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Over the past several years, some companies have been promoting their computer products with the enticement of a return to a simpler, less stressful work-life. The visual image that resonates is a laptop owner beaming his data effortlessly via satellite from the comfort of some pristine tropical beach. The message seems clear. Recent improvements in digital technology free us from the confining corporate office environment and allow self-determination of lifestyle. However as often happens with predictions of this type, rather than allowing more free time by shortening the time required to perform a task, technology has heightened expectations of productivity. This leads to an increase in workload rather than to relieve an overload. We saw a similar situation in the 1960’s. Dow Chemical Corporation advertised its products under the slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry”. It and other corporations prophesized an improved, cleaner, safer world through the messiah of man-made chemical compounds and especially plastics. While no one could ever deny the life-changing benefits we have derived from such materials, especially in the medical fields, there has been an unintended backlash when they were used to make something not necessarily better, but less expensive. Profits before progress? The name ‘plastic’ is now often associated with a derogatory description of inferior quality. But this is not the fault of the material itself as many beautiful objects are made from it. The blame lies on the manner in which it has been used and misused.
Now digital technology is suffering a similar fate. The computer, as if it was a living thing itself, has been accused of being dehumanizing, of replacing people with soulless machines. In much case this is justified. Anyone who has become trapped on an electronic answering service without hope of reaching a live human voice can serve witness to this. But we have come to accept that ‘progress’ sometimes necessitates the loss of something valuable. While digital technology is truly improving our lives, it also carries along negative baggage. Two steps forward and one step back.
However we are
about to make a giant jump in digital technology that will significantly change
the way we live as well as how we define computers themselves.
With the advent of the millennium, there has been an abundance of
predictions about the form of our future living environment. In a recent issue
of the New York Time Magazine, there was a ‘catalog of the future’ which
predicted, based upon research currently underway, what technology would
resemble in the year 2010.1
While the articles covered a wide range from medical to lifestyle
changes, a common link between them all was the dependence on a dramatic
decrease in size and concurrent phenomenal increase in speed of computer
circuitry. If these predictions are
correct, computer hardware is going to all but disappear from view to the naked
eye. Microscopic robots will be
inserted into our bodies to monitor health.
Miniature sensing devices in our houses, cars and workplaces will predict
our wishes ahead of time. Computers
will be reduced to only the devices required for human interface through all the
senses, not just touch. Voice and
sight activated input devices will eliminate the need for keyboards and mice,
all hardware will be located out of site. A
critical aspect of all this reduction is the fact that most technology will
effectively become invisible.
Designers have often looked to machines as an inspiration when attempting to convey a visual image of a future world. The perceived promise of technology has caused machine imagery to be transferred into the language of non-mechanical objects including our architecture. It is well known that some early 20th century modern architects looked to the forms of ships, airplanes and other machinery of industrial production for formal inspiration. It was hoped the language of machine technology would carry, by association, the ‘promise of the future’ being sought. There has since developed an unofficial language for buildings that strive to be ‘modern’. But it is not only the forms that define the language. The palette of accepted construction materials is an integral part. Materials like steel, aluminum and glass (produced by machines themselves) share common characteristics of being shiny, smooth and precise. More recent attempts to celebrate technology through architectural language have had disputable results. To many architects it seems inconceivable for a ‘progressive’ design to be built from anything but this collection of ‘modern’ materials. The only exception being a newly developed one.
So-called “High Tech” architects have made a case for tectonic expression by looking inward to the structural, mechanical and enclosure systems for inspiration rather than from an external, imposed source. Using inherent elements of a building as a vocabulary can provide a more honest expression of construction techniques. But it still raises the questions: Should tectonic systems have such an overwhelming priority? If so, under what conditions? And can a progressive building be built from materials other than just metal, glass and concrete?
