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Interview with Ed Keller

published in PARPAINGS, 2000


The Paperless Studio

The Columbia University paperless studio is an evolving experiment, as well as a public
relations tool and space for questioning. In any case, it has certainly marked people and
oftens comes up as a reference for architectural practice, theory, and pedagogy in the
East Coast architecture community. Here is a brief history of the paperless studio
followed by an interview with one of its protagonists, Ed Keller, instructor at Columbia.

History of an Experiment [Note: it could also be translated as "History of an
Experience", the same French word being translatable either way]
Toward the end of the 1980s, the architecture school at Columbia University, located in
New York, was in a situation similar to many other architecture schools around the
world. The school offered CAD courses, but these courses used software that wasn't
widely used in the profession and were not tied into the rest of the curriculum.
Students had the sentiment that what the school was proposing in terms of new
technology did not prepare them for professional work, for design work, or for research
work. In 1992, the student union submitted to Bernard Tschumi, Dean of the
Architecture School, a proposal for the computer technology aspect of the curriculum.
Tschumi was receptive, but the proposal was beyond the school's means.
Things nevertheless began to change. The CAD sequence was reorganized with a new
director and began to teach new software, such as form-Z, a modelling software. In
1993 Softimage loaned an SGI workstation and a Softimage licence. The CAD
sequence brought together an instructor with knowledge of Softimage and several
interested students in independent *RESEARCH PROJECTS BETWEEN 1993-94.*
Their work was presented in CAD conventions and published, generating publicity for
the school. Following this, Columbia University made a contribution to the Architecture
School, creating the seed financing needed to build up a true computer lab.
At this stage, the potential of computers in architectural design began to be apparent in
the minds of some. It was the era of the deleuzienne fever in the American universities
and computers appeared as the ideal instrument for the research into alternative forms
of mapping which were being dreamt of. Greg Lynn, in particular, was a protagonist of
this direction of research, helping to give the development of computers as an
architectural tool programmatic and theoretical content.
In 1994-95, the school began to have an adequate technological infrastructure. A whole
level was dedicated to computer design work and the school was providing serious
training in modelling and animation. Computers as a practical and theoretical tool was
supported by a number of faculty members who integrated it with the studio work. The
paperless studio had become a reality.
PARPAINGS Interview with Ed Keller, New York, 04/05/2000
Since 1998-99, computers have reached a certain degree of ubiquity. All final year
students do their design work on computers. The 700 level (the all-computer floor) has
developed and consolidated with new equipment. Computers are extending to all the
studios which now comprise a computer area alongside the area with the students'
individual work spaces.

Interview with Ed Keller, New York, 04/05/2000

It seems that the initial decision at Columbia to work with modeling software such as
form-Z and Softimage is a meaningful choice. Many schools, confronted with the same
problem, tried to prepare students for professional work, leading to the choice of CAD
programs such as Autocad and Architrion. What was the significance of this choice for
the paperless studio?

At the time I was using form-Z and Architrion. But I was looking for a tool that
corresponded to my theoretical preoccupations. I was reading a lot of Deleuze and
Bergson and was looking for a way to do urban analysis using animation in order to do
mapping and not tracing, according to the deleuzienne distinction. I saw a Softimage
demo IN 1992 and perceived a real possibility to achieve this kind of work with
Softimage. Another person who clearly saw this was Greg Lynn, who was teaching at
Columbia in 1993. With Gregg Pasquarelli, another student, we did various independent
projects and competitions with Greg Lynn, who understood very well the potential of
mapping as an architectural tool and had worked on such problematics for years,
notably with Peter Eisenman.
Softimage worked very well for Columbia because it's a magnificent rendering tool.
People were able to create images that were full of beauty, and it's the power of the
image that helped propagate the software internally and attract funds. But what we were
trying to do in the architecture studios had a whole different significance. It was much
more experimental; we were trying to push the boundaries of the software. In fact, my
way of teaching Softimage, as well as Greg Lynn's and other professors', is a
misutilization of the software. We are not trying to create the representation of a system
in its most perfect and realistic form. We are using the dynamic and kinematique
functions to represent a system in interaction with another system in order to search for
points of friction between the systems, for points of transfer of energy or information.
This does not preclude beauty, as the work of Greg Lynn demonstrates. Greg has an
acute awareness of the need to attain beauty, but without the slightest compromise on
the theoretical level. I think he's quite unique in this regard.

