Technology, Ecology, and Architecture

12Dec13

TODAY, Architecture has apparently been revolutionized by the shift toward computation in every area of professional practice–from conception to fabrication–which has authorized structural systems previously only imagined, developed formal systems that abandon traditional geometry in favor of topology and its parametric generators, and enabled an unprecedented rigor and efficiency in the analysis of all aspects of global sustainability. In this changed world, the continued deployment of innovative technologies would seem to offer architecture’s best hope for addressing a host of increasingly urgent ecological problems, from global warming to out-of-control urban growth. But the uneven history of architecture’s relationship with digital technology and ecological consciousness in both theory and practice after World War II suggests that successfully balancing these preoccupations with the continuing evolution of architectural practice may he less straight-forward than it first appears.

Just over fifty years ago, the British historian and critic Renner Banham published a series of five articles in the Architectural Review under the heading “1960.” In them, he set out to evaluate the state of the art as it sought to adjust to the potentials of what he called the “second machine age.” The same year, Banham had published his historical account of the “first machine age,” which began in 1909 with the Futurists’ ringing call for an architecture transformed by new technologies of movement and construction and ended in 1931 with the sedate Purism of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a building that looked technologically sophisticated but was fundamentally constrained by its adherence to traditional values of architectural composition. In a telling comparison, the last images of Banham’s book contrasted this villa against the engineering wizardry of Buckminsrer Fuller’s Dytnaxion House (1929), which served as Banhanis model of how architecture might properly respond to technology.

Banham’s stocktaking consisted of a parallel comparison between architecture’s “tradition” and its technological potential. The articles included statements from General Electric on systems management in weapons manufacturing, from IBM on the use of computers in operations research and linear programming, and from the planner Richard Llewelyn-Davies on social science–all extra-architectural disciplines that Banham thought should be brought into the profession. But even as Banham supported the careful application of new technologies to design practice, he warned against the fetishization of technology “out of context.”

Banham’s own sense of a technological architecture lay in his espousal of mass-production elements “clipped-on” to megastructures; transparent, inflatable enclosures that were “homes” but not necessarily “houses”; and service systems that would ensure-well-tempered” environments. As for computation, he warned that design could not be turned over entirely to computers, pointing to the observation by a GE executive that computers, dealing with “cold hard facts,” have no imagination and thereby “no aesthetic sense whatever.”

In the wake of postwar shortages and an austerity budget in Britain, however, Banham had to make do with an attitude toward architecture that Peter and Alison Smithson dubbed New Brutalism in 1953. In his seminal 1955 article “The New Brutalism,” Banham explained that what became a rather unfortunate appellation had in fact been cobbled together from the French: art brut (Du buffet) and beton brut (as in the raw concrete surfaces of tee Corbusier’s Unite …

By Vidler, Anthony

Magazine article from Artforum International, Vol. 51, No. 1
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