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Computation matter

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computing: RIBA's Digital Tectonics conference highlights the growing alliance between architectural design and digital technology

The Digital Tectonics conference, held last month at the University of Bath Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering, was the second in the RIBA Future Studies series. It set out to 'focus on how digital technologies have opened up new possibilities in the fields of architectural design, structural engineering, material composition and construction technique, and in particular, new collaborative ventures between architects and engineers'.

In spite of some lazy sub-Deleuzian jargon, a number of clear themes emerged - some with significance beyond current computer-based design interests. This was not least because the computers in question were not exclusively digital. Physical 'computers' such as Frei Otto's formfinding soap bubbles and Antonio Gaudí's self-stabilising suspension models were returned to on a number of occasions (Manuel de Landa), to remind us of the computational abilities of organised matter - and that ultimately it is at this interface of the analogue, the digital and the subject, that the most interesting work will happen.

Gaudí appeared on a number of other occasions. Mike Cook asked if Gaudí's models were concerned with production or representation, while Neal Leach called for a general 'postGaudían digital practice'. But for many, the high point was Mark Burry's extraordinary account of more than a decade of involvement in the ongoing construction of Gaudí's Sagrada Familia. Here were stories of animation, time-active within the space. CAD projections of the geometry revealed 'paramorphs' (figures of variable topography, constant topology), transforming as they danced from bay to bay. 'This is beyond figurative sculpture - there is movement in the stone, ' Burry said.

One might ask again if the formal and conceptual congruities between Gaudí, various strands of expressionistic architecture, and a number of areas of contemporary architectural work, have yet been thought through sufficiently.

Greg Lynn's practice, FORM, continues to ask some of the most advanced questions. Lynn referred to working with corporations within the automobile industry, which are now retooling 'parametrically': allowing, within certain envelopes of variation, any number of instant permutations of production lines.

The bottleneck, he said, is now at the design end: how to produce controlled novelty - and the desire for it - fast enough. Exploring new possibilities of architectural practice opened up by such fabrication technologies, Lynn's practice has invested in a milling (CADCAM) machine, allowing a move into building production as well as design.

For Lynn, the spatial logic of this new design economy must be articulated through what he calls a 'featured' development of surface (using repetition, rhythm, pattern etc), and 'the need to think through the problem of ornament'. If nothing else, this is a welcome move away from the increasingly uncommunicative, shiny expanses promoted by architecture's fashion publications.

The main dilemma for Lynn (revealed in his asking Kristina Shea earlier in the afternoon about her formal decision-making) is one of determining value and meaning in his work. Her answer suggested that engineers are more ready to admit the influence of taste in decisions. 'I select the most elegant solutions, ' she said.

Yet it became clear during the conference that process-driven architects continue to hope for specific rational meaning in their work, normally through the valorisation of procedures (generally in design or production), that they are most associated with. Simultaneously, there tends to be a marginalisation of value associated with how architecture is consumed. There is a conspicuous absence of a subject. Users are conceived as nothing other than the most passive and untheorised consumer of commodity fetishism.

Lynn is smarter than this and, when asked about the social in his work, replied: 'What is more political and social than aesthetics? Aesthetics was invented to link economy, politics; the social and structural.'

Aesthetics was there to unify subject and object, to articulate both the qualities of the object, and the subject's experience of confronting it.

How do we empathise, project and construct ourselves into and out of the work? This debate cannot be onesided. Apart from an early vague mention of 'erotic form', Lynn was unwilling or unable to discuss work in sufficiently emotional, physical or psycho-libidinal terms - that is to say, in terms of what it is like to experience it, to consume it, whether individually or socially.

The cognitive maps we make out of our experiences define our imaginations. So does the contemporary experience of the super-smooth surface, whether in advertising, film, or in the perfect shine of a thousand virtual architecture images, produce mental maps so total and immaculate that it is impossible to imagine any enclave in which to hide and resist? Lynn's timely reassertion of translating pattern and ornament into space may prove a most political experience.

Jon Goodbun is a director of WaG Architecture, and teaches at the University ofWestminster

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