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The Digital Complex

Author(s): Stan Allen


Source: Log, No. 5 (Spring/Summer 2005), pp. 93-99
Published by: Anyone Corporation
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StanAllen
The
Digital Complex

It stems
frommyignorance, myterrible oftheworld,
ignorance
my immediate - whoknowshowthelight-
especially surroundings
bulbworks, theindustrial orthephysical,
processes, electrical
?
processes
-
TonyCragg

It has now beenmorethana decadesincetheexperiments


thatlauncheda new setof digitaldesignprotocolsin archi-
tecture.Drivenbypractitioners and theoristssuchas Frank
Gehry,GregLynn,and BernardCache,schoolsof architec-
ture(Columbia,SCI-Arc,UCLA,and others)retooledtheir
technological infrastructure
and teachingmethods.The
practicefollowedclosebehind,and bythemiddleof the
1990sa new virtuosity had emerged,as architects borrowed
softwareand techniquesfromdigitalfilmanimationand the
aviationindustry. The computermadecomplexity lookeasy,
and designers werefascinated bythenew plasticity enabled
by fluid The
modelingtechniques. ability mapto theinvisi-
blevectorsof siteand programencourageda process-driven
approachmodeledon D'ArcyThompson'sdictumthat"form
is a diagramof forces."
Of course,in architecture'srecenthistory,processhas
oftenbeenevokedforitsformalends,and itwas no different
in thiscase. In theseearlystages,theeffectof digitaltech-
nologywas primarily formal.It was characterized byan
interestin continuoussurfacesand complexbiomorphic
forms.Butthenoveltyof theoutcomesrapidlygrewformu-
laic as techniquesbecamecodified.Whatwas at one timea
radicalexperiment becamenecessity as otherschoolsfol-
lowedthelead of theseearlyadaptors.Youngfacultywho
couldteachcomputerskillsfoundthemselves in demand,
and trainingin theuse of digitaltechnology has now become
an integralpartof an architectural education.
Withouta doubt,thedesignstudiolooksverydifferent
thanit did 10yearsago. This digitalembracehas createdan
air of self-satisfaction,
punctuatedbybreathless announce-
mentsofyetanotherparadigmshift.Buttoday,theformal
expressions and workroutinesof digitaldesignare no longer
novel.The computeris a familiarfixturein thedesignstudio.
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Ata timewhenall buildingsare designedon thecomputer,
makingdigitaldesignprotocolsexplicitno longerseemsto
be an urgenttask.
It's easyto forgetthatthegroundfortheinnovative
workof the1990swas prepareda decadeearlier,at a time
whenreal accessto computertechnology was stillout of
reachformostexperimental designers. thattime,large
At
corporate offices had adoptedCAD systems as a way to
streamline theproductionof documents, butbothcomputers
and software werecostly,slow,and difficult to use. As a
result, in the first stage(under theinfluence of cyberpunk
and deconstruction), thediscipline'sengagement withdigi-
tal technology was primarily metaphorical. As accessto the
Internetexpanded,manyarchitects werefascinated bythe
potential of networked interconnectivity or fluid personal
identity promisedbythisemergenttechnology. Architects
triedto capturesomeof thisnew sensibility throughexperi-
mentalprojectsand installations, sometimes incorporating
digitalimagery, buttheseprojectswere,forthemostpart,
realizedwithconventional means.
It's clearthataftertheexperimental workof the1980s
and 1990swe are now enteringa third,moremature,and
lesscomplexphasein our relationship to digitaltechnology
-a of consolidation and extension of thepossibilities
phase
of thedigital.Thanksin partto a new generationof archi-
tectswho havebeeneducatedentirely withinthedigital
regimeand,on theotherhand,to thefirstgenerationof dig-
itallytrainedarchitects who havecontinuedto evolvetheir
thinking, computeris beginningto havea moretangible
the
and immediateimpact.Thesedesignersarepragmaticabout
thecomputer'spowerfulabilityto generatenew formal
innovationsand effects, at thesametimethattheyare realis-
ticaboutitstechnicaland procedurallimitations. These
designersfindnew potentialsin unexpected mixtures of the
digitaland theanalog,therealand thevirtual,or theevery-
dayand thefantastic.
In a movethathas littleto do withtheliteralincorpora-
tionof digitaltechnologies buteverything to do witha new
way of thinking madepossiblebythepenetration of net-
workedtechnologies intoall aspectsof our everydaylife,the
mostprogressive designers workingtodayhaveturnedto the
strategic and operativepotentialof thecomputer. Theysug-
gest that what is significant is not the new forms that digital
design softwares promote but the new forms of practicethat
digitaltechnology enables.Form has a powerfulagency,
whichtakesitsplacealongsidequestionsofperformance,
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organization, and programmatic invention.New strategies
of implementation go beyondarchitecture's traditional
architect-client-builder to
relationships positionarchitectur-
al practicemorestrategically and proactively. Architectswho
controlthemeansof digitalfabrication, forexample,can
bypass the builder and talkdirectly to the machine.
and
Pragmatic,inventive, hands-on, this is a moreexpedient
to
approach digitaldesignexpertise, which is now under-
stoodto be onlyone amongmanydesignintelligences.
In part,thisexpediencyis generational, and in partit is
a productof theadvancement of thetechnologies themselves.
In the1980sand 1990s,thecomputerretaineda cultlikesta-
tus.It dividedarchitecture intobelieversand nonbelievers, a
worldof highpriests,disciples,and enthusiastic converts.
Like anyothercult,it had itssecretlanguageand privaterit-
uals. Today,whatsetsthemostinteresting contemporary
workapartis itsopenattitudetowarddigitaltechnology.
Hardwareand softwareis cheap,widelyavailable,and user-
friendly; digitaltechnology has,in effect, becomemore
democratic, distancedfromitscultlikeorigins.It's hardto
fetishizesomething you livewitheveryday.A new genera-
tionthathas grownup withdigitaltechnology has created
an enormousreservoirof expertise.Today,thecomputeris
nota new technology to be eithercelebratedor deconstruct-
ed; it is simply a fact.Its logichas beenfullyabsorbedinto
contemporary practicesand habitsof thought.In schoolsof
architecture, studentsand youngerfacultyare theonesmost
fluentin thesenew technologies. No longerseducedbyits
formaleffects norintimidated byitsdifficulty, thesedesign-
ershavecultivatedan expedientrelationship withavailable
technologies.
It is sometimesthecase thatbecausewe are too closeto
our own discipline,it is easierto discernpatternsin other
fields.Pd liketo quicklyoutlinethreeexamplesofpractices
thatstrikeme as reasonable,inventive, and expedientin
theiruse of availabledigitaltechnologies withinthelogicsof
theirown discipline.Each one is relaxedand pragmatic,
moreinterested in consequencesthanin consistency.

