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July 08, 2004

Who Designs? Our Tools or Us?

Dear Vanessa --

How much impact do the tools we use have on the products we make? I tend to think the answer is, Quite a lot. Tatyana, on the other hand, disagrees. Speaking from experience as a pro, she points out that many designers use computer aided design (CAD) to create ultra-traditional artifacts.

No disputing that, of course. Darn it. Yet I'll persist a bit anyway. The developments I've witnessed over the last few decades in TV, magazines, and movies have left me with the impression that, while technology can't be said to determine anything, it can certainly be said to condition much.

For instance, most magazines these days are put together with the computer programs Quark and InDesign. Both of these programs work by constructing pages out of boxes -- picture boxes, graphic boxes, headline boxes, text-column boxes, etc. And what do most magazines look like nowadays? A bunch of jazzed-up, poppy boxes.

But taking Tatyana's point, I admit that Quark and InDesign are being used to create completely traditional magazines too. The Nation, The New Republic, and The New Yorker are probably all constructed using the same tools that are being taxed to the max to create Entertainment Weekly.

Still, take movies. While computer-editing and image-tweaking technologies can be used to craft classical movies, I can't help noticing that since the introduction of these gizmos the standard American movie is no longer a traditional movie; it's instead a pumpy, cyber-media, cut-cut-cut thing. Coincidence?

But this is all merely a longwinded run-up to my lousy photo of the new Time-Warner center in Manhattan. (I blogged a bit about this building here.)

Does that look like a real building to you, or does it look like a CAD computer-screen image of a building? For reference, here are a couple of CAD images:


I notice that the Time Warner building and the CAD images have some similarities. They're featureless, they're texture-free, they're abstract, they're plasticky. "Toy Story"-esque, no?

For comparison, here's a traditional pen-and-ink architectural drawing:

Unrealistic in its own way, perhaps. But this drawing feels handmade. It conveys an awareness of tactile textures and of how light interacts with materials. It conveys depth and weight. I notice more emphasis on the context the building is intended to fit into as well.

As computers speed up, will CAD renderings catch up with hand-drawing in terms of conveying texture, presence, and weight? Or is it more likely instead that our tastes will adapt themselves to what CAD tends all its own to deliver? Perhaps many people already prefer polygons, vinyl featurelessness, and flourescent-esque computer-light to the real, er, traditional thing.

By the way, does the Time-Warner Center remind you, as it does me, of Darth Vader's mask? (A friend calls the style of this building "Death Star architecture.") Reflect-y planes of sinister black glass ... Don't ask me why, but when I look at this building, I can hear the voice of James Earl Jones.

Which re-raises a question that came up in our discussion of "Neuromancer" (here). If Darth Vader was a bad guy, and if "Blade Runner" was intended as a nightmare image of the future, then why have these styles since been embraced as glamorous? This gleaming-black-multifaceted-cubic style-thing arrived in our midst as something loathed and undesirable. Why do people now seem to yearn for what they'd previously been appalled by? Me, I'm happy continuing to think of this style as horrifying, thankyouveddymuch.

Eager for your thoughts. Eager to be set straight by Tatyana too, of course.



posted by Michael at July 8, 2004


Dunno, Michael. I mean, curtain walls have been around a lot longer than CAD. I daresay you'd make exactly the same criticism of FLW's Guggenheim if it were built today -- "Look: Mr Lloyd Wright is clearly in love with his CAD software, all curving walls and gently-sloping spirals and smooth surfaces..."

Posted by: Felix on July 8, 2004 2:29 PM

The appeal of shiny, black design is the same appeal as sunglasses: I am unknowable, umprentrable, in control and dominating.

Posted by: jleavitt on July 8, 2004 2:50 PM

Michael, I think you're absolutely right; the tools we use have a vast impact on the way we work and the way we create.

There's a maxim in a certain branch of the software development field: "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work." But that simplest thing depends greatly on the tools you've got to hand.

And of course, it's a commonplace that writing novels using a word processor makes a difference. Why should architectural design or magazine design be any different?

In the movie business, it's a case of, "Hey, I've got a new toy--now I can do all of those things that used to be so hard!" I think that eventually folks will settle down and start using them appropriately. That's been the key to Pixar's success, in my view--they've got all the neat toys, sure enough, but they never forget that they are telling a story.

Posted by: Will Duquette on July 8, 2004 4:24 PM


Love this posting but want to cast your net over a wider area -- something more familiar, perhaps. Like the telephone. Or internet. Or ... make it easier, the laptop on which I am writing. How has the invention of the laptop or desktop PC changed how people write?

