Digital Design Divergence
Historically, the inability of computers to comprehend any design activities that take place outside the computational environment itself, hence the need to design "in" the computer, had the unintended but critical effect of transforming the computer from a design "tool," in the traditional sense of the word, into a design environment: a "place" where design occurs.
Instead of following the designer, like a pencil does, allowing him or her to design wherever and whenever desired, computers force designers to come to them. Consequently, designers must fiddle with all sorts of knobs, switches, and gadgets to set the machine up so it can begin to support the design activity and, in general, are constrained and shoehorned into the machine's environment.
By becoming the environment where design occurs, the computer has changed the culture of the design profession. In the early days, when computers were too expensive to sit idle, designers had to work in shifts — a most unnatural imposition on the oft intuitive and serendipitous process of design.
Later, the addition of Internet communication abilities extended their design environment to encompass not only the individual designer, but also other members of the design team — the manufacturers of the objects that are used to assemble the design, the clients, the public, and other interested parties.
The Internet has contributed to creating a global design environment, diminishing the importance of colocation and transcending time zones. As a consequence, there is better integration of the various parts of the design. But there is also a need to accommodate the schedules and work habits of others, to control the flow of information, and sometimes the loss of ownership of the final product.
Habitable Physical Environments
Changing the culture of the design profession by placing it within the domain of the computer is, however, only the first of three emerging effects of computers as environments. The second effect — computers as inhabitable physical environments — was envisioned by the Architecture Machine Group at MIT in the early 1970s.
In its 21st-century incarnation, the vision of inhabitable environments infused with many computational devices has taken the form of computer-controlled temperature, humidity, lighting, security systems, elevators, doors, even electronic building "skins," creating seamlessly networked and ever-changing electronic landscapes.
The diffusion of computers into our everyday environment has the effect of making the environment more "intelligent" — at least more cognizant of our presence and activities — and enabling "it" to take action on our behalf.
Such actions can be based on simple feedback loops, such as the control of temperature through a thermostat or the opening of the supermarket doors as we approach. Or the actions can be model-based, such as scheduling elevators to meet the needs of rush-hour traffic in an office building based on expected activities rather than evident ones.
The third and potentially most radical effect of computers assuming a role of inhabitable environments is the advent of cyberspace — a term coined by William Gibson in Neuromancer to denote the information space created by the Internet — and its steady assertion of itself as a "place."
Although it can only be experienced through the mediation of computers and can only be inhabited by proxy, cyberspace is fast becoming an extension of our physical and temporal existence, offering a common stage for everyday economic, cultural, educational, and other activities.
Making places for human inhabitation in a nonphysical space raises interesting questions concerning presence, authenticity, adaptability, orientation, and suspension of disbelief. What kind of activities can be supported by nonphysical spaces? What will it take to support them in a socially and psychologically appropriate manner?
Already video conferencing, e-commerce, and video entertainment are migrating to cyberspace, leaving behind the agoras, bazaars, and amphitheatres of the past. The new "space" is virtual, the construction of computers. But we humans have not changed, nor have our relationships with other human beings.
The opening of a new kind of space made possible by computers and networks promises to revolutionize our perception of reality like no other invention before it and challenges the professions of architecture, town planning, and interior design which have been striving to accommodate human activities in the physical domain for thousands of years.
The roles of computing, with regard to architecture, are thus multifarious and have varying degrees of impacts. They range from being tools that can augment certain traditional design activities, with little impact on the activities themselves, to more pervasive (and invasive) impacts as environments within which design and even inhabitation itself occurs.
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Yehuda E. Kalay is a professor of architecture and director of the Center for New Media at the University of California, Berkeley.
This article is excerpted from Architecture's New Media: Principles, Theories, and Methods of Computer-Aided Design, copyright © 2004, available from The MIT Press and at Amazon.com.
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