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Second Nature: Archilab's Naturalizing Architecture at the FRAC Centre

By restaging the fundamental relation between architecture and nature, ArchiLab 2013 produced one of its most convincing editions to date

ArchiLab has always played a part in mapping the role that digital tools have played in pushing the boundaries of architectural research, a condition that this ninth edition only reinforces. The 2013 edition presents works by 40 architects and designers generated by combining the increasing computational power available with the inspiration drawn from ‘molecular biology, even the processes of replication, transcription and translation of genetic material’.

The work selected is of outstanding quality: from Minimaforms’ interactive installation, to marcosandmarjan’s experiments with building components, to Jenny Sabin’s captivation with biological systems, the overall effect is that of a consistent body of work able to question established notions of scale and material.

The computational paradigm not only includes actual computers but also extends to the parallel development of computer-controlled machines able to materialise digitally generated forms allowing architects to venture into unconventional territories for experimentation.

Data − which computers can now sense, mine and visualise in ever-larger quantities − have an essential capacity to challenge traditional definitions of architecture: Biothing convincingly explores the potential Big Data will have in controlling the material resolution of architecture, thinning the divide between organic and inorganic matter. Similar topics also inform − with different outcomes − the work of both Michael Hansmeyer and Marc Fornes & TheVeryMany in which biological references are replaced by the mathematics of form.

The works on display − which also include other fields such as communication, fashion and art − could not have been produced and, at times, even imagined without computers. The implicit and provocative statement underlying this edition is that computation has by now positioned itself as an unavoidable tool for experimentation in architecture; it is here considered as a given so much so that the term ‘post-digital’ would perhaps be more accurate.

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Daniel Widrig’s Tower Study No 7, an example of the organic yet computer driven design, strikingly reminiscent of Art Nouveau

The curatorial strategy − which is not only confined to the exhibition, but also extends to the organisation of the catalogue and accompanying two-day symposium − perhaps marks the most evident difference with previous versions of ArchiLab. The catalogue, for instance, comes across less as an encyclopaedic exercise, but rather as a polemical statement about the present and future of architecture. Coherently then, designers’ and theoreticians’ contributions are woven together in a seamless fashion merging design experiments and theoretical essays which expand the discussion to include fields as diverse as epistemology, mathematics and material sciences.

Mario Carpo, Rivka Oxman, Lambros Malafouris, Annick Lesne, Graham Harman, Giuseppe Longo and Franck Varenne provide an extremely rich and complex set of references and criticisms emerging from the integration of computational tools in the creative disciplines. This discussion takes place under the very ambitious agenda set up by Frédéric Migayrou in his opening essay, a historical tour de force singling out apparently minor and yet decisive moments in the relation between nature and architecture.

By surveying various examples from Mannerism to the present day, Migayrou maps a different genealogy of modernity with the aim of carving out a philosophical and methodological framework within the territories enabled by the conflation of computation and biology. His theoretical opening is all the more provocative if compared to parallel efforts developed by critics such as Charles Jencks or Anthony Vidler. Migayrou’s narrative about a different origin of modernity in the 15th century and its unsuspected link to recent developments in the sciences marks an element of true novelty within the contemporary architectural discourse.

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The potentials and problems emerging from the curators’ thesis were at the centre of the discussions that took place during the symposium on 24 and 25 October. Particularly poignant were the observations by mathematicians probing the presupposed ‘naturalness’ of computation; that is, the rigour with which computers simulate natural phenomena.

The gap between representation through models − be it digital or analogic − and reality was for instance problematised by Longo’s foray into the different paradigms that sciences and art use to articulate such relations which concluded in the polemical observation that computers are completely artificial.

The different definitions of model provided by scientists and designers became a particularly rich topic. Scientists simulate existing phenomena, a process judged by its predictive success. However, designers employing similar models have a different outlook: they lack phenomena to recreate, and the gap between the expected and what simulations actually return is the measure of success.

By restaging the fundamental relation between architecture and nature, ArchiLab 2013 produced one of its most convincing editions to date. The combination of experimental design at all scales and materials coupled with theoretical investigations foregrounded a body of work which will play a key role in defining how we conceptualise and fabricate architecture.

Archilab 2013

Venue: FRAC Centre
City: Orléans
Dates: until 30 March 2014

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