Some of the most revealing clues about how we as a culture envision the future come from visionary designers who attempt to predict the form of our world in the future. With few exceptions much of the language is strongly influenced by our technology. From the thoughtful predictions of Archigram to the more fantastic images of animated worlds like “The Jetsons” television series, technology was a chief influence on architectural form. Yet the predicted dates for these fantasies to become reality have come and gone and our architectural environment has remained relatively unchanged. Though by now we were suppose to be flying our air-ships to our acrylic biomorphic pod homes, it is still a fact that the most popular form of new house construction today is the single family pseudo-colonial home with its wood-grained vinyl siding and screwed-on plastic shutters. Why at the turn of a new millennium does the public still long for a style of home that reflects a time 200 years in the past?
There seems to be a common belief among designers that to be progressive, architecture must become more curvilinear and organic in form. (In the same way many fashion designers predict we will eventually all be wearing one-piece, metallic, form-hugging clothing.) Are there stereotypical images of the future that we are destined to fulfill? Are we blindly following a supposed predetermined course? Maybe, as in other fields, designers have underestimated the degree to which people want or the speed with which they can accept change. Especially today with the rapid speed of digital turnover, it seems safe to say that people can not change as fast as our technology. Peter F. Smith has found that psychological studies indicate humans need an aesthetic balance between the new and the familiar to feel excited about a new object or idea. Too much of the familiar can be boring; too much of the new is unsettling. People find pleasure when there is a balance between the two.2 But now that new technology is moving faster than ever before, will humans out of the technology circle get forever left behind? Are we getting too much new technology too fast that causes people to cling to nostalgic images of the past or has our culture not yet adjusted to the changes?
question I want to pose is this: If future architecture language continues to be
inspired by technology, and if technology decreases in perceptibility to the
point of near invisibility, from where will we derive our language for new
design? Without the language of
technology to inspire (or distract) us, might we not have a chance to reflect on
our present culture? Technology has
gotten so far ahead of us that it has the opportunity to lap us in the race.
But instead of thinking of it a full lap ahead we can consider that it is
going to come up alongside us to work together. We could not have asked
technology to be constrained. It had to sprint out ahead of our culture to test
its legs so that it could find a way back into it.
Because of the fact technology will become less visible yet friendlier,
it should become less inhibiting. As
computer/human interface devices improve, the conscious realization of working
with a machine will greatly decrease. So
that even though the layperson will not understand the complexities behind the
technology, they will be more willing to use it.
If we are longer focused on the physical machine, what other doors will
now be open?
Overcoming decades of technology stereotypes will take time. Specifically, removing engrained associations between construction materials and architectural style would be difficult. Because students associate materials with different architectural styles throughout time, they have developed a set of stigmas about construction materials. Throughout their study of architectural history, students see that the oldest buildings, from Egyptian and Greek times on through the centuries, are made of stone. Brick is observed on buildings from Roman times through the last century but rarely on a work of modern architecture. Wood as well may have had such an ancient pedigree had it physically survived the thousands of years it has been used. Even so it is still is perceived along with brick and stone as a “traditional” building materials. On the other hand, because of their relatively recent development during the 19th century, materials such as steel, reinforced concrete and plate glass have had a profound effect on the development of modern architecture. The steel frame’s ability to open up building interiors to endless spatial possibilities has helped reconceive our notion of space itself. These new materials provide such a freedom of expression that they have become an inseparable part of the language of modern architecture and thus have become ‘modern’ materials themselves, or at least to my students they have. Because of this tendency, students will make assumptions about the timeliness of their design based solely upon the materials chosen for the exterior. If asked why they chose to use steel and glass for an elevation, they will often reply because it is a ‘modern building’, as if you could never make a modern building out of brick. If asked what “modern” means to them they might reply something that is ‘forward-looking’ or ‘avant-garde’.
