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Abstraction and ego

Blog Post

Two weeks ago Gehry Technologies announced an alliance to promote technologies role in design. As with most postings on the web there were several “Anonymous” posts responding to where the original article posted at ENR.com.

The posts range from several attacking the list of names associated with the alliance to one in support of the premise of technologies role in design.

If we put aside the names for a moment and focus on aspirations of the alliance it is easy to see that this same discussion is likely taking place in varying sized firms around the world.

What I am opening up for discussion is the uneasiness that technology presents for the profession. I hope to re-frame the conversation around how we see both design and technology.

At the heart of my position is the abstraction of work done by architects. After all, the majority of architects do not build buildings but instead make drawings of buildings. Not since the Middle Ages has the profession as a whole integrated the work of architects with the actual making of architecture through art and science.

What is my basis for making the claim that it has been nearly 700 years? I must first disclaim that I am not saying all architects are lost in abstraction but instead most of the profession has been.

Here is my abridged case (from a Western point of view as a western point of view builds most of the foundation for contemporary U.S. culture and provides the culture for the alliance):

Middle Ages way of seeing:
In general, the experience of space was the primary driver for organizing and making structures. The most prominent example that can be experienced today is gothic cathedrals throughout Europe. Mathematics, form, material, and light all intersect via design. Inspiration, construction, and technology came from egotistical architects working with masons in template rooms where full scale templates and mock-ups challenged convention to produce structures that affected the body’s senses in spiritual ways. Although we can not see the structures with the Middle Age eye, we do know a great deal about how they were devised and constructed.

Mathematical way of seeing:
Regularity and rational thought were very much part of the design thinking that went into the relationship between design and technology in the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, intellectual pursuit of human experience began to abstract the design process by favoring the math of perspective in the context of decision making. This move to abstraction would be the basis for design thought for the next 500 years.

Although experience was very much part of the design/technology relationship the opportunities that “thinking” about architecture presented allowed the architect to remove the tight bond between making and thinking to favor a more directorial role in design. Although he may not be the first, many historians point to Leon Battista Alberti as an example of the move to the intellectualized position of designer, relying heavily on abstraction to execute design. My proposition suggests a slow evolution to abstraction not necessarily a sharp break in the technology/design relationship. It is obvious that although abstraction was favored, an immense understanding of material, structure, fabrication, art, and engineering was necessary to operate as an architect in the Renaissance.

Imbedding mathematics as a way to see:
Perspective has been with us ever since the first western Renaissance. Over the last 500 years the profession has moved more and more to abstraction to define design and technology. Starting with Poche to represent the area in which masons worked outside of the architects shaping of space, conveniently omitting half the equation in the abstractions. With the use of CAD, projection drawing for the “lay-out” of space provided sectional slices of space devoid of multi-dimensional underpinnings that even Poche nodded to.

The mechanical revolution provided technology that could mass produce abstraction and allow the dissemination of “buildings” in 2D form while allowing perspective to be the main design description of 3D space. At some point the profession found itself the coordinator of ideas about buildings through drawing.

Technology promoted the abstraction. The invention of film and camera followed the same mathematics of seeing to produce a world of flatness in the guise of 3D. Art tried overcoming the indefinite nature of space by providing lens design with f-stop and depth of field adjustment, current “more advanced” lens’ leverage technology by building in image-stabilization. Abstraction became so prevalent that only non-perspective based art was seen as abstract. A good example is a comparison between Cubism and photography of the same era, both being abstract but one currently being seen as more abstract than the other.

Can mathematics free the profession from mathematics:
Until the late 1970’s multi-dimensional in the profession was pretty much defined by 3D. Perspective gave the illusion that projection drawing had depth but could not overcome the definitive nature of perspective and paper. The interesting aspect of perspective is not necessarily the perspective itself, but instead the act of constructing the perspective which gives the mind a much more thorough understanding of multidimensional space. This “act” of one mind having the thorough understanding of multidimensional space forced design into the individual mind and strengthened its position as an abstraction. To some degree it too forced an egotistical point of view for the design of buildings because it largely resides in the individual “knowing” the design through conceptual study. This crisis of abstraction culminated in the development of CAD and Prisma Color like buildings of the 1980’s and 1990’s. What we are seeing now is a development of mathematics that challenges the human mind to see the world through a quantum mechanic lens instead of an aperture based lens. A good example of the deviation from perspective is the lytro light field camera, as seen here on Engadget and You Tube.

This shift in seeing is taking root in culture as well. Anyone who has worked with students of design in the last 10 years will readily admit that the next generation of design leaders will fundamentally see the world differently. This time around perception has to do with a shift in the mathematics of seeing via technology.

Back to the Gehry Technologies alliance:
For the most part the “Anonymous” postings reference an elitist point of view of the participants. From my point of view the commentary is more ego-driven than the “star-architects” involved. The hints of romantic ideas around hand drawing smack of ego-centric designers that wish to control design by making it singular, internal, and abstract. This protection of the professional position of abstraction is the very thing they fear but fail to see that they are trapped in a labyrinth of abstraction.

The focus on technology and the profession that the alliance seems to be addressing promotes a cross referencing of the tie between art and science. Although I admit that current technology resides in the abstract I suggest that the alliance points to a key distinction in the potential for a more integrated design process and product for the profession. Internal office collaboration through BIM forces a dialog amongst minds as to the broader qualities of design and technology; it also has the potential to free the design process from the laborious nature of perspective construction to allow focus on integrated space, systems, technology and experiences by allowing technology to do the math. External office collaboration through BIM provides a platform for the profession to utilize expertise that could not be obtained individually while opening expertise to commentary from all sizes of practice and trades for the actual construction of buildings.

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    Matt Kruntorad

    • Architect / Principal
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