Lack of information overload
Books that showcase the virtual are becoming numerous but few of them merit their hype. Three more publications have been added to the long list of contenders that might attract the eye of an interested architect.
These are: Net_Condition_ Art and Global Media, edited by Peter Weibel and Timothy Druckrey (if you don't have an underscore in the title you are old hat and two is shockingly trendy);
Bits and Spaces, edited by Maia Engeli;
and CAD Principles for Architectural Design by Peter Szalapaj, published by Architectural Press.
Obviously the Architectural Press wants to create an antiquated feel with the use of 'CAD'.This fits in nicely with the outrageously pedestrian graphic design.
Net Condition (I will leave out those stupid underscores) has much to offer and much to irritate. It is the second in a series edited by Druckrey entitled 'Electronic Culture: History, Theory and Practice'. Its cover blurb says it is the 'first book to investigate the social, economic, political and artistic consequences of the networked media enveloping the planet'.
It brings together scholars, theorists, activists and, in my view, unremarkable artists 'in an evaluation of the artistic possibilities of net. culture'.
It seems to me overlong and selfindulgent but it does sparkle in places. The high points are its editors' essays - Peter Weibel's 'Map and Land, Media and Reality' and Timothy Druckrey's 'Event/Transformation/Information' - plus Manuel Castell's aged piece on 'The Net and the Self: Working notes for a Critical Theory of the Information Society'.
The art projects let the editors down.They are one liners, narcissistic and often lacking any real rigour.Our fellow Europeans seem to take the new media a lot more seriously than we do.As with a lot of European filmmaking, this can result in very bad work indeed. The book's better content could have sustained itself without screen grabs, blurred backgrounds and the graphic designers' St Vitus's Dance.
Also brimming with the buzzwords of the 'transmodern' condition is Bits and Spaces, edited by Maia Engeli. This is an anthology of projects conducted under the auspices of ETH Zurich, where Engeli is the chair for architecture and CAD. It consists of sections called 'Design in Space and Time', 'Learning and Creative Collaboration', 'Virtual Environments: Paths People, Data', 'IT and Praxis' and 'Blurring Boundaries'.
Gerhard Schmitt says in his introduction: 'It may be useful to consider the future of architectural design - architecture in 2010 will inevitably fall into three classes, physical, virtual and hybrid 'bits and bricks' architecture. Pure architecture will become rare. . . virtual architecture will be an alternative in many aspects to the excessive production of physical architecture. However, 'bits and bricks' architecture will ultimately predominate.'
For sound ideological reasons, Schmitt foresees the possibility of creating sustainable architecture without recourse to computers. I can see no possibility of this. The integration of 'green' aspirations cannot ignore the advantages of computational calculation and empiricism, otherwise it will continue its current hazy and ill-thought-through arguments.
Schmitt is indeed right that the most interesting field of research lies in the twilight of the mixed spaces between the virtual and the real. My concerns about this book are not to do with its aspirations but the pedestrian ways these manifest themselves in projects. Real critical ambition is confused with a certain European reflective self-satisfaction - a problem for both publications.
Peter Szalapaj's CAD Principles for Architectural Design is totally different. It does not go into buzzword overdrive, it is level-headed and staid - and, it must be said, remains in the realm of the establishment. The examples it uses include Foster's Middleton Botanic Gardens and Reichstag, Gehry's Guggenheim and Klas Kada's St Polten Festival Hall.
The book is split into seven parts:
Introduction, CAD Modelling and Analysis, CAD Objects, the Development of Architectural Form from CAD Objects, Parametric Design, Design Interoperability and Summary.
This book is fundamentally a primer for those eager to learn the magic of computer-aided architectural design and use that knowledge to get a mouse-jockey job in one of the multinational corporate behemoths of global architectural practice.
This is where I start to get agitated.
The author sets out his stall in his introduction. He says: 'A conscious effort has been made in the text to approach CAD from a design perspective rather than from a technological one. The focus in a technological perspective is on the medium or on the technology. A design perspective, on the other hand, focuses on the possibilities offered by the technology for supporting expression in design.
'The development of computer applications in design has often been seriously hindered by technological approaches. Very often, so called CAD experts and CAD tutors in schools of architecture work outwards from the technology, asking 'what might the user be able to do with this new technology?' rather than 'what might the user want to do with this new technology?' It is the latter that is the concern of this book.'
So what is it that the user wants to do with this technology, according to the book? The answer is to learn the way representational software 'thinks' and take a quick survey of architectural applications of modelling software, including bioclimatic, space syntactical analysis, teamworking interoperability and structural analysis.
So what we have here is a very useful starting point for the student or architect. But to suggest this is a book with design as its paramount focus is, I think, erroneous. This is an ugly book; the work it illustrates is normative. Its staid appearance and prose suggest none of the amazing possibilities that the use of computers presents in vitalising architectural design and enlivening the profession's raw material - space.
I would not go out of my way to acquire any of these books but if I was forced to pick one for giving a novice insight into what people do at the coalface of architectural corporations, then Szalapaj's book is the one.
If I had to choose one book to get a few brain cells ruminating on the cultural conditions of the turmoil that the digital revolution creates, then it would be Net Condition - but I would also demand a pair of scissors to cut out all the irritating artists.
Alas, I can see no future at all for Bits and Spaces, which is neither trendy nor pragmatic but attempts to be both at great expense and low return.
My final point is more general. I think the architectural profession gets the books it deserves. There is far too much cheap intellectual and financial publishing going on. I am consistently amazed by the drivel that tops the architectural best-seller lists.
That these three books are well above average (and maybe I'm being particularly vitriolic) shows that something is seriously wrong. If these books reflect our collective attitude to computational technology then we are in deep trouble. In a world where more and more onus is being put on all the other aspects of architecture at the expense of design dexterity this is, alas, to be expected.
CAD Principles for Architectural Design, by Peter Szalapaj, Architectural Press, December 2000, 256pp, £19.99 Bits and Spaces, edited by Maia Engeli, Birkhauser, 2001, 208pp, DM78 (approx £24.50) Net Conditions, edited by Peter Weibel and Timothy Druckrey, The MIT Press, 2001, 399pp, £27.50