Buttresses and Bytes

Futuristic spaces.
Futuristic spaces. // Alana Thyng

Between its clean-cut geometry and aura of cutting-edge technology, a certain subset of modern architecture screams an aesthetic that can be best classified as “super villain” — gloriously inefficient, substituting functionality and cost-effectiveness for maniacal laugh-inducing technological coolness. To that effect, throughout Rudolph Hall’s new “Archaeology of the Digital” exhibit, Chuck Hoberman’s motorized wire spheres expand to improbably large proportions and plexiglass domes magically self-assemble — if Lex Luthor were building a beach house, he would probably peruse this exhibit for inspiration.

Organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture, “Archaeology of the Digital” explores how digital technology has expanded and influenced modern architecture. It focuses on four notable examples: Frank Gehry’s Lewis Residence, Peter Eisenman’s unconstructed Biozentrum, Chuck Hoberman’s Expanding Sphere and Shoei Yoh’s roof structures for Odawara and Galaxy Toyama Gymnasiums. Each architect used digital ideas to craft their buildings, from the abstract DNA structure that inspired Eisenman’s Biozentrum to the difficult geometric calculations needed to construct Hoberman’s famous expanding spheres. Blueprints and models of each building form the center of the exhibit, along with interviews with the architects. Several 3-D computer models are also on display for the public to rotate and manipulate.

Though logical, the exhibit’s presentation was fairly difficult to navigate. “Archaeology” is meant to lead the visitor through each major work, but this isn’t immediately apparent to viewers who wish to quickly peruse the models — several visitors appeared to be proceeding through the exhibit backward, occasionally skipping a sequence. Additionally, much of what’s featured is somewhat technical — many blueprints of the same building, for example, appear in succession and differ only slightly. Neither of these effects would trouble a visitor with sufficient time to digest the display, but a quick 20-minute visit won’t give much insight.

That said, the arrangement of models and blueprints excellently demonstrates the relationship between architect and technology. As computers adopted a system of modeling consisting of points connected by lines, architectural modeling followed suit, with metal wire becoming a common form of demonstrating concepts. In addition to influencing traditional architecture, computer modeling also allowed new breakthroughs, and the variation among the styles displayed reinforces this notion. Whereas each Gothic building more or less resembles every other Gothic building, each project aided by technology is completely novel — one may take the form of a biological macromolecule, another a fish and yet another an indescribably curvy prism.

The exhibit manages to drive home the idea that technology is rapidly infiltrating every aspect of our culture — even art. Technology does not necessarily reduce formerly artisanal activities into cold, rapid and linear pursuits, but rather expands the artist’s creative reach. I stopped to meditate on Frank Gehry’s Lewis Residence for more time than I grant most pieces of art in similar non-architectural exhibits. The building, made up of an assortment of geometric objects, seems to defy physics even as it holds together. “The brain that transforms [thought] into art is needed to get beyond the recognizable language of the computer program,” Gehry explained in a quote displayed next to his work.

The space also makes a compelling case for bridging the “intellectual curiosity gap between history/theory and design” — as “Archaeology” argues at the beginning of the exhibit. As scholars look back on the development of architecture in our time and in the recent past, they will need to have access to the digital record of an architect’s progress — the custom programs, digital models and more. Despite this, almost no institutions maintain databases of these digital tools, failing to account for data’s being as important as the physical models and drawings previous designers left behind. Through its interactive computer models and documentation of each architect’s creative process, “Archaeology of the Digital” demonstrates the importance of archiving the entirety of a building’s construction, digital or not.

Victor Hugo wrote in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” that architecture is a product of each generation’s evolving culture — “the residue of successive evaporations of human society.” “Archaeology of the Digital” is a unique examination of the overlap of art and technology. Certainly this mixture, with its unprecedented creative freedom, will characterize the residue modern architecture leaves behind.