Podium: Architecture in the digital age

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The Independent Culture
Ole Bouman

From a lecture given

by the editor-in-chief

of the magazine

`Archis' during UK Architecture Week

MANY PEOPLE think that the new media are pushing architecture into the role of helpless victim. It can only stand by and watch how millions of people are spending more and more of their valuable time in digital surroundings, so that they no longer need architecture as the backdrop to their lives.

On top of this, the role of permanent carrier of cultural meaning has lapsed. The mother of the arts is becoming a marginal phenomenon. Others take a more optimistic view of things. As far as they are concerned, the only interesting architecture is computer-generated architecture. In this lecture I will explore the fertile area between these two extremes.

In spite of the creative approach that exists, the architectural world has by and large adopted a fairly passive stance. The spread of computer and chip technology is universally accepted as an inescapable fact of life. The agenda of modernisation is dictated by the development of technology. All architecture can do is react to this with varying degrees of sophistication.

Accordingly, most members of the profession work with the same elementary drawing program or install the same elementary binary unit system in their buildings. As such, doomsayers proclaiming the end of architecture as a cultural activity are being rather too easily proved right.

To be able to intervene actively in the development of the new media, an architect must be adequately mentally equipped. A key element of this question of mentality is the relationship with technology itself. In architecture, as in other areas, it is possible to distinguish three broad attitudes to the new media. The first is the negative attitude, where people stubbornly stick to the old, familiar way of working, and simply ignore the cultural significance of the new media. At best, since the computer has become indispensable for drawing, they will employ someone to take care of this side of the business. The whiz-kid becomes an alibi for not making substantive changes, and the architecture continues to look the same as ever.

The second attitude is that of an unabashed surrender to the hype, in which the new media are lauded with quasi-religious fervour as architecture's saviours. The design identity of these architects is synonymous with their use of the computer.

In the final analysis, they are only asked by virtue of their reputation as a computer apostle, a preacher of the digital gospel. However versatile their designs, it is above all their use of the computer that attracts attention. For those who adopt this attitude it is then only a small step to restrict themselves voluntarily to this stance. Eventually, they can talk of nothing else, at which point a true community of faith is born.

Finally, there is the pragmatic attitude in which the two domains are seen side by side, as two parallel worlds. Such pragmatists have no difficulty accepting the existence of virtual reality, of digital networks, and they are also prepared to use the computer for the design of architecture.

At the same time, however, they stick to the production of a physical, analogue world, appropriate to the functions we have always known and adapted to the physical movements we have always made. Even if the entire office is computerised, the benefits of the new technology are barely, if at all, conceptualised. Media remain what they are: means, no more.

There is, however, a fourth attitude possible. Something that has so far received much less attention, is the possibility of allowing the physical and virtual domains to merge, of integrating them. By refusing to let oneself be reduced to either a worn-out dinosaur or a stressed- out cybernaut, a whole range of innovative possibilities, capable of injecting architecture with enormous vitality, comes into view. It is a matter of crossing the analogue and digital worlds, of hybrid environments that can no longer be classified as one thing or the other. The behaviour of such worlds is similarly hybrid, consisting partly of biological and physical reactions, partly of cybernetic acts appropriate to a cyborgian existence.

The environmental quality of such a hybrid world can never again be reduced to the typical architectural parameters that have stood us in good stead for centuries. All previous architectural definitions, from Vitruvius to Peter Eisenman, run up against their limits here. Beauty and functionality and solidity, tectonic and cladding, programme and meaning - all these old concepts acquire a new connotation.

The task is to chart the architectural potential of a digital world, not in spite of, not instead of, not even alongside, but in the physical world.