When computers took over most design offices all over the world in the 1980s, there was a seismic shift in the way that ideas conceived by designers were drawn and constructed. CAD (computer aided design) enabled an accuracy of seven decimal places which though useful in the exacting world of engineering, was absurdly accurate for traditional design and construction where tolerances of a pencil width was about as fine as it went. Till the 1980s there had been no need for extremely fine tolerances in architecture and the graphic arts and this didn’t prevent the creation of beautiful long lasting works of art and architecture. The introduction of this kind of numerical exactness affected everything. It was the beginning of a particularly nasty kind of intolerance and heralded an era in which people began to believe in the necessity of absolute exactness in all things. Obsessively.
Let me explain myself. In the old days, which I knew quite well, a line was drawn on a drawing board with a pencil which had an effective width which corresponded to the normal tolerances of an actual building site. In other words if you drew a line on a piece of paper with a pencil it correspond to approximately a quarter inch or less on the ground depending on the scale of the drawing. Any builder would work within certain parameters in which slight dimensional variations did not matter. But this was when buildings were built in traditional ways and they still got built successfully. The more buildings were pre-fabricated the higher the tolerances. Now on site laser technology has permitted all kinds of construction to very high tolerances. More and more buildings are assembled from components and not crafted on site. I question whether this was humanly a good thing. Architects have increasingly become specifiers not designers.
Fast forward to 2014 with the new Apple HQ doughnut http://www.wired.com/2013/11/a-glimpse-into-apples-crazy-new-spaceship-headquarters/#slideid-312441 being built in Cupertino in Silicon Valley. Designed by Foster Associates it will house more than 13,000 workers and will be constructed to incredibly high technical tolerances as if it were an aeroplane or a watch. Why? Just a fanatic Jobsean excess? Foster-Jobs: a meeting of two obsessives on a grand scale. Foster buildings are like Apple computers writ large.
Maybe this is why so many of Foster’s buildings look like machines because from early on they were using CAD programs (on Apple Macs of course) and like it or not their many designs, like Stansted Airport, the Berlin Reichstag etc., ended up looking like, er…computers…all sleek and titanium grey with lots of machine motifs, no arches, few curves, no ornamentation, glorifying steel and glass and rationalising it with worn out phrases like “A building is Machine for living in”. Who wants to live in a machine? Evidently quite a few people, and pay a lot of money for it. Aside from Foster’s rationale it is, let’s face it, just a style and like all things modern sometimes good but so often predictably bland and may well pass into history as a period of strange human obsession with grey metal.
Anyone who has designed a building, a book or a even a piece of furniture knows that the process of design is intimately connected to the end result. I’m not saying using the computer to design a building is a bad thing but just to say it preconditions the outcome and we should be aware of this. The builders of the great cathedrals and mosques must have had a method of drawing and planning but it was just the means to the end i.e. the building. You do wonder with the modern movement in design if the computer isn’t dictating more than it is being dictated to. I remember Paul Luna of Oxford University Press saying over 20 years ago in a seminar I attended on desktop publishing that the computer is not a tool but an escalator which we have stepped on to and are bound to go where it leads us. Too true.
I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the drawing board discouraged many an architect or designer from using curves as they required a lot more draughtsmanship. Right angles and straight lines were easy. Some historians have blamed the use of industrialised building construction for the rectilinear design of ‘modern’ buildings as manufacturing things like arches were not machine friendly. Others dispute this and cite cubism and constructivism as an art style of the time which also influenced architects and other designers. Chicken or egg, it doesn’t really matter. The days when arches or domes were necessary to span large distance were gone. Reinforced concrete and steel frames rendered traditional building methods void virtually overnight as you could pretty much span any space with steel and concrete. That is a bit of a simplification but you get my point.
What interests me now is how our processes of creating anything affect us in profound ways and how the use of anything mechanical or electronic affects us in very profound ways. The drawing board or the sewing machine or even the typewriter historically impacted our behaviour, but the computer raised the bar to undreamed of heights. Because a computer gives you unprecedented control over a firstly a virtual reality and then over actual reality this has to affect behaviour. Many times I’ve been told by my wife how intolerant I used to be when working at a computer. It did subtly affect my behaviour although I have learnt in twenty five years of computer use how to keep it at arms length. The notion of ‘delete’ or ‘reboot’ translates into real life generally in a negative way so people become impatient and look to solve their problems with a keystroke! But real life doesn’t work like that as we all know.
So heaven knows how violent computer games backfeed into the gamer although all the gamers deny it. It makes the idea of a computer operator in Nevada or Lincolnshire controlling a drone over the Northwest frontier blowing away enemy targets a frightening concept and why such people are prone to severe depression and trauma. When the missile is fired someone actually presses a key… Which key is it? The delete human key? The human soul cannot endure such things even though it be virtualised on a computer screen, unless it is brainwashed or even drugged into doing it – which is the way a modern army trains it’s soldiers of course. Not much chivalry there. Significantly I think computer use has also made people demand irrational levels of accuracy in the belief that numerical exactness is a substitute for something just looking good. Which is the point of this essay. In my own work I often just sketch on paper, then guess things optically on screen and then if necessary tidy it up using computer tools. Do we really need to be pixel perfect? Whatever next? Molecular nano-accuracy?
So where does that leave us? The great beast of the internet and its billions of computers is something we have to accept as it is not going away and a beast which we either ride or end up being crushed by, like the bull-runners of Pamplona. This means being able to take from the machines what benefits and also being able to leave them at will. It’s as simple as knowing when to walk rather than drive in your car. Or write with a pen or pencil rather than picking up the laptop. Machines are there to assist you or humiliate you. What kind of man rails against technology as a satanic conspiracy (and I know a few) and then gets in his car having received a call from his wife on his mobile phone. Technology is a kind of crutch for the disabled but that is our condition – sadly.