TEXT David Newton
PHOTOS CCA Montreal unless otherwise noted
In every discipline there are important turning points–moments where new ideas and practices emerge that shift a discipline from a familiar trajectory into new and unexplored orbits. The careful excavation and analysis of these moments has the potential to offer a view into the deep structures, facts and desires that animate a field. The history of architectural thought is no different in this respect. In the current exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), an examination of the digital turn in architecture is underway. The display offers keen insight into architecture’s current relationship with the digital and tantalizes visitors with its possible futures.
Archaeology of the Digital: Media and Machines is the second of three exhibitions put on by the CCA that explore the evolution of architecture’s engagement with digital tools and digital media. Curated by architect Greg Lynn and developed under CCA Director Mirko Zardini, the exhibitions are part of a multi-year research initiative to create a premier archival collection of digital architecture and to explore methods of presenting it. In the end, the CCA plans to assemble and archive digital and analogue materials documenting 25 seminal projects that have engaged digital technologies in meaningful, transformative ways. These projects span from the mid-1980s to the 2000s–a period considered pivotal by Lynn.
Key to the thrust of the series, including its latest installment, is the concept of ”archaeology.” By this, Lynn and the CCA imply an approach to presenting these 25 projects that follows the metaphorical mold of how an archaeological site might be investigated: its material artifacts carefully unearthed layer by layer and exposed to the curious eyes of observers for interpretation. The underlying assumption is that the history of the digital turn in architecture has not yet been written or thoroughly understood, but urgently needs to be–a point certain to inspire debate in light of much scholarship on the topic in the last decade.
Under the design direction of London and Lausanne-based Jonathan Hares, each exhibit in the series presents its cohort of chosen projects in a manner somewhat befitting of an archaeological site, or a crime scene. Presentation methods mix different media, interactive objects and working prototypes, emphasizing process and not just the final results. Those who enjoy a more open-ended, interpretive and interactive approach to exhibits will no doubt be compelled by the invitation to piece together the narrative that underlies each project.
In Media and Machines, varied types of display are used to high effect in exhibiting six projects that pushed the boundaries of the discipline in the 1990s. The featured architects include Asymptote (Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture), NOX (Lars Spuybroek), Metaxy (Karl Chu), Objectile SARL (Bernard Cache, Patrick Beaucé), dECOi Architects (Mark Goulthorpe), and ONL (Kas Oosterhuis, Ilona Lénárd). In each case, they designed objects that pushed the boundaries of the discipline and were sometimes completely new to architecture: from wearable electronics to generative algorithms. This eclectic mix of design investigations resonates with the exuberance and conceptual memes of their time. The CCA exhibition presents visitors with a snapshot of a discipline productively disoriented, delirious, and looking for new principles to steady itself upon, amidst the throes of globalization, ubiquitous computation and the early internet era.
This animated and speculative spirit is immediately apparent when entering the exhibition. In the first gallery, visitors are immersed in the world of Asymptote’s late-’90s design for the New York Stock Exchange Virtual Trading Floor and Command Center–a project that saw architects Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture experimenting with virtual environments, websites and wearable electronics (in addition to physical environments) to visualize the real-time data streams of the stock market. The project is presented as a collection of artifacts meant to be interpreted and in some cases interacted with–original computer models, digital animations played on ’90s-era technology, digital videos, working drawings and client correspondences are all on display. The virtual reality models of the Trading Floor visually echo the computer-generated special effects of ’90s Hollywood. The silicon graphics-based visual pyrotechnics of the 1991 film Terminator 2 (T2) come to mind–a touchstone for both Lynn and architects of the time for its pioneering use of computers to model curved forms.
The second room features NOX’s interactive H2Oexpo pavilion–a space that leverages advances in digital technologies to create an interactive immersive environment around the theme of water. Here, the role of the architect shifts into the realm of experience design and user interaction, with architecture itself recast as active rather than passive. The dynamic and curvilinear forms of the H2Oexpo pavilion again echo the special effects used in ’90s films. Images of T2’s menacing villain, the amorphous mercury-sheened T-1000, dance in one’s head and find resonance in the pavilion’s blobby form. The project prefigures in some ways the many blobs to come in ’90s digital architecture.
This attitude of experimentation continues to build heading into the rest of the exhibit. The sights and sounds of a running robotic drawing machine are a powerful focal point in the room dedicated to Karl Chu’s algorithmically driven experiments. An adjacent space glows with animations of Bernard Cache’s computer-controlled milling machines fabricating terrain-like furniture. Both spaces, along with their host of artifacts, provoke one to reflect on the question of authorship in the digital age. Chu and Cache’s work seems to suggest a vision of the architect not as maker of objects per se, but as a maker of digital processes that create objects.
The role and responsibilities of the architect in the digital era is a theme that resonates throughout Media and Machines. Through the overlay of projects, Lynn suggests that there may be multiple answers to the question of how digital tools impact architecture–each project offers its own model of what architects do, what they make, and how they might define a practice in this era of ubiquitous computation.
The final two rooms offer a dramatic bookend: a vision of architecture as malleable, dynamically deforming, and interactive. An early prototype of dECOi’s 1997 HypoSurface steals the show. Its tessellated surface hypnotically flutters and pulses with algorithmically induced waves, filling the room with a swooshing sound like ocean waves breaking on a metallic beach. In an adjacent room, the rhythmic flexing of a working set of artificial muscles from ONL’s NSA Muscle project adds to the drama. ONL’s vision of architecture is seemingly imbued with the qualities of a biological organism, complete with its own moods and the hints of a personality. This climatic moment underscores the sense of exuberance and radical experimentation present throughout the entire exhibition vis-à-vis the digital.
In embarking on its digital initiative, the CCA claims its place as a forward-looking institution. Its archaeological style of presentation is both informative and engaging–at the best of times creating an interactive experience that both architects and non-architects will find accessible and worthwhile. On the other hand, the historical aspirations of the series, while laudable in principle, ultimately saddle the exhibitions with baggage at times difficult to carry. Whether or not a new definitive history is offered by these 25 projects is debatable. It is undeniable, though, that the exhibitions offer a window i
nto a piece of that history that one cannot obtain solely by reading about these projects in historical texts. As a nod to the ’90s milieu that imbues the exhibit, we might sum up the experience through the narrative arc of our time-travelling T2 hero–we feel transported to another time, shown a moment with multiple paths forward, and are left pondering how things might be different if those paths had been followed. This reviewer found himself wanting more from current preoccupations in digitally driven architecture, dreaming about the possible futures Media and Machines points towards. CA
David Newton is an assistant professor at McGill University’s School of Architecture. His research is focused on the intersection of computer science, robotics and architectural design.