What is Architecture in the Age of Digital Networking?

  • 11 Jul 2013
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  • Articles Editor's Choice
Silk Pavilion at the Media Lab, a cross-disciplinary initiative. © Steven Keating

I get most of my knowledge about the current trends and interests of architects through social media and various websites. My Facebook newsfeed constantly shows an array of pictures, articles, and videos of things ranging from new buildings to data algorithms to bacteria evolution to (usually confusing) romantic, poetic statements about architecture.

They all share one thing in common: they are posted on Facebook by architects and architecture students. To me, this shows the current disarray and lack of focus in the field. Architecture publications and websites only confirm my thoughts further. And nothing reaffirms this more than my daily experiences at MIT.

Read more, after the break…

This wonderful institution is packed with very intelligent individuals who are rather successful at what they have chosen to invest their lives into. The huge array of all-things-architecture-related is dizzying. For example, there are architects who spend their time researching about bike sharing and social biking. There are architects who spend their time researching about plants to grow within the confines of a small city apartment. Then there are those who try to develop a new way of transportation, folding mopeds and cars, adding sensors and motors to a bicycle wheel… The list goes on and on – and it isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to MIT.

This begs the question: where is the architecture? All of these people trained originally as architects. If they now research bike sensors or plants, are they still architects? Why are there so many of them? What did architecture schools teach or expose to them that their interests became what they are today? It almost seems as if architecture can facilitate literally anything you fancy, within or without the discipline.

Or can it…?

I suppose it depends on your definition of architecture. After all, these various branches (for lack of a better word) of architecture only exist in the world of academia (and I can see the appeal: academia lets you publish and get recognized for your ideas – without having to go through the politics and bureaucracies of contracts and construction sullying them). And yet these “branches” have very little relevance to the professional world, to “architecture” as we have always known it.

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In a recent interview with Iman Ansari, Peter Eisenman recalls how Manfredo Tafuri once told him, “Peter, if you don’t build no one will take your ideas seriously. You have to build because ideas that are not built are simply ideas that are not built.” For Eisenman, “Architecture involves seeing whether those ideas can withstand the attack of building, of people, of time, of function, etc. Tafuri said history will not be interested in your work if you haven’t built anything. I think that’s absolutely correct. If I had built nothing, you and I wouldn’t be talking now.” Eisenman differentiates between architecture and building: for him, architecture “only exists in the drawings” while the building “exists outside the drawings.”

But is Eisenman an example of an architect of the past?

The City of Culture / Eisenmann Architects. Image Duccio Malagamba

There are architects, like Eisenman, who are trying to pull the profession back to where it used to be, to focus it on people and the built environment. And there are those who believe that the future of architects lies in the blurring of boundaries between architecture and all other fields of knowledge.

And so, as it exists today, architecture is a case of living contradiction. On one side lies the world of professional work – where ideas get built, contracts are signed, and the final product gets delivered to the public to see and experience. On the other side lies the world of academia – where theories get tested, boundaries are pushed, and new ideas are often invented. The two are paradoxically connected and dissonant.

Put another way, the discipline of architecture has generated an entirely new discipline. For some reason, it is still called architecture – it just has nothing to do with designing or constructing buildings.

Installation for the The FAST Light festival of art, science and technology at MIT. Image © Skylar Tibbits.

As a young designer, I often ponder what my future will be in this field of my choice. Sometimes it can be quite discouraging. Most people try to get a job in high-profile offices. Some transition from their research work during their school years into a full time researcher. Some decide to teach, sometimes just to pay the bills. A large majority of everyone actually struggles to find anything. The quite popular practice of offices that hire unpaid interns without any guarantee of hiring them full-time once the internship period is over does not help either. The future does indeed seem very grim.

But it is also the case in many other professions. We architects, however, can be optimistic.

During the last year of my undergraduate studies, one of my teachers, who initially trained as a physicist but later turned to architecture, told me, “architecture is the last remaining refuge for generalists.”

“The last remaining refuge for generalists”… This statement is terrifyingly accurate. Regardless of what happens to the profession in the near future, the possibilities are almost endless. And although it may seem disarrayed, perhaps this disarray is necessary for survival. Not too many other professions enjoy the luxury of accommodating such a huge diversity of interests as architecture does; perhaps this will be the key to its surviving and evolving.

Dessen Hillman is currently a graduate student at MIT, pursuing his SMArchS degree in Architecture and Urbanism. He is interested in investigating the role of architecture in various urban settings through the scope of architecture design.

Cite: Dessen Hillman. "What is Architecture in the Age of Digital Networking?" 11 Jul 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 29 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=401172>
  • Daniel

    Vanessa, I think you may have set up a false dichotomy here. The choice is not simply to “build” in the traditional sense, or retreat to fundamentally academic pursuits. If we define our practice by principle, rather than product- “I shape the built environment” is different from “I make buildings,” we open a vast field of opportunity. Of course Eisenman is correct- you must test your ideas in the field for them to have any legitimacy. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to confine yourself to the “traditional practice of architecture.” Designing your business practice to support your way of working is as important as designing projects.

    • http://www.archdaily.com Vanessa Quirk

      Hi Daniel, Thanks for your comment (You also helped me realize that my name had erroneously appeared as the author, when the author is Dessen Hilman. This has now been fixed). However, to speak to your idea that the author himself sets up a “false” dichotomy – why yes, I think that’s the point. I would say that this dichotomy exists in the minds of many architects, and yet (as the author suggests), it needn’t. By re-defining the role of the architect from that of builder to that of (as you say) “shaper of the built environment,” or in Dessen’s words, by allowing architecture to give “refuge to the generalists,” we open the field up, disrupt the dichotomy that currently exists, and hopefully allow for the profession’s continued evolution and survival.

  • Erik

    I believe that one of the major problems of architecture (education) is that we are trained in 1 thing only ‘how to be(come) an architect’. Most people who pursue an degree in architecture hope to become an architect, whilst in other degrees people are trained in a very broad sense which allow them to be able do a lot of different jobs. They are more flexible then architects.

    I believe ‘architecture’ should always be about buildings (or at least the built environment) but I don’t think it is a bad thing that a lot of universities (like MIT) are blurring the boundaries of architectural education and try to educate ‘designers (/researchers)’ rather then just ‘architects’, which tent to be the case with universities that have a more practical approach.

    One thing that this recession taught me is that there is not a place for all off us in architecture. So why limiting ourselves to just architecture?

  • Alex

    Very nice article. I especially love “Architecture involves seeing whether those ideas can withstand the attack of building”
    Perhaps a way to look at it is by pushing the argument to the extreme (or its essence) “If all architects abandoned *-blank-* architecture would cease to exist”. No other word fills that blank better than *-building-*.

  • aybars mamali

    Hello, Dessen, good observations about the blurry boundries of architecture. However, my question is about something else, you used the phrase “architectural designer” as your signature, but as I see from the article, you don’t consider “architecture” as a branch of “design”, do you?. Am I wrong? That just seemed like a contradiction to me. What do you think about it?

    • Dessen Hillman

      Hi Aybars. I do think architecture is a branch of design, as you mentioned. However, I don’t think that architecture is a form of pure art. I think architecture, more than a form of self-expression or exploration, has important practical responsibilities, but a lot of us, as I have seen, want to treat it as a pure art. As architecture designers, we fulfill the demands and requirements of a site based on the demands of a client and available budget through what we individually believe to be the most appropriate thing to do in that specific location. I hope this clears up my opinion a little bit.