New digital advancements and technologies are redefining how we design. Looking at how these tools are becoming more ubiquitous and pervasive, IKEA's research and design lab SPACE10 published The Digital in Architecture report to explore the impact of digital technology and its larger movements. Authored by architecture theorist Mollie Claypool, the report illustrates these changes through data research, concepts, and visualisation by Pentagram.
As Claypool explains, the increasing proliferation of digital technologies is an opportunity to shift our shared understanding of the world, especially from an architectural perspective. Touching on design, making and experience, the report looks at 15 distinct developments. From machine learning to artificial intelligence and Big Data, Claypool touches on larger influences as she draws a line between science, philosophy, design, data, innovation and our experience of the built environment.
In an exclusive feature with SPACE10, ArchDaily is sharing an overview of the 15 developments and how digital innovation has influenced architecture from the 1860s until today. The feature highlights Claypool’s observations on key developments in digital thinking within architecture and with a continuous emphasis on parametric design. Read the full report to find out more.
Origins: Morphological Thinking and The Proto-Parametricists
Our concerns about the future of architecture in an age of digitisation have direct links to how we understand our relationship to nature. In short, it’s about embedding organic logic and synergy into form so that it can be experienced at every scale of design, from the details on a seat to the organisation of a home or neighbourhood. This mentality can be summarised as ‘morphological thinking’, and it allowed architects to consider how nature's principles could transcend all forms of architectural design.
Insight into the principles of nature, and the mathematics behind these principles, hugely influenced architects in the early to mid-20th century. While they certainly did not have access to the design technologies of today, they were able to utilise morphogenetic thinking in an analogue way with whatever means they had at the time. Specifically, this led to the development of a series of works that could be argued as ‘proto-parametricist’, or using analogue means to compute form using parameters.
A Cybernetic Revolution & Early Digital Explorations
Innovations in science go hand in hand with innovations in technology. In the middle of the 20th century, rapid technological advancement spurned by the two world wars became a mechanism for developing a greater understanding of how humans and machines are controlled by, and can communicate with, one another. At the time, the systems that this resulted in were broadly collated in an emerging field of research called ‘cybernetics’.
The economic crises and recessions of the mid-1970s and 1980s drove architects to recalibrate the way they practiced. Many architects, particularly ones embedded in the relative safety of academia, began to investigate other forms of more experimental practice and look to other industries for inspiration. As complex forms designed with digital tools became more pervasive in the architecture and design industry over the late 1980s and early 1990s, computational tools became more essential to not only the design process but also the production of drawings.
From Virtual to Physical with Collaborative Practice
Advances in both digital and construction technology enabled architects to express and realize forms that could only have been conceptualised previously. The period of the late 1990s and early 2000s is marked by the realisation of the concepts explored in the previous decades at an architectural scale. Different from the intuitive and artistic approach of more traditional form-making, other architects explored process-driven form-making through conceptualising functional or spatial elements as a series of diagrams.
Then came the Internet. And new communication technologies fuelled by its rise meant that collaboration — inherent to any architectural practice — could now happen at a pace faster than ever before. No longer did one have to wait for architectural drawings to arrive in the post, which made the design process painfully slow. Instead they could be emailed, Fedex’d and uploaded, and worked on almost in real-time by people in different locations. In the 2000s, continued advancements in scientific, philosophical and technological research led to emphasis on the importance of collective intelligence, drawing from principles in nature in both academia and practice.
Computing Nature, Parametric Explosion and Augmenting Reality
For several decades academic practice had been a place where architects and designers found refuge in a weakened economic climate that had affected the building industry. As a result, academia had been the bastion of the rise of architectural theory, with design focussed on the representation — mainly through drawing, such as in the work of Peter Eisenman or Daniel Libeskind — of theoretical concepts and ideas appropriated from contintenal philosophy as well as the new generation of architectural theorists.
