Friday, August 08, 2008

Digital Fabrication: In Terms of Endearment

Laser cut from a sheet of corrugated cardboard

With the availability of new digital tools and ways of making, there is a new attitude towards materiality and form, co-mingling with a pragmatism in architecture of performance-driven buildings. Handcraft, paradoxilly, has had to come to terms with this digital revolution and justify a legitimacy to its role in humanizing buildings. What ornament served in the past, sensuality and phenomenology have taken it’s place. Will this bring about a new endearment to the built environment that handcraft, such as carved stone, used to provide? We now have the ability through the computer and digital fabrication to quickly create objects of stunning preciousness even with banal materials such as corrugated cardboard, concrete, and plywood. I offer this essay:

Existing as unique species in the world, humans have a marked appreciation for beauty and aesthetics. During the past 35,000 years or so, which is said to be the dawn of cognitive thought, there has been evidence of this through artifacts left by civilizations that go beyond the realm of utility. Primarily in the decorative arts and architecture.

In particular to Asian cultures, the association of the natural world in the hand-made propelled architecture and design to be in a place more natural than nature itself. As technology advanced, the idea of craft has come to be more appreciated as well as existing as a paradox. The machine-made versus the hand-made.

As a Western society we have also stubbornly held onto what we believe to be the visual definition of our culture. The aesthetic ideology of proportion, style, order, and power. So much so that even fragments of these works are still regarded as precious things containing inherent beauty both through the process of its making and the history it contains.

To this day we see this form of relation to the past through our houses, our buildings, even in the way that we define architecture itself. We find methods of making the familiar form we all recognize in a way that belies the integrity we so often appreciate in well made things. What does the idea of craft mean in a time where we are surrounded by unprecedented technological development?

Maintenence of integrity in material through craft. The search for the relevance in the human interaction. Tools are an extension of the maker and do not necessarily take away from the maker itself.

We are now empowered more than ever before to engage in the work of manipulating imagery through editing software and publication as individuals through the computer. This power has changed the equation of putting the control of design and distribution in the hands of the author and away from third party involvement.

In addition technology has become visoral. We wear them on our person, embedded in our bodies. With the utilization of drawing software coupled with special outputting devices (like printers) that are computer controlled, the idea of design and making has reached a new movement.

Three dimensional objects can be outputted as simply as we print a document. As a result of the limitless ability of the exploration of form through digital computations, an ability to make objects with stunning preciousness at very low cost is now possible even with the most mundane materials as these starch and paper objects can attest.

Even materials such as corrugated cardboard can be made to belie itself as a utilitarian, mundane, and banal material. Through the use of a digital laser cutter and further crumpling and shaping with the hand, corrugated cardboard becomes like cloth, re-appropriating it to a new consideration for use or potential.

Other materials such as this array of pressed straw fibers formed out of laser cut wood forms gives this interlocking ability a precision and tolerance not possible with conventional cutting means. This gives the material a potential as a structural device capable of being a roof structure or a screen wall.

In further material study, we can consider inherent properties and study the exploitation of common materials in new ways. We can look at concrete for example and discover through the capitalization of its fluid state, not one of a hard flat surface, but one with soft folds like that of a blanket.

This material method using and inspired by digital technologies, causes us to look at new forms as a way of associating with the body. Natural connections with open-ended and non-descript geometries, that is a geometric form that can’t be described by conventional measuring means. New patterns created with digital technology, paradoxically take us to a more natural connection to our own beings.

The natural environment so full of aesthetic power in all its forms. We long to be there, we long to have a connection. We want to understand and unlock its mysteries or represent it in more profound ways than has been done more as representation. To describe patterns of growth visually.

Digital technology has some parallels to nature. It is inherently undefined and limitless. We even consider the processing side of computers as “soft”. With the assistance of computer software the end result of something made becomes potentially limitless in its organization and form.

This all sounds amazing but where does that leave craft? Does it mean that we will be outputting buildings through computers and losing the role of the designer? Likely not, but this idea of the computer and the hand completely transforms the notion of how we make things. The digital as an extension.

It is a new expression of aesthetic language, and as craft, parts assembly and the designer as the new master builder having more control of making by control of the computer drawing. It’s been said that “the line on the computer is the same as the cut line of a laser cutter”

The phenomenon of a visual pattern expressing visual illusion of depth such as on this steel laser cut gate cut from a flat plate steel. It still maintains the authorship and hand of the designer with no interpretation from a fabricator.

The phenomenology of material and re-appropriation of what we understand to be a building component such as the way light passes through this window frame pictured here. There is a new appearance of simply how light can play on a surface or pass through material.

Buildings have a great new potential for design. This curvilinear “non-descript” geometry aesthetic language has sensuality and relation to the body. It causes us to reconsider what we hold precious in terms of physical beauty and made objects. Perhaps in future generations fragments of buildings such as this might be spared as a result of the preciousness created out of the material that made it.

Buildings designed and made in this way are not what we understand as architecture in the recognizable or nostalgic sense. It brings to mind something much more primal. Affecting the humane sensorium. Buildings can be made endearing and enduring once again.

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