The e-book vs. "On-demand" printing


Do notconfuse
whatis valuablewithwhatis merely
difficult.
- Fortunecookie

Whilethelargemediacompaniescontinueto promotepro-
- small,booklike
prietarydedicatede-booktechnologies
hardwaredeviceswithtextdisplayedon-screen- independent
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StillsfromWaking
Life, direct-
edbyRichard engineersand smallentrepreneurs havedevelopedworking
Linklater
(2001). for "on-demand" Theseare lightweight,
CourtesyofFoxSearchlight prototypes printing.
Pictures. portable machines of
capable downloadingcontentfromthe
Internet, printing,and bindinga decentpaperbackbook(as
opposedto an unwieldystackof pagesyou mightprintout
on yourlaserprinter)in about12minutes.In thisinstance,
thetechnological advanceshavemoreto do withengineering
know-howthancomplexsoftwareor computertechnology.
The advancecomesin thestrategic intelligencethatcom-
binestheold and new technologies in an innovativeway.
The potential,say,to increaseliteracyin remoteareaswhere
it is difficult
to shipbooks(and whereexpensiveand fragile
dedicatede-bookdevicescouldneversurvive)is enormous.
Someobserversof thebookindustry suggestthattheeffect
be
might comparable to theintroductionof qualitypaper-
backbooksin the1950s.

Monsters, Inc. vs. WakingLife


Don'tusesoftware- everyone
hasit.
- BruceMau

Anotherprovocative exampleis RichardLinklater's2001


filmWaking Life.This talky,essentiallyplotlessmoviewas
filmedin digitalvideowithliveactors,in realspaces,taking
advantageof theimprovisational spontaneity thatvideo
technology affords.Then,using low-tech softwaredevel-
opedby art directorBob Sabiston, it was convertedframe-
by-frame intoan animatedfeature.In contrastto mainstream
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studiosPixar,forexample)whereenormousquantitiesof
computing powerand vastresourcesof technological expert-
ise are devotedto rendering fantasy as real as possible,the
effect hereis an unstablemixtureof therealand thevirtual.
The realmaybecomemorefantastic as a result,butit never
fully leaves behind thetexture of reality.
The enablingpremiseof mainstream animation(think
ofMonsters, also
Inc.y 2001) is classicsuspensionof disbelief:
if therewerebig,furry, talkingmonsters, thisis exactly
whattheywould looklike.The hairflowsperfectly, materi-
als reflectlightrealistically, movementis fluid,and soundis
perfectly synchronized. Anyinconsistency thatmightpunc-
turethespellhas beeneditedout.In Waking Life, bycontrast,
actorstalkand movenaturally. Allof thehesitationand
uncertainties of everydayspeechare preserved.The back-
groundsretainall of theclutterand detailedtextureof real
life- thecomplexplayof lightand reflection, thegritty pos-
turbanrealityof thelocationsin Austin,Texas,wheremost
of thefilmwas shot.Yetforall that,no one will mistakethe
imagesof Waking Lifeforreality.Thereis absolutelyno pre-
tenseto verisimilitude here.The realityof thefilmis a
dreamscape, an artificialrealitythoroughly saturated- like
-
our own day-to-dayreality withman-madeimages.
Ratherthansubjectthefictionalto a presumedrealityprin-
ciple,everydayrealityis allowedto unfolditsunexpected
and plasticvirtualities.
Now it is no surprisethatin makinghis firstanimated
film,thedirectorof Slacker(1991) would refusedifficult and
elaborateproductionvaluesand tendtowarda collaborative,
hands-on,improvisational culture.In Waking Life, each
characteris animatedbya different artist, althoughuni-
and
fiedbytheconventions of thesoftware, tracesof each ani-
mator'shandpersistin thefinishedfilm.The softwareitself
is relatively low-tech,requiringtracingof separateframes,
judgments about colorvalues,lineweights,and theconven-
tionsof representation. The artistsof Waking Lifemakedo
withthetoolsat hand,ratherthandeployingcomplex
resourcesand purpose-built tools.Theirsis a relaxedrather
thancomplexrelationship to thecomputerthatcan only
emergewhenitsusersare completely at homewithtechnol-
ogy. It's the ideasand strategic intelligence thatdrivethe
film,whichitselfis low-definition and high-concept, rather
thanthehigh-definition, low-concept of mainstream ani-
mation.The experiential consequenceis thatthefilmhas
rougheredgesthanmorecommercialproducts;therepre-
sentationitselfis constantly intruding on our receptionof
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thefilm.This interrupts our contemplative viewing,
reminding the viewerof theartificiality
of themovie,while,
at thesametime,generating an atmospheric, dreamlike
space thatis theperfectcounterpartto thefilm'sown medi-
tationon dreamsand reality.

