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The SAGE Handbook of

Architectural Theory
Technology, Virtuality, Materiality

Contributors: Antoine Picon

Edited by: C. Greig Crysler, Stephen Cairns & Hilde Heynen
Book Title: The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory
Chapter Title: "Technology, Virtuality, Materiality"
Pub. Date: 2012
Access Date: February 26, 2016
Publishing Company: SAGE Publications Ltd
City: London
Print ISBN: 9781412946131
Online ISBN: 9781446201756
Print pages: 501-512
©2012 SAGE Publications Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
This PDF has been generated from SAGE Knowledge. Please note that the
pagination of the online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.

Technology, Virtuality, Materiality

Antoine Picon
A New Technological Landscape

A reflection on the present state of the relations between architecture and technology
cannot dispense with an examination of the changes that have affected technology in
the past decades. These changes are not only a matter of innovations like the massive
diffusion of digital tools, the development of genetic engineering or the new
perspectives opened by the exploration of nanoscale structures. Pathbreaking and
spectacular though these innovations may be, they are only part of a more global
evolution. This evolution presents a strong epistemological dimension. In other words, it
is not only the content of technology but its very definition that has changed during the
past decades. What we now call technology differs radically from the technological
world that defined classical forms of industrialization, from early-nineteenth-century
England to mid-twentieth-century United States, Japan and Germany. Although we are
not yet living in truly post-industrial societies, contrary to the assumption made in 1973
by sociologist Daniel Bell,1 since industrial production has not so much disappeared
as relocalized in countries like China, the rise of a service economy in many developed
countries has been accompanied by a series of transformations of the perception and
understanding of technology.

The first major difference lies in the loss of relevance of traditional technological objects
like cars or aeroplanes. In the everyday experience of technology, objects are no longer
as determining as they used to be. They have been superseded by more
comprehensive and at the same time abstract entities such as networks and fields.
Most of the artefacts that surround us today seem to possess only a fraction of the
autonomy that machines of the industrial age were imparted with. We tend to live
among quasi objects, connectors or terminals that express properties belonging to
networks or fields, like the strength of the signal displayed by mobile phones. The case
of mobile phones is, by the way, telling. Some of them, such as the Apple iPhone,
crystallize strong desires; but they are nevertheless deprived of real autonomy since
they would be of no use without a phone plan and a provider's coverage. Interestingly,
decades before the development of wireless communication, 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 clarity, to own a phone had no real
significance. What mattered was to subscribe to a phone plan (Pawley 1990, 23).
Contrary to what the French philosopher Georges Simondon stated in his classical
book on technological artefacts, contemporary objects or rather quasi objects cannot
be considered as ‘individuals’ (Simondon 1969). In complete contrast to many of their
forerunners, such as the locomotive that appears as a fully-fledged character in Emile
Zola's novel, La Bête Humaine (2001 [1890]), their existence appears as a mere
efflorescence of networks and fields life.

The loss of relevance of technological artefacts is probably at the core of our perception
of the ever-increasing importance of virtuality. For the networks and fields that are
superseding them are less immediately perceptible as traditional objects. They seem
to generate possibilities awaiting an actualization through quasi objects like terminals.
A wireless network needs for instance computers or mobile phones to become fully
present to its users.

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Another fundamental characteristic of the new technological sphere that surrounds us is

its more and more seamless nature. Wireless networks are there again emblematic of
a world in which networks and fields seem to merge in a more and more fluid way. This
explains the success of the metaphoric use of verbs like to surf, to browse or to drift
when dealing with realities like the internet. They convey something about the attitude to
adopt in a continuous technological world.

In this world, components are less and less assembled according to schemes based
on geometry and mechanics. The map with its triangulated landmarks, the structure or
the engine with their carefully designed parts used to encapsulate some fundamental
principles of technological ingenuity. Nothing was more admirable than the systemic
arrangement of elements that characterized a Gothic cathedral or a bicycle. Computers
and more generally electronic equipment are no longer designed according to these
principles. They present themselves as layered assemblages of hardware and software
somewhat comparable to sandwiches. Even more than the inner organization of the
layers, it is often their interfacing that matters today, and this interfacing is more akin to
problems of code writing and translation than to structural design.

