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Subjects: Architecture

Beyond the Blob—Digital Technology in Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

It's Tuesday night at Avery Hall and students file into a dim lecture hall for Joseph Kosinski's section of Fundamentals of Digital Design, the first course in the Computer Sequence at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAP). The students have completed their first assignment, a 3–D model of an industrial object, and posted it to the class website. The previous night's work, a digital version of the intense design effort known as a "Charette," has taken its toll, and the students show signs of fatigue as they pop open cans of highly caffeinated soda and wait for the class to begin. The classroom, more properly called a "digital presentation space," is equipped with both Mac and IBM workstations on a console at the front of the class, along with a ceiling–mounted LCD projector, which beams images from the workstations onto a large screen.

After a few minutes, Kosinski, himself a recent Columbia graduate, takes a seat at the console and calls up the student projects for a digital version of the traditional pin–up or review. The gallery of student work that appears on the LCD screen is composed mainly of everyday household items—a tape measure, stapler, a Sno–Cone machine—but all present complex modeling problems as materials and surface textures vary and straight lines are in short supply.

Kosinski scrolls to the model of a Vespa scooter and asks the student–designer, Aaron Hockett, how he made it. He replies, "It's all box modeling—editable polygon with NURMS [Non–Uniform Rational Mesh Smooth]. There are four boxes in the model—one for each of the wheels, one for the body, and one for the handles, shaft, and front wheel. The handlebars are lofted splines. I found that a really useful way of getting a smooth organic surface with clean machined lines was the Crease tool in the Edges sub–object level."

Everyone knows what he means. In less than a month, the students have already learned the technical vocabulary and have a good understanding of some of the toolsets of 3ds max, a powerful 3–D modeling, rendering, and animation program that will probably carry them through school and into their professional careers.

Students are modeling such complex forms that it's hard to believe that this is the first project in the course. Kosinski himself is constantly amazed at the quality of student work and he jokes about his own Fundamentals first project from the fall of 1997, a study of cubes and cylinders, which appears awfully rudimentary compared with the work his students have posted tonight. Students five years ago were no less creative, but today's computers are much faster and the software can now handle millions of polygons and other complex shapes. Also, incoming students have generally achieved a high level of computer literacy and have a strong desire to outdo their predecessors, a desire that's facilitated by easy access to comprehensive archives of previous student work. As Kosinski says, "Now students all want to do better than the last class, everyone ups the bar a little more, and they come in knowing at least the basics of navigating in 3–D space, which wasn't a given five years ago."

Columbia has probably integrated digital technology into its architecture program more fully than any other school in the world. At the curricular level, the Computer Sequence consists of fundamental and advanced courses in Computer–Assisted Design (CAD) along with a variety of seminars on special topics, and the Design Sequence, the nine–credit backbone of the architecture program, offers several digital or "paperless" studios each term. Both sequences are supported by an army of TAs called "digital assistants." The whole school is wired with electronic infrastructure, and second– and third–year studios are equipped with state of the art hardware, usually multi–processor graphics workstations or Macintosh machines, and 3–D modeling software, such as Maya and 3ds max. The students in the two upper years receive instruction in wired studios or digital presentation spaces like Kosinski's, which are equipped to teach modeling programs and other software to sixty to eighty students at a time.

By the time classes begin in September 2002, workstations will also be installed in the first–year studios, which means at least in theory that all students at GSAP will be able to get a "paperless" architectural education. They will not necessarily have to draw in ink on Mylar or model their designs in cardboard, foam, and basswood, and, as shown by Kosinski's class, even the staples of the traditional architectural education, the Charette and pin–up, can occur in virtual space. Starting next September, all students will be able to create designs on the computer, print them out, and even have them fabricated digitally on one of the department's 3–D printers or milling machines.

The integration of digital technology into the first–year curriculum marks a major policy shift for the school. Until about 1998, first–year students were strongly discouraged from taking computer classes, but this position became untenable, according to Professor Eden Muir, Director of the Digital Design Laboratory (DDL), when, around 1999, "first–year students began to push their way down into the computer classes, and it no longer made sense to deny them the tools because so many of them coming in were already computer proficient." Students can still put up a drafting bar in their studio and make models by hand, but the computers are there if they want to use them. And most of them do. Not everyone agrees that the immersion in digital technology is desirable, and Muir himself admits to a nostalgia for drawing and the traditional pin–up review. But even in studios that are not officially digital, students often do their work on computers. Muir believes the use of digital technologies will increase mainly because incoming students have grown up with computers and the 3–D spatiality of video games: "These 22–year–old kids are able to work in a digital realm with total comfort. That's their habitat now." The architectural press has dubbed Columbia "the computer school," and many students enter the program because of the technology. Third–year student Abigail Hart Grey says, "I came into Columbia completely analog, not knowing any computer programs, and I wanted to be on the cutting edge of architecture. And right now the next generation of the avant garde in architecture has to do with technology. In just two and a half years I have become quite a techie."

