“Despite all the sawdust, digital fabrication continues to linger at the fringe of drawing, as an extension of an ongoing representational project, rather than engaging the weight of the issue. It’s time to be more strategic about our fitness goals. . . .”
You know, when you were a baby in your crib, your father looked down at you; he had but one hope: someday my son will grow to be a man. Well, look at you now. You just got your asses whipped by a bunch of goddamn nerds.
— Coach Harris (John Goodman), Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
Architecture, you might expect, is not for the meek. Architecture is heavy. It is made of weighty objects that are stacked, fused, fastened, glued, or otherwise assembled into yet weightier objects. Surprisingly, architects—with their characteristically bad eating and sleeping habits, and paranoid disdain of athletics—are not the most likely contenders for the practice of a heavy art. This awkward synthesis of brain and brawn is often made manifest in popular representations of the architect as the strong, yet sensitive type—the embattled, white hardhat protectively covering an enduring ponytail. And it has been folded into the archetypal personae of modernist architects such as Mies van der Rohe, who is perhaps remembered equally for his love of steel and cigars as for his talk of God and details. Macho is as macho does.
Today, while the heroic materiality and bravado that characterized 20th-century modernism soften with each passing retrospective, a more recent expression of machismo has dominated architectural discourse well into the start of this century: digital fabrication. Gauging from the countless fabrication-related seminars and conferences held around the world each year, these days it seems that almost everyone is saying the same thing: in one form or another, matter matters. But while making has certainly long been central to architecture as both a profession and a discipline, the assertiveness with which physical production is framed today raises questions about our relationship to the technology we keep and its role in appreciably moving either the practice or project of architecture forward. Like our modernist forebears, we too have turned to the machine, not as a thing to live in but as a thing to live through. As contemporary production technologies have enabled us to realize more complex ideas and forms, we have developed a reliance on digital fabrication as a kind of bionic prosthetic that gives us strength where we have historically been the weakest—at the moment when drawing becomes building. Of course, this very moment of sublimation has a rich tradition of inquiry, and represents a complex enough technical and conceptual leap that it is sometimes surprising how easily it is achieved with a three-axis mill and a sheet of medium-density fiberboard (MDF). At the same time, the current rhetoric around the “return of the master builder” has attempted to overcome Alberti’s historic blunder of separating the designer from the producer of architecture, promising to re-empower architects to start doing the heavy lifting themselves—or, at least with the help of a few simple machines. But like watching the gym rats flexing their muscles in the mirror, you have to wonder: What are the real motivations behind all this CN-sweat, and how much weight are we really lifting?
This invariably conjures professional anxieties around liability and risk, but also poses disciplinary questions about how we define, or don’t define, architecture. One symptom of this ambivalence is that, after more than a decade in the hands of architects, digital fabrication has yet to develop a clear and productive relationship with construction—not only in the nuts and bolts (or zip ties and binder clips, as the case may be) of production, but also in exploring the conceptual transformations that a project undergoes when shifting from the virtual to the real or jumping scale from an installation to a building. Surely there is more to it than super-sizing our eggcrate models, no matter how strong the glue. And this is an issue rarely addressed in schools of architecture, where the race to acquire more weapons of mass production evokes a cold war one-upmanship. All too often, fabrication and construction are distinguished along lines that reinforce old categories rather than dismantle them: construction is standardized, unskilled, and cumbersome; fabrication is customized, specialized, and light on its feet. Construction keeps the water out and hides the ductwork; fabrication swells if it gets wet. And what we have learned to accept is that fabrication at its limits requires an interface with construction at its most mundane. In order to advance digital fabrication, and with it architectural production in general, the intersection between fabrication and construction requires new frameworks to think this seemingly disjunctive moment between diverse scales and methods of production. Despite all the sawdust, digital fabrication continues to linger at the fringe of drawing, as an extension of an ongoing representational project, rather than engaging the weight of the issue. It’s time to be more strategic about our fitness goals.
Perhaps we could gain from less solidarity and more dissent—that is, if matter matters, it most certainly doesn’t always matter for the same reasons. Of course, we could all use more time in the gym, but what we don’t need is bigger muscles. It’s not that the digital fabrication work produced today is lacking creativity or intelligence, but a great deal of it resembles the sheer show of strength (if not the sheer danger) of the Olympic clean and jerk: all that excruciating effort, just to get it up. Instead, we need to focus on conditioning our relationship to technology. While we often think of technology as making things more effortless, getting into better shape, like it or not, is going to require that we work a little harder. In part, this means being more critical about how we use digital fabrication to bridge the gap between drawing and building: to move beyond obligatory geometries and material naiveties, to transcend limitations of scale, and to engage a wider range of building systems—and that’s just to begin with. In short, to truly build a better body, we need to decrease the grunting and increase the resistance.