From another point of view, the structural dimension is jeopardized by the world of
information. Indeed, structure used to be defined at an intermediary scale between the
microscopic and the macroscopic. From animal skeletons to buildings, structure was
supposed to embody a specific type of order in between these two infinites. Such
specificity is now challenged in a world in which information seems to follow similar
patterns at every level. This explains the emblematic role played by fractals. No longer
perceived as geometric monsters, fractals seem to embody a fundamental
characteristic of a world ruled by information, namely its indifference to traditional
hierarchies and scales.2

Another disturbing aspect of our present situation is the blurring that often occurs
between what used to be infrastructural and what was considered as superstructural. In
a transportation company, the software application in use to manage the fleet is often
more important than the vehicles themselves. In a similar way, to change one's
operating system is a more fundamental decision than to switch from one computer to
another. The history of the internet is perhaps the best illustration of this blurring
between infrastructure and superstructure, for the network changed its backbone a few
times during the first decades of its existence, thus suggesting that its real
infrastructural level was that of the users connected to it, as if the small branches and
the leaves of a tree were at a higher hierarchical level than its trunk (Abbate 2000).

It is in such a context that the crisis of architectural tectonics that I will evoke in a
moment must be appreciated. If one adds to it the profound redefinition of the limits
between the natural and the artificial that is taking place simultaneously, one finds
oneself confronted by a technological universe that is no longer easy to grasp using
univocal categories. We live indeed in a techno-natural universe more akin to what
philosophers like Bruno Latour or Peter Sloterdijk describe than to the traditional vision
of a human sphere circled by a foreign nature.3

This universe can no longer be approached using system analogies. A system is

always a collection of discrete parts, the relations of which can be characterized in
terms of information processing and feedback loops. Cybernetics or neo-cybernetic
models are probably no longer relevant to understanding contemporary technology.

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More traditional systemic approaches, like historians Lewis Mumford's or Bertrand

Gille's attempts to describe technological evolution as a series of systems, are even
less convincing (Mumford 1938; Gille 1978).

When dealing with a seamless technological universe, it is tempting to use analytical

categories borrowed from landscape theory and history. For this universe, with its
pervasive presence and gradual transitions, is more akin to a landscape than to a
system. Its networks and fields are analogous to a topography punctuated by quasi
objects like terminals, just like the countryside is animated by coppices and cottages.
But mentioning the countryside here may be misleading, for the contemporary
technological landscape is fundamentally urban, almost identical to the city envisaged
globally as a landscape.

Contrary to the disinterestedness that was presupposed by former landscape

aesthetics, by Kantian theory in particular (Roger 1997), the contemporary
technological landscape does not require a lack of involvement from the subject that
perceives it. To the contrary, this landscape is indeed inseparable from the redefinition
that affects the subject. A possible characterization of the new subject that is emerging
under our eyes may be suggested by the partly imaginary figure of the cyborg that
presupposes a link between man and his technology so intimate that it leads to their
hybridization. Another figure suggested by the advent of digital culture is the detective
or rather the decipherer who can make sense of an environment that often presents
itself as a riddle (Rosenheim 1997). There again, the capacity to decipher the
technological landscape presupposes a familiarity adverse to the Kantian notion of

The Crisis of Tectonics and Its Temporal Dimension

If one turns now to architecture, one of the most striking features of the contemporary
scene is the gradual loss of relevance of structure as a guideline for design. Another
way to put it is to invoke, after Kenneth Frampton, the notion of tectonics that
corresponds in broad terms, beyond Gottfried Semper's somewhat idiosyncratic
definition, to structure translated in architectural terms, that is as space defining. If we
are to follow Frampton, modern architecture had valued tectonics above all else
(Frampton 1995). This did not prevent many modern buildings attempting to free
themselves from the strict rules of structures, beginning with some of Le Corbusier's
major realizations.5 But even when they were reduced to a mere spatial ordinance,
structural principles and tectonics played an organizational role. They were also
instrumental in conveying the plastic and expressive dimensions of architecture. During
the first half of the twentieth century, structural details had progressively replaced
traditional ornament as a key element in the aesthetic and symbolic appreciation of
architecture. This key role was to attain its climax with Mies van der Rohe and his
ornamental use of tectonic articulation in projects like the Illinois Institute of Technology
Campus for instance.

