Architecture's "Dark Products": What Do Architects Claim Ownership of in the Design Process?

Why do we build? How do we build? Who do we ultimately build for? These have been questions that have dominated the worlds of both practice and pedagogy since the early ages of architecture. On a basic level, those questions can be answered almost reflexively, with a formulaic response. But is it time to look beyond just the simple why, how, and who?

In a world where the physical processes of architecture are becoming increasingly less important and digital processes proliferate through all phases of architectural ideas and documentation, we should perhaps be looking to understand the ways in which architects work, and examine how we can claim the processes—not just the products—of our labors.

Curtis Roth, Associate Professor at the Knowlton School of Architecture, recently published his book Some Dark Products after completing research as a fellow of the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. His book focuses on the labor of the design process, arguing that "the work of architecture is actually a work of architecture," and how that ultimately causes architecture to appear in the world. “Architects tend to think of authorship as something in the mind, when it is actually a bodily process,” according to Roth. “But how do we author the networks of our labor? We stake a claim to the drawing and the final production, but what about the in-between? The BIM process? The spatial products?”

His curiosity over this idea began while working for OFFICE US at the 2014 Venice Biennale. Acting as part of a team of researchers to understand the past 100 years of architecture designed by US-based firms, he began to explore the ways in which different offices produced work, especially how they coordinated work abroad. This sparked an interest in what Roth claims are the “dark products” of architecture, or the interstitial digital processes that are often not authored but are required for the successful realization of a building.

Below are examples taken from Roth’s book, which describe two “instruments” he used to investigate architecture’s dark products.


Courtesy of Curtis Roth

The first instrument explores the strategies of outsourcing labor, a practice frequently used by larger architecture firms. Roth decided to outsource the labor of drawing architectural details to Rason, North Korea to understand the authorship that can be transferred through the internet. In the commissioning of these details, an Ahmedabad-based tech corporation called Silicon Valley Infomedia was provided with 8 AutoCAD .DWG files in which each detail was to be drawn. The CAD files were then transferred to Silvermine Systems, where an anonymous group of North Korean drafters would draw these details that represented a specific type of "designed leaks" (such as weep-holes) in the surface of a building. Each detail was drawn and then watermarked by North Korea’s Red Star OS, a state-produced operating system designed to prevent the pirating of Mac operating systems and to track the transfer of K-Pop music across its highly militarized border with South Korea. This system gives each computer its own digital signature, which allowed the authorship of each drawn detail to be encrypted into the file that was sent back to Roth. He then extruded each detail to create a 3D object, and ran it through a motion simulator to produce the following drawings of the fluid motion through the detail, with the detail itself now erased.

Courtesy of Curtis Roth
Courtesy of Curtis Roth
Courtesy of Curtis Roth

The result produced renderings “of an absent detail, signed by the watermark of an absent North Korean detailer,” ultimately questioning the identity of the author of these drawings; is it that of the laborer seated in North Korea, or Roth, who commissioned the details to be drawn and transformed them into complete images?

INSTRUMENT II: The Specification

Courtesy of Curtis Roth

In his second experiment, “Instrument II: The Specification,” Roth explored the relationship of the specifier to the architectural process, specifically the way that the architect’s instructions can be understood to produce different results each time a task is done. Can a specification be considered a means of authorship? Or does it lose its sense of authorship because it is simply an interpretation of instructions?

Ten images were sent to ten painters in China, who were given a set of instructions which dictated the conditions for the image’s reproduction. They were told to hang the image in their studio and paint what they observed, including the studio’s context. Once the ten original images were returned, each was mailed to a local competitor of the original artist who was given a second specification, instructing the second painter “to erase all but the studio wall of the first painter.” Some of the outcomes of this simple specification can be found below.

Courtesy of Curtis Roth
Courtesy of Curtis Roth

The results show a variety of interpretations of the specification that Roth provided to them. Each of the paintings raises the question of “whose intellection caused these spaces to appear?” Was it an intentional misinterpretation of instructions to give what was assumed to be the best product? Or did the painters make an attempt to impose some sort of personal authorship on the painting themselves? Ultimately, each painting represents a disconnect between three authors, Roth, the first painter, and the second. In this case, it is impossible to separate the creative process from the physical labor. This disconnect can also hold true for the way in which architectural specifications are executed. The architect’s design may be interpreted by the specifier, and later interpreted in a second way by the laborer performing the work. If this is the case, then who holds the right to claim authorship over the design? Is it the architect who created the design intent, or the laborer who executed it with a creative freedom?

These two investigations show that in the design process, there is a disconnect in what architects claim to author. No longer can the profession simply think about the physical drawings and realization of a building as their own, but begin to understand how the processes and steps in between can have a major effect on the outcomes of their design intentions. 

Read more about Roth's research and understanding of architecture's Dark Products, here.

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About this author
Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "Architecture's "Dark Products": What Do Architects Claim Ownership of in the Design Process?" 06 Jan 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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