Sunday, December 16, 2007

Digital Technology and Building Practice: Re-Centering Architectural Knowledge

The technologies of Building Information Modeling (BIM), digital fabrication and parametric modeling have caused a great amount of excitement within the architectural community, as they have allowed architects to develop works of greater complexity and formal diversity while refining and quantifying performance objectives and increasing cost-effectiveness. However, the reason that architects have been drawn to digital fabrication technologies has equally as much to do with an attempt to shift the position of the architect within the practice of building construction as it does with design. Through these technologies, architects are attempting to resurrect the identity of the ‘Master Builder’ and to place themselves at the center of the building fabrication process. Architects are utilizing these new technologies as a way of repositioning the entirety of building knowledge so that it is contained within the architectural artifact; the digital model. It is through this increasing control of knowledge that architects are attempting to exert their power over the building process, and to solidify their professional position against the claims of competing occupations: the landscape architect, the interior designer, the developer, the bureaucrat and the engineer.

Historically, building knowledge has been transmitted in many different ways, depending on the complexity of the form, the cohesiveness of the culture and the existing social institutions. Depending