When the use of the computer began to spread throughout the architectural world in the
mid-1980s, one thought initially that it would reinforce the predominance of structure
and tectonics through the new possibilities it offered to pass almost seamlessly from
the first sketches to the resolution of detailed technical problems. The smooth process
it promised to establish seemed at the time synonymous with a deeper degree of
coherence between design and structural decisions. This coherence was also to

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benefit from the perspective of unlimited parametric exploration. A new field was
unfolding under the eyes of the designer, a field where multiple tracks could now be
followed in order to reach a perfect fit between form and the technology used to realize

In many cases, what has happened is the opposite of these over-optimistic scenarios.
Indeed, many key buildings are today marked by a striking discrepancy between
architectural form and tectonics. Toyo Ito's Mediatheque was supposed to evoke an
aquarium in which weeds floated. Although the realized building has retained part of the
initial ambition, it is actually made of heavy duty steel plates that are more akin to ship
construction, as if design choices were to a large degree independent from the
technology enabling their realization (Witte 2002). A similar distance between the soft
fabric suggested by the initial digital presentation and the constructive reality of the
building can be observed in the case of the Yokohama Terminal. From Toyo Ito's
Sendai Mediatheque to Foreign Office Architects' Yokohama Terminal, there seems to
be no alternative than to radically distinguish the spheres of architectural form and
tectonics. The distinction is at work in many other contemporary signature buildings.
Zaha Hadid's Phaeno Center's all-concrete external appearance is, for instance,
contradictory with the structural importance of its floor and roof steel girder grids. In that
case also, one can observe a discrepancy between form and tectonics.

There is something paradoxical to observe in how today, on the one hand, the computer
allows, as initially expected, intimately articulated conception and realization, while it
recreates, on the other hand, a striking distance between architectural imagery and the
reality of building techniques.

More generally, we seem to be in a state of suspension or even a crisis of traditional

tectonic assumptions, a situation closely related to the incertitude that affects scale, for
it was scale that granted to structure its foundational role. Frank Gehry's practice
constitutes probably one of the best illustrations of this crisis, with its spectacular
buildings in which architectural form comes first and foremost with little regard for
structural constraints. What the computer does is to make possible the realization of
form, even if it is far from optimal in structural terms. The use of Catia enables the
designer not only to give a rigorous definition to the most complex geometries; it
provides the structural engineer and the contractor with the necessary information to
build it, whatever the cost.

Beside Frank Gehry's architecture, there are many other instances of indifference, if not
conscious rejection of structural constraints. What is at stake is also a critique of the
type of legibility that these constraints implied, a critique at work in Michele Sae's new
façade for Drugstore Publicis in Paris, with its undulating glazing in complete contrast
with the rigid frame of the original building. Although the deconstructivist agenda has
stalled as a whole, its rejection of traditional structural organizing rules is still very much
present today. Revealingly, such an attitude is shared by engineers such as Cecil
Balmond who present it as a quest for an alternative tectonics based on ‘non Cartesian’
or ‘informal’ principles (Balmond 2002). Engineered by Balmond, with its complex
maze of posts and beams that defies conventional structural understanding, Herzog
and de Meuron's Beijing National Stadium appears as an illustration of this quest. It
often uses randomness, or at least the appearance of randomness, as a
countermeasure to tectonic habitus. The latter is especially conspicuous in another
structure designed by Cecil Balmond in close cooperation with an architect: Toyo Ito's

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2002 Serpentine Pavilion. Randomness also explains the success of schemes like
Voronoi, tessellations which offer important latitude of variation in the size and shape of
their cells.

The tendency to free oneself from traditional structural guidelines must be replaced
within the broader frame of a technological world in which, as I said before, the
distinction between structural and non-structural levels is becoming increasingly porous.
As a cultural production, architecture reflects trends that extend far beyond the scope of
the building industry. Closer to the reality of this industry, recent technological
developments mean that practically anything goes. With the new possibilities offered by
advanced welding or glues, many a traditional rule of assemblage can be disregarded.
With their increased performances, materials also play a crucial role in this evolution.
Epitomized by Gehry's architecture, the capacity of the computer to transform almost
every formal choice into a viable constructive assemblage reinforces the possibilities
offered to the architect to play with forms without worrying too much about their
structural implications. Given the financial limitations that weigh on much of everyday
building production, such a possibility is of course limited to relatively expensive
commissions like those entrusted to Ito, Foreign Office Architects or Gehry. For
reasons of cost control, traditional structural principles still rule the building industry at
large. But projects like Ito's Sendai Mediatheque, Foreign Office Architects' Yokohama
Terminal, Gehry's Guggenheim Museum or Herzog and de Meuron's Beijing Stadium
are the indicators of an ongoing shift.

The new requirements linked to the quest for sustainability concur to this shift. Sustain-
ability is indeed relatively indifferent to the soundness of load-bearing trajectories and
the translation of structural choices into legible tectonics. It involves factors like
ecological footprints or dynamic energetic behaviour that obey another type of logic, a
logic that involves the entire environment instead of remaining within the limits of the
built object like traditional structural requirements. 6 There again, the computer is
instrumental in enabling designers to identify and master these factors.

