This Can't be 'it'

As reasonably well-informed scientists and entrepreneurs, we find ourselves in a curious position: here we are, in prosperous Switzerland, fascinated and at the same time increasingly puzzled as we listen to a powerful global rhetoric all around us: there is Immanual Wallerstein, for example, cultivating a World Systems Analysis with considerable political clout, while elsewhere Francis Fukuyama postulates The End of History and conjures up quick fixes for nation-building. In the mean time, everybody's grappling with financial and environmental crises, and massive conferences are being organised in the hope of tackling issues of global importance. 'Complexity' has become a buzz word that comes up everywhere, in most cases inappropriately, blandly nesting new potentials within an old style of discourse.

Analytics' modernist promise of a better understanding through more specialisation and of higher security through greater control does not seem to be borne out. Quite the opposite: we bluntly reduce complex relationships to simple but politically compelling formulas, such as those concerning CO2, and in doing so we seriously undermine our own intellectual capacity. New regimes, determined by research into sustainability, are turning into an apparatus that takes on a momentum of its own as it boxes our intellectual energies into uniform categories. Yet orientating ourselves towards hypothetical limitations, which have been worked out on the basis of computer simulations, represents a short circuit in our thinking that we should not seriously wish to expose ourselves to.

We too take a global perspective: our group holds talks in India, cooperates in China, has an outpost in Singapore, visits Mexico, Manila, Addis Abeba. For several years now we have been conducting MSc programmes for Applied Information Technology in Architecture, with students from 43 countries so far, and counting. We share the widespread concern about our planet's fragility. But we take the rare view that our problem is rooted in the fact that by and large computers are conceived, used and critiqued simply as machines rather than as dynamic, 'intelligent' tools that can help us invent, create and imagine. But our planet has become too small for the approximately 100 billion computer-machines that are in use today. Because they all need to be fed with data and programming so as to be able to illustrate, in a strictly analytical form, abstract scenarios of strategic thinking about the future. Yet any picture that these scenarios might yield is applicable only insofar as it positions itself within the differentiation provided by our own capacity to pose hypotheses and generate models. Which is why we get trapped in an accelerating feedback loop: we are at a dead end and keep bumping into our own limitations. Given all this digitally conveyed pressure to determine reality, we subject our imagination to the dictate of entropic, naturalising analytics.

The Unloved Plateau

One of the big questions that pose themselves is 'why do the usual theories fall so short of our technical possibilities?' For more than a hundred years now, we have found ourselves on an obviously very unpopular technical and cultural plateau: we now habitually make things real which until very recently we weren't even able to imagine. The most obvious and most familiar example for this is electricity. Electricity lies at the basis of contemporary urban life, yet it remains completely unintuitive to us. In order to grasp and comprehend it we reduce it to a kind of smoke-free camp fire, and in doing so make ourselves blind to its potential. A similar thing applies to current information technologies. They are as unintuitive for us as electricity itself, because they build on the characteristic properties and uncertainties of quantum physics. And yet their technological integration makes it possible that every human being can now communicate with every other human being, no matter where on earth either of them happens to be, without wires. This is really completely incomprehensible - while at the same time also being perfectly commonplace.

As architects we are interested in how analytics can be deployed not in a reductionist, naturalising way, but put in the service of our imagination. We are driven by curiosity about the new potentialities that information technology provides. Not because we are oblivious to the urgent problems we face, but because we are convinced that what we need to do is learn to formulate these problems in a way that corresponds to our technological possibilities. Once we get to grips with information technology as distinct from the way we handle mechanical apparatus and machinery, we will be able to use it to find solutions, bypassing problems that can be analytically formulated, and in doing so cultivate and differentiate further our rich cultural heritage. Thus, the networks emerging today, topologically calculable as they are, may release a dynamic similar to that experienced during the Renaissance, when analytical geometry and visual perspective came to the fore.


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New Narratives to Cultivate Global Networks

Our group operates from an extraordinarily independent position. Our make-up is interdisciplinary and our finance secure in the long term. We have a profound technological background: over the last ten years, we've conducted more than 100 experiments, exploring the application-orientated potential of information technology, and we have been able to successfully evidence our results in numerous technology start-ups. (An overview of this work can be found in Beyond the Grid - Information Technology in Architecture [Birkhäuser 2009]). So now we are asking: 'what next?'

On the new plateau, it is no longer methodological clarity but literal immeasurability that counts. And we need a lot of imagination if we want to learn how to deal with that. Beyond the supposedly safe grounds of analytical clarity, we now have to acquire a degree of modesty in order to be able to think globally. The challenge is to not just apply new technologies, but to learn how to think with them; to cultivate such thinking, to develop from it new applications and products and to propose a new drive for our globally networked, post-digital world. The increasingly stable and diverse stratification, in terms of information technology, of our political, economical, cultural and architectural environments represents a particularly non-territorial substrate. More and more, we find architectural infrastructures enmeshed in these multifarious sediments and infused with their equally multifarious symbolic manifestations. Technical infrastructures are losing their purely functional neutrality and become, in a sense, narrative or scenographic. As we develop our thinking about digital construction beyond the grid, these changes are likely to play a crucial part, forming, as they do, the conception of a 'new', a 'digital' or 'computer-generated' architecture.


Prof. Ludger Hovestadt, Chair for Computer Aided Architectural Design, Institute for Technology in Architecture (ITA), Departement for Architecture, ETH Zürich, Switzerland


© ETH Zürich, CAAD, 01.2012