Written by Madeleine Rowe (University of New South Wales) and Sophie Canaris (University of Sydney) for Architecture Bulletin, 2014 Spring edition.

Exploring the future directions, opportunities and ongoing anxieties related to digital technology in architectural education and practice. Madeleine Rowe (University of NSW) and Sophie Canaris reflect on a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the NSW Chapter which included leading academics and practitioners representing each of the four architecture schools in New South Wales.

Bridging the Digital Divide, a roundtable discussion held on 6 August at the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, was convened and moderated by Architecture Bulletin Guest Editor Nicole Gardner. Taking part in the panel were Melonie Bayl-Smith, Director of Bijl Architecture and Adjunct Professor University of Technology, Sydney (UTS); Robert Beson, Director of AR-MA; Dr Ning Gu, Senior Lecturer University of Newcastle; Dr M. Hank Haeusler, Senior Lecturer and Discipline Director of Computational Design degree at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and board member of the Media Architecture Institute; Dr Sandra Loschke, Senior Lecturer University of Sydney (USyd); Russell Lowe, Senior Lecturer UNSW; Iain (Max) Maxwell, Senior Lecturer UTS and Director of Supermanoeuvre; Dr Dagmar Reinhardt, Lecturer USyd and Director of Reinhardt Jung Architecture and Design; and Shaowen Wang, UNSW and USyd.

The discussion aimed to move past talk of digital technology as purely an instrument in form finding and aesthetic manipulation, and to address future directions and opportunities for modes of collaboration, techniques and practices in architectural education and the profession. For this reason, Nicole Gardner began the discussion with reference to acritical view expressed by digital design theorist Mario Carpo, in which he suggests that the architectural discipline is yet to meaningfully explore, and thus potentially capitalise on, the collaborative opportunities of the post Web 2.0 ‘digital turn’. Carpo notes that over the past 10 years Web 2.0 developments have heralded a new range of collaborative and interactive tools that have given rise to an emphasis on shared agency.

Given this, he argues, “Communal making is fast becoming a dominant technical and cultural paradigm of our age, yet with one significant exception: architecture. Architects for the most part, have neglected or rejected the new digital commons.”

Further, Carpo speculates on why this might be the case; are ‘traditional’ ideas of the architectural profession and the authorial role of the architect creating a barrier to the exploration of the participatory and collaborative potentials afforded by a range of Web 2.0 (digital) technologies, or are architectural projects simply less suited to modes of ‘communal making’ that are being readily explored in other design disciplines?

This provocative quote was met by an almost humorously long pause from roundtable participants, but after Shaowen Wang bravely kicked off, the conversation swiftly took its own divergent course. Wang began by recollecting her time in New York in the 1990s, and the educational game changer that was the Paperless Studios run at Columbia University. These studios represented a radical shift in architectural education and were the first real alternative to architectural design as a paper-based process. Here digital technology was pushed to the forefront of the architectural program and participants explored the parameters and potentialities of a range of digital platforms – CAD software – to achieve a complexity of geometry, form and surface that had not previously been possible. Yet as Wang noted, when the former dean of the school, Bernard Tschumi, was asked in 2013 to reflect on where we are now, he expressed disappointment as what had begun as a frontier exploration through a range of computational platforms, had now shifted to the dominant use of a limited range of software that produces homogenised design outcomes. Fellow Paperless Studios participant and architect Hani Rashid commented that,

“The unfortunate thing is that it tended to stay at the level of the envelope and the formal iteration.”

This tendency of the profession to focus on formal exploration was a view shared by Loschke, who argued that the increased focus on formal language, and on the exploration of geometries and surfaces, has tended to detract from addressing other fundamental questions that are inherent to architecture. She further argued that “there is a certain vanity within the profession” that prevents us from realising that “digital technologies could actually be used to address problems of performance and function”. In this way, authorial vanity and ‘captivation’ with form have obscured our potential to recognise and actualise the broader potentialities and larger benefits of certain technologies.

Loschke argued that this is an issue understood by notable figures such as architect and engineer Arnold Walz of Design to Production. Walz’s approach to parametric and digital processes concerns exploring solutions for structural and environmental issues, including renowned projects such as the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, the P&C Weltstadthaus in Cologne, the new Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, and the Lufthansa headquarters in Frankfurt, all in Germany, as well as the Paul Klee Centre in Bern, Switzerland, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, US.

Reflecting on the role of specialist consultants on projects, Beson noted that the profession frequently relied too heavily on their input, which might suggest that we, as architects, fail to be experts in our own right. He further asserted that we should be a master of our own tools and, for example, must be taught how to use and manipulate code in order that we may critique and improve what is available to us. A re-expanded role and hence increased autonomy of the architect through computational methods was a position shared by several of the panellists throughout the discussion. Though Beson argued for increased autonomy of the architect, this is not to say that we should reassume a traditional role of sole authorship, but rather have a stronger voice within a multidisciplinary framework.