Thus the weakening of structural considerations is linked to a more general shift in the
understanding of what matters in the physical world, of what represents challenges not
yet addressed by human ingenuity. It does not mean, however, that mechanics has lost
its relevance, but rather that its status is changing. Mechanics and structural
requirements used to be at the cutting edge of man's science and technology. In
comparison with biological and ecological stakes, they are now slowly receding into the
background. But this background is more constraining than it may seem at first; one
can even consider it as a new limit, of a different nature than the scientific front proper.
Two examples may facilitate the understanding of what this status means in practice.
The first is hard disk mechanical failure. In the domain of hardware, pretty much
everything can be fixed except a hard disk mechanical failure because of the difficulty of
restoring the exact speed at which the disk used to rotate before the accident. The
second example is provided by the potentially dramatic consequences of the poor
shape of civil engineering works in the United States. The scope of the problem was
suddenly revealed by the New Orleans catastrophe (Ouroussoff 2005). In both cases,
the mechanical and structural dimension represents a new kind of limit. By
extrapolation, one may very well imagine a world in which structural achievements are
no longer synonymous with advanced technology, while structural factors remain
determining, more determining in some ways than cutting edge scientific and
technological achievements, the applications of which are less pervasive. After all,

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before displaying ‘green’ characteristics, a building must still resist static and dynamic

Among the consequences of the suspension of the traditional tectonic assumptions,

one finds a spectacular return of ornament as something distinct from tectonic
articulation. For all that, today's architectural ornament has not much to do with the
definition that prevailed before the dawn of modernity with its sculptural and above all
symbolic dimensions. The symbolic dimension is in particular rejected by many
contemporary designers. If we are to follow them, new ornament is more akin to a
surface or a field condition; it is often similar to a pattern or a tessellation that aims at
producing affects that transcend meaning in the ordinary sense (Moussavi and Kubo
2006).7 Sauerbruch Hutton's Pharmacological Research Laboratories in Biberach,
Germany or Office dA's Obzee Heaquarters project in Seoul, South Korea, are typical
of this reinterpretation. Even when the elementary ornamental element is actually an
image or a series of images, like on the façade of Herzog and de Meuron's Eberswald
Technical School Library in Germany, the overall effect is that of patterning or

One finds also a new interest taken in materiality, to which I will return in a moment.
Materials are pretty much everywhere today. One can even argue, and this will be my
point, that there is a strong link between the development of digital culture and the
widespread interest in materiality. The recent work of Herzog and de Meuron is quite
emblematic of that connection. From the Basel Schaulager to the San Francisco De
Young Museum, it has made an intensive use of pixelization, a technique directly linked
to the use of the computer.

Ornamentation, materiality: the question arises of the link between these new
dimensions and memory. More generally, what seems to become more and more
problematic is the relation between the new technological landscape, which is unfolding
before our eyes, and memory, a situation somewhat disconcerting because traditional
technology, despite the cult of progress that had become associated to it on the dawn
of industrialization, was actually inseparable from memory (Stiegler 1998).

In the architectural field, this strong connection was indicated by tectonics. Indeed,
tectonics had to do with questions regarding the origin and the development of the arts.
This had been made clear by various theorists, such as the French Abbé Laugier
whose mid-eighteenth century Essai sur l'Art was centred on the link between tectonics
and the emergence and development of architecture (Hermann 1962). The question
would remain fundamental, dealing for instance with the interpretation of Greek Doric
and its alleged filiation with wood construction, an issue upon which nineteenth-century
theorists sharply disagreed.

Tectonics had another connection with memory through the theme of the ruin. Indeed,
the ruin raised, in a direct and unambiguous manner, the question of the relation
between architecture and time. What the ruination process ultimately revealed was the
tectonic dimension of buildings. Often deprived of their former ornaments, the bare
walls and columns, the partly collapsed vaults bore testimony to the dissolving effects of
centuries. Like the human skeleton, imbued with an almost equal expressive power, the
ruin epitomized the flow of historical conditions. Like the skeleton, it conveyed ideas of
death and mourning. But it could also carry notions of rebirth and regeneration, hence
the frequent use of ruins as the setting of nativity scenes in order to symbolize the

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redemption of pagan humanity with the advent of Christianity.

