In the Cause of Architecture

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Architecture: Traversing Design and Making
-David Pigram + Lain Maxwell
Excerpt from Log 25, Summer 2012

The Machine is the architect’s tool — whether he likes it or not. Unless he masters it, the Machine has mastered him.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

The machine killed the unique, or so Ruskin, Pugin, and Morris led us to believe. Authenticity was replaced by the generic metrics, ruthless efficiencies, and devouring scales of standardization, mass production, and the consumptive desires of capitalists. This sentiment is not lost on contemporary practice, which now champions the digital – through the lens of parametricism – in the rediscovery of variation and difference through the spectre of mass customization. Generally implied to be universally good, difference is conjured as an endless series of artifacts dimensionally distorted in the service of an individual user’s contextual dataset: biometric, ethnographic, climatic, structural, preferential, etc. The classic cases are of proliferate hammers, each with “perfectly” fitting handles, or of sun-shading elements, each precisely tailored to its local solar situation. The general acceptance of the value of these possibilities is reflected in the recent proliferation of hierarchical associative modeling software programs (often imprecisely called “parametric”), and by their giddy adoption by a new breed of infatuated architects and students. Gregory Bateson’s conceptual filter “a difference that makes a difference” is useful here. In the case of the hammer, the truly significant dimensional variances are the ones that cause a threshold to be crossed to make what was once a hammer now something else altogether – perhaps an axe or even a crowbar. Akin to the process of evolutionary speciation, this sort of topological change is often prevented at both the design conceptualization and design realization stages by overly constrained systems. Here, both robotics and algorithmic design processes come into their own by being open to and actually enabling massive changes in the topology, and not just the geometry, of their products.

Architecture is populated more by uniqueness than it is by standardization or (serial) difference. The one-off is the rule and the repeated copy an extremely rare exception. The profession still operates at some considerable distance from the enforced limits of industrial standardization. Indeed, despite the mechanized ambitions of the pioneering moderns – notably the likes of Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer of the Bauhaus – the artifacts they conceived were still produced by hand and pointed to, rather than evidenced, a future of automated production. Such work upheld the traditions of craft to realize authentic objects that speak to the culture within which they are produced while exercising all the technological prowess and judgment within the artisan’s possession. This situation remains typical within architecture today.

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