Friday, February 03, 2006

Born too Late

I was born in the wrong decade.

At least, as an architect, I was born in the wrong decade. I feel like a relic, not even three years out of undergraduate school. I think of myself belonging to a generation of architects of years past, no decades past, before the infiltration of technology and its amazing, sometimes frightening, potential.

Technology has fundamentally changed the practice and production of Architecture. It can be see as both a liberator of architectural vision and the dictator of architectural practice. As liberator: the new forms of the latest star-architects are now conceivable with computer software able to calculate the strange angles, the complicated structural loads, the complex connections. As dictator: surviving without the technological advances of AutoCAD, of three-dimensional modeling, of digital imaging and digital reproduction is nigh impossible. Accept the new standards or fall to the way-side, relegated as obsolete.

Now back in school, I see the dual nature of technology first hand. There is a pervading sense that technology is the answer, the key, the solution. Take a project into 3D studio, or Maya, and be amazed by the possibilities! Look at the curvy blobs you can make, the extreme deformations. Imagine the complex geometries, the sexy layered transparencies. And, of course, you can’t forget the final seduction – the photomontage of your project in context, with white or grey ghosted figures and flashy graphics. It looks real, so it must be real! See?

In the five years from when I began undergraduate school to the day I graduated, I saw the computer transform from specialty accessory to mandatory tool. Our introduction to 3-D modeling software was, when I was a freshman, considered an advanced, forward-thinking curriculum component. After all, you couldn’t use it as an everyday design tool. I mean, when it takes a couple of hours to get a good image rendered, it is rather difficult to make multiple iterations quickly. And when your mantra is “save, save, save”, meaning your computer will spontaneously crash on multiple occasions, you find yourself working in other media just to make sure you have something come critique time.

But, as computers rapidly developed in speed, processing power, memory and availability, it became more and more apparent that a life without a computer would never again exist. Whereas I never stepped foot into our AutoCAD lab as a first or second year, as a fifth year, I competed with first and second years for a spot to spend hours and hours typing and click. While it took me a full year to properly learn our 3-D modeling program, a CAD program, and Adobe Photoshop, the new classes of students ran through those three programs plus additional ones specializing in animation, in texture mapping, in movie-making. As a fifth-year, I was already lacking in the skills of my younger cohorts. And I hadn’t even left school yet.

Now, in graduate school, I feel incomplete without including some type of technological component to my research. It might not be the focus, but there is a sense that it should at least part of the process. The pressure is, in part, a professional consideration. Computer skills are a nice big plus on my rather minimal list of “things that make me a person you want to hire”. And that is hard thing to ignore. But, beyond the need to find myself a job, I worry that, if I don’t embrace the technology, I will effectively become what I feel – a prehistoric specimen living in a future-driven world.

It’s not that I can’t. In fact, there is much of the digital that is integral to my world – email, the internet, digital photos, digital documentation. But, as part of my design process, it is still foreign… unfamiliar…uncomfortable. Yes, the challenge of the digital should excite me. But, for some reason, I instinctively shy away from it. As much as I want to embrace the digital – to learn the intricacies, the possibilities – I find it myself overwhelmed at the very thought of sitting down and cracking open that “Dummies guide to…”.

The failure of the digital, which bothers me most, is that, as a designer, you cede control to the programs that you use. Well, that is, unless, you learn the minutiae of the code itself – the structure of the computer program that currently spits out your design work. At the production level, this is not really a concern. But, for me, at the design level, at the level of intellectual inquiry, it is extremely problematic.

Watching the final reviews of a rival school’s graduate program, I was thoroughly impressed by the work they produced. Much of the work was exceptionally presented, with intricate models, catchy flash presentations and alluring imagery. And there was no doubt that some of the students truly owned their work, and the processes used to arrive at their final solutions.

But the less successful projects had a uniting theme. In relying on their software programs to arrive at their final products, they defaulted on certain aesthetic and functional issues. When questioned, the answer was effectively “well, that’s what the program gave us.” And that, for me, is the scariest aspect of the technological revolution on architecture. The solution isn’t yours, but what the computer program interpolates from your inputs. And, unless you are an expert in the algorithms used to create the shape geometries you see, you will always be beholden to someone else’s commands, someone else’s ideas.

It’s a catch-22. The future of architecture is intertwined with technology. And, if current trends continue, technology will increasingly be the primary tool in both the design and production of architecture. But, at what cost? And under whose direction? Will architects control the development? Or will it be software programmers? Other professionals? These are the questions I hope people consider. I know they are the ones that constantly stay on my mind. I know, for my own satisfaction, I would want to be an expert in the software before I become reliant upon it. And that is what overwhelms me, makes me hesitate to start new ones when I am not near mastering the ones I currently use. But if I don’t, I lose out, passed on by the millions of those who have no reservations, no second thoughts.


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