Above all, it was through its articulations, through the play between vertical, oblique and
horizontal parts, between supporting and supported members, that tectonics related to
time, history and memory. Firstly, these articulations had something to do with the way
the human body was understood at the time of their design, a link well conveyed by the
Spanish structural engineer Eduardo Torroja when he declared that ‘vain would be the
undertaking of he who hopes to succeed at laying out the structure without having
assimilated, all the way to the marrow of his bones, the principles that govern all the
phenomena of internal equilibrium’ (Torroja 1971 [1960], 28). Through the analogy with
the body and the skeleton, an analogy that has become increasingly difficult to sustain
today, tectonics held firmly to a temporality marked by notions of birth, growth, decline
and renewal, a temporality in profound accordance with the dimensions of memory and

Secondly, although tectonic articulations did not constitute, strictly speaking, a

language, they followed a kind of syntax. For their designers, as well as for the public
accustomed to decipher the interrelations of structural parts, they held a discourse on
the very possibility of constructing an argument about how things were sustained, that is
again about time, memory, and history. From nineteenth-century architectural theorist
Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc to twentieth-century German historian of art Erwin
Panofsky, the temptation was great to relate this discourse to the general structures of
reasoning prevailing in a given cultural context. Both Viollet-le-Duc (1863–1872) and
Panofsky (1951) tried to interpret Gothic structure in the light provided by medieval
ways of thinking.

Among the factors that challenge today the possible analogies between structure,
discourse and memory, one finds the tendency to replace constructive parts by
parametric relations. As George Liaropoulos-Legendre observes: ‘Parametric
relationships are not parts […]. Thus a form shaped by parametric modulation has no
discrete limb to speak of – you cannot chop it into pieces, nor indulge in the separate
application of permutation, substitution and scaling of parts’ (Liaropoulos-Legendre
2003, 2, 7). The qualities of smoothness and elegance that digital designers are
generally looking for are adverse to syntax-like tectonic expression.

From the nineteenth century on, the link between architecture and memory was often
doubled by a connection to the privileged media of memory and history, namely writing.
Despite Victor Hugo's famous statement in Notre-Dame de Paris that ‘ceci tuera cela’,
(Hugo 1998 [1831], 289) that writing and printing had replaced architecture as the
privileged instrument of collective memory, nineteenth-century architecture was actually
trying to rise to the challenge represented by writing, often in a very literal way by
making an abundant use of inscriptions on its façades. Labrouste's Bibliothèque Sainte
-Geneviève is typical of that endeavour with its lists of famous people carved on its
external walls.9

Can digital media contribute to a permanent inscription? The question must be raised
today. One may of course wonder whether we are really being confronted with the end
of tectonics. After all, we might very well be only in a period of transition. Realizations
like Herzog and de Meuron's Beijing Stadium can be interpreted both as symptoms of
the crisis of tectonics and as the first steps taken towards its reinvention, a reinvention
marked by the blurring of the structural and the ornamental dimensions. Instead of

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evoking the definitive abandonment of tectonics, many theorists and practitioners

subscribe to this perspective of rebirth (Leach et al. 2004; Reiser and Umemoto 2006).
This is for instance the belief that sustains the researches of an engineer like Cecil
Balmond (2002). It is, however, striking to observe how a certain indifference towards
structure has developed in the past decades. Also, even if a new tectonics approach
was to emerge, the question of its relation to memory would still need to be addressed
in order to avoid being trapped in an everlasting present. For that purpose, one would
have to invent or rather reinvent the equivalent of weight and inertia in the digitally
oriented world that surrounds us. For the time being, one has to recognize that this
reinvention is not a priority for architecture.

Virtuality and Performalism

The ambiguities that surround the relation of contemporary architecture to time and
memory find their counterpart in the increasing importance given to the multiple
possibilities that arise at every stage of the design process. These possibilities
increase the role played by virtuality as a key dimension of architecture.

Of course, design was always about the capacity of architectural drawing to anticipate
not a single built reality but a whole range of possibilities. Drawings and even models
were never univocal and their power lay to a certain extent in the ambiguity of their
relation to reality, an ambiguity that was synonymous with the power to generate various
solutions in practice. As such, architectural conception was inseparable from a virtual
space constituted by the endless possibilities that arose through the design process
and remained to a certain extent present in the final documents describing the project.

