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Antoine Picon

Digital Culture in


Rn rntroduct ron

the DesLgn professLons

2 q JUN 2010





Introduction 7


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nvtw,blrthrurrr-rrchltroturr, oom

Pcoplc, Computero and Architecture: A Historical Oveniew

. rhe etrtergence of the socLetg of i.nformatLon

rhe rLse of cotttputer epLstemoLogg

tgblrnettcs Ln archLtecture and pLannLnS: patterns, sgstems and netuorks

rhe formaLLst turn Ln postmodernLsm and crLtLcaL theorg

oLgLtaL cuLture, space and socLabLLLtg

nrchrtecture as Lnterface








Experiments in Form and Performance 59

rhe seductLon of LnnovatLve geometrLes 6o

compLexLtg 73


rhe surface as archLtectuce 84

crom anLmatLon to aLgorLthmLcs 9\

rntr^Lcate or mLnLmaLLst eLegance? r00 oLgLtaL age sublectr"vLtg, perfor-mance and meanLng r04

From Tectonic to Ornament: Towards a Different Materiality rr5

contelnporarg technoLogg as Landscape rr6

. The crlsls of scale and tectonlc 124

FTorn netnorU to obLLvLon 133

ne Lnvent Lng ornaInent 138

n dLfferent materlaLLtg 143

uaterLaLs bg desLgn 159

oesLgn str^ategLes and professLonaL perspectLves t6z

u L L L robot Lzat Lon take command?


The City in the Digital Spraw1 r7r

urban features Ln the dLgLtaL age t72

n cLtg of IndLvLduaLs 171

nn augmented uIban reaLi"tg 185

events, sLlnuLatlons and scenarL0s r91

rouacds a sPLLntered cLtg? 205

Conclusion 2o9

Metcrial Qontinuity and the Derign Practicc

Indcx 2r7 On thr Author er*


Frorn Tectonic

to Ornamen.t:

Towards a Different




Digital architecture's formal and r:t l t'rpt li t t tt' r t l :, u i n r', 1'

arable from a series of changes that h:rve:ilfcctcd tt'c'lttrolor',r' ttr llr, 1' , r

decades. These changes are not only a nratter of ittttov;tti,,tr', ltl ' rl,

rnassive diffusion of digital tools, the developrnent of qcrrt'ti1 1 111' 1;1, , r ing orthe newperspectives opctrctl bv tlrt t t'1,1,,, ,t,", ofnanoscale structures. Path brc:rkir)q:rr)(l \l)( ( I r, ,l ,,

though these innovations nray btr, tltc1, .rri .ttlt 1',,r

of a more global evolution that prestrrrts ,r slr( )r" , I temological dimension. In other wot'rls. il i:, rr,,t,,,,1

the content oftechnology but its very tlt'lirrrt t.rr t I has changed during the past decades. Wlt.rt rr, ,

call technology diflers radically frorrr tlr, li, lrrr,,l, cal world that defined classical furtrts ol, ,l, ,

tion, from early-nineteenth-centttry lltrr',l,rrr,l r,, r,, I

twentieth-centurylJnited States,-frrprrrr

.rrr,l (,, r r r,,

Although we are not yet living in 11-1;lv lror,l

societies, contraryto the assumptiott ttt:ttlt

ttt,l,, r ' ,

rrr l"


sociologist Daniel Be1l,1 since inc-lttstrirrl lrt.,ltt,

not so much disappeared as relocalizt'tl tr)

t t'



( (,rrrrrr' l,

China, the rise of a ser-vice ccolt()tlr) trr rr rr'


oped countries has been accotrtpltttit"rl l,i transformations of the perceptiol) rlrr(l rrrrrl, r I r,,.!