When the paperless studio was created, what was its vision? What was really the sense
of this idea?

EK: One could answer this question in a purely practical way. The American licensing
examination was becoming computerized. We wanted not only to prepare our students
to work with computers, but to do it in a way which was totally on the cutting edge.
PARPAINGS Interview with Ed Keller, New York, 04/05/2000
The more interesting answer is that computers were a tool that gave designers a new
approach to time in the project. This was a very important concept for us, on which Greg
Lynn and myself have written. It's at the center of our utilization of the computer.
Computers offered an approach to systems that were in a dynamic relational state
which could not be understood with a plan and a section. It was the best way to think
the diagram that Foucault and Deleuze were talking about and to find an overlap of that
with architecture. Different instructors interpreted that in different ways, but I think that it
was the fundamental core of the paperless studio.

What pedagogical problems has this posed?

EK: Our research has filtered down from the advanced studios to the first year studios,
which are now doing absolutely remarkable work, sometimes beyond what the
advanced studios were doing a few years ago. However, a large part of the students at
Columbia have no previous experience in architecture. One must therefore ask some
questions: At what point should we be teaching these methodologies? How should we
integrate them in a pedagogy that aims to install a mode of architectural thought in
someone with no previous training? We have developed methods to try to address
these questions, both here at Columbia and previously, with my colleague Joe
MacDonald when we were teaching at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. These methods
have met with quite a bit of success, but we have no definitive answers and continue to
think and experiment.
We will now begin to receive final year students who have gotten this training since their
arrival at the school. Until now, in the architecture studios I was teaching, I dedicated
four weeks at the beginning of the year to a seminar where we read the key authors and
saw a dozen or so films in order to try to understand cinematographic space and
architectural space. We will now begin to receive students who already have some
mastery of this, and who will be ready to immediately begin work on other things. This
should modify the nature of the paperless studio. Between changes in the pedagogical
structure and changes in the technological infrastructure, I think that the studio will
change quite a bit in the coming years.

As an instructor of architecture, do you think that all this has led to a qualitative
improvement in architectural education?

EK: I think that the paperless studio has had a general revitalizing effect on architectural
education. We can clearly see how Columbia graduates have gone to teach elsewhere,
taking these ideas with them. The objective is certainly not to propagate a given style or
even a given method, because a method can quickly degenerate into a habit. But if we
can think of architecture as a vital process, dependent on time, rather than as a static
situation represented by plans, sections, and elevations, I think it's a step forward. In
this sense, I definitely believe that there has been an improvement, because there is a
change in orientation and we are closer to an evaluation of architecture as events and
systems rather than as compositions. In fact, I don't see this so much as the result of
the paperless studio as the result of the parallel work of the protagonists of the
paperless studio, based on diagrams and all that was inspired by Foucault and Deleuze.
PARPAINGS Interview with Ed Keller, New York, 04/05/2000

The education in many architectural schools in France is based on a certain plastic
tradition, using drawing as a tool of architectural analysis and thought. How do you react
to the idea that computers in architectural education break this plastic, manual, tactile
relationship to space, form, and matter?

EK: We try to deal with this problem by the diversity of teaching methods within the
school, from the most concrete to the most abstract. However, I do not see this problem
as only linked to computers. It seems to me that it's in fact related to the way the
question of architectural design is framed. For example, the old "point, line, plane,
volume" exercise can also be seen as a way of organizing a sequence of thought from
representation to tectonic. I think that there is no pedagogy that teaches how
architecture performs. [Translation problem here: there's no appropriate way to translate
"performs". I used the word for "behaves", but that doesn't really translate the same
idea. Maybe if you reword it I'll have a better idea for the translation.] There is however
a methodology for teaching the abstract behavior of a system that can then be related to
concrete events of the system in its relationship to people, economic systems, and so
on. We can model these relationships, which means we are using tools to think about
them, but then we need to translate it into form.
The problem of translation is a fascinating problem that we constantly encounter in the
paperless studio. Often, students use very sophisticated computerized tools to generate
very esthetic formal systems but have no idea how to translate them into architecture.
This moment of translation is exactly the same as in a Bauhaus exercise. It's then that
we tell our students that they've reached a point where they need to act as designers.
The students always search for automatic ways to extract a tectonic from their
computerized research, but in the end the business is not going to design a building for
you. It's the role of the human, as an intelligent being, to identify meaningfulness, to
think as a designer.
As I see it, it's an issue of pedagogy and not of computers. I hear people say that
computers influence the plastic of architectural design, and I agree. In the same way,
the may-line and triangle have an influence on the project, as do the French curve or
software such as Alias. I would like the question to be reframed so that it does not focus
on the instrument, but on design.

