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Pixels and palimpsests

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Mapping is the latest area to come under the curious and sometimes overly enthusiastic eye of architects

Back towards the beginning of the Te n Books, Vitruvius discusses the three departments of architecture. They are the art of building, the making of timepieces and the construction of machinery. Horology and mechanical engineering seem to have been too complex for post-Vitruvian architects to pursue at any length, but ever since that old Augustan's pronouncement, architecture has been very happy to put its arm around almost anything that looks interesting. One happy outcome is that a lot of architects are fundamentally interested, curious, enthusiastic people.One not so hot result is that architects stick their noses in, misunderstand what's going on and emerge smug, another territory apparently colonised.

Some time ago, Reyner Banham oh-so-innocently mused about the likelihood that a certain class of architect was excited by linguistic structuralism because it seemed to connect at some ethereal level with engineering structure. Ditto, subsequently, deconstruction, although, unlike Levi-Strauss, old Derrida saw the opportunity and immediately embraced architecture into his, er, construct. With these nonetoo-bright but enthusiastic raptures in the background, you can almost excuse the same older but no wiser group's more recent malapropisms, such as 'materiality'.

Now, with a new Yale publication, Mapping in the Age of Digital Media, you quiver deliciously. Are the dominies at Yale about to devise a new 'special'meaning for 'mapping'?

The answer is possibly, or possibly not, because 3D computer designers have long been accustomed to mapping textures and other things on to the surfaces of computer-generated forms, and some of the more beautiful images in this book are indeed just that: the complex and often serendipitous mapping by Lila LoCurto and Bill Outcault of nude male and female forms on to other surfaces. As the next author in the collection, Alicia Imperiale, says: 'We might consider mapping as a way to document real phenomena, but it is perhaps better to consider it more like writing a text that negotiates, travels and narrates without seeking a fixed conclusion.'

Beauty, yes. Palimpsest, possibly. Clarity, not quite yet.

Like a lot of academic books, this is a collection of papers that grew out of a day-long symposium held at the Yale School of Architecture in early 2002. It is a 'trans-disciplinary survey of new computer-based mapping technologies' loosely grouped under three headings: the mapping of surfaces, time and movement mapping, and sub-surface mapping - or, as editor Mike Silver can't resist having it, 'the deep space extending beneath the skin of objects'.Don't get too excited by the use of 'deep space'. The first article here is about magnetic resonance imaging, the second geophysical surveying and another, in part, is about sub-surface scattering of light.

But you've got the flavour. This is one of those nice, quite woolly collections of the current thinking of people from a bunch of pretty much unrelated disciplines. People often put out this kind of collection at the beginning of a movement, perhaps in the hope of starting one, but certainly in that virtuous architectural tradition of being curious about things and having a go at understanding them. One is reminded of Monica Pidgeon and Robin Middleton and those great, wide-ranging and not immediately very architecturally relevant issues of AD in the 1960s.

This book is probably something like that. Yet you really want to grasp the hidden agenda. And Silver hints at other reasons for publishing it when he talks about 'Modernism's prolonged obsession with reductivist theories of form', which he contrasts with what James Joyce calls 'the ineluctable modality of the visible' in a complex and irreducible world. Then you notice Silver's subsequent interview with James Glymph of Frank Gehry's office, and the suspicion firms up that what has set this book off is an attempt to get a handle, however left-field, on the newish non-orthogonal architecture of Blob.

But no one in the book really comes clean about this.

Maybe the academics are keeping their heads down in the same way that SOM engineers working on Gehry's Bilbao are supposed to have secretly used software devised many years ago to design the Mirage jet fighter. Or in the way that at least one leading-edge, thin-skin stress-analysis application is heavily based on a prosaic geologists' programme used to map the topology of ground water. Oddly, neither of these appears in the texts. Maybe that's because no one is quite sure yet if the architectural consequences of mapping have anywhere to go.

Mapping in the Age of Digital Media, by Mike Silver and Diana Balmori, John Wiley, 2003

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