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A manual for a new age

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Computer-assisted manufacture has already come a long way, but it may well become indispensable in the next decade When most architects think of computer-aided manufacture (CAM), they probably think of Frank Gehry's lumpen Bilbao Guggenheim and its double-curved surface skins. I suspect they also think of indulgent clients, huge budgets, star architects and massive fabricating factories.

Nick Callicott's book, ComputerAided Manufacture in Architecture:

The Pursuit of Novelty, turns many of these myths on their head.

The book has four voices, which represent various aspects of Callicott's persona - the historian, the collector, the autobiographer and the theoretician. With these voices, he carefully negotiates the dilemma of being both the author and one of the major players in his book.

'Historical' Callicott documents the rise of CAM from Charles Babbage's early 19th-century experiments with his difference engine to today's rapid prototyping systems and production methods. The 'collecting' Callicott displays the same avid excitement in naming and displaying his CAM hardware as a butterfly collector might feel thrusting a pin into the thorax of a multicoloured specimen. While this is all very useful, it is 'theoretician' and the 'autobiographer' that interest me.

For the past decade, Callicott and his colleagues at Sixteen* (Makers) have redefined the nature of their practice in relation to evolving issues of technology and fabrication. Sixteen* (Makers) consists of four architecturally trained designers and makers who are interested in the design of objects and buildings and how their design methodologies change when using certain materials and processes.

Their work seeks to re-articulate the turgid traditional relationships between the architect/designer and the contractor, subcontractor and the fabricator. At the beginning of the 1990s, their work had the acrid smell of the grinder and drop cutter, the almost Art Nouveau curving geometries of forcing steel sections into various radii and the beat of the blacksmith's hammer. But in recent years they have seized on a variety of methodologies that have been developed to create responsive, electronically activated, interactive devices.

One contemporary piece has been exhibited at Walsall's New Art Gallery; the installation consisted of a 'blushing' interactive, reconfiguring carapace. Its fabrication is used as an example in the book.

This book gives one the impression that students around the world will grasp it to their breasts as the first example of a new genre of construction manual - a manual totally compatible with the digital age within which they now work. In a few years, students and office assistants will not only produce highly dextrous digital representations of their propositions but will also immediately produce models and prototypes from 'desktop' CAM machines.

Callicott tries to articulate the effects of this merging of the studio and the workshop. The juxtaposition of 'clean' and 'dirty' design processes will have paradoxical outcomes, a much more hands-on architectural education and 'practical training' will start to mean just that - yet designs might become more baroque and expressionist.

Callicott speaks with the authority of someone who has been there:

'When using these techniques, both the act of drawing and the process of making are punctuated by a delay within the temporal landscape of design itself.With a pause, expectant and energetic, our preoccupations are held in a state of suspended animation before the reality of our actions is revealed. This creates a new rhythm to our workà with this understanding, the creation of objects using this technology seems to reside neither in a world of certainty nor of risk, but rather as a workmanship of revelation, where our skills, ideas and understanding are tested by their subsequent echo within a world of artifice.'

This book is a must for anyone who professes an interest in being able to function as a designer or architect in the next decade. Instead of polemic, it gives the reader a simple, steady-handed, non-esoteric introduction to CAM, but it is not shy of the far-reaching ramifications that are inherent in its implementation as a mainstay to future practice.

What more can one expect from an architectural book?

Computer-Aided Manufacture in Architecture: the Pursuit of Novelty by Nick Callicott. Architectural Press.

172pp. £25. Neil Spiller is reader in architecture and digital theory, Bartlett School, University College London

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