Upgraded tools

is about digital technology’s impact on architecture and design, a topic that during the years has grown to encompass a discussion on the architectural profession itself. Thus, the insight gained has also become a design philosophy.

Since more than ten years, digital design technology has become a trending topic in universities and we have seen a variety of approaches addressing it. The ambition is to examine, criticise and therethrough suggest a new conducive approach. The latter has been a huge challenge generating a series of questions: are the digital tools reinventing the profession itself? Are these tools just tools and nothing more? What is actually new? Is the topic involuntary moving into other fields than architecture and design?

To answer these questions, first of all we need to define what the tools are and what they can do. This is done through a vast documentation of Fredrik Skåtar’s projects and academic courses, so that the reader should understand the components of the design process when using parametric design methods and digital fabrication. It is evident that there are too few practitioners that can use these complex technologies at all. Therefore, the discourse about them and their design influence becomes generally confused, non-falsifiable, speculative, pseudo-interdisciplinary and, above all, tool-based—thereby neglecting the profession’s essential purpose.

One can divide the current discussion into two extremes; on the one hand, the sceptics who are generally not in favour of computer-based design. On the other hand, the enthusiasts who see digital technology as a paradigm shift, usually create designs that could be described as tool-based formalism. Both groups, and the discussion between their positions, answer the questions put earlier in various and diverse ways.

However, until now there is a lack of well-grounded answers to the question that really matters: What future approach is most beneficial for architecture and design? This question can be regarded as overarching and thereby turning the other questions into sub-questions. My answer is that we cannot discuss tools without discussing what the architect’s role in today’s (and tomorrow’s) society really is. The advanced digital design methods we now use are inevitably part of the profession’s technological facet. That is, the three facets of artistic expression, function and technology, which Vitruv already proclaimed. At first glance, this is obvious to almost anyone but when examining the arguments in support of digitally-driven projects, problems are detected. That is, the three facets are ideally in balance and interdependent and, unfortunately, this is seldom the case with digitally-driven projects receiving academic and/or media attention. Instead, we often have a situation where one facet—in this case the technological—dominates and thereby overshadows the other two. The result is, according to me, not architecture but something else, perhaps a form of pre-architectural spatial experiments. To get to the next phase, those pre-architectural pieces have to be elaborated and put into context, which might be possible if executed by the right person; an experienced architect who takes all facets into consideration as one interdependent entity.

The alternative which I emphasise, is where the idea determines what tool to use and what experiments to pick, and not the other way around. What project examples can we show for such an approach? Well, nothing that the digitally-driven realm of the research community would find particularly spectacular. Why? Because often in such examples, the tools are probably not visible or at least not in the foreground. They are, so to say, normal and driven by a specific idea and user demands.

In the thesis, Skåtar’s projects are shown as examples both for not meeting and for fulfilling the idea of a balanced, interdependent triad. There, the design process is shown in detail, emphasising e.g.;
that parametric methods are useless without knowledge of geometry (that even existed for a very long time).
the importance of experience-based design solutions, based on precedents.
that the tools are integrated in sculptural and geometrical training
the importance of gaining material knowledge, deriving from tests and references.
that learning from how the user benefits and evaluates our products is essential.

In all, the project examples show that the more we focus on idea refinement and evaluation, the more the tools are in the background and subsequently, the topic is inevitably about the profession per se. This integrates an acclaimed independent digital research field into the general discussion on architecture. Ultimately the digital technology-topic remains important but at the same time, it might currently be too speculative to be a meaningful subject in the discourse on the future of architecture and design.

A concrete example is Fredrik Skåtar’s projects creating topographical sculptures that resemble water ripples. Having exhibited these several times, the visitor belonging to the digital-technology sceptics usually denounces them "because the computer made them”. The enthusiast immediately asks “how was the water simulation made.” Skåtar’s answer is often accepted by the former, but disappoints or is incomprehensible the latter: “it is not water. I simply modelled it, with help from parametric tools, until I was happy with the shapes, the proportions and the composition.” That is, there is less novelty involved than one might think and therefore, it’s simply a work of a designer.

Of course, these arguments are matters for discussion which shows that we need to discuss this topic further. Therefore, perhaps one should avoid referring to the thesis as an approach. Rather, the matter is value-laden, affecting arguments and sub-approaches, and therefore it might be more suitable to talk about attitudes.

Thus, this attitude towards the question of the architect’s future is to stick to the profession’s core; — namely to create a sound balance between artistic expression, technology and function, both during the design process and in the evaluation of the finished product. In the near future, it is probable that we will become confused by yet another new technology. Looking at history, this has happened before—the industrial revolution might be the best example—and according to the professional experience of the author, the architectural profession has not changed its purpose and the demand of its target group is generally the same. Evident, of course, is that the content of the demand and society at large is in constant change, which all professions have to adapt to.

Finally, aiming for a better future discussion on this topic, I’d like to suggest the following:
We need to discuss and define our attitude towards architecture and design in society.
We need to create public awareness of and increase public interest in architecture and design, and thereby discuss what quality is. We should compare the phenomena of trends with the idea of timelessness.
We should discuss the notion of caring about quality. Because architecture is an important component of society that serves all.