Given Columbia's current reputation as the computer school, it comes as a surprise to find that GSAP was rather late in bringing sophisticated digital technology into its program. Computers first officially appeared in the curriculum in the mid–1980s, when CAD courses were introduced in the Computer Sequence under the leadership of Professors Tountas and Muir. In the beginning it wasn't much of a sequence, as usually only one CAD course was offered in each semester and it didn't attract many students. As Professor Hani Rashid puts it, "The CAD courses were one–credit courses and not a lot of people were interested in them. If you were sort of techie minded, you would maybe go the basement where the courses were taught and take CAD." Initially, CAD courses did little more than facilitate the production of architectural drawings and did not have much impact on the all–important Design Sequence. By the early 1990s, remarkable advancements in two commercial 3–D modeling software packages, Alias/Wavefront and Softimage, offered revolutionary possibilities for architectural design. Alias, the forerunner of today's Maya, was developed for the automobile industry to model complex car parts, and it got architects talking when filmmakers used it to create the 3–D special effects in The Abyss (1989). The life–like dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993), created with SoftImage, garnered even more attention. Both programs offered toolsets, including NURBS (Non–Uniform Rational Baselines), which allowed designers accurately to model forms with complex 3–D curvatures and surfaces, and 3–D Booleans, which permitted 3–D addition and subtraction of space, a process that resembles modeling clay. These programs were aided by a quantum leap in CPU capacity, speeding up the design process and permitting real–time 3–D visualizations and rotations of complex models.

Kosinski points out that using this technology, "You can build something and view it from any point in space or walk through it in real time immediately after you've built it. You no longer need to render out frames as you did five years ago, when you had to pick a view and let a computer slowly generate that image over a couple of minutes or hours. Now the technology exists where you can essentially build an idea and immediately walk or fly through it, looking at different lighting conditions and materials as well." Also, because mathematical formulas drive the software, designers can plug in virtually any input to modify or test their designs. Input data can take traditional forms such as traffic patterns across a site, but designers began to experiment with alternative inputs such as the weather, changing light, or the behavior of swarms of bees. Some designers even use sensors and motion–capture devices hooked up to people to collect inputs. At times the process resembles artificial intelligence as a 3–D model can tweak itself or evolve or morph into something else as it responds to the various inputs.

It was clear that computers were no longer just a presentation tool but an essential part of the design process and ought to be integrated into design studios. It was also clear that the commercial software had finally outstripped the powerful proprietary graphics software designed by Professor Tountas that Avery had been using in its CAD courses. In 1992 students and faculty demanded that the new digital technology be made available in the architecture department, but the only place at Avery that had the tools was the DDL, a research institute formed in 1992 under the direction of Muir and Professor Rory O'Neill. The DDL's mission at that time was to develop 3–D interfaces eligible for patent protection and innovative educational products. It's best known projects were architectural animations, such as a digital video of Amiens Cathedral.

Dean Bernard Tschumi expanded the DDL's mandate and asked it to devise a plan to integrate digital technologies into the school, and the DDL responded with a proposal called "The Paperless Studio." The proposal begins like a manifesto—"A 'digital imperative' is defining our age. Most members of contemporary culture feel the need to digitize their skills and knowledge"—and it outlines a sweeping plan to build "a seamless electronic infrastructure with a complete suite of state–of–the–art digital design and presentation tools." The new tools were to be installed in a new kind of studio, a digital or "paperless studio," "an electronic design environment which bears more resemblance to a special effects film studio than to a traditional architectural studio." No other architecture school anywhere had ever embraced digital technology so completely.

The DDL began the process of implementing its plan in the architecture school by collaborating with the engineering department to secure a grant from Low Library for the purchase of high–powered Silicon Graphics hardware along with a hundred software licenses for Alias and Softimage. Some of the new equipment was used to upgrade courses in the Computer Sequence, but most of it went towards equipping and staffing three paperless studios. Dean Tschumi then had to find computer–literate instructors to teach them, but fortunately, around that time, three young professors, Hani Rashid, Greg Lynn and Scott Marble, approached the Dean with their own proposal for digital studios. All three were obvious choices for teaching the new studios because they had been using the new modeling software in their own practices.

