Graduate Architecture

Excerpt: Ali Rahim and Hina Jamelle on an Architecture of Impact

Ali Rahim, professor of architecture and director of the MSD-AAD program, and Hina Jamelle, senior lecturer in architecture and director of urban housing, take on the theme of Impact in the September 2020 issue of Architectural Design (Volume 90, Issue 5). In the introduction to the issue, Rahim and Jamelle look to a new culture of making where architectural projects embrace innovative digital technology while moving beyond the digital signature used in their creation.

Architectural Design AD, Impact, signifies an expansion of the digital discourse that foregrounds the discipline of architecture and its cultural context. When first introduced to architecture in the early 1990s, the digital brought with it a bifurcation of theoretical interests: the material and the immaterial. Design, traditionally guided by the qualitative underpinnings of philosophy, science, and the fine arts, was faced with rapid changes in technology conversely guided by quantitative technical measures. Efficiency drove architectural discourse towards optimization and quantitative models often irreconcilable with more robust measures of design intent. Terms like “blobs,” “non-standard,” “parametric,” and “organic” all describe the forms that were being generated, which led to a fascination with surface continuity and consolidated in a totalizing movement. While digital technologies and experimentation have had a momentous impact on design, the success of the digital cannot be measured by its widespread use alone. By focusing on material architectural discourse—the things, places, buildings, and respective contexts of architecture in the world, designers can bring the extremes of qualitative design and quantitative technologies into close cooperation in service of the discipline. The way to achieve this goal is to implement discrete modelling precision in building design and construction and apply it to disciplinary questions at every level. To this end, there are several compelling means by which design should address core issues of the discipline.

To start, techniques which are hallmarks of digital processes, if borrowed from other fields, should be narrow in their scope and tested against the discipline of architecture to determine whether they have potential for enhancing it. For example, artificial intelligence and its techniques of machine learning are based on chances of success and accuracy, an efficiency-based model. Applications of AI in urban planning have likewise been efficiency based, aiming to move people around cities in ways that meet the least resistance or enable driverless cars to operate smoothly. Instead of accepting AI and other emergent technologies at face value for their potential, as designers, we should explore qualitative aspects that have the greatest potential to have material impacts on the discipline.

Advanced techniques should also be used in such a way that material assembly supersedes the use of digital tools. When transferring a technique from a different field, if the technique is reflected in the geometry of the project, we as designers are relinquishing our responsibility for how that design impacts material discourse. Software defaults should be avoided, as they build a precarious discourse for the discipline of architecture. When design architects take control and move beyond the defaults, their projects have greater opportunities to benefit culture more broadly—to participate in their own materiality. How does the architect design the form, space, openings, materials, and their assembly, and—overall—how does the building communicate and respond to the culture in which it is situated? These are all disciplinary questions that elude quantitative methods irrespective of advancements in computational modeling.

Architectural design should take on the building at full scale in all its complexities. Until now, projects have been formally and materially bound by restrictive conventional methodologies. The project has now moved from the scale of temporary installations and pavilions to that of permanent three-dimensional building-sized fabrications. Buildings require different techniques of making, assembly, detailing, and whole logistical processes which should benefit from the full-fledged experimentation and attention of the digital project. Insular digital projects and their reliance on process to support their vision have created an inflated discourse of architectural imagery that needs to be counterbalanced by a culture of making and material discourse at the building scale.

Architectural detailing should be reimagined through a contemporary framework. While we attempt to move beyond the aesthetics of the early digital project and re-engage with the intricacy of assembly and materiality, we do not need to adhere to past models of building. The unit of material itself can be modulated, and joinery can be engineered in ways that were previously impossible. Seams can be used to suppress or heighten the tectonic reading of form rather than standardized material sizes and off-the-shelf joinery. Material assemblies can be detailed in ways that differ from area to area, creating highly nuanced multitudinous formal readings. Contemporary fabrication methods allow materials to be assembled and cut in ways that allow for multifaceted orientations. Materials themselves can be treated with a wide array of finishes and textured in multiple different ways. Just as we look to remove the generic digital signature from architecture, we should also remove the generic industrial signatures imposed by manufacturing necessities rather than design intent.

Finally, digital architects need to expand their own field of design research to engage with factors including climate change, health, the non-human, political-economy, racism, sexism, ecology, energy, and scarcity of resources—all of which impact material architectural discourse. Broader contextual concerns need to participate in the development of designs in order for projects to be viable. Practices would benefit in this respect from the expansive approach required by buildings. Buildings in the public and private sectors are always shaped by many forces, including the monetary capital and institutional structures that fund them. As a discipline, we can be smarter in the ways we achieve occupant and stakeholder goals as well as our own. Building re-use and the intelligent re-cycling of buildings are promising examples. Another is the reformulation of asset architecture to provide an investment vehicle for investors while contributing towards city planning goals. Digital designers should further evaluate how their techniques can create new innovative solutions with material impact.

Unless architects turn to a new culture of making, architecture shaped by innovative digital technology will become irrelevant. The cultural milieu we live in is digital, and one cannot underplay its impact or turn backwards. At the same time, architecture’s complex material interrelations should ground theoretical positions and be embraced. Digital is where we are, and the way in which the discipline remains culturally relevant is by embedding innovations firmly in the culture of making. This can be achieved by using materials, developing new concepts and means of joinery, and embracing the discourse’s material registration, its impact in the world. Projects that are more subversive in how they are created and that eschew their digital signatures have a greater significance to the discipline’s new materializations.