Book Review: When is the Digital in Architecture?

The interrogation format of the book title When is the Digital in Architecture? bespeaks the ongoing debate about the relationship of digital technology and design. But this anthology of essays is also a history book, albeit covering a very recent past from about 1985-2005. And although premised on the Canadian Centre for Architecture series of exhibitions over those two decades, it is very much a standalone text. It is a “critical and historical project, rather than a summation” of design, as Nathalie Bredella suggests in her essay in the book. Digital technology and its applications are related to architectural design and construction. This anthology of essays by experts in the field provides an overview of the effects of digital media on architectural thought and production: how it changes the way we shape, make and think about the buildings we live in.    

When is the Digital in Architecture?
When is the Digital in Architecture?

Full disclosure: in the mid-1990s, I studied architecture at Columbia University under many of the essayists in this book, including Bernard Tschumi and Stan Allen. I also studied with Hani Rashid and Saskia Sassen. After graduation, I worked for Asymptote Architecture in New York for almost a year. It was a transformative time. We worked in mid-transition from the analog to the digital age, and the challenges were enormous. At Asymptote, we used digital technology to design dramatically leaning walls, but the engineering process was still analog. Three-D modelling and its real-world applications was just beginning, so we still had to translate digital ideas to analog in order to build things out of bricks, wood, steel or fabric. Today and into the future, as Stan Allen sees it, there will be “creative hybrids” that combine digital techniques with analog thinking.

Digital technology is new and charting its history is necessarily an incomplete task. In analog history, archeologists make assumptions about how whole buildings had looked by way of fragments of information. Now we are shifting to what essayist Greg Lynn calls an “archeology in archiving”—that is, you do not need to assume a completeness in the digital age, because the information and the findings are infinitely changeable. In the digital age, consistent with a shift in theory, we are no longer biased towards finding an elusive “complete” history, as we realize that completeness is merely a theoretical construct. An archeology does not have to be based on a complete documentation. It can be selective.

The introduction of computer technology in architectural education parallels its use in offices. As everybody has experienced, computer technology is being constantly upgraded, making our digital tools and storage devices very quickly old and outdated. Much information that was once safeguarded and stored now doesn’t exist in a useable form. This has had a major effect on the idea and practice of documentation, and its inherent limits. 

The use of digital technology in architecture brings up the age-old question of architecture’s connection to engineering and mathematics. But architecture is a qualitative profession, about humanist values. Computer language is basically composed of zeros and ones: there is no in-between in digital technology. Digital technology demands new ways to establish architecture’s connection to the humanities and its place within history.

For a book as densely thought-provoking as this one, a concluding summary with comments from the editor would have been helpful to provide a critical assessment. Such a chapter could also position digital design methods within the current debate. And, ironically for an anthology about the digital, this publication could have benefited from more attention to its analog production: by the time I had completed my reading and this review, the binding was falling apart. 

Despite these limitations, most architects will find this book rewarding. It provides a critical overview of the history of digital technologies and their impact on the discipline of architecture. It enriches the discourse about a field of growing relevance within architectural education and practice—even while the nature of that relevance is constantly changing.


When is the Digital in Canadian Architecture? Canadian Centre for Architecture and Sternberg Press, 2017. Andrew Goodhouse (editor); various authors 

Oliver Neumann is an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.