Architecture student Zheela Qaiser ’11 used the high-tech laser cutter at Paul Rudolph Hall for the first time last week. Though she was thrilled to work with the robotic “computer-numeric-controlled machine,” Qaiser said she is not a convert to the superiority of gadgets over the pencil. And nor are her professors and fellow students.
Moving away from drawing sketches, erasing lines, smudging in shadows and handcrafting models, architecture students and professionals are completing projects by typing in a few words and pressing the enter button. But cutting edge methods are incorporated into the lives of architects slowly and skeptically, architecture students and professors said. Though computers can create models that are more precise and detailed than handcrafted ones, architects say they are not giving up old-fashioned sketching any time soon.
New machines, such as the laser cutter, can transform three-dimensional images into physical models made of wood, steel, cardboard or any other material the architects choose. Instead of laboriously cutting out the cardboard and sawing the wood themselves, architects can now sit back and watch machines do the handy work.
But technology in the architecture world presents almost as many problems as it does solutions, School of Architecture professor Peter Eisenman said.
“I’m a troglodyte when it comes to this,” Eisenman said. “I don’t think you can think about design by pushing a mass around on a computer. You can not conceptualize that way.”
Likewise, many students said they feel something is lost in the transition from paper to computer.
“There is a wide gap between the actual drawing and implementation that creates a visible disconnect between the idea and the final product that many architects dislike,” Bradley Baer ARC ’11 said.
For a project that focused on “deemphasizing any sort of seam,” for instance, Marcus Hooks ’09 ARC ’12 said he chose to create his model completely by hand because the laser cutter left a burnt edge on the cardboard that detracted from the concept behind his project. Technology, in his case, interfered with design.
Other students said they appreciate handcraft because it is more flexible, while creating models with computers requires extreme care and precision to achieve the right results.
“When you draw, you can play jazz,” Baer said. “You can do whatever you want, erase and redo as your ideas come.”
But formulating the issue as a choice between computers and crafted human activity is a false dichotomy, architecture professor Mark Foster Gage wrote in an e-mail, because of the amount of human effort that goes into making the computer models precise.
“Models have to be constructed carefully and “watertight” or the printer just wont print them,” Gage wrote. “A shorter way of saying this is that digital technology is not exempt from the history of human craft.”
And many conceded that it is a great disadvantage to leave advanced machines unused.
“It’s so much more precise and quick [to use a computer] and it saves a lot of time, money and effort,” architecture major Volkan Doda ’11 said. “The time spent handcrafting models can now be used to work on concepts and ideas.”
Doda then pointed to an intricate wooden model in a glass box: “That model, for example, could never have been crafted by hand,” he said. “The detail is too fine and the precision needed cannot be achieved by humans.”
Using machines to create models opens up a new options for students who are not as skilled in working manually, Emer O’Daly ARC ’11 said. No longer limited by their personal craft skills, architecture students have an even platform to stand upon when conceptualizing their creations. This new freedom allows more complicated shapes and more daring ideas, he said. “Technology gives you more options, which changes the results,” O’Daly said. “It’s not a question of better or worse, it’s just a question of more or less options.”
The technology available to architects today should not be perceived as a replacement for old-fashioned sketching, but a way to realize a greater variety of sketches, Gage pointed out. Though a laser-cutter makes possible the creation of models that could not be made with human hand, sketching will be around forever, Gage wrote.
“[Sketching] is still the sexiest way of communicating,” Gage wrote. “I find myself taping trace paper to my computer screen sometimes and sketching over it.”
And for a technology-savvy population, the ability to conceptualize on a computer is much more plausible, Hooks said.
“I think generations that grow up with video games that have such intense 3D qualities to them will be more adept at using technology to spatially and conceptually visualize their ideas,” Hooks said.
Echoed Eisenman: “Maybe other people can use these computers — these digital generation people.”