Any production is also a production of subjectivities


“Digital Neofeudalism”

Notes on Mario Carpo’s The Alphabet and the Algorithm


The introduction of digital technologies in the mid-nineties was experienced in architecture in a rather peculiar way. While almost every architect adopted computers as the main platforms for their work, the term ‘digital architecture’ still refers almost exclusively to an architecture made of round, sinuous or continuous forms. But regardless of angularity or rotundity the introduction of digital technologies implied much deeper transformations in the modes of production of architecture, to an extent to break the consolidated categories which ruled architecture for the past five centuries. This is the thesis of Mario Carpo’s last book The Alphabet and the Algorithm(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011) which was discussed in a seminar titled ‘The Rise and Fall of the Albertian Paradigm,’ held at the Berlage Institute on January 27th, as part of the seminar program ‘The Historical Project. Whatever Happened to Operative Criticism?’ Regarding the general theme of the program, Mario Carpo’s impressively coherent research trajectory is particularly interesting because it declines a rigorous historical research as a punctual present-day critique. Tracing the genealogies of different modes of production in architecture, Carpo is able to locate the digital turn in a long-duration perspective encompassing not only the architectural problems of type, models and imitation, but also broader political issues concerning authorship, labour and the state.

It was Leon Battista Alberti who formalized architecture as we know it today—or, as we used to know it until today: an “allographic, notational and authorial art.” Alberti was addressing a social and economical crisis that was hitting Florence, which made the realization of large public works almost impossible. To face this problem, a new strategy for organization of the building site had to be elaborated. According to Alberti, a building should be composed in the mind first. Then, the idea of the building must be translated into a graphic, standardized code—plans, elevations and sections. The product of this operation is the design, which has to be transmitted to someone else to be mechanically executed, in strict conformity to the drawings. This procedure ensures that the architect is the only responsible for the design, its only author. To impose this new method, Renaissance architects had to struggle against a building industry that was dominated by social and technological conventions connected to a very different model of organization of the building site. In the Middle Ages guild system, a building was never designed beforehand. The moments of ideation and building were not separated, and the building process was a collective effort in which every workman applied the secret knowledge he literally possessed as a member of the guild.

The introduction of digital technologies in architecture marked the resurgence of some of the characters of the medieval building industry. While digital manufacturing tools virtually remove the distinction between the architect and the builder, digital networks facilitate the participation of different subjects in the design process. The participatory possibilities offered by digital technologies produced a great wave of euphoria in the late nineties-early two-thousands. Today we can fully appreciate the ambivalence of the transformations of labour in the digital era. While it is true that labour has become more collective and participatory, it is also true that digital technologies allow a centralized control of the outcomes of this participation. This is the case of the recent developments in Building Information Management (bim) platforms. As Carpo declared in a recent comment on his book, “the new digital workshop … looks less and less like an incubator of new forms of participatory creativity, and more and more like a playground of corporate interests, bureaucratic opaqueness and technocratic megalomania.” For sure it is clear that the ‘digital turn’ did not improve architects’ working conditions, which on the contrary followed the general trends of labour precarisation.

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