Haeusler, in response, suggested that Walz’s methodology was inherently the thing to teach students. “The understanding that if you have certain kinds of variables and certain kinds of rules, that [will] enable an outcome you don’t already know. The establishment of the variables and the rules at the front end; that’s what [can alternatively] drive your design”.

For Maxwell a key opportunity of digital technologies, such as computational methods and digital fabrication, lies in a sort of retrieval of the “things [architects] once used to control”; in particular, making. Further to this, Maxwell argued that such technologies enable a way of speaking, a common language, “Whether that’s direct communication through modes of fabrication, through robotics, or through other forms. Or whether it is about dealing with allied disciplines, which once used to be us.” Reflecting on how certain digital technologies can enable new modes of collaboration, he noted that, “Certainly in our practice, we’re doing a lot of projects with people in ways where communication or collaboration is completely flattened. It is amazing that you can have the ability for all the players to participate in the construction of a world of discovery, which is really design method.” Subsequently this suggests that forms of computational commonality can provide the basis for increased collaboration and knowledge exchange.

Yet in our current conception of ‘reengineering’ the architect is an objective that, Lowe argued, “seems to be the facility of computing to take us back 500 years ago…to fabricate directly, to recapture our engineering heritage, to be able to fabricate without intervention”. He proposed that rather than look back to try and recapture the past, the potential lies with education and allowing students to explore the potentialities of technologies. “Look forward. See what these students do with the technologies they have technologies that fulfil roles and are instrumental in ways that were inconceivable five to ten years ago. Look forward. Then we can see the prominent role research and education can play in the transformation of the profession.”

Beyond the consideration of technology in architecture simply pertaining to the tools of design and fabrication, Haeusler turned the focus to a broader technological picture. “We live in a different kind of world than we did 10 years ago; a world with things like smartphones, sensors, and more and more technology in the built environment. Today, any kind of washing machine has more computing power than the computers of 20 years ago. That is important to teach students as well. That trend is completely outside of architecture; however, it will have an enormous influence over how architecture is perceived, what kind of architecture we demand, and how architecture will change.”

Certainly, incoming and current students have grown up in a world where digital technologies are part of everyday life. Thanks to gaming and virtual reality software, high school students considering a career in architecture will start their tertiary studies completely accustomed to working in the digital realm and be at ease with 3D spatiality, opening the field to more specific and specialised teaching.

In Architecture in formation: On the nature of information in digital architecture, Carpo describes this ‘bigger picture’, to which Haeusler referred, as expressing the nature of inclusive modes – already advanced in other professions – with open-source platforms of exchange and authorship such as the ‘crowd sourcing’ phenomenon.

Crowd sourcing is a process in which an online community contributes to producing work through mass participation; it is an emerging method of design and production that has the voice of an undefined public, rather than a specific expert group. Gu said that through such platforms, architecture can potentially address broader social issues and allow us to engage as “global citizens”. However, Bayl-Smith stated: “In order to enable these technologies to free-up architectural processes, there does have to be a change in the culture of practice. There has to be a willingness to learn from others. There has to be a dismantling of the pride, the ego and the facades that people start to build around both their practice as an entity, and [also] practice as what we do as architects.”

This shift in the manner in which practice operates is necessary given that the architectural discipline can potentially innovate and benefit through this open collaboration and it is a matter of time for the right kind of project, the ‘ideal’ project to emerge, which will suit this mode of production, said Gu. Beson agreed that this represented a significant barrier to innovation: “Architects are always too reactive, we’re always waiting for something; when there’s no one better placed within the construction industry to move forward independently and actively do something to change the situation.” He said we should aspire to be “producers, not consumers of technology”.

Throughout the discussion different scales and possibilities of design thinking are discussed. Panel members relayed differing visions of the directions digital culture would take in a disciplinary, professional and educational sense. While several of the panellists expressed the view that a range of new digital technologies would afford opportunities to re-engage with roles formerly within the domain of the architect, and to work in more collaborative modes, others, including Haeusler and Wang, foresee a historical moment where “computational design attempts to become a discipline”.

The discussion posed big questions, and while the panel was largely comprised of like-minded ‘technophiles’, the aim was to get into the nitty gritty and uncover examples of how individual practices deal with these big challenges. As Gardner noted in her introduction, new technologies are often met with incredible enthusiasm. Such enthusiasm can be quickly discarded when the software interface is difficult to understand and time consuming, or when it does not easily interface with other existing platforms. Does practice have the time for this? How do we try and bridge the divide between what is happening at universities and what is happening in practices of varying scales?

The willingness to explore and embrace emerging technologies was fundamental to the frontier nature of the Paperless Studio in the 1990s. Today, Haeusler sees the potential for research and development to provide linkages.

