hardware ¦ matter

by Cameron Cummings

A critical consideration of the relationship between weightless computation processes and softwares and their material, physical counterparts, as the following texts begin to unpack, is important in the general discussion of theoretical approaches to computation’s role in architectural theory and practice. The texts, which have respectively positioned alternative ways of understanding the materiality of computation, each hover between a philosophical binary that, seemingly, either promotes or laments the role of computation in the processes of architectural making. I think that the concept of the two categories in question, referenced as techno-utopianism and techno-pessimism in Picon’s 2014 essay Robots and Architecture: Experiments, Fiction, Epistemology, embodies a significant and contentious opposition prevalent in contemporary architecture discussions; as its title suggests, techno-utopianism sees the development of technical innovation and computational modes of thinking and making as a crucial player in the progression of architecture and design disciplines. Techno-pessimism, however, is a critique of this school of thinking, and poses the necessity of human agency as a offensive power against a force of current computational architectural methods1. Regardless of which camp each of the following texts frames material and computation within, they share a mutual recognition that, opposite prominent understanding, invisible computational languages are critically engaged with and dependent upon the material bodies which construct them, or those which they produce.

 Daniel Cardoso Llach’s 2015 essay, Software Comes to Matter: Toward a Material History of Computational Design, provides a brief historical record of early computation machines vis-a-vis their material limitations. Although, he writes, it has been generally acknowledged that material formations are effects of data translations (explored, for example, as digital fabrication), the important material history of such ethereal languages has not been explored. However, it is through the understanding of the digital/material relationship that one may locate a design theory of computation’s materialistic possibilities. Llach’s essay is historically centered in Cold War-era America, where the development of computation and digital technologies was directly associated with both military and industry worlds. This connection is important, as it was a potential origin of the focus on digital automation that computation research continues to hold today: “Software started to become both a vehicle for and an expression of a technical and conceptual reconfiguration of design, linked to the manipulation of materials, engineering efficiency, and militaristic control”2. In previous explorations of computation machines, the connection between logic and material limitations were historically much more visible than they have become; Llach identifies two historically significant iterations of digital machines that directly responded to their physical bodies: Joseph Marie Jacquard’s programmable loom, developed in the 18th century, and the numerically controlled milling machine, developed in the 1950s. In both these cases, Llach points out, the software is based in materiality: “In both the milling machine and the loom, materiality and physical constraints in the storage media determined both the kind of information stored and the range of material actions they were able to prescribe”3. These technologies would soon-after be developed and replaced by machines which concealed more and more their materiality, and automate their processes of making.

The concept of automation is important in the historical uncovering of design ideologies, and is pertinent in contemporary discussions of digital fabrication and architectural progress. When automated design becomes a research goal, what becomes the role of designer? As a subsequent text by Tom Ingold will discuss, the shifting of creative agency from human designer to automated machine, and the removal of designer in the process of design and manufacturing, poses major theoretical questions of object-agency and material life4. It seems appropriate to compare Llach’s historical research of the ambition of automation to Tom Ingold’s 2010 essay, Bringing Things To Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials, which is deeply concerned with the physical existence of materials and their processes. Despite avoiding the direct discussion of computation, Ingold positions themselves against the ambitions of automation through software and computation that dominated the previous text: if the process of making (form-giving) is life5, how are forms without a process of making, or forms that have had their material production collapsed by digital fabrication machines, able to contain life-ness? Ingold’s inclusion of philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Henri

 Lefebvre, is notable, as they may act as theoretical markers for the readers to better position Ingold’s text in the discussion of automation in architecture and design. Specifically, Marxist thinker Lefebvre famously advocated for an approach to architecture and city-building which directly resulted from human creation6. This heavily popularized anti-commodification/capitalist understanding of urbanism is the antithesis to modes of automation in architectural thinking and practice. Further, if we follow Ingold’s conceptual differentiation between objects and things, we may more fully understand the possibilities of digital automation in architecture: is architecture an object or a thing? Can the design and fabrication of objects be automated? Can the same be said for things? These questions intend to prod the concept of machine agency through an architectural understanding.

In Knight and Vardouli’s introduction to the 2015 Special Issue of Design Studies, Computational Making, the attachment of the term making to concepts of action and process evokes the inherent relationship between making and human agency. As the authors explain, the texts that comprise Computational Making are responses to the question of the relationship between computation, design, and making, and clearly synthesize contemporary advances and ambitions in this field. Making is a prominent focus of contemporary design discussions, and digital fabrication and computation is closely tied to these discussions7. Easily grasped from this text, there is no obvious limit to the questions about how making and computation may come together.

However, here, there is an interest in making through an exploration of the relationships between makers and their tools and technologies. The authors index characteristics which they believe to outline an approach to making: such a process is dynamic, improvisational (indeterminate) contingent, and embodied8. Through this understanding of making, the question of the relationship between digital technologies and making is expanded to questions of technology’s openness to indeterminacy, and its flexibility to the human body.

I believe that this concise idea presented by Knight and Vardouli offers an interesting response to many of the much broader questions posed throughout the Llach, Ingold, and Picon texts: computational methods perhaps are best understood as tools which depend on a human user. Processes of manufacturing in industrial and military fields in the mid 20th century saw computation and technologically advanced modes of material production through their anti-human capitalist potentials; the field of architecture and design may find the most exciting possibilities once removed from this history.

  1. Picon, Antoine. “Robots and Architecture: Experiments, Fiction, Epistemology.” Architectural Design 84, no. 3 (May 1, 2014): 56
  2. Daniel Cardoso Llach. “Software Comes to Matter: Toward a Material History of Computational Design.” Design Issues 31, no. 3 (Summer 2015): 41
  3. Daniel Cardoso Llach. “Software Comes to Matter: Toward a Material History of Computational Design.” Design Issues 31, no. 3 (Summer 2015): 43
  4. Tim Ingold. “Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials.” NCRM Working Paper. Realities / Morgan Centre, University of Manchester. 2010. 2
  5. Tim Ingold. “Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials.” NCRM Working Paper. Realities / Morgan Centre, University of Manchester. 2010. 3
  6. Lefebvre, Henri, and Kanishka Goonewardena. 2008. Space, Difference, Everyday Life : Reading Henri Lefebvre. New York: Routledge.
  7. Terry Knight and Theodora Vardouli. “Computational Making,” Design Studies Special Issue: Computational Making 41, part A (2015): 1-7.
  8. Terry Knight and Theodora Vardouli. “Computational Making,” Design Studies Special Issue: Computational Making 41, part A (2015): 1-7.

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