While in grad school, I used to study with a guy who was convinced that hand-writing his dissertation would force him to think logically and linearly. As I pecked away on my laptop, laying down text and then altering or erasing it, he simply sat and thought. Sometimes for an hour or more he would sit almost motionless. Then he'd pick up his fountain pen (yes, he liked to dip the thing in ink) and would write, in curly script, complete and perfect sentences, rarely crossing anything out.

In spite of his methodological writing habits, I still think my prose was better than his, both in style and in content. I say this with humility -- really, I am humble -- because I consider him a great thinker. STILL, though thinking slowly and deliberately may make a better philosopher, thinking fast and then deleting wildly doesn't necessarily make a worse one.

He made a point, one day, of telling me to slow down and copy his method of writing. He said it would force me to think better (like him). He said something that has haunted me for many years: "Just think how much better your diss would have been had you taken the time to think slowly."

I'm not sure he's right, but I'll never know. The laptop has become a way of thinking for me. It does not structure my thoughts in the way that CAD renderings may channel architectural thought, but it enables me to write, erase, change, rewrite and rewrite again, without much loss of time. Writing half-baked thoughts and then thinking about them afterward has become a way of thinking in itself.

This reminds me of Hegel's "thought thinking thought." Recall the story of the primitive "cavemen" laying on a hill and looking at the stars, night after night? The moment that one of them saw constellations, and not unrelated dots in the night sky, he was engaging in second-order thinking -- he was thinking about his prior thoughts, thus, thought thinking thought. He wasn't taking in the dots, but arranging them, processing them, ordering them, putting them in some sort of new grid.

What my laptop does to my thinking is so basic or primal that it is almost Hegelian, in the above sense. It keeps the dots of light "out there" for me to see. It enables second order thought.

My friend may be utterly wrong. Perhaps his slow, methodological thinking is inferior to fast, erasable, connect-the-dot sorta thinking that my laptop enables.

Similarly, Michael, perhaps CAD renderings only enable erasing while keeping the dots in front of the architect. I don't know because I don't know what CAD entails, but ...

I guess I'm saying that hand drawing, like dipping your pen in ink and writing longhand, may only be a time waster. But I'm not sure. I don't know what I'm missing.


Posted by: Kris on July 8, 2004 5:43 PM

Exactly, Leavitt. These buildings are built by (or at least for) the people who want to be Darth Vader. Not necessarily in the sense of becoming Death, Destroyer of Worlds (although often enough - check out World Bank Headquarters:, but in the sense of being cold, efficient, ruthless in business. I mean, Blade Runner sucked for Harrison Ford, but it was pretty cool for the guy who owned the company. Until he got killed, that is.

Posted by: sleepnotwork on July 8, 2004 5:48 PM

I dunno....Mies, FLW, and Corbusier sure look just as much like CAD drawings, if not more, than most postmodern architecture. CAD and 3DMax actually make non-linear elements easier to deal with than hand-drafting. In fact, Gehry's buildings are too-complex to be built without the aid of engineering software. Visions of futurity are often marked by a "stripping away"--the stremlining of the chaos of modern life into a more comprehensible and governable system.

Posted by: skip26 on July 8, 2004 6:15 PM

Felix -- I think we agree, actually: computer-aided architecture is often glitzier modernism, modernism now able to twist and shimmy more than it could before computers. But I'm suprised that you think the Gugg seems CAD-y. Despite the spiral, it's a very textural experience, or at least always has been for me.

Jleavitt -- LOL, I think you're exactly right. Arnold wearing those shades in "T2" and all that. Funny that people should think it's cool. Which reminds me of how shocked I was at "T2," in a way that reminds me of the "Blade Runner" or Darth Vader thing. The robot Arnold played in T1 was the bad guy after all. By the time of T2, he'd become the good guy. I guess we'd taken him to our hearts.

Will -- Thanks for the computer-world input. Agree with you about Pixar too. In fact, I once took a screenwriting seminar and at it ran into a guy from Pixar, who told me that all Pixar employees were required to study storytelling. I guess the bosses hammer it in pretty hard that what they're selling is stories, and that the gizmos and workstations are only there to serve the stories. Good for them. Movies have been selling technological glitz for too long, as far as I'm concerned. I wonder if the public's growing tired of it.