The computer marks, however, a new stage, insofar as it places these possibilities at
the very core of the design process instead of letting them appear as a side product of
the complex interaction between the rules of the art and the invention of the architect.
Through objects and techniques like spline curves and parametric design, the dialectics
between rules and invention is gradually integrated in the broader frame of the
exploration of a theoretically unlimited field of possibilities. Another way to put it is to
state that traditional licences that the designer made use of to interpret the rules of
architecture are replaced by a systematic quest for variation.10 Such an evolution, is of
course, linked to the crisis of received principles and rules, the principles and rules of
tectonics evoked above, but also the aesthetic guidelines that played an essential role
in the diffusion of modern architecture, and made its transformation into an
‘international style’ possible. One often hears complaints about the difficulty we have
today in judging the aesthetic value of the forms produced with a computer. This
difficulty is an integral part of the spectacular reinforcement of virtuality as a key
dimension of architectural design.

In such a context, form becomes comparable to an occurrence, an event that organizes

the flow of possibilities around it like an island reshaping the flood of the river that
surrounds it. Form used to appear to the spectator; it now happens on the computer
screen as a punctuation of the geometric and technical flows generated by software,
those very flows that theorists like Greg Lynn have tried to understand better in
reference to the pioneering experiments of Muybridge and Marrey with the recording of
movement (Lynn 1998).

For someone working in the financial markets, the temporal, event-like structure of what

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one sees on a computer is even more evident. What a trader deals with using the latest
digital equipment are situations on disputed markets that are comparable to

From the start, digital culture was about seeing events. It is worth remembering that one
of the first major applications of computer networking techniques, the North American
anti-missile system SAGE, designed under the direction of MIT computer scientist Jay
Forrester, was meant to allow operators to see situations such as a nuclear strike. The
profound connivance between nascent digital culture and the Cold War had to do with
the role they both gave to events and their possible integrations into scenarios. In the
Cold War perspective, analysed by an historian like Paul Edwards (1996), the
computer screen was an integral part of the war room.11

The relation between digital culture and events runs even deeper. As the French
philosopher Pierre Lévy remarked in a path-breaking essay entitled ‘La Machine
Univers’, a bit of information is not a thing but an occurrence, an atomistic event (Lévy
1987, 124). It corresponds to something that happens rather than something that is
following traditional ontological categories.

As something that happens, architectural form can be also apprehended as break from
the theoretically unlimited virtual condition that bathes contemporary design process.
One could even compare it to a moment of suspension providing a point of view on that
virtual condition. Whereas the conditions leading to its occurrence are about endless
possibilities and variations, form is all about effectiveness. This duality between the
virtual and the effective may account for the somewhat disconcerting co-existence of
two discourses on digital architecture, the first one about potential, simulation and
scenario, the second about what architecture can actually achieve, or rather perform, in
domains ranging from sensory and emotional affects to the technological criteria
attached to environmental sustainability.12 The performative approach is further
reinforced by the suspension of the question of meaning that we have already seen at
work around ornament. Today's architecture is no longer supposed to convey a
message distinct from the effects generated by its presence. As an event, architectural
form is supposed to find its ultimate justification in what it can achieve. One of the most
emblematic projects in that respect may very well be Lars Spuybroek's D-Tower
(2004). The tower in itself has no meaning. What it does is merely perform, changing
colour according to the emotions of a Dutch town's inhabitants. One should note that to
perform is not the same as the modernist fulfilment of a function. The tower has neither
meaning nor function in the traditional sense. It simply does what it does.

Equally representative, in a more distantiated and ironic mode, is François Roche's

proposal for the MI(pi) Bar, a pavilion meant to convert urine into tea at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There is perhaps no better illustration of the link
between architectural form and event than this project that literally erupts from the wall of
I.M. Pei's Wiesner building. Even more than the D-Tower, the MI(pi) Bar is meant to
achieve its goal with no regards for traditional meaning or function.

Towards a New Materiality

Both dimensions, the virtual and the performative, converge on a new accent put on
materiality. Indeed, matter is simultaneously, as the precondition of form, the matrix of
all possibilities, and, as something imbued with properties that give birth to the various

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materials we know, the fundamental level on which the effectiveness of architecture is

built upon.

Contemporary materiality implies a more proactive conception of materials (Mori

2002). The computer is an integral part of an approach that has led to an increasingly
intimate understanding of the mechanics and physics of materials, from the macro to
the nanolevels.13

There are various ways to approach this evolution. The first one is to focus on the
development of composite and smart materials. They have enabled material
scientists to combine properties that used to be mutually exclusive. Glass used, for
instance, to be transparent, but its transparency went with poor insulating capacities.
Now, as a composite product, glass can be both transparent and insulating, and its use
for façades is among the fundamental means at the disposal of architects aiming at
environmental sustainability. Even more spectacular, transparency was adverse to load
-bearing (Bell and Kim 2008).

