March 26, 2018
Post-Digital “Quitters”: Why the Shift Toward Collage Is Worrying
Collage used to be a crucial image-making technology of the mechanical age. But its time has passed, says historian Mario Carpo.
A few months ago I attended a conference on architecture and computation—one of the many that, due to my line of work, I often have to take part in. Among the speakers was an old friend of mine, one of the protagonists of the second wave of digitally intelligent architecture—the intermediate generation: not the founders, the folders, and blobmeisters, but those who came to the digital scene in the early years of the new millennium, when the technical and cultural tenets of parametricism had already been established. He went to the podium and started to show PoMo and DeCon drawings from the ’70s and ’80s. That made sense, somehow, as a kind of historiographical introduction to his own work—or, that is what I thought. But after the statutory 30 minutes or so his talk came to an end, somewhat abruptly, and his own “digital” work—the work for which he is known, and often cited—was never even mentioned.
Did he miscalculate the length of his presentation, I asked him during the coffee break—or was that part one of a talk in two installments? “Not at all,” he answered: “that’s all I care about these days.” As for his own work, he offered, he could show me his new watercolors another time. Watercolors? “They are not really watercolors,” he explained: “I cut and paste and collage them.” And then he whispered, allusively, and almost conspiratorially, as if I knew what he was talking about: “Photoshop. I am post-digital now.”
But I had absolutely no clue as to what he meant, so I started to ask around. I created a couple of focus groups in the schools where I teach, and when we collated the results it emerged that “the post-digital” in architecture, alongside a preference for some representational tools and techniques, may also have something to do with content: namely, with a renewed interest in the “figural.” That is a shibboleth, too, but at least a long established and better-known one. In some schools of architecture, “figural” often means one or more of the following: imitating the human body (its forms or perhaps its proportions); imitating any imitation of the human body that has occurred in the history of architecture (classical columns, etc.); imitating any recognizable architectural precedent (Le Corbusier’s Ville Savoye, for example); imitating any recognizable visual shape, even non-architectural (a building imitating a parsnip is an icon thereof).
In the wider scheme of things, all of the above would hardly count as a novelty. Western architecture has been an imitative, or mimetic, art from its very start (and I am told that the same applies to most non-Western traditions). But after the iconoclastic fury of some Modernist architects, architectural iconicity was powerfully restored and reinstated by architectural Postmodernism, as of 1977 (or 1980, or 1966, depending on whose historiography you follow). The only difference between yesterday’s Postmodernists and today’s Post-digitalists would then be in the degree of their aversion to technology: the PoMos were violently against all modern, mechanical technologies of mass production; the PoDigs seem to have adopted a strategy of technological nonchalance (even Photoshop is OK, as mentioned). The PoMos fought against technology; the PoDigs don’t care about technology.
I am old enough to remember the rise of Postmodernism in the late 1970s and early ’80s. There were many excellent reasons to dislike technology back then. For one thing, technology was then as dead as a doornail. It had not changed for more than one generation. Most of the technologies I used in, say, 1979, were the same that my father would have used in 1949. Technologies of daily life were more or less the same—radio, television, the telephone, newspapers, photography, cinema, the automobile. In the case of building technologies and structural engineering, most of the textbooks we were studying at school in 1979 were, literally, 30 to 50 years old. Worse, the cybernetic exuberance of the 1960s had been obliterated by the double whammy of two energy crises. In 1979, as in 1973, most of the industrialized world ran out of gas, and came to a standstill. In the fall of 1979 President Carter installed two wood-burning stoves in the living quarters of the White House; as far as I can remember, cybernetics was definitely not a hot topic that winter. Modern technology as a whole had just failed, spectacularly; and there was no technological alternative in sight. If one looked for a culprit for the mess we were all in, around 1980, technology was the prime and easiest target.
But this is where the analogy stops. We are certainly in a colossal mess right now—indeed the socio-technical collapse of the world we live in promises to be more catastrophic now than in the 1970s—when, after all, we survived; and it is not clear that we shall be as lucky this time around. But today’s technology is far from stagnant. To the contrary, it is changing faster than at any other time since the start of the industrial revolution. For the last twenty, thirty years digital technologies for design and fabrication have been changing our ways of making; today, Artificial Intelligence has already started to change our ways of thinking. A.I. applied to robotic fabrication will change what we design and build as profoundly as steel, glass, and reinforced concrete did in the twentieth century. If we don’t care about technology today, it is not because there is no technology out there, but because there is too much of it; it’s not because we are bored, it’s because we are quitters. And, as always, if architects stop caring about technology, someone else will in their stead.
We can be certain of that, because we already have evidence that A.I. works—we can already use it to solve problems we could not solve in any other way. And robots are already cost-effective, whether we like what they do or not. Therefore, the social pressure to use them will grow—and rightly so, regardless of our cultural or ideological reservations. In my experience, when architects start talking about sfumato, collage, or watercolors, it’s time to start worrying. Architects cannot do without technology, but technology can do without them.
Mario Carpo is the Reyner Banham Professor of Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett, UCL, London. His latest monograph, The Second Digital Turn: Design Beyond Intelligence, has just been published by the MIT Press.