Computer Control

The Canadian Centre for Architecture and Greg Lynn uncover the early history of digital design.

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Archaeology of the Digital brings together a rich array of archival material on early computer-aided projects. 

© CCA, Montreal. 

Many would consider the architect Greg Lynn a pioneer of computer-aided design, but at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, he has curated an exhibition on the fast-disappearing legacy of those who have gone before him. The first in a series of shows that will deal with computers and architecture, Archaeology of the Digital showcases four early adopters through their projects—Frank Gehry’s Lewis Residence; Peter Eisenman’s Biozentrum for Goethe University; Chuck Hoberman’s Expanding Sphere and Iris Dome; and Shoei Yoh’s Odawara Municipal Sports Complex and Galaxy Toyama Gymnasium. Metropolis’s associate editor, Avinash Rajagopal, spoke to Lynn about the historic role of the computer in the architecture office, and the issues inherent in collecting digital material.

Why do we need an archaeology of the digital?
Close to a decade ago, the CCA acquired the Embryological House, the first project of mine which was natively digital. They took more than 500 models and drawings, and I said, very innocently, “Would you like any of the digital material?” They said yes. But it was done on old silicone graphics machines and you can’t open the files without them. And the software, Alias and Wavefront, had merged into Maya. It could open the files, but a lot of things would be dead in the migration. So the CCA ended up doing a two-year study with the Langlois Foundation in Montreal and Library of Congress, asking the question, “What is an institution’s responsibility towards digital material?” I thought it was possible to identify 25 specific architectural projects to collect, all done before the turn of the century. And that’s where we started—to try to get as much stuff as we can, even if we don’t know what to do with it yet, because it’s going to disappear.

The architect Chuck Hoberman was writing his own code in the 1980s—for projects like this expanding aluminum sphere, completed in 1991.

Chuck Hoberman fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture © Walter Wick; portrait of Greg Lynn, © CCA

How did you decide on the four practitioners in the show?
These four architects were very early engagers with digital tools. Even though the tools were around earlier than the 1980s, we tried to find instances where they enabled a design that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, and were an extension of the architect’s vision. These four projects were also very individual takes on how the digital could work. So instead of taking people my age, which is where a lot of people think digital technology really started, we decided to find people who were in their fifties and sixties when they started using the technology. It’s important that they were mature enough to already have an agenda, a vision of what to do with it.

The different positions of Chuck Hoberman’s expanding geodesic dome, designed in 1992.

Hoberman fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture © Hoberman Associates. 

There is a sense of these architects really wrestling with the computer. Has that changed today?
I worked for Peter Eisenman on the Biozentrum project and one of my jobs was drafting—by hand—the base drawings that the computer was iterating at the same time. I remember vividly this song about John Henry, a railroad worker who could drive railroad ties and rails the fastest. When somebody comes with a machine to do that job, John Henry races the machine, beats it, but dies at the end of the railroad line. I kept humming it to myself  because I also felt like I was  racing the computer. When we spoke to Frank Gehry and the people who worked with him, we found out that the CATIA was working at about the same speed as the people drafting in the office. The LOM 3-D printer worked at the same speed as somebody building a model. Digital resources were aligned almost perfectly with drafting and model building. And that allowed for a whole process of shuttling back and forth that you just don’t see now.

But if that was the case, what kept these people engaged with computers?
Each one of them saw something different. But I think what everybody realized was that digital technology wasn’t just a tool with no consequences, it really was a new concept.

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