On the Archaeology of the Digital - an exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture

From the 7th of May to the 13th of October, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) hosts the exhibition "On the Archaeology of the Digital" curated by Greg Lynn, a prominent figure in the sectors of the Digital Design and the CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) manufacturing. This exhibition is dedicated to the early implementations of digital design workflows through the example of four projects conceived between the late 80s and the early 90s - Eisenman's Biozentrum, Gehry's Lewis Residence, Chuck Haberman's Iris Dome and Shoei Yoh's Galaxy Toyama Gymansium.

In the video introduction to the exhibition, Greg Lynn explains the exhibition is addressing the early applications of CAD to balance the apparently common bias towards a futuristic interpretation of Design computing applications with an insight into the cultural evolution of Digital Architecture, that he defines a "not-inevitable" development.

Mattew Allen wrote in Domus reviewing the exhibition that to fulfil this mission the curator proposes an interesting but somehow autobiographic ontology of digital materials that in their display fall short of visitors' expectations because of the limited functionalities offered to observe the original CAD models - "given that the process of digital production is so easily reproduced (compared to, say, painting), interactivity could probably have been taken further" than simple geometry visualisation. This latter remark is a good example of the cultural impact of the curation of CAD data: semantic annotations and parametric constraints of the models document the design process, its aesthetic and ideological content as much as its geometry.

For completeness sake, it might be noted that this problem did not come unperceived by Greg Lynn too who, from a different advantage point, has emphasised the scarcity of material evidence of early CAD products as a cause of misconception of their cultural value and innovation. In effect, Lynn attempts to trace with this exhibition a genealogy of the familiar techniques in use today to demonstrate originally Design automation facilitated and not obliged the designers' choices and objectives - see the conversation between Peter Eisenman and Greg Lynn below.

Further, both these observations on design data retention lead to a question: which characteristics design data might retain to be considered authoritative?

In 2009 at the NAI Conference - "Hybrid Architectural Archives", Bernard Franken, S├╝mri Vogel, Berthold Scharrer and Inge Wolf presented a paper on the strategies for the permanent conservation of digital databases in Architecture discussing the case study of the curation requested by the digital data of the 1999's BMW Bubble by Franken Architects - a temporary pavillon exhibited at the IAA International Motor Show in Frankfurt, designed and manufactured with computational tools. The project data was considered inaccesible since depending on both a specific obsolete hardware configuration and a legacy software, the Wavefront Explore!. Thus, the curatorial efforts of the team were concentrated on the retention of the data at the bitstreams level, that is leaving as only possibility for data accessibility a system emulation. Metadata were the only information left accessible for many of the original CAD data. This experience suggest that, despite the fragility of the materials is probably the main cause for data loss, an integral selection of data characteristics to be preserved can lead to de facto disappearance of data information.

For this reason, the continuous accessibility of data information might be considered as a function of the selection criteria adopted to individuate their significant characteristics - and of course the timely implementation of consequent curatorial actions might ease this process. But, of course, such a selection is cultural and economic in nature and could hardly allow for an unbiased documentation of the design process recorded by the Digital Design.

This exhibition is the first initiative of the CCA addressing the theme of the relevance of the digital technologies in the evolution of architectural and planning thinking - one of the new research thematic lines the CCA is committed to specialise in its activities.Is Digital Design eventually going to be studied on the ground of its multiple cultural underlying processes instead than on its formal and actual physical results?

POSTED BY Ruggero Lancia