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Reading the digital revolution

The Alphabet and the Algorithm by Mario Carpo

You don’t have to be a follower of the parametric church to read, appreciate and learn from The Alphabet and the Algorithm, the latest book by Mario Carpo. Although written in support of the digital turn in architecture (a trend that is today already in decline), Carpo’s book is nothing less than an epistemological enquiry into the very concept of design, and more precisely architectural design.

Instead of providing another messianic manifesto on the digital revolution, he looks back to the very origin of architectural design to prove his thesis. For Carpo, the period that goes from the 15th century to the last decade of the 20th century − a period in which architects authored their buildings by providing notations in scale to be executed as identical as possible to the architect’s original conceptions − is a historical interlude. Before and after architecture was and will be a work open for constant change and revision and thus produced out of the paradigm of formal identicality between the built work or the designed object and the architect’s scheme.

In order to advance this thesis, Carpo proposes a penetrating analysis of Leon Battista Alberti’s invention of architectural design, since it is exactly such method that, as Carpo argues, is going to be seriously challenged by the increasing use of computers within the production of architecture. For the author, the Albertian architect is an early manifestation of the episteme of mass production in which multiples are exact copies of the original, the prototype. Long before mass production would be an industrial phenomenon, Alberti attempted to mass-produce the architectural project by claiming that a building had to be executed as a mechanical imprint of the notations that were provided by
the architect himself.

In this way, architecture became an allographic art, that is an art whose buildings are instances of the artist’s authorship without being directly crafted by him/her. Alberti was so adamant about the distance between design and building that he recommended architects not to even enter the building site. From that moment on, builders were no longer autonomous fabricators who possessed both the idea and the craft, but simply executors of other people’s designs. Even though such procedure would become extremely influential in defining the role of the architect, Alberti’s implementation of this method was not without problems as apparently the builders of his first design, the Tempio Malatestiano, were reluctant to cooperate.

Alberti’s invention of design was indeed a refinement of Brunelleschi’s attempt to overcome the workers’ resistance towards his leadership on the building site of one of the major architectural works of the early Renaissance: the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. It is known that Brunelleschi did not disclose his plan to complete the dome to the workers in order to deprive them of their professional autonomy.

However, Filippo Brunelleschi’s authorial strategy was not tenable since such strict control would force the author to be always present on the building site. It was for this reason that Alberti proposed that the architect would provide builders with notations to be executed faithfully in the architect’s absence. Alberti thus founded his method on the paradigm of identicality, which as Carpo suggests made the architect’s design the definitive notational source of the building.

For Alberti, indexical correspondence between design and building was so crucial that in his book on the art of building, De Re Aedificatoria, he did not include images because they would have been susceptible to alteration while being copied. Instead, he scripted all his design explanations by literally digitalising architectural form: that is replacing drawings with the digits that would stand for architectural measures of parts.

It is an irony, Carpo suggests, that Alberti perfected such authorial method just a few years before the invention of printing. With printing, identical reproduction of architectural images made the paradigm of identicality a norm among architects. What the diffusion of architectural treatises established was a process of mass-production of ideas and architectural forms. This process became even more radical with the advent of industrial production in which a further expanded division of labour and mechanical reproduction − not a simple reproduction of ideas and forms, but of the building elements themselves − made the distance between design and craft larger and larger.

This mode of production has been fundamentally challenged by the digital turn in architecture that occurred in the 1990s. The advent of CAD/CAM-aided design − Carpo argues − is overcoming the Albertian paradigm of identicality to replace it with the one of sameness. While mechanised reproduction of objects was based on the strict indexical relationship between the original and the copy, with processes of digital reproduction this relationship is no longer necessary and not even possible. Digital means of production are susceptible to being constantly re-adjusted, and self-customised.

Moreover, whereas with mechanical reproduction it was not feasible to change the form of the object or the component while it was being manufactured, with digital modes of production each mass-manufactured item can be different. For example, the architect and theorist Bernard Cache has theorised the authorial approach to digital design as ‘objectile’ (which is also the name of his practice and workshop in Paris). In Cache’s terms, objectile stands for a generic object whose algorithmically produced form can be differentiated and made singular for each object produced.

For Carpo, such production processes serve to reintroduce a pre-Albertian way of making architecture and design objects in which production is no longer driven by identicality, but by sameness, that is the resemblance between differentiated objects. Such a mode of production implies a form of authorship that is much more open to adaptability and interpretation, the author argues, and the end of identicality in design means that the latter is no longer a hierarchically organised form of labour, but a
more open and horizontal way to produce architecture.

It is precisely at this point that I would level a criticism towards Carpo’s thesis: that the ‘open-ended’ nature of the digitally driven design is ultimately a much more strict form of control. It makes creative processes much more open (indeed) towards any form of technocratic interference. If the Albertian invention of design contributed towards the division of labour within architecture, digital design appears to make this division even more complicated and difficult to re-compose.

Yet in spite of this criticism, The Alphabet and the Algorithm is a brilliant and well-crafted provocation that may be of interest not only for those who have embraced digital design, but also for those who remain sceptical towards the practice.

The Alphabet and the Algorithm

Author: Mario Carpo

Publisher: The MIT Press

Price: £15.95

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