Kris -- That's fascinating. I do think word processing affects writing quite a lot. It's a boon for someone like me -- I like to move back and forth between spattering out thoughts and words and then organizing them, and then back again. Specific to global, over and over. It was an exhausting thing to do with handwriting, typewriters, scissors and tape, let me tell you. And I see lots of evidence of email style in lots of pro writing these days, don't you? I'm not sure it's all for the best, but maybe it's not all for the worst either. I do think that those of us who are best off are the people with a solid grounding in traditional writing; for us, the word processor just makes things easier. I wonder about the kids growing up with 'em though. The machine seems to make getting writing done almost too easy, and the kids wind up with no sense of structure or organization. They just vent, pump it up some, and waltz off to the next chore. Seems to leave their heads and thought processes in a state of utter disarray. Maybe there's something about a medium that pushes back a bit that forces us to prioritize our thoughts. Hmm.

Sleep -- That World Bank HQ is a doozy, thanks for the link. It's like a chic, sinister, new-style pinstripe suit.

Skip26 -- I take your point. CAD-ish designs seem to be the apotheosis of modernism, don't they? Everything modernism wanted, plus the ability to warp, twist, pull inside-out, and then make twinkle. I do wonder about FLW, though. For all the geometry, his materials were often warm and tactile, and play a big role in how people experience his buildings.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 8, 2004 6:57 PM

Kris, my laptop has affected me the same way--to the extent that I wrote my own notebook application (I'm a programmer after all) to make that kind of writing and thinking easier to do.

Posted by: Will Duquette on July 8, 2004 7:14 PM

I agree that the tools that one uses conditions the final product significantly, but CAD in architecture is not used in the same way as Quark is used in graphic design.

I would say that CAD is used in the actual schematic design process only at the very highest levels and the very lowest levels. High end superstars that use cad in the design process are doing it for specific conceptual reasons, like a "computing is the spirit of the zeitgeist" kind of thing or to achieve shapes that are basically impossible by traditional means (the blob guys). Or if you are stamping out hundreds of nasty strip malls or warehouses, you just draw the rectangle and go from there. I am 99% sure that the Time Warner center was designed by drawing on paper but the design development and contract documents were done on a computer.

In my experience, cad in an architectural office is not computer aided design but computer aided drafting. That is to say that projects typically don't go into the computer until the basic scheme is created using physical models or sketching on tracing paper. Cad usually does not replace drawing in the design process but instead replaces the t square in the production of contract documents. There are issues relating to the process when contract documents are created in cad, but it is no easier or harder to do the building in whatever style in cad than by hand.

Favorite whipping boys like Gehry and Rem Koolhaas don't design with cad, they design (as far as I can understand) with cardboard models. Even deconstruction guys like Coop Himmelblau design through sketching. Computers are used as a means to achieve the fantastical visions created by other means. The thing is that crazy forms are possible without computers (think Eero Saarinen airport). They just make them alot easier to do.

Computers have mostly replaced hand drawing in the creation of presentation renderings because it is so much faster to make them on the computer. Even hand renderings that are done these days are typically tracings of cad models that are set up in the appropriate perspective view. The thing is that presentation renderings are frequently farmed out to specialists that do whatever the architect tells them to do.

Take a look at this hand rendering

and this cad rendering

tell me which one you guys like better. This stuff is also not design - this is the end product which is a tool to sell the design to the client and the public.

In my opinion, the time warner center does not look like a cad rendering, but the same corporate high modernism that has been put out by big firms since at least the 60's with a better curtain wall.

Ice cold curtain wall modernism is extremely retro.

Posted by: Tom on July 8, 2004 9:26 PM

Strangely, there are those who take very linear drawings or photographic images and "photoshop" them to look like they are textured and weighty, a strange inversion of the handdrawn=creative=authentic idea that Michael is conveying. I'm no expert in Photoshop, but I've seen sleek, linear images "returned" to rough(er) sketches ... by a computer program. Amazing.

Posted by: Kris on July 8, 2004 10:19 PM

How very strange to visit 2blowhards and see a discussion similar to our suppertime one. Kman is an amazingly talented artist and works in commercial landscaping. His daughter and my new stepdaughter, commented that she was taking CAD/Architectural drawing next fall as a senior in high school. Which began the debate of CAD/Computer talent versus freehand creative talent. I believe it was a draw - pun intended.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on July 8, 2004 11:29 PM

Hey Will, thanks for the link to your notebook program, it looks to be a step up from tkoutliner, which is what I've been using lately for collecting thoughts and suchnot.

Back on topic, I think Tom has a very good point about the design process not usually starting on the computer. I'll have to ask my brother and another friend who are both working architects, in different types of firms, when they start using AutoCAD in the design process.

My brother works for a fairly large firm in CA that designs mostly public buildings like hospitals and high schools, and my friend Jay works at a small firm here in Tucson doing high end custom homes and trendy office/retail. I'll be sure to email Michael the results of my queries after I've talked to both of them next.