Composite and smart materials challenge received notions about products such as
fabrics (McQuaid 2005). They also blur the distinction between structures and
materials. Indeed, they possess a strong degree of organization in contrast with the
vision of materials that had prevailed at the dawn of industrialization. They are
instrumental in the progressive shift from structural to material design that has taken
place in a series of domains. The radical change in the conception of automobile
bumpers offers one of the most striking illustrations of this shift. Automobile bumpers
used to be designed as structural protections; they are now made of a composite
material that limits car-body damage by absorbing a large part of the energy generated
by a collision.

Another way to make sense of material evolution is to relate it to the complex scientific
and technological environment that prevails today. Based on multiple collaborations
between specialists in mechanics, physics, chemistry and computer science, material
design is typical of the trend towards interdisciplinarity and heterogeneity that
characterize this environment, or better, landscape. As a paradigmatic field of activity,
material design presents a definite epistemological turn.15

The perspectives offered by material design accentuate the crisis of structural

principles. Indeed, a lot of problems that used to be solved using structural design are
now treated by the use of appropriate materials. As we just mentioned our car bumpers
are for instance no longer akin to fortifications. They are made of composite materials,
the deformation of which absorbs part of the energy released in a collision.

In architecture, materials have taken a new importance in the past decades. Their
superficial treatment is often inseparable from the quest for ornamentation. Herzog and
de Meuron's pixelation techniques are emblematic of the blurring between material and
ornament. But the interest taken in the surface and its ornamental treatment goes
beyond the question of materials to touch upon the renewed importance given to
sensory experience. From the urban to the architectural scale, digital culture is
inseparable from a series of interrogations regarding how and what we perceive
(Zardini 2005; Jones 2006). This interest is again related to the question of materiality.
Indeed, materiality is not only about materials and their use. It encompasses the way we

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relate to the world; how we construct the perpetually shifting boundary between the
subjective and the objective realms. Just like nanotechnologies, sensory experience is
an integral part of it.

Speaking of the subjective, as complementary to the objective, the renewed interest in

the sensory and the experiential is of course related to the new definitions of the subject
that are on trial today. How do cyborgs or cryptographers perceive their environment?
This question is repeatedly raised at the articulation of science and art.

When it was invented, the computer, as suggested by its name, was mainly seen as a
machine to compute. Later, the proponents of its Cold War uses discovered that it was
also a machine that made a certain type of vision possible, the vision one had on the
screens of the SAGE system or in an electronically equipped war room. In the past
decades, we have become more and more aware of the computer's more general
impact on the relation we have to the physical world (Picon 2004).

For instance, visual codes are changing at a surprising speed. We no longer marvel at
the capacity of digital media to allow for effects like zooming in and out with a simple
mouse click, and we tend to perceive our ordinary three-dimensional world in the same
terms, as if ordinary reality was the result of a provisory compromise, or rather a middle
-range lens accommodation between the very small and the extremely large, between
atoms, or rather pixels, and galaxies. Immediately recognizable forms and objects
seem suspended between closely looked at surfaces and textures that evoke some
kind of abstract art, and equally abstract satellite-like views that give, again,
precedence to surface and texture effects. In both cases, volume perception seems
comprised between two kinds of surfaces or skins. The curious status of form in the
digital age, both eagerly sought after and somewhat distrusted insofar as it appears as
incapable of stable perfection, is to be put in this perspective. Form is not only relative,
dependent upon geometric flows; it is also provisory because of the possibility offered
at every moment to zoom in and out.

Is this state of things sustainable in the long term? Will we be able to live in a totally
clickable or zoomable world in which every configuration is provisory, suspended
between larger and smaller instances? A need for stability might very well arise and call
for the reinvention, at least for certain purposes, of non-clickable or non-zoomable
entities. A new form of authenticity could come with this non-clickable or zoomable
status; after all, paintings in a museum are not clickable. Neither Leonardo's Mona Lisa
at the Louvre nor Velázquez's Las Meninas at the Prado can be viewed at every
possible scale. Based on the impulse to click or zoom, but also on the possibility to see
this impulse frustrated, the new materiality that is emerging under our eyes will not be
simpler and more homogeneous than the one that it is gradually superseding.

