'Art Contemporain of Orldans.

Couftesy R&Sie(n).

62 Fabio Cramazio, Matthias Kohler, Digital Materixlity irr

Architccture (Basel, Boston, Berlix: Birkhiiuwr, 200lt)

6) http://rttut ttrrilotits.rut/uu,lostit.htn



Jtnuary 7, 2009).