The best book on how the process of using a word processor effects writing is Electric Language by Michael Heim. It's out of print (used available on Amazon), but he does go over it's main salient points in his The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, in which he explores many related questions. He uses the term "Virtual Reality" more broadly than is common, but in a sense he's correct: what is a word processor other than "virtual paper" anyway?

Posted by: David Mercer on July 9, 2004 1:41 AM

I went back and looked at your Time Warner post, and due to the wonders of electrons can easily repost it here (too much clicking to get back to it). I appreciate your point about CAD, but Skidmore Owings and Merrill was making the same curtain walls when they were all drawn by hand. CAD didn't come into offices in a big way until the late 1980s.


You're right about shadow, but it's part of something bigger. Namely, traditional architecture not only looks like it has weight, it looks like it respects the the forces of gravity -- i.e., things hold things up. While slick buildings like Time Warner are designed to look weightless. Look at the transparent piece on the corner of 58th Street for example. And clearly the glass is like wallpaper, hung off the building rather than holding itself up. Most masonry towers built in New York after 1880 or so also hang the skin off the structure, but if they're built before 1940, they don't LOOK that way.

We respond differently to buildings with mass and weight than to weightless buildings. Look at the skyline the next time you come over the Queensboro Bridge, and you'll clearly see a difference between the stone city and the glass city.

Stone buildings also hold the space of the street better than glass buildings. That's magnified by the horizontality of the skin of most Modern buildings -- also bad for containing the street. It's much easier to make a good street with a masonry building with vertical windows than with a glass building or sleek glass and metal building with ribbon windows.

Last but not least, did you notice that 58th Street next to the Time Warner center is wider than it used to be? Someone is making new city streets too wide -- look at Battery Park City and the proposed standards for the WTC site. Combine all that with the mall that pulls all the stores off 58th Street and you have a pretty bad streetscape there. A New Yorker like David Childs should know better.


Posted by: john massengale on July 9, 2004 8:15 AM

I have to stand up for the World Bank HQ -- or, as it's puckishly known in financial circles, "the new financial architecture". A good short overview is available at, but I would recommend simply walking past -- or even into -- it the next time you find yourself in DC. This is not Darth Vader architecture at all: for one thing, it's white, not black, and its main feature is a soaring, light-filled atrium. I know atria are very 80s, but this one is particularly well done. Think that Calatrava shopping center in Toronto, or the Norman Foster Great Court at the British Museum: the atrium connects old architecture with new, and turns it all into a single coherent structure -- something the WB certainly wasn't before. I really like it, and I have to admit that I was astonished someone managed to find a photograph which made it look dark and imposing -- really, it's quite the opposite.

Posted by: Felix on July 9, 2004 9:46 AM

I think the difference between your and Tatyana's viewpoints, Michael, is that you are talking about construction, and she is talking about design. One could probably create some pretty fantastic (as in fantasy) designs with CAD (walls at a 76-degree slope or whatever), but try to recreate them in the physical world with a hammer and nails and you'll have quite a problem. Designs, if they are at all intended to be carried out, must take into consideration the technology that will be used in the actual construction.

Posted by: Dente on July 9, 2004 9:55 AM

Since you addressed me directly, I'm obliged to answer. But I do so hate to sound like the nagging old wife, repeating same damn thing over and over again. Thankfully, people with better communicating abilities and more thoughts to share(tom and john massengale) took that task from my [tender] shoulders.
I only want to add some small notes to their excellent points.
Blaming tools (and we established here that CAD is no more than a tool, right?) for the look of the end product itself, forgive me, is sort of childish. You know, like that 3 y.o. in the sandbox, kicking and beating his pail and scoop if the sand castle didn't look quite the way he imagined it will be. On the other hand, paint and brushes changed very little over the centuries, but there is a slight difference between Kincade and Tiepolo, no?
In other words, I think there are more fundamental changes affecting architecture and interior design than merely application of tools.
It is like the famous "telegraph style" of literature of the 1920's and 30's. On the surface, it did look like the writers adopted the style of the reporter sending his account to the newspaper via cables. But was it the essence of the "new literature"?

Posted by: Tatyana on July 9, 2004 10:08 AM

Dente, we seem to post comment at the same time and I didn't see yours, thus this double entry.
That wasn't my point at all.
Construction follows design, and as *tom* pointed out above, design usually starts with doodling on napkins, sketching with markers on tracing paper. Drafting (or what's called in architectural offices "production") is done on CAD, and it's a very effective executing tool for something that was designed in someone's mind.

