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Ideas And Tools: Architecture & Representation

Will Hunter introduces the AR’s special issue examining the evolving relationship between the drawing and the building

Many of the pages in this special issue highlight the intense relationship between architectural ideas and the tools used to express them. But, in their twinned evolution, is it the tools leading the ideas, or the ideas leading the tools?

Since the advent of the computer this interrelationship has grown ever harder to unpick. But in a determined search for answers, the Canadian Centre for Architecture is staging an important new exhibition Archaeology of the Digital, part of an initiative to establish the role of yesterday’s digital pioneers in transforming today’s design practice (which can be viewed here). For the show’s curator, Greg Lynn, it is the architects who have forced the tools to catch up with their architectural vision.

Peter Eisenman wanted to use DNA structure to create a diagram for a building; Frank Gehry wanted a better constructional result for his sculptural forms; and Chuck Hoberman wanted to make an architecture of moving parts. Together the three of them have influenced the subsequent creation of FormZ, the architectural applications of CATIA, and animation software now used by Hollywood.

Technical advances have, in turn, allowed new architectural methodologies to emerge. Eisenman, for example, fully departed from the Cambridge teachings of Colin Rowe − who was interested in the parti − and committed to the morphological diagram, pursuing a distinctive approach,repeating and adapting formal motifs, which Lynn sees as the real father of parametric architecture.

Nicholas Olsberg strikes a more sceptical note, arguing that the rise of digital software has not − as yet − supplanted the hand in the exploration of ideas. ‘The visionary and speculative tradition in architecture is surely the one where the computer has the least advantage over the paper sketch,’ he argues. ‘It cannot produce an idea at anywhere near the speed of the pencil stroke.’

This certainly is true for Laura Allen, whose work graces this month’s cover. The drawing − reproduced in full on the fold-out after page 66 in the printed magazine − was made in an afternoon; and the intricate concertinaed depiction on page 63 was dashed off in under half-an-hour. Interviewed by Peter Cook with her partner Mark Smout, Allen is emphatic that ‘drawing is a thinking process’.

In this area she believes the computer can be disadvantageous, describing the drawings cut from Rhino models that she often sees at the Bartlett as ‘nonsense’. ‘It’s a totally different outcome to designing and drawing in section,’ she says. And (despite being credited with inventing parametric design) Eisenman agrees with her. ‘Architects and architecture students have lost the capacity to think through drawing. They can only think through a computer,’ he laments in his interview with Iman Ansari.

Eisenman is an enigmatic case indeed. He places himself in the conceptual, cultural and intellectual camp in direct opposition to the phenomenologists (Peter Zumthor et al) who are interested in the experience of buildings − a position he took to such an extreme that he didn’t think it necessary to visit his early houses, referred to his buildings as ‘built models’, and was delighted when in a photograph one of his completed buildings was mistaken for a model.

Yet today Eisenman feels it essential to build. He relates how Manfredo Tafuri once told him: ‘Peter, if you don’t build no one will take your ideas seriously.’ And it is here that the relationship between ideas and tools becomes further complicated. For while it is probable that the trajectories of ideas and tools develop more-or-less in tandem − sometimes one being ahead, sometimes the other, and in different strands − it is how the architectural concepts that they represent intersect with the possibility of construction which is the final test.

But does that mean every idea has to be built to be validated? Not at all. The richness of ideas presented here, the value of describing radical visions for the future, of speculating about an architecture that may never exist, and of pursuing notions that may go nowhere at all: these are an essential part of architecture as a risk-taking discipline. It is these endeavours that keep the culture of architecture alive, and ultimately push built reality to greater heights.

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