“We can do it through universities. By exploring these things with the students, you teach them. So, in the future, they have this kind of knowledge when they come to your practice; in a small or big firm they can apply [this knowledge].” This speaks to the common question of how can the graduate use their recently acquired skills and find a voice to engage in the design process, not only in a collaborative sense, but also in a critical sense, with the understanding that digital tools can and should provide far more than a complex and sometimes superficial form-finding process that results in the final production of seductive renders.

Reflecting on our education and transition into practice, most central to the design process is a critical, inquiring mind and a constant continued questioning of why we make design decisions and why we employ different tools. As Beson commented on his own approach, “The thing that bugs me is the word ‘digital’, because it is clearly just design. I could not care less about computers. It [technology] allows me to do things that I could not do otherwise; it allows me to be a better designer.”

 Returning to the title of the roundtable discussion - Bridging the Digital Divide – the word ‘bridging’ implies a linear progression between practice and education. However, as Reinhardt pointed out, it is “research that neatly sits between the two of them”, thus emphasising a more cyclical relationship in which the three entities [education, research, practice] constantly react and respond to each other, and in which the boundaries cannot always be clearly defined

Bachelor of Computational Design [CoDe]
Dr M. Hank Haeusler
Australian School of Architecture and Design
University of New South Wales

The University of New South Wales (UNSW)  Built Environment faculty has a longstanding tradition in addressing the nexus between architecture and computing. The Bachelor of Science (Architecture) commenced in 1988, followed in 1998 by the introduction of a computing stream concentrating on producing and documenting preconceived designs through CAD software.

From 2008 onwards, the Bachelor of Architectural Computing gave significant focus to Building Information Modelling (BIM) and the shift towards digital modes of representation. In keeping with UNSW’s progressive outlook, in 2015 the Built Environment faculty will introduce a newly developed Bachelor of Computational Design [CoDe] that will address the profound impact on both the perception and realisation of architectural form, space and structure enabled through multi-layered concepts ranging from systems theory and cybernetics, to morphogenesis and developmental biology.

The degree will apply state of the art thinking in design, architecture, and urbanism, together with theories from engineering and science, frontier computational skills, and digital fabrication technologies.

The CoDe degree will offer students new pathways to creative, technical, and aesthetic solutions through applying and accessing knowledge related to an extensive range of emerging digital tools, in order to ideate, develop, analyse and deliver digital design solutions. This will be delivered through several key teaching paths including Gaming and Visual Representation; Digital Fabrication and Construction; Smart and Ubiquitous Cities; Responsive Environments; BIM Modelling and Optimisation and Simulation. Significantly, computational design theory is positioned as central to this approach. This will introduce students to theoretical concepts such as design thinking, computational thinking, interaction design, and architecture and urban theories, to form a foundation that links the learning trajectories of all the teaching paths together. The objective is to encourage a new culture of decision-making that recognises design problem solving is often beyond the scope of any one field of knowledge.

The CoDe degree provides a way of looking at, and designing for, the built and urban environment through a computational lens, which necessarily requires teaching and learning  trajectories that connect with allied disciplines.  With computational design theory at the centre, three key practice-orientated teaching spheres have been established to structure the course:

1. ‘Constructing’ relates to the design of objects and artefacts through computational modes, including gaming engines and digital fabrication

2. ‘Contextualising’ addresses the design of ‘responsive’ environments, including the application of sensors and screens, and the consideration of mobile devices, and issues relating to ‘smart’ and ‘ubiquitous’ cities

3. ‘Calibrating’ concerns design optimisation processes and collaborative decision support software such as BIM.

Program grouping productively links these spheres together, the first being ‘Place and Technology’, which links the performance of buildings with sensory data collected in the built environment. Consequently, this addresses topics that bring together urbanism and architecture with electrical engineering and science disciplines, namely computer science and computer engineering.

Second, ‘Form and Experience’ addresses the connection between space making, experience, and situational media communication. It draws industrial design, user-experience design, and architecture together with human computer interaction and cybernetics.

Third, ‘Space and Documentation’ addresses the spatial assemblages calibrated through digital input to connect architecture and urbanism together with civil and structural engineering. Recent projects that exemplify this approach have included the Orkhéstra installation—showcased at Luminale in

Orkhestra. Image: Wolfgang Leeb.

Frankfurt, Germany, and at the Powerhouse Museum for Sydney Design 2014 (see photo above)—and also the Interchanging exhibition featuring a 1:1 mock-up of a bus stop design generated through computational design software and digital fabrication methods.

Unique in Australia, the Bachelor of Computational Design [CoDe] will offer students specialised computational design skills within an interdisciplinary conceptual framework, to provide a greater  degree of adaptability to meet the changing needs of contemporary architecture and design practices.