You can draw 76 deg. slanting walls with pen and ink easier than on computer, but would you blame the draftsman for disastrous construction?
Meticulously detailed renderings for traditional row/townhouse I talked about in my previous comments were done on CAD for actual renovation job and not only the drawings, but end product turned out quite nicely. At least the clients - and the landmark commettee- are pretty happy with it.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 9, 2004 10:27 AM

Oops, conversation ran away from me while I took the night off ...

Many thanks for info and thoughts and observations from all, of course. I do think we're getting a little bogged down in the "at what point do they use CAD" question, though. There are many ways new tools affect creation and tastes. A few other examples:

* Commercial art. I don't know any illustrators who do their sketches or develop their ideas in Illustrator or Freehand (or any of those new 3-D programs they're using a lot these days). They work out their ideas by hand, and then realize, or construct, the final image in the computer. Yet what's happened in the years since a lot of commercial art has been done in these programs is that a certain look-and-feel has established itself as a desirable thing. There's an "Illustrator" style of commercial art that's very common these days, and those 3-D images seem to be getting popular too. There's no "hand touch" in most of these images. I find it odd that audiences should have developed a taste for this, but what the heck. People have developed a taste for a computer-ish look. And the success of this kind of imagery feeds back into the commercial-art market, as well as the schools and workshops.

* Animation. Pixar works out everything by hand, then realizes the project in the computer. They don't do the designing of the story or the characters in the computer. But they realize the film in the computer, they do a great job, and as a consequence (or partly as a consequence) audiences have developed a taste for the look-and-feel of computer animation. It's become the standard thing. Which in turn feeds back into the art schools.

Similarly, audiences have developed a taste for CAD-ish buildings. I wouldn't argue for a sec that that's the only explanation for any of this. CAD, computers, deconstruction, see-thru materials -- it's all part of some infinitely more general gestalt, obviously. And I'd never pretend that the computer explains any of the art. (Although I would argue that any understanding of art developments from the last few decades has to include an understanding of the impact of digital tech.) All I'm saying here is, 1) Hey, the building looks a lot more like a CAD rendering than a traditional rendering, and 2) How weird that we've developed a taste for what once looked nightmarish to us.

In any case, there are lots and lots of feedback loops that go into the development of tastes.

But it seems clear (no?) that, just as writing, illustration, movies, pop music, magazine design, TV ads, etc, have been affected by the introduction of the computer, so have buildings. Much writing reads a bit e-mailish these days. Pop music becomes a little more comprehensible when you look at the software people use to put it together. Photography and Photoshop have more or less merged. Etc, etc. It seems silly to me to try to understand recent developments in these fields without taking the change in tools into account.

But, heck, I dunno: is there someone who wants to argue that architecture is the one art form that hasn't been affected by the introduction of computers? I'd be curious to hear such a case.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 9, 2004 11:22 AM

Michael: "If Darth Vader was a bad guy, and if 'Blade Runner' was intended as a nightmare image of the future, then why have these styles since been embraced as glamorous?"

1) In Hollywood, the bad guys nearly always get the best sets and costumes. (See Bruce Willis vs. Alan Rickman or the Allies vs. the Nazis.)

2) The strange attraction of evil was (as I understand it) the reason that Hannah Arendt found the banality of Adolf Eichmann so striking. For other examples of this odd attraction, look at the public image of nearly any band attempting to appeal to young males in the last 50 (80? 100?) years.

Felix: "This is not Darth Vader architecture at all: for one thing, it's white, not black...."

Wouldn't that make it Imperial Storm Trooper architecture? (I'm sure there's a joke here somewhere about the lifespan of Imperial Storm Troopers.)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on July 9, 2004 12:10 PM


I would not like to argue that architecture hasn't been affected by the introduction of computers, but there is a fundamental difference between architecture and commercial art, animation, and graphic design.

In these three fields, what you produce on the computers is the actual finished product. It comes straight from the computer and is done at that point.

In architecture, what you produce on the computer is a set of instructions for the creation of a huge, complicated, physical object that is several steps removed from a pure creative act and limited by a huge range of factors including function, money and gravity.

That is not to say that the computer has not influenced architecture, but I belive that it works in a different way than in the visual arts.

The highest end conceptual stars use computers in the actual design process to achieve things that are not possible by more traditional means. In these you see warped and distorted surfaces and wierd forms (the blob guys)
here is an example of this.

This is different from gehry who uses the computer to efficiently achieve results that were developed by other means. That is to say physical models.