How has computer education transformed the profile of the students and the
professional opportunities?

EK: Everyone was excited by the possibility of using computers to interrogate spatial
and geometric phenomena such as gravity, deformation, bending, particle systems, and
so on. But this was all the more exciting that it related to the work that was going on at
the time in film and special effects. There was a hope that some of our students would
go to work in film as artistic directors because of their unique ability to live in both the
worlds of architecture and film. Things turned out quite differently. Our students became
excellent animators and started getting hired as animators in post-production. With the
economic realities of the time, one could easily make twice as much as an animator as
what the best graduating designers were making in the big corporate architecture firms
PARPAINGS Interview with Ed Keller, New York, 04/05/2000
in New York. That's also why our students didn't reach the artistic direction positions we
had hoped for - they were amply paid as computer operators. In addition, the work was
more interesting than what one could do in a corporate firm. To do interesting work in
architecture one obviously had to be prepared to make major financial sacrifices. All this
was a disappointment for us, but we see it in a positive way over time: when all our
graduates will have a very high level of animation skills, we'll be training people who
master those tools and who will end up actually working in architecture.

Does your work have an impact on the professional community? Does it prompt
practicing architects to put into question their vision of their own work?

EK: There is in the United States a great distance between the cutting edge research
done in architecture schools and professional practice. We believe that one of the
responsibilities of the school is to infiltrate the community, to influence professional
practice through our research. I believe that this is in fact one of the primary objectives
of Bernard Tschumi in his role of Dean of the Architecture School. He has endeavored
to publish the work done at school to show the community that it's architectural research
that should be taken into consideration, in order to bridge the gap between what is
considered professional work and student work, which is not really considered as valid
The publication of Abstract, the Columbia Architecture School review, represents a step
forward, although this remains a very big problem. If a big corporate firm has a
subscription to Abstract and uses it to pick out formal objects in the middle of the night
before a client meeting the next day, we have transmitted nothing of our research. It
becomes pure form and pure appearance, appropriated by people who don't know what
they're doing, and it becomes style in its poorest sense.

At the same time, there are other problems. Certain software has a propensity for
certain types of forms. Because Alias is designed to manage complex curves extremely
well, curvilinearity becomes an efficient tectonic. This is great at many levels, but
becomes a problem because the instrumentality of the software becomes transparent
and people do not question it. The questions are then to be conscious of what one is
doing and to pose the criteria of good design. You need people trained with these
problematics, which is still very rare in the professional community. In addition, you need
the opportunity to make decisions about tools and methods, while issues of time and
culture push toward facility. I hope our graduates will infiltrate the professional
community little by little, but we are well aware that this is occurring at a very low level.

What has been the recent evolution of the paperless studio?

EK: The most notable evolution has been its generalization to the whole school. A little
more than a year ago, I would say that about 50% of the final year students at the
school did their projects on computers. Today it's 100%. There has been a sudden
migration of the whole school toward the computer. We see very few projects on paper
and models.
PARPAINGS Interview with Ed Keller, New York, 04/05/2000
As we have said, this poses a problem in terms of tectonic mastery of the project. The
school must install a series of mechanisms in order to insure that our students are still
able to design tectonically. To this end, we are purchasing a 3-D printer and a laser
cutter. We are trying to install ways to create 3-D products from computer work, setting
up a fluid movement between computer and model. We have made attempts with
milling tools in the past, but the technology is no longer current, we must adopt new
All this changes the type of services provided by the school. We are entering a new
paradigm where we may not provide computers, but we will provide other services. We
will for example provide rendering services. Students will not have to wait for an image
to be calculated. They will send it to our bank of servers that will calculate the images
while the student continues to work. It will be the same for 3-D models: students will
send the file to a centralized machine which will make the model. They will only have to
pick it up when it is finished.
We're therefore moving towards a production logic. Given the lowering of computer
prices, students are able to buy computers that are perfectly adequate for their work.
The role of the school will be to provide other services. We have a committee that is
working on this subject, that of the relationship between the pedagogy and the school's
technical infrastructure. It's an issue that we feel is very important and we plan to
introduce innovations in the near future.
PARPAINGS Interview with Ed Keller, New York, 04/05/2000