The instability of form can be related to the cultural context created by globalization.
Globalization can indeed be characterized as a strange short-circuit between the local
and the general, a short-circuit that destabilizes middle-range institutions and practices
(Veltz 1996). In our global world we see things either from very close or from an
extremely distant point of view. Google Earth is typical of this polarization. Despite the
variety of scales it proposes to its users, their attention is usually drawn towards local
details or general geographic features. It is certainly no hazard, if the computer has
been instrumental in the process of globalization. Zooming might be a mere
consequence of the crisis of the traditional notion of scale that is related both to

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computer use and to globalization, a crisis that generates a specific form of perceptive
instability. On that level also, digital architecture is in profound accordance with the
world that is unfolding around it.

Such instability seems to blur the distinction between abstraction and concreteness, for
nothing is at the same time more abstract and concrete than a texture that challenges
interpretations based on the ordinary categories of form and object. More generally, in
an age marked by particle physics, the age of the computer, the physics of solids and
DNA manipulations, materiality is more and more defined as the intersection of two
seemingly opposed categories: the totally abstract, based on signals and codes, on the
one hand, and the ultra concrete, involving an acute and almost pathological perception
of material phenomena and properties, on the other hand. This hybridization between
the abstract and the ultra-material is typical of the new or different materiality that is
emerging today.

Through questions like that of ornamentation, digitally produced architecture tries to

address these spectacular changes and their impact on our approach to materiality.
Architecture is, of course, not alone in this quest. Challenged by the crisis of tectonics
and the new possibilities opened by material design, engineering is also getting
increasingly concerned.

In such a context, professional identities will have to evolve. From Santiago Calatrava to
Marc Mimram, the multiplication of hybrid figures between the architect and the
engineer is among the symptoms of the evolution to come (Picon 1994; 2007). These
figures are of course not the only ones that are emerging today. Engineer-artists or
artist-architects are also becoming more common.

In such a context, one may wonder whether architecture will remain what it is now, a
discipline that tries to remain distinct from other forms of design. The exploration of new
domains like the nanoscale represents an opportunity to go beyond the traditional
disciplinary boundaries. This was one of the suggestions made implicitly by the recent
Museum of Modern Art exhibition ‘Design and the Elastic Mind’ (Antonelli 2008). The
seamless contemporary technological landscape is perhaps calling for new
transdisciplinary practices.


1 For a critique of the shortcomings of this type of analysis, see Pierre Veltz's Le
Nouveau Monde Industriel (2008 [2000]).

2 On fractal geometry, the best introduction remains Benoît Mandelbrot's Les Objets
Fractals. Forme, Hasard et Dimension (1989 [1975]).

3 See for instance Bruno Latour's Politiques de la Nature (2000).

4 On the cyborg and its relevance to architectural and urban questions, see Antoine
Picon's La Ville Territoire des Cyborgs (1998); William J. Mitchell's Me++: The Cyborg
Self and the Networked City (2003); Matthew Gandy's ‘Cyborg Urbanization:
Complexity and Monstrosity in the Contemporary City’ (2005); Erik Swyngedouw's
‘Circulations and Metabolisms (Hybrid) Natures and (Cyborg) Cities’ (2006).

5 This is for instance the case with the Convent of La Tourette (Ferro et al. 1988).

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6 See for instance on that theme, Jacques Ferrier's Useful: The Poetry of Useful
Things (2004).

7 A stimulating critique of this anti-meaning stance can be found in Robert Levit's

‘Contemporary “Ornament”: The Return of the Symbolic Repressed’ (2008).

8 For a penetrating study of that question, see Rémi Rouyer's ‘Architecture et Procès
Technique: Les Figures de l'Imaginaire’ (2006).

9 On the relation between nineteenth-century architecture and writing, see for instance
Barry Bergdoll's Léon Vaudoyer. Historicism in the Age of Industry (1994).

10 On the notion of licence, see for instance Alina Payne's The Architectural Treatise
in the Italian Renaissance (1999).

11 The relation between the computer and the war room was treated in a spectacular
way by director John Badham in his 1983 film WarGames.

12 On the performative approach, see for instance Branko Kolarevic and Ali M.
Malkawi's Performative Architecture: Beyond Instrumentality (2005).

13 On the nanolevel perspective in the case of concrete, see Franz Joseph Ulm's
‘Béton: Une Entrée en Matière’ (2006).

14 See for instance, Ezio Manzini's The Material of Invention (1989 [1986]); and
Michelle Addington and Daniel Schodek's Smart Materials and New Technologies for
the Architecture and Design Professions (2005).

15 On the epistemological dimension of contemporary material science and material

design, see Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent's Eloge du Mixte (1998).

• tectonics
• materiality
• architecture
• cyborgs
• structural engineering
• virtuality
• fractals

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