oftechnology. The shiftingcortter)t ol, rr rlrl

crisis of tectonic and the risirrg irttpotl,rrrr r ,r , '

mental practices are atnollg



thc pltt'ttorrr, tt t 1 l,,,

nect what is happening itt arcltitt't lttti t,, rlr, ,

general scientifi c and techtrol,rgir',t I r'r'oI t t t r,, r,

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noticcrble clt,tttq, lr(:. rrr ! , , ,


of relevance oltr:rtlitiorltl It't'lttt,,l,,r',r, .rl ,,1 I , ,

lVicroprocessor (CRISP) Diagram and Correspond ng SilicOn [iIicroch p, ] 986 (l\4anufacturer: AT&T Bell Lall0rator'ies, conrpany design) Ner,v York, l\4use!nr of lVodr,:nr Arl

([40[4A). O 2009. Ditt lrtl irlla.]e llro l\,{ttlrrrL tt ol

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Photo: Phil Sussman,

A traditional



cars or airplanes. In the cvcryclly experience of technology, obj ct'ts

are no longer as deternrining rrs

they used to be. They have beerr

superseded by more comPrehell*

sive and at the same time abstract

entities such as networks ancl

fields. Most of the artifacts that

surround us today seem to Possess

afraction only of the autonomy

that machines ofthe industrial agc

were imparted with. We tend to

live among quasi-objects, con-

nectors or terminals that exPress properties belonging to networks or fields, like the strength of the signal displayed by cell Phones'

The case of cell phones is bY the

way telling. Some of them, sucl't

as the ever-newest smart Phone,

crystallize strong desires; but they

are nevertheless dePrived ofreal

autonomy since they would be of

no use without a phone Plan and a provider's coverage. Interest-

ingly, decades before the devel- opment of wireless communlca-

tion, Richard Buckminster Fuller had already used the phone to illustrate the partial loss of relevance of

objects in a society dominated by

service. As he noted with great clar-

significance. 'w'hat mattered was to sub-

iry, to own a phone had no real

scribe to a phone plan.2 Contrary to what the French philosophcr

Georges Simondon stated in his classical book on technological artifacts,

2 See Martin Pawley, Btckminster

Fuller (London:' l'u'liil, l t) t) 0), y'l l

il rilt(.nll)()r:lry

o[tjccts or nttltcr rltrtrsi o[l.ict:ts ('llllll()t Lrc t:otlsitlct'ctl lts

" rrr,lrvrrlrr;rls".1 Itt c'ollllllctc (:()lltrest t() lllxlly oIthcir tirrcrttttltcrs' sttt:lt

.r., tlrt. l()r.ttnrotivc thet:rppetrs

il,rrrt'1. I-rr lllttt F{uttainL:,a

as a fully-fledgccl charlctcr iD Enrile Zolrr's

their existence appears as a l)lero effltlrcsce tlcc

,,1 tlrt'livcrs of networks and fields'

,l.hc loss of relevance of traditional technological artifacts is prob-

of the perception of the ever-increasing importance of

an issue thati will return to in the last chapter' The networks

that are superseding them are less immediately perceptible than

.rl,l\, :rt tlrc core

r rrttr:rlity,

.rrr,l licltls

They seem to generate possibilities awaiting an actu-

quasi-objects like terminals' A wireless nefwork needs

l, I r r r rstallce computers or cell phones to become fully present to its users'

.rlrz.rtiott through

tr.r,lrriOrral objects.

lil Nlil rtltltt ( illY I itlxttltlrrt\l, Mll,


Mi lir;itt:llt

tl lt ll ll;

Wittllttlil; lttlttt ttttl inlottliilY ilt;ttlllr; llttt

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teclttxtlol;lr:ltl tr:itlllY

l( r.rtqr.iStrttrrttr/rrtt,l)ttMltrlr.rl,l]'ristr.rrt.cltcs()lljctsl.c ltttitlltr.s(t\tris:Allliu,lI)(tl))'

I I.tttii lola, l,r ltcrr.llIrrr.rrrrc (l,,rrl,r lllt)0,

l,t.tlitltttt|$lnlio,t N|rt''lirrl'r

(,\lnill IluitIt'ity

1t"", lt)')t')


