MARIO CARPO (architectural historian and critic): Thank you all for coming. Thank you for the invitation. Thank you for organizing this. Can you hear me? Yes. Thank you in advance for your patience — going to be very boring. I am very jet lagged. I may fall asleep while I speak. If that happens, just bring me a cup of coffee. You, in compensation, in the audience, you may fall asleep anytime.
So I guess I have to tell you something on new direction in computer-aided design — how advanced computation, electronic computation, has changed — is changing architectural design or architecture in general, which is the subject of my last book, which is on some chairs. Now, I understand that most of you are not architectural students, nor architects, nor designers That’s right? Who is an architect here? Raise your hand.
Well, you’re a minority. What are you doing here? So that’s good. So I will just make a short, more general introduction to bring in my topic. What do — let me bring in my pictures, which are somewhere. Oh, yes, I see it. Oh, yes it’s there. What do architects do? That’s a very general query. You know since you’re an architect. Ask any architect. They will tell you we build. We do buildings, big buildings, well, when we manage — when we are successful. Most of the time, we do not manage, but that’s the idea. We make buildings.
Well, that’s the idea, but it is not actually, literally, technically right, because we, architects — we do not lay bricks. We do not cut stone. We do not carve wood. We do not pour concrete. We do not dig foundations. We do not any of these technical, physical, material stuff. Yes, we build buildings, but we build buildings by making drawings of buildings. We make drawings, not buildings. We make drawings, clean drawings. We give them to the builders, and the builders, they, will make the buildings we design. We do not make.
The designers do not build, and the builders, they are not allowed to design or to change our design. The kind of drawings we give to the builders are called blueprints, because once upon a time, they were blue, and they were printed. Now they’re no longer blue, and they’re no longer printed. But we still call them blueprints. And it is thanks to blueprints, to these kind of drawings, that our profession is not a craft. It’s a liberal art, an intellectual activity. We do not climb on scaffoldings. We do not toil in the snow, or in the rain, or in the heat of summer. We work in clean offices with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.
And we are, most of the time, even better paid than the actual workers who make the actual buildings happen. That’s the advantage of being a notational art. We build by notations — by making drawings, drawings which eventually become buildings, but we do not actually make the buildings. This is the advantage. A disadvantage is that, if you think of a way a building happens, we can only build that of which we can make a drawing.
If we cannot draw it, they, the builders, cannot build it. We are at the mercy of the notational tools we have at our disposal to notate a building. If we cannot draw it, they cannot build it. Now some geometrical shapes — come on — like this one are very easy to notate. That’s a shoe box. You make — eight points is enough to notate it — or three points and three vectors. That’s a really very easy drawing to make, so that way, notation is easy.
But think if what you want to build that potato. Now, since I was cooking last night, I can actually show you. Oops! This is what I have in mind, this awesome British potato. If you want to build that potato by notations — plans, elevations, and sections — think of how many drawings you have to make. Each one of these points — not one of these points is aligned. So you have to make a huge number of sections in plans, elevation, et cetera, et cetera, because each point has to be notated individually and separately– millions and millions of point, which will take millions and millions of drawings, which will take a huge amount of time, which is possible, but it’s not very practical, because it takes too long. So to build the shoe box, it only takes eight points.
To build the potato, you must make thousands and thousands of drawings, each slice, each section, being different with different points notated and measured in, XYZ, in three dimensions, which takes a heck of a lot of time– which is one of the reasons why potatoes were very seldom built in the history of architecture until computers came. Because this kind of repetitive boring operations, notating each point– xyz, three measurements– if you have to notate 4 million points, for us, it takes a lot of time. A computer does it in the blink of an eye. So as of the early ’90s, when computer-aided design became to be affordable, you would expect that architects start building potatoes like crazy, because there have been for centuries, a pent up demand for potatoes which was never fulfilled, because potatoes were impossible to grow and build. They are easy to make.
I could make this potato in clay with my own hands. That’s easy. But if I want to make plans, elevation, and section to scale– to give a blueprint to the builders to build the potato, that takes a long time. That was impossible until 20 years ago– not impossible, but impractical. But now it’s possible, so you would expect but as of the early ’90s or mid-’90s to see potatoes everywhere.
And if you google– you know what it means, right– digital architecture, or computational architectural, or parametric architecture, you will find a mosaic of this kind of stuff. And they are potato-esque, but they are not real potatoes. Because they are round and smooth, but they are streamlined, and technological, and clean, and almost mathematical. A potato is rough and disorderly. These are not potatoes. They are something else.
And as of the early ’90s– well, this is closer to a potato but still not– don’t ask me which kind of a building this is, because it ain’t one. But it’s still not a potato, because it is too smooth and too precise. You can understand that there is mathematics in that, which isn’t in this. In the mid-’90s a colleague of mine came out with a suitable catchy term. They decided to call these new kind of digital shapes, blobs, taking inspiration from this science fiction movie from the ’50s. And so, for a while, these potato-esque digital stuff were called blobs. Today, they are called– oops– parametric or parametric design. But in truth– and that’s the way I often tell the story to my students. If we look at the actual timeline of how these things came to happen, these are not potatoes. These are not blobs. These are fish. Because it all started with this big fish, which you may have seen if you go to Barcelona on the beach. Above the beach, not in the water– over the beach, there is this huge metal fish floating in mid air. This was built by Western architect Frank Gehry, and this was the first time Frank Gehry used software for computer-aided design for which, eventually, it became famous– a star architect which he is now, but which he wasn’t then.
And how is it that to build a fish, Frank Gehry, at that time already a well-known architect, decided that he should use computer-aided design? And which kind of software did he think he would need? Well, think of it. His problem was to model the streamlined curve of the shape of a skin of a fish. And his argument was why is the fish so streamlined and smooth? Because it moves in water the way a boat moves in water, and the boat, the hull of a boat, has the same streamlined lines. For a long time– this is a 17th century drawing– shipbuilders have had the technique to make these curvy pieces of wood at the point of contact between the hull of the boat and the water. Imagine the frame of a boat in timber is given its structure.