Saturday, May 19, 2012

Still us and them?

The curious persistence of the 'Design vs. Technology' paradigm

Blog entry by: Dominik Holzer

The organisers of the 2012 National Conference of the Australian Institute of Architects need to be commended for their excellent effort in setting up a fantastic event in Brisbane. It has been a while since Queensland last hosted the AIA annual conference and by the feedback I got from those present, people were delighted with the result. A strong Queensland focus was noticeable overall as part of the introductions to the speakers as well as in considerations of the speakers themselves.

Nevertheless, this was an event of international class, with a number of outstanding overseas speakers who complemented the accounts of ‘home grown’ talent. No other presentation exemplified this fact clearer than the presentation of the Chinese protagonist and HangzhouWunderking Wang Shu. The event organisers showed incredible foresight by securing Mr.Shu’s attendance, just weeks before he was awarded this year’s Pritzker Price (the global equivalent of the ‘Oscar’ for architects). Pritzker laureates are a rare breed (only one person is awarded this honour per year) and it seems Mr.Shu would have returned to China just in time for the ceremony on May 25th. Having the current Pritzker laureate present was obviously quite a deal and the AIA event organisers again showed great judgement by inviting no other than Australia’s own Pritzker laureate (in 2002) and ‘architecture royalty’ Glenn Murcott to do the honour.

The 1400 plus audience got their money’s worth of design excellence and it seemed indeed that there were two like-minded architects sharing the stage. What came next though, was one of the more revealing parts of the conference and about contemporary architectural design in general. Everyone in the audience would soon experience the reasons behind Mr. Shu’s distinction and the approach to architecture that separates him from the masses of professionals in his home country and elsewhere: His uncompromising approach to designing in and with the landscape. His ability to conceptualise and communicate ideas to a fine level of detail by hand using sketched axonometries. His use of local ‘ingredients’ and traditional techniques in construction. His rejection of technology for the sake of increasing efficiency in the delivery of projects; those are just a few reasons explaining why Mr. Shu is in a class of his own. Even further, he expressed pity for the thousands of colleagues who output one same looking building after the other, most likely never having the chance to do anything but doing exactly this throughout their entire career.

Image of the Ningbo History Museum in China by Wang Shu. 7 Million ceramic tiles were used in construction
Whereas most speakers on the day illustrated an approach to design that seemed to fluidly move back and forth between analogue and digital media, Mr. Shu highlighted the use of computers in his practice to be limited to producing documentation solemnly the authorities required him to do so. To a point, technology was demonised by Mr. Shu as something he can’t quite control and therefore something that rather impedes his design capability than supporting it. Not surprisingly Glenn Murcott reemphasised this sentiment, praising Mr. Shu after his presentation as: “finally somebody who knows what he’s talking about”; thereby indirectly insulting all the distinguished speakers that came before Mr. Shu on the day.

It is interesting to observe that 30 years after computational tools have started to influence the way we conceive and deliver buildings, we still seem to experience an us and them mentality by some designers – in particular those who choose not to take any advantage of what technology can offer them. I have rarely come across designer who argue that those colleagues who do not wish to use technology to support their design process are in any way inferior to those who do. At the same time, I’ve come across a large number of designers who would consider those who take advantage of technology as inferior. What are the reasons for this attitude? Are designers in danger of weakening their ideals by getting caught up in technological gadgetry?  Is the quest for first principles – hence a strong design signature – at odds with technological experimentation? Is a project conceived by hand more meaningful than if conceived with the support of computational means? I believe none of the above is true. What may be true though is the notion that a lot of mediocre architecture is stemming from those who take advantage of technology mainly for the reason of efficiency gains and ease of repetition. Those architects who follow this path are an easy target for criticism by those who focus on individual craft and excellence. In the end the two approaches are in no way exclusive. There exist a large number of great designers who take extensive (and smart) use of computational processes to enhance and profile their design and delivery capabilities.

Still, maybe there is more to the close parallels in the attitude towards technology by Mr. Shu and Mr. Murcott.  Is the critical position towards technology and a focus on craft, manual labour and analogue means of conceiving projects the recipe for success for becoming a world-leading architect? One way to answer this question is to look at the list of Pritzker laureates over the past years and analyse their approach to technology. It soon becomes apparent that there is no pattern behind a techno-sceptic view towards design. On the contrary, most of the recent Pritzker laureates showcase how strong design philosophies can be interwoven with highly innovative ways of applying cutting edge technology to support and realise them. 

When analysing the way leading architects and engineers realise highly complex projects, one is likely to encounter a well-conceived structure within their organisation, that incudes teams that focus entirely on technology aspects if design. They support the project teams in their quest for excellence. In order to set up such as structure, those firms rely on a visionary among their ranks who understands and nurtures a culture of innovation and experimentation. Their teams consist out of highly specialised and motivated individuals who are expert in their fields.  Such specialist teams are of great benefit for any leading practice, at the same time the dangers of an: ‘us and them’ mentality persists. If those teams are not closely integrated with the ‘ordinary’ project teams, a practice may experience a split between designers and ‘tech people’.

As for Mr. Shu’s practice, this is not likely to happen. He aims at keeping his staff numbers under 10 and he usually rejects any offers for designing large scale, commercial projects. I would not want to try convincing him any other way.

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