So it seems the
language of technology, at least in the form of construction materials, has
become closely linked with the desired image of progressive thinking, of
striving towards the future. I
worry that if this narrow frame of thought continues architects will separate
even further into two camps of those who either look blindly forward or cling
stubbornly to the nostalgia of the past. I
find it hard to believe that designers who want to keep pushing the envelope of
architectural expression can only do so through the use of newer materials. While we should investigate the use of new and soon to be
developed materials, we should not assume that the older materials no longer
have relevancy. We should not throw
the baby out with the bath water. When
I think some of the most enjoyable spaces I’ve visited, a large majority of
them are built of brick, stone or wood. On
the other hand some of the most exciting spaces I’ve experienced have been
created from metal, glass or concrete. But
by far I am most excited by buildings that combine both ‘categories’.
Beautiful relevant contemporary buildings can be made out of any current
materials or any yet to come. The
approach should be one of judging the material on its own merits and not to
apply the bias of the past. Then
the material can be applied in a manner appropriate to its particular situation. Or as Aris Konstantinidis concisely states:
believe we can create contemporary architecture with all materials-with any
material as long as we use it correctly according to its properties. In areas where we can find nothing but stone, we shall build
with that stone, that is the local stone. We
shall create contemporary architecture as we would have done with any other
material (iron, concrete, wood) which we would have found in another area,
because the leading ideas are the spirit of construction and the flexibility of
our outlook and not the constructional whim foreign to the site.”3
But how do we determine what is appropriate? I believe good role models can be found in the work of many Spanish architects during the post-Franco years. While creating very modern and spatially exciting buildings, they are not inhibited from blending regional forms and materials into their designs. What William Curtis describes as “combining the absorption of new ideals from outside with subliminal continuities of indigenous themes”.4
Rafael Moneo stands out as one who has
demonstrated how any material can be used in a modern way as long as it is
addressing the immediate situation. In
his design for the Merida Museum he uses Roman bricks as a way of relating to
the local context as well as the building’s function as a collection of Roman
art. Yet in his design for the Kursaal Auditoriums in San Sebastian, he utilizes
an all steel and glass double-layered envelope to create crystalline prisms at a
border site between the sea and the city, a situation which allows and further
celebrates these types of materials. Moneo is an architect who can adjust a
design to any medium the situation calls for.
Richard Ingersoll in his article The
Unmodern Moderns, states: “There is no place else in the world where the
majority of contemporary architecture fits so comfortably into its urban
setting, yet transmits such an optimistic sense of the new.”5
This sense of excitement reinforces the idea of a need to psychologically
balance the new and the familiar.
In a recent article, Alexander Tzonis compares the different ways in which architects approach digital technology. Too many, he believes, employ the computer primarily as a means to arrive at a building’s form. What he defines as “exercises in shape-hedonism and space-bulimia - gratuitous formal statements that remain starved of purpose” 6. He sees an alternative approach to the computer as a tool that can do more than just ease the current design process; it can enable design vision as well. In this way technology can be used to create positive social and environmental change. “The very tools that are being used to liberate architectural form are also capable of liberating a more livable world.” 7 We should use technology responsibly in a manner appropriate to its particular situation. Just because we have the technology to create a ‘blob’ does not alone justify its creation. While I am excited about the new forms possible through the computer, these biomorphic shapes seem to be applied ad hoc to any and all situations. Maybe the computer is still too new for us to see past all the flashy bells and whistles. It is a brand new toy that we have not yet become bored with. But once technology becomes ‘invisible’, we can return to issues that are important to us as human beings; making spaces livable and humane. We should take this opportunity get past the stigmas of technological imagery. In this way high technology can actually lead us, in a sense, forward to the past. But not the past of pure nostalgia, instead to the world where people, not machines, are our first consideration for design, something we may have neglected in our race to the future.
York Times Magazine, Tech 2010 - A
Catalog of the Near Future, June 11, 2000
F. Smith, Architecture and The Human
Dimension, Editions, Westfield New Jersey, 1979
Konstantinidis; Elements for
Self-Knowledge; Towards a True Architecture, Athens 1975
Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900,
Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1996
Ingersoll, The Unmodern Moderns,
Architecture, October, 1999
Tzonis, Shape Hedonism and Space Bulimia,
Architecture, December 1999