Ant>tlrcr firrrclarnetrtnl r:hunrr:tr:ristic: of'tltc Itcw tccltttologicll clrvirttrt

ment that surrounds us is its scettrlcss l)ttllrc. Wirelt:ss ntrtwtlrks arc tltcrt:

again emblematic of a world in which networks and fields scenl to lllcrgc in a more and more fluid way. This continuum explains the success of

metaphoric uses ofverbs like "to surf', "to browse" or "to drift" whelt

dealing with realities like the Internet. They convey something about the attitude to adopt in a continuous technological world. The smooth- ness of elegant digital architecture form can be read as a metaphorical transposition ofthis fluid character. The eye is supposed to su{ browse

or drift on its sudace, enabling affects, in the sense discussed in the pre-

vious chapter, to pervade the space that extends between subject and object.

In this environment, components oftechnological objects are less and less assembled according to schemes based on geometry and mechan-

ics. Structures and engines, with their carefully designed elements that answered each other like the instrumental parts of an orchestral piece,

used to encapsulate the fundamental principles of technological in-

genuity. Nothing was more admirable than the systemic or synergetic arrangement of elements that characterized a Gothic cathedral or a bi-

cycle. Computers and more general electronic equipments are no longer

designed according to these principles. They appear as layered assenl-

blages of hardware and software. In these stack-like assemblages, sys- temic or synergetic organization is replaced by a different and in some ways looser type of relation based on intefacing. Interfacing has more to do with problems of code-writing and translation from one code to another than with traditional structural design. From another point ofview, the structural dimension is jeoparcl- izedby the rise of information. Indeed, structure used to be defined lt

an intermediary scale between the microscopic and the macroscopic,

From anirnal skeletons to buildings, structure was supposed to embocly a fype of order characteristic of a specific position in-between these two extremes. This specific position is challenged in a world in which inftrr-

mation seems to follow similar patterns at every level of scale. Tlril

t'xplairrs thc r:rrrblcrrmtic xrlc

plrrycd by fractals in nrany

('ontemporary discourses. No

longer seen as geometric odd-

ities, &actals are now perceived

:rs embodying an essential

t'ltaracteristic of a world ruled

by information, namely its

irrdifGrence to traditional hier-

,rrchies and scales.s

Another disturbing

.rspect oFthe present situation

is the blurring that often

()('curs betr,veen what used to hc infrastructural and what was

, onsidered as superstructural.

lrr a transportation company,

tlrc software application used

t() manage the fleet is often

rrrore important than the

vt'hicles themselves. In a similar way, to change one's operating system,

rwitching from'Windows to Linux for instance, represents a more fun-

,l.rrnental move than to buy a hew computer. In many instances, the hard-

rv:rre is actually the softerpart ofthe organization. The history ofthe Inter- r r('t perhaps offen the best illustration ofthe blurring between infrastructure ,rr rtl superstructure, for the network has changed its backbone a few times ,ltrring the first decades ofits existence, suggesting that its real infrastruc- trrrll level was that ofthe users connected to it, as ifthe small branches and tlrt' leaves ofa tree were situated at a higher hierarchical level than its trunk.6

The crisis of architectural tectonic that will be evoked here must l',' replaced in this context. Another factor adds to the evolutions listed

,rlrove: the radical redefinition of the limits between the natural and the

,r r tificial that is taking place simultaneously, a redefinition epitomized

1') \, ftfiul

l\vir: ltliluutdtior, lt)[J()).

,' t


I'utd ,4h[uk, <t1t. tit.