Neuromancer vs. Pattern Recognition


Wehavenofuturebecauseourpresentis toovolatile
.
- WilliamGibson

Finally,WilliamGibson'smostrecentnovelPattern
Recognition (2003) offersa way of closingthecircleon my
own periodization. Authorof thecyberpunk classic
Neuromancer (1984), Gibson defined many theconven-
of
tionsof thegenre.In hisnew book,all of thoseconventions
are intact:thecharacters inhabita dystopian worldin which
has
technology penetrated of
everyaspect day-to-daylife,
surveillanceis ubiquitous,identitiesfluid,and encrypted
information themostvaluablecommodity. A shadowy
power controls a vast,hierarchicalnetwork, yetan agile
hackerculturemanagesto survivewithinthatverysame
network.Buttheastonishing accomplishment of thebookis
to renderall of thisentirelybelievablein a novelthatis set
notin thefuturebutin thepresent.Gibson'snovelreminds
us thatto a largedegree,we now inhabitthatdystopian
futurehe imagined20 yearsago. Sciencefiction, it seems,no
longer needs the future.
***

One consequenceof digitaltechnology's abilityto manage


massivequantitiesof information has beena fascination
withemergence, geneticalgorithms, and self-organization.
But self-organization requireshighlyspecificinitialcondi-
tions.Hence,to imaginean architecture thatis adaptiveand
responsive is notto propose vague"emergent"architecture
a
or to appealto old modelsof flexibility. Rather,it impliesan
architecture thatis precisein its formalpropositions-
-
specificin shape,material,and disposition yetstrategically
availableformultipleand unpredictable appropriations over
timebycannyuserswho understandthatprogramis never
definitive.It couldbe understoodas a lightlyfixedscaffold
thatallowschangearounda minimalnumberof secure
points.Operatingmorelikea fitnesslandscape,successful
buildingsand citiesofferdegreesofappropriateness and levels
of fit;an architecture open to the contingencies of contem-
porary lifeand capableof sponsoring a varietyof activities
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overtime.To designforthisuncertainty requiresan intelli-
of
gentdeployment technology, but it also impliesa skepti-
cismaboutsingular,totalizing,technological solutions.
This is onlyone possibledirectionthatmightemergeout
of a lesscomplexrelationship to digitaltechnology in archi-
tecture- a reasonable,inventive, and expedientuse of avail-
able digitaltechnologies withinthelogicsof our own disci-
pline.Othersincludeincorporating digitaltechnologies
into
directly buildings, as interactiveskinsor sensingdevices
thatgo beyondcurrent"smartbuilding"technology. The
computer is an abstract and it
machine, as movesbeyondthe
logics of visualization, new potentialsopenup.
Thereis serioustheoretical and criticalworkbeingdone
today in the realm of digitaltechnology, butI am suspicious
of thosewho exhibita nostalgiaforthecultishaspectof the
computer, as a kindof secretsectwithitsown esotericlan-
guage. It strikes me thatthearchitects mostcloselyassociat-
ed withthediscoursearounddigitaltechnology stillhave
-
morein commonwithPixar weddedto extravagant effects
and a logicsof opticality - thanwiththe
improvisational
cultureof thelow-techanimatorsof Waking Life.
Architecture, whichconstructs an artificial worldout of a
giventechnological reality,could benefit enormously from
theseexamplesof an expedientrelationship to digitaltech-
nologies:an architecture thatis relaxedand pragmatic, more
interested in circumstances and consequencesthanin consis-
tency and complexity.

StanAllenisanarchitectand
DEANOFTHESCHOOL OF
Architecture
at Princeton
University.
Heistheauthorof
PointsandLines:Diagrams
and
fortheCity
Projects
andPractice:
1999)
(Princeton,
Architecture,
Techniqueand
Representation
(G+BArts,2000).
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