Visiting Paris-Atelier 2013, Columbia University GSAPP summer school - curating Advanced Digital Design

Understanding the curation of Built Environment related data, and especially CAD files, as a legal and cultural responsibility of their producers implies to rethink the competences attached to professional roles and investigation activities adopting these technologies.

In the AEC (Architecture, Engineering, Construction) sector, regulators and control authorities worldwide are urging enhanced control over exchange formats and information authoritativeness. Entirely digital phenomena such as Parametric and Procedural Design, Collaborative and Concurrent practices, open source Design exchange and object oriented modelling demand data legal management, open standard compliance, code annotation (for software migration and exchange) and contextual data enrichment of Designers.

Are those new competences provided in Higher Education?

Referring in particular to the Architecture, is Architects vocational training already addressing these renovated aspects of the professional knowledge basis?

I have explored these topic earlier this year for the DigCurV 2013 conference - you can find my paper in the CEUR Workshop Proceedings, vol. 1016, urn:nbn:it:frd-10616.

In Architecture, Higher Education and Vocational Training are generally lagging behind these new professional requirements. But we might admit as a justification for such a slow response that some of the emergencies we are highlighting are still implicit in recently affirmed technological trends and political initiatives, such as for example the UK Cabinet 2016 strategy for the Building Industry is exclusively addressing public works despite other European countries already extends the same requirements to all new buildings. Nevertheless, in a rapidly shifting landscape one would expect Higher Education to adapt to new phenomena by addressing their future impact, that is shaping it through future generations of professionals.

An anticipatory attitude toward education is traditionally adopted by the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University and the work of its Laboratories well demonstrate the extent of the investigation into the impact of Digital Technologies on Architecture. For example, in this context, the students of the Avery Digital Fabrication Laboratory respond to the shift toward digital production within the Design and Construction industry by investigating alternatives to the given methodologies, aesthetics and procedures.

Apart from the remarkable experience of GSAPP students, the procedural framework of Architecture students generally emerges as more advanced than the workflows of most consolidated Architectural practices. Whilst the needs and issues of professionals are reviewed and assessed by researches and institutional initiatives, the problems and workflows adopted by students, especially where these are original, remain scarcely explored even though salient examples from this framework have been reported in the past decades at the eCAADe (Education and research in Computer Aided Architectural Design in Europe)) conferences.

Thanks to Phillip Anzalone, director of the Laboratory for Applied Building Science, I have been allowed to visit the Paris-Atelier 2013 Summer School during its conclusive week to document the digital workflows adopted by the course's students and explore both their issues managing data files and their understanding of the future impact of information management on the Architect profession.

Despite both the frenetic activities of the conclusive moments of the course and the pressure to complete the installation resulting from the students collaboration with artist Tomas Saraceno at the prestigious venue of the Palais de Tokyo, I have been warmly welcomed and facilitated in my investigation by both Mr Anzalone and the students. The work of these latter was incredibly inspiring, their Digital Design competences simply astonishing and their digital products igniting (to me) unprecedented ideas about information curation - I still feel inspired for my research by what I have seen and heard conversing with them. I feel particularly obliged to Mr Anzalone to introduce me the network of designers invited to contribute to the course too.

One of the most interesting aspects I have found into the workflow adopted by the GSAPP students was the centrality of code writing and sharing for Collaborative Design. This activity was based on the use of both Rhino and its plug-in for visual programming, Grasshopper, a procedural context the entire group was able to operate with. The immediately evident drawbacks, from the data curation point of view, of this approach to coding and code sharing are linked to both the Rhino platform, a major proprietary CAD system, and the concept of visual programming. Despite well documented, Rhino is a commercial product supporting proprietary formats and as such exposing data files to future access problems and being Grasshopper scripts dependent on its platform their loss risk is exponentially higher. The facilitation of visual coding comes at the price of the need for maintaining both the UI and the interpreter engine to insure access to data files. Further, visual programming scripts are usually poorly documented with annotations and Grasshopper is not an exception, but extensive annotation is often the only recourse for programmers to migrate or rewrite a particular script in a different language.

I find these curatorial shortcomings (which, of course, deserve further analysis and discussion) trigger some compelling questions addressing the information management for Architecture that are still unexplored:

  • Shall scripts exchange standardisation for Design to be researched and supported by institutional organisations and AEC standards promoters?
  • How to manage Visual programming scripts without depending on specific running environments?
  • Are the questions above linked to the research of a management system allowing for script exchanging and collaborative programming for Architectural Design?

POSTED BY Ruggero Lancia