Patricia Pkx;hrlrrl,

Protein Lilllkxl Subset Red, Porltilll,

1997, Dioltal r; lylrrr


0(nI l(]:ry

Patricia Pkrclrrlrrl,

Which oilr) hi lll0

more arllfk;ill: llrrr


mrru;rr trr

the modcl'/ llollt ilit\/

be roglrrtxl ili

soplrIilk)irlr]( I produr;ls trl llrrrlr

respectivo lrxfu l;lr Ir;,

biotrxJrx)k)gy iurl


by the possibility of taking I pirter)t fbr-livirrg

o.g"rirrrrr. With these changes, we are confronted

to a technological

grasp using

world that is no longer easy to

univocal categories' We live in a

Iechno-natural environment that is closer to what philosophers like Bruno Latour or Peter Sloter- describe in their essays than to the traditional

,rision of a human sphere circled by a foreign


Although system analysis has known a

recent return to favor, this environment can no

longer be approached using systemic analogies' A

system is almost always a collection of discrete

parts or Actors the relations ofwhich can be char-

icterizedin terms of information processing and feedback loops' Despite their appeal to designers'

cybernetics or neo-cybernetic models are proba-

bly no longer relevant to understand contempo-

More iraditional systemic approaches like historians

simplilied diasram 0r

the First lndustrial

Rev6lutign sysrem,



(eoltor)' fl/sru/re



ues -


rary technology.


Mumford's nn.,*+.I.i,c nr or Rcrrrrr Bertrand

Gille's attempts to c

lescribe technologi-



.rrolution as a series of systems are even less satisfying. While the

Industrial Revolution could indeed be described as a system based

Pleiade, 19/u. (9

Edirions calimard. First

According to the


the interactions between three fundamental elements: coa1, iron and

iJ:ffiilr'J'J:T;J, the steam engine, as Mumford and Gille argued convincinglv, there is

Giile, the First

no lirnited ,"I of

that can in a comparable way summarize our



[:H:Xl3i[i',$ff,. sprawling technological

the '

was based on



Dlaling witha

interactions between

three fundamentat


elements: coal, iron environment,

and the steam

a more

engine. sllcn

simplified description is hard t0



seamless technological world' it is tempting to use

catelories borrowed to landscape theory and history' For this

with its pervasive presence and smooth transitions' has

features in common with a landscape than with a system' Its net-


to a topography punctuated by quasi-

an ordinary countryside is animated by

sysremic works and fields are analogous

obiects like terminals, just like

g.irr", and cottages.

But mentioning the countryside here may be mis-

7 seeJor instance: *,ir?i,",T03"i:r;:;;:ri;7,;:r:":";1:;::;:;:;r,;;::;i,tr?,,::z;;;i

8 kwk MumJord,rechnics and civiliz*ion 1N"*io'u' uo'*'t'f'rfrfrfnf,';,'3i"?;!"K"4""7*:r"l::i*r\':r';!



(London: studio vista, 1922), p 86 in plartkular. 6n'the paradigmatk ch)rutter oJ this proiect -

le uclirrg, bct::rusrr 111q 1:llrrtr'rrrporary tcchnologiclrl lnrrclsc:apc is firndlr-

rrrcntally urben, alrnr>st identical to the city. Even ir: the nrost relnotc:

places, in secluded mountain valleys for instance, some of its most

ernblematic devices like computers and cell phones can generate an urban

bubble, a kind of "instant city" rcpTacing its users in the metropolitan

rhythm like Archigram's eponymous project.e To envisage the ciry as a

landscape has become moreover one ofthe most promising paths towards

the much-needed renewal of urban thinking.tolust like key technolo- gicaT artifacts, beginning with the computer, appear less and less as geo- metrical and mechanical assemblages, the city is no longer manageable

in terms of urban composition or even urban zoning. Its future seems to lie in approaches merging seamlessly different and often contradic-

tory dimensions, like the visually disordered and the carefully planned,

or the productive and the pleasurable.