Another way that computers are used that changes the whole process is using computing power to simulate the physical performance of a proposed building

These are extremely rare and high end applications but they really do condition the character of the final product and allow things to be made that would be impossible otherwise.

95% of the use of computers in an office are for the production of contract documents and in this application, the style is not conditioned by the use of the computer, but mostly by what the original design intent was. This use of computers does change the process and the product in some way but mostly through the promise of false precision and the ease of cut and paste details. These are more technical issues relating to the construction process and have little to do with the "look" of the final product.

Sorry for the long speech, but my main point is that computers do effect the practice of architecture, but in different ways than you suggest in the original post. Part of the problem may be your example. If you had put a picture of some blob guy building or a Norman Foster building based on energy simulation, I would have said "ok, that's right", but a glass curtain walled high modernism influenced megastructure like the time warner has a design that is nostalgic for the 60's and 70's and doesn't really speak to the use of computers in architecture.

Posted by: tom on July 9, 2004 12:52 PM

Tom -- Many thanks for the interesting info and observations. Like I say, I think we're stalling a bit over the question of where the computers enter into the equation. How computers are used and what their impact is depends on the art form, and may depend on the individual project.

A book, for instance, despite all the computers around these days, is still an ink-on-paper thing. Maybe that's a closer comparison to architecture. Yet it's likely been written in a word processor and laid out (if not actually designed) in a page-layout program. It's been conceptualized (by the editor if not the author) in terms of currently-existing categories within databases. Perhaps it's been sold via Amazon.

The introduction of computers into the book-making and book-consuming process has thus had many, many different consequences, not all of them having directly to do with "making" the book in a computer, although that may or may not play a role too. But they're important consequences. And, in a general sense -- I've blogged about this elsewhere -- books are evolving in the direction of looking very Website-like these days. The standard book nowadays is becoming a very visual, nonlinear thing. The presence of computers in the process doesn't fully explain this development. But the development itself would never have happened without the computers.

Another example is the impact of computer-editing systems on live-action movies. They don't just enable you to cut-cut-cut real fast, although they do that too. They also have many other impacts. For one, thanks to computers, the balance of power in the filmmaking process has shifted, with more power winding up in the hands of producers and less in the hands of directors and editors. The producer can now order up many different cuts of the same scene or passage; he can throw a half a dozen editors at a projects. The old creative-editor role does still get played, but things generally have shifted. So the movies that we might go see now at the mall theater are much more the product of producers than similar movies were a decade ago. (And of course the tech also means that skies can be brightened, backgrounds can now be thrown out of focus, etc.) And as all this happens, audience's tastes adapt and evolve -- and then producers go chasing after those new tastes and interests. The films aren't made in the computer, though they're finished in the computer. But even so, thanks to the computer, their very nature has changed.

To pick a simple example from architecture: as I understand it (pls correct if I'm wrong), most presentations are now of CAD renderings. Most images in the architecture press of plans and proposals are computer images these days. This has an impact on what people expect of architecture. People start getting used to CAD imagery, and to CAD-y visual qualities -- featurelessness, unreal light, lots of semi-transparency. They start thinking of those qualities as aspects of architecture. The nature of the presentation (CAD imagery) starts to affect the kind of thing people are looking for. They start to look forward to buildings that look like CAD renderings of buildings.

And as that taste grows and evolves, styles of buildings start to adapt to it. Thanks to a certain way of rendering imagery, we grow used to certain visual qualities (which weren't always considered desirable), and so aren't surprised when real buildings themselves start to have some of the qualities of these renderings.

I'd be very curious to hear about how the computers have affected the in-house architecture process, by the way. For instance, in the movie biz, they've taken power away from traditional creators and put it back into the hands of producers; in magazines, they've taken power from writers and put it in the hands of editors and designers. Has there been any rejiggering of authority/power lines in architecture offices?

I'm puzzled that a few people seem to see the Time Warner building as traditional modernism, btw. Maybe it's the fault of my photo. Modernism, sure, glass-curtain walls, sure -- the building's obviously taking off from there. But good lord: it's also full of acute angles, and features multiple facets, shimmery materials, mucho translucency, glassy areas roped together with cables, iridescent spot lighting ... -- it's modernism tweaked, twirled, souped-up and made twinkly. Walking through or around it isn't like strolling through the Seagram bldg, which is a rather serene, static experience. It's much more whirly and dynamic and "entertaining" (in a bad way) -- like watching a TV computer graphic. Maybe there's a big gap in my education, but I didn't notice buildings having this kind of effect, or being designed or expected to have this kind of effect, until the last ten years.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 9, 2004 1:40 PM


Time Warner is a retro building in my opinion regardless of acute angles, facets, etc. This is really nothing new. See this Mies project from the 20's

I think that one of the things that is confusing here is what the role of "design" is in architecture. The actual schematic design of a building is maybe 10% of a project and is the aspect that is least influenced by the computer. Everything else is totally influenced by the computer, but these phases have a limited correspondance with other creative fields.

