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Amanda Levete on Digital technologies - Fusing digital technology with the hand-made

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The very way in which we work is changing and it is being driven by a younger generation – a generation that has grown up and been educated in a digital world

Recent advances in design and fabrication technologies, in particular scripting and associative modelling, are fundamentally altering architectural practice. These technologies allow us to develop bespoke tools for testing multiple configurations; be it at the scale of defining a complex array of tiles on our Central Embassy project in Bangkok, looking at alternative stacks for the News Corp HQ, testing floor plate to external surface ratios on an office block in the City or extracting multiple twisted distortions from a standard flat sheet of Corian.

The potential for dialogue between experiment, design and fabrication is now incredibly sophisticated. We can generate and manipulate geometries too complex to imagine without digital technology and then use that same technology to rationalise our designs. We can create double curved skins using flat sections with an intricacy and accuracy that would previously have been considered totally impractical. We can optimise visually, structurally and maximise cost efficiency, all at the same time. And we can test as many options as we can dream up, in real time.

It all feels a very long way from the days I started out with Jan Kaplicky. When we designed Lords’ Media Centre we drew it by hand. Each time one section changed, we had to scratch out our drawings with a scalpel. And the way in which we then tested what we had designed was to make cardboard section models. They in turn would reveal different problems that meant more scratching. It was a very circular process.

Eventually the frustration of having to patch or throw away drawings, because the paper was worn out from endless scratching, proved too much. Our small team of young architects gave us an ultimatum: computerise or we leave. So that’s what we did.

But some things don’t change. There is no digital shortcut or substitute for talent or intelligent thinking. The advent of digital technologies as tools for design and fabrication may have given us great liberties in form-making, but with this new-found freedom comes great responsibility. The seductive quality of empty form can never replace the integrity and ingenuity of carefully developed concepts. Which is the reason that it is so vital to keep that connection between the hand and the brain; to draw with a pencil and to make sketch models by hand. It can take some explaining to a young generation that you think differently with a pencil and that working on a horizontal surface engages you in a different way from looking at a vertical screen – but it does.

When digital technologies are used with clever conceptual thinking and imagining, they are transformed from being merely tools. Innovation comes from harnessing this digital power with creative and intellectual rigour. The fusion of technology, creative thinking and the hand-made is certainly what is driving us at Amanda Levete Architects.

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