Contrary to the critical distance or disinterestedness that was pre-

supposed by former landscape aesthetics, by Kantian theory in particu-

lar,11 the contemporary technological landscape does not imply a neu-

tral distance on the side ofthe subject that perceives it; it requires to the

contrary a commitment from him. This landscape is indeed


fi'om the redefinition that affects the subject. 'W'e have already seen a

number of possible characterizations of the new subject that is emerg-

ing today, like the cyborg that presupposes a link bet\,veen man and tech-

nology so intimate that it leads to their hybridization. The cyborg hypothesis might very well represent a convenient starting-point to

simultaneously reexamine technology and the Notions of spa- tially distributed subjectivity and affect rnay clearly indicate why Kant's

disinterestedness is clearly out of the question when dealing with con-

temporary technological landscape. How could today's individuals con-

template from outside a scene that is in continuity with their inner self?

l)igital architecture and its advocacy of mediated and distributed sub- .iectiviry is in that respect paradigrnatic of the new relation that prevails lretween man and his technological and urban environment.

l0 Charles Waldheim (ed.), Tlr,e Landscape IJrbanism Reader (Neu York: Pinceton Uniuereity Pres, 2006).

ll SeeJacques Roger, Coat Trait6 du Ptystge (Pais: Callimanl, 1997).

l2 On the cyborg and its releuance to architectuml

and urban questiorc, see Antoine Picon, La Ville Teritoire des Cyborgs (lltstttyrt:

l.ts Editions de l'Impimeur, 1998), WilliamJ. Mitchell,Me++t

The Cyborg Self and the Networked City (Carltril,gt,

A,lusachusetts: MIT Pres, 200i), Mdttheu Candy, "Cyborg (Jrbanization:

Complexity and Monstrosity in the Conturlnrary


irr frrtcnrationalJournal

(llybrirl) Natures and (Cyborg) Cities", in Science as Crkrre, vol. 15, no.2,June 2005, pp. 105-121.

oflJrban and Regional Research, uol. 29, no.1, 2005; Eik Suryngedouw, "Circulatiols unl Mtiltlitn'



Foster + Partners,

Chek Lap Kok Hong

Kong lnternational

Airpod, aerial view,

Hong Kong,1992- 1998. @ Dennis

Gilbert i VIEW

One of the most striking features of the contemporary architectural scene is the crisis of scale that seems to affect some of its most emblematic pro-

ductions. Its most conspicuous source is the blurring of the traditional distinction between infrastructures and buildings that has given birth to programs like giant airports or super-shopping malls. Renzo Piano's

Kansai Airport, Norman Foster's Chek Lap Kok Hong Kong Airport

or Maurice Sunderland's'W'est Edmonton Mall, are emblematic of this trend that challenges the traditional definition of architecture. Digital culture and the various computing tools that come with it do not only make these gigantic projects manageable by architectural ofEces. They also create the appropriate cultural context for their recep-

tion. This context bears the mark of the profound incertitude about

dimension generated by computer imagery. On computer screens, forrns seem to float without definite dimension. Frangois Roche's neo-cyber- netic urban megastructure, "I've Heard About", looks for instance like

a midsized coral formation. The same incertitude is detectable in games

and films that make an extensive use of computer images. Take the sec-

ond Star Wars trllogy.13 Its supposedly colossal architecture is actually

without clear scale. It evokes both the sublimity ofthe pyramids and the

skyscrapers and the precision of reduced scale models. One is torn

between contradictory impulses to step back in order to get the full pic- ture ofa giant architecture


arld at the same time look

closer at the minute details

of a reduced model. The

impression produced oscil-

lates between awe and

curiosity, thus adding to the incertitude regarding

the scale of the spectacle.

Ceorge Lucas (dir.), Star'Wars, Episodes I, II, AI G999, 2005, 2008),

From early blobs to more recent elegant design, the innovative

character of many digital projects geometry also contributes to the cri-

sis of scale. 'Whereas

appreciate the length, width and depth of rectangular shapes, it is far less

accustomed to evaluate the size of smoothly warped surfaces and vol-

umes. Flence the impressionthat rcdtzations like Asymptote's HydraPier

in Haarlemmermeer, Netherlands, or Zaha Hadid's BMW Central Building inLeipzig, Germany, are like momentarily landed futuristic

spaceships. With spaceships they share a streamlined appearance, and

above all an enigmatic scale that appears as a consequence of their non-

conventional geometry.

the eye has been trained since the Renaissance to

"l've Heard About",

Courtesy R&Skr(rD,

The comprrirrr

generated lrnll{I, does not rovoal llr{}

exact scalo o[ tlllli

urlrrtt r


Asymptote: Hani

Rashid and Lise Anne Couture, HydraPier Pavilion


The Netherlands,

2002. Photo:

Courtesy Christian


Along with the crisis of scale goes a gradual loss of relevance of


structure as a guideline for design. To put it differently, one can invoke

after Kenneth Frampton the notion of tectonic that corresponds in broad

terms, beyond Gottfried Semper's somewhat idiosyncratic definition,la

to structure translated in architectural terms, that is, structure as space- defining dimension. Ifwe are to follow Frampton, tectonic was a guid-

ing principle of modern architecture.ts It is certainly true that many modern buildings freed themselves from the strict rules of structures,

beginning with some of Le Corbusier's major realizations.16 Yet struc-

14 On Sempey's interprctdtioft oJ tectonic, see Harry Mallgraue, introdrction to GottJried Semper, Style in the Technical

and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics (Its Angeles: The Cetty Research Institute, 2004)' pp 1-67.

Despite the Jrequent reJerenes made to Semper by contemporary architectwal theory, the common underslandin! tf rcrtofric is quil(

dillrcnt.liom his qprooir h) lh( notit n 1-i Kuntth l;rttnplott, Strrtlics irr 'l'cr'lrrttic (lttltttrc.


tural prirrciples and tectonic played an organizational role even when they were reduced to a mere spatial ordinance. They were instrumen- tal in conveying the plastic and expressive dimensions of architecture,

even to the extent that structural detail progressively replaced traditional

ornament during the first half of the fwentieth century. Their key aes-

thetic and symbolic function was to attain its climax with Mies van der

Rohe's ornamental use of tectonic articulation in projects like the Illi-

nois Institute ofTechnology

(IIT) campus.

'When the use of the computer began to spread throughout the architectural world in the mid-1980s, it was expected to reinforce the predominance of structure and tectonic in architecture because of the

new possibilities it offered to pass almost seamlessly from the first sketches to detailed technical solutions. The smooth process it promised to estab-

lish seemed at the time synonymous with a deeper degree of coherence between design and structural decisions. This coherence was also sup-

posed to benefit from systematic parametric exploration. A new field was unfolding under the eyes of

the designer, a field where mul-

tiple solutions couldbe envisaged

in order to reach a perfect fit

between form and technology.

In many cases, what has

happened is the opposite ofthese

overoptimistic scenarios. ManY

signature buildings are marked by

l striking discrepancy between architectural forms and tectonic. According to the architect's ini-

tial statements, Toyo Ito's Sendai

Mediatheque was supposed to

ervoke a liquid milieu in which

weeds floated. Although the real- ized building has retained part of

Mies van dor Roho,

Alumni Memorlal Hall

at lllinois lnstltuto of

Technology, detall of

corner beams arll

bricks, Chlcago,

TAprll 194/,


Photographor Hedrich Blossln0, @ The Chlca0o History Museun'r. Tho

constructivo detoll

possesses somothhll

almost ornamental.

I h 'l'his k Jor instance the case with the Convent of lt

Toufftte. See Sergio Fcno,

Chcnf Kebal, Philippc l\tti(, Oyrillc Sintonrt,l t

( lrrrlrrrsicr: I-e Couvent de La Tourette (Marcillts: I'aruthlxs' 1988)


Toyo lto &





the irtitial tlllbitiolt, it is lt:ttrally

made ofhc:rvy-duty steel plates thrt

evoke ship construction, as ifdesigrr

choices were to a large degree inde-

pendent from the technologies of

their realization. A similar distance between the soft fabric suggested by

the initial digital presentation and

the constructive realiry ofthe build- ing can be observed in the case of

the Yokohama Terminal by For-

eign O{fice Architects. From

Sendai Mediatheque to Yokohama