I'm not saying that cad imagery and the possibilities of computers in design don't impact taste, but I just don't think that it is happening in the way that you suggest in your post. Souped up modernism is exactly what you say it is - souped up modernism. That is to say updated old stuff. Like a classical airport or a gothic convention center. Deconstruction is not a result of cad either because it is an 80's movement that came about pre-computer. Static vs dynamic is an old game and has little to do with computers.

The impact of cad on architectural DESIGN can be seen in buildings with complex curves, blob buildings, and buildings with ecs systems who's performance is predicted by computer simulation. Maybe the time warner center used building simulations, but I don't think that it was the decisive factor in the design like you would find in a building like Foster's london city hall.

By the way, I did a quick search for presentation renderings of the time warner center and actually most of the ones I found are done with watercolor

remember, renderings are always a lie designed to sell the client and the public on the design that has already been executed. Once these images are created, the design becomes basically set in stone. Architectural design is mostly done through abstract graphic conventions that most people can't understand easily. When it becomes a picture, it becomes real for the average person. Final presenation drawings are mostly outsourced to specialists that do whatever the architect says in the most efficient way. Because of this set up, renderings are neutral in the style of the building because the person who creates them are not the person who designed the building or even belong to the same company (typically).

Cad has changed a lot of things in the office - for instance, building materials manufacturers can provide cad details for their projects that you can just paste into your documents thereby locking in the use of their products. Data sharing is alot easier, for example you can have three offices in three time zones eight hours apart and email your work on to the next one at the end of the day so a firm can work on a project 24 hours a day. You can also outsource all your cad jockey duties to india or something.

It seems to me that the impact of computers on architecture is more like the impact of computers on the design of manufacturing products like cars or airplanes than graphic design or illustration. It vastly increases efficiency, makes it easier to predict performance, and opens up more formal possibilities. This will change taste to some degree, but with some exceptions the changes are kind of behind the scenes.

Posted by: tom on July 9, 2004 3:21 PM

As an illustrator of sorts and a computer animator of sorts, I'm rather surprised at the pictures of CAD architecture provided by Michael— Are architects really so inept at using CAD that they can't put textures on their buildings or take the time to extrude a few more polygons for things like moldings and other decorative touches? Or is the banality of using only computer prefabricated geometric shapes intentional?
I'm aware it takes a very, very long time to model complex shapes in 3D software (I've spent about 40 hours doing a simple window), but there are a variety of hacks that can be used if your idea is only a mock-up, as is the case in architecture. Maybe it's the software that's partly to blame here.

There is of course, a sort of look that goes to designing with computers. One of my fellow students observed that in our projects, the use of the GLOW was almost ubiquitous. The computer is very good with simple lighting, and making things glow is a flashy way of making them look good without needing to spend a lot of time on their underlying structure. Lighting effects tend to overwhelm structural defects and, generally speaking, look good. The fact that the computer handles 99% of lighting calculation just makes it easy to use. (This isn't the case in 2D, but the glow is a similar phenomenon there, for different reasons.)

As for Pixar, I find them very entertaining, but at the same time I'm jaded with the Pixar formula. Maybe it's just my own experience with 3D animation, but Pixar uses the same sort of comic mode and Disney-lite look in just about every movie. I do wish they would be a little bit more experimental, as one of the primary commercially successful outlets for computer animation to date, repeating the same thing over and over is creating an expectation for that sort of thing in the public mind. I know I've been party to it, virtually all my early work was Pixar-style until I made a conscious effort to get away from it.

Jleavitt— Thank goodness I'm not the only person who seems to feel this way. I always consider people who wear sunglasses to be arrogant, impersonal and/or rude.

As for writing, it partly gets done on the computer, partly off. My opinions range on whether I think better at the computer or away from it, it varies. One thing is for sure, the computer holds hundreds of pages of ideas and data that would be hell to sort through otherwise. Though I would prefer to write first drafts completely computer free I often find myself tied to the computer for need of the information it holds. The immersiveness of using headphones while using the computer is a good writing tool at times too, though, in the right mood.

Posted by: . on July 9, 2004 7:23 PM

In Web design, the standards/languages, which you can view as tools, completely define the look of most sites.