For the last decade or so, one of the ongoing debates amongst architects interested in the potential of digital tools and technologies is around whether digital and parametric design tools are merely a means to an end, i.e. the ‘how’ something gets designed.61 Or, are these tools themselves embodied with social and political discourse? Are they symbolic or even operative of the ‘why’ and ‘for whom’ of a design? Today, it is apparent that the latter is inextricably true given developing discussions around uses of artificial intelligence, data privacy, social media and the future of automation in the media. But in the late 2000s, there was slightly more naiveté amongst the vast majority of architects who were, by then, using digital tools in their practice.
Contemporary culture was changed radically by the Internet and other communication technologies. As technology became more accessible in the 2000s, particularly hardware and sensor technologies, so did the sense that architecture could physically be as performative and vibrant as the algorithms and simulations that architects used in the design process. Digital tools enabled architecture to embody fluidity, temporality, movement and change — which, in turn, also transformed how people move through and interact with their built environment. All of this became a mechanism for gaining a new understanding of space. Architects explored to what extent physical architectural elements could respond and adapt to people’s behaviours, changing needs, or even cultural, programmatic or environmental conditions. As part of that exploration, architects began to augment one’s experience of the built environment, often in real time.
Digital Fabrication & Robots
Imagine small-scale digital fabrication machines like 3D printers that could fit into your home or office, enabling you to make whatever objects you wanted or needed — from household items to furniture to your own home. A shift from consumerism to prosumerism — where the consumer is also the producer — enables a vast transformation to take place in how we make the objects around us. This transformation is on its way to meeting its full potential because of a revolution in digital fabrication.
Robots have been part of our collective cultural consciousness for a long time, yet they mean different things to different people. The notion of semi-autonomous robotic collaboration is a topic that many architects and designers today are developing for different applications and contexts. Other work looks at the ways in which autonomous drones and other manufacturing technologies can be used to construct large-scale architecture and infrastructure.
Radical Rethinking & The Discrete
All of this work exploring the potential of robots in architecture would be impossible if not for the revolution in information and data technologies in supercomputing and artificial intelligence in the last decade, or what has been referred to as the ‘Big Data’ revolution. Big Data, or using extremely large sets of data for computational analysis, has found kinship with the digital revolution of 2012 onwards in architecture.
Integrating socio-political awareness and critique into architecture is important. And because digital technology is readily available, for very low costs, there is an entire generation of architects and designers who were brought up to be highly literate in these technologies. As a result, this is the first moment where social responsibility and digital and automated technologies have the potential to be accessible to everyone. What architects dream of can now come to life more easily than ever before.
What’s Next: Construction Goes Digital and Digital Transparency
Construction is one of the least digitised industries in the world, second only to hunting. Furthermore, in the construction industry, productivity has not risen since World War II.101 While architectural design practices have been using digital tools for over 30 years now, construction has tended to remain profoundly analogue, reliant on semi-skilled or unskilled manual labour on a building site. This means that construction is an industry ripe for the integration and use of more digital technologies. With this, the industry’s productivity would increase, jobs would be created, and the everyday person would be more connected to the digital in the built environment.
Digital thinking, tools and technologies are extremely powerful and important for all people today — and into the future. As the architect and researcher Valentin Soana has stated, the digital in architectural design enables ‘new systems where architectural processes can emerge through close collaboration between humans and machines; where technologies are used to extend capabilities and augment design and construction processes.’ This enables a movement beyond ‘top down approaches, in which design decisions are made based on human biases and limitations; technologies will help us better understand social dynamics, materials, structural systems and formation processes. More than productivity gains, we'll rethink the way we live and the way we make decisions — and ultimately how we articulate our built environment.’ As these tools become more accessible to the everyday person on a daily basis, it is important that designers and tool makers are open about the ways in which they are used — for what, and why. This transparency and openness about the power of digital technology and the production of the built environment is necessary for better serving all people and designing a more equitable world.