Students and instructors adapted to the new technology quickly, and the paperless studios unleashed a wave of experiment and creativity that has spilled far beyond the walls of Avery Hall and placed Columbia in the forefront of digital design. As Muir puts it, "Using the new technologies, we were able to create these curving shapes, the forms that architects had always dreamed of, especially people like Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi, but they had never been able to do it in a scientific way. Frank Gehry was one of the first to do it in a practical way, and now Lynn and all his students were doing it. At the push of a button you could have a template printed out on flat paper that would show you the size of each tile of a complex surface, for example. Or you could send it to a rapid prototyping machine and getting a replica of that curving dome that you couldn't build any other way."

During the ensuing intellectual foment, as students and instructors investigated digital space together and the tested limits of the software, a radically different kind of architecture emerged. Designs from the first few years of the paperless studio often look like the permutations of an amoeba and feature complex, amorphous geometry that is not reducible to the elementary forms of traditional design such as cubes and spheres. The popular media quickly, and sometimes derisively, lumped the disparate experiments in digital architecture under the rubric "blob." But the outward similarity of many of the designs obscures the theoretical and conceptual differences among the designers and the variety of their work. A now–famous theoretical essay published in 1995 by Greg Lynn coined the term "blob," but it is only one such rationale for the new architecture of biomorphic forms. The blob in all its conceptual diversity defines an important moment in recent architectural history, and it set Lynn, Rashid, and other participants in the paperless studios on a course of experiment that continues to the present day. As Rashid sees it, "At the research end, the blob stuff is compelling because it allowed us to get in and figure out the parameters and capabilities of this tool when designing buildings." But once the blob was codified as a style, many architects simply repeated the design without further exploring its underlying concepts or pushing the limits of the software—"The unfortunate thing is that it tended to stay at the level of the envelope and the formal iteration."

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Prototypes for the Embryologic House are based on organic shapes formed from a monocoque aluminum shell that often resembles a peeled sphere. Surface folds and wrinkles in the shell create nooks, shelving, or even furniture; punctures let in light; and tears and indentations form windows and doors.

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At the extreme of digital experiment are theorists like Karl Chu, who is developing alternative geometries and a new metaphysics of architecture based on computations. Lynn continues to explore the possibilities of blob design for built architecture in his innovative, "Embryologic" housing designs. And Rashid, responding to the recent growth of the Internet, conceives of the Web and virtual reality as "information space" best designed by architects not web designers. In his view an "information architect" applies "notions of spatiality, movement, light, texture, form, scale," and other traditional architectural concepts to organize virtual space. Rashid's design of the Virtual Trading Floor for the New York Stock Exchange illustrates the practical application of interactive virtual architecture.

A quick glance at the online galleries of student work reveals that students, like practicing architects, are pushing digital design in new directions. Kosinski sees more diversity in recent student work, which he attributes to the wider array of tools and techniques available and their improved understanding of them so that "they are not seduced by the blob–like nature of the NURBS toolset."

What does the future look like for Columbia graduates with an interest in designing in the digital realm? The rather sardonic answer in the mid–nineties was that they would become special effects technicians for Industrial Light and Magic, and several Columbia graduates did find employment in Hollywood. But the experience of two recent graduates reveals that opportunities in digital architecture have grown since then. Joseph Kosinski and Dean Di Simone (who also teaches at Columbia) graduated in 1999 and started their own design firm, KDLAB. Kosinski says, "We both went to Columbia to become architects but came out as digital specialists and graduated with a level of technical expertise that allowed us to work professionally right away." As few firms practice cutting–edge digital technology, they did not want to endure the three years of a licensing internship, and they had already lined up their first big client before graduating when the Department of Energy asked them to design a next–generation power plant and produce a digital video about it. On the strength of that project and the rest of their digital portfolio, they have expanded into other areas and technologies, including graphic design, branding, broadcast design, virtual reality, and film. In fact their first short film, Desert H2Ouse was featured at a number of short film festivals last year.

Their experience shows that architecture now includes virtual space, and architects are perhaps more accurately referred to as digital specialists who apply their design skills across a wide variety of disciplines. Whatever the future of architecture in the digital realm, Columbia graduates are going to be part of it.