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on July 10, 2004 1:25 AM

Tom -- Try as we may to disagree, I suspect we're going to wind up about 90% on the same page: computers get into the art-making process, and then the process changes, and then so does the product, and then people's tastes adapt, and then the process responds to changing tastes, etc etc. And then people get used to thinking about the product in new terms ... Computer-age cars, to use your example, look (and feel) strikingly different than pre-computer-age cars, whether or not the designs were sketched on a napkin or worked out in some fancy program.

"." -- I had no idea you were an illustrator/animator. I bet you've got lots of interesting observations and stories about those fields. And yeah, I deliberately chose low-end CAD images just to emphasize the featurelessness thing. The Time Warner building's basically a bunch of strikingly-angled featureless planes and voids that's been dolled up with some eye-catching new materials, all of them about an eighth of an inch deep. I find being in and around it like being in a virtual-reality plan for a building more than like being in an actual building. And, hey, I wear sunglasses because I've got fair eyes and bright days hurt them. But boy do I also think I look cool in 'em.

Rob -- Thanks. Whenever I've looked over the shoulders of web designers I've always come away with the impression that they were basically making a lot of givens look snazzy, but that they were definitely taking the givens as givens. Neat website you run, by the way -- I just started poking around your place, and look forward to learning more.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 10, 2004 11:57 AM

Okay, yes, CAD often does affect the design. Architecture students often don't hand draw anymore, and that's a mistake, because there's a hand/eye/intuition connection that is broken by the keyboard. This often comes through in proportion, which is also masked by the innacuracies of monitors. And at least as importantly, students today often never draw a facade -- they just look at things in plan and 3D. Obviously that leads to objects over streetscapes, always the Achilles heel of Modernism.

But that makes another point. CAD has not created the objectmania of Modernism, it's just facilitated it. And it hasn't created the technology obsession of the Time Warner building, it's just made it easier to draw.

Posted by: john massengale on July 10, 2004 9:25 PM

PS: I used ArchiCad.

PPS: Now you should get an architecture student who loves CAD to explain to us why were just Luddite old farts who don't know shit from shinola.

PPPS: It's an interesting fact that many Traditional architects use the internet better than many Supermodernists.

Posted by: john massengale on July 10, 2004 9:28 PM

I was thinking another way to look at this question of "instrumental reason" (Heidegger I think, someone correct me if I am misremembering that) is to move back a bit rather than forward. How were art forms changed by technology in the past. My own field of expertise is literature so I can speak a bit less hypothetically about that. The "technology" of writing drastically changed what was expressible compared to oral-only cultures. Time, space, relation, form...all of it (Walter Ong is the man here...ORALITY and LITERACY if interested).

In terms of something like pen and ink versus CAD is that this is something less fundamentally different that writing versus speaking. Drawing in CAD really is still a kind of drawing; the primary difference is the ability to routinize common functions and make emendations more quickly (these feel appropriate to the pen versus word-processing issue).

In short, it seems most of phenomena in this discussion expedite extant practices, rather than revolutionize the field of possibilities for them.

Posted by: skip26 on July 11, 2004 12:46 AM

Well, I wasn't gonna raise it -- no personal experience. But what I hear is that 1) the drawing skills of kids in architecture school are surprisingly bad and getting worse, and 2) the computers have something to do with it. But like I say, no direct personal experience here, and always eager to learn.

And what fun to meet other maniacs who've spent time with Michael Heim and Walter Ong. I'd add Richard Lanham and Jay David Bolter too, but with those four my particular bookshelf on the topic runs out. Wait: Marshall McLuhan, Glenn Gould....

I wonder too when we say that CAD "merely" makes certain things easier. I mean, couldn 't you say that about the printing press too? All it really did was make making copies of books easier than it was before. But it make the process soooo much easier that it still had quite a revolutionary impact. Tivos, too: people have been able to tape shows for later watching for a few decades. But Tivos make the process soooooo much easier that they seem to transform the viewer-TV relationship almost totally. As Tom and John have been kind enough to explain, computers introduced into the architecture process have impacts at lots of levels. They enable teams to collaborate in ways they couldn't before, for instance -- that's an impact. They make it possible to realize certain kinds of designs that probably would have been logistical nightmares before -- haven't I been told that Gehry's more extreme designs, although he works 'em out on napkins, couldn't be built without making great use of computers? They've contributed to the creation of certain kinds of materials, no doubt. And out of all this new styles and tastes seem to emerge.

Hey: computers and writing and reading. Didn't I just see an estimate that there are now more than 3 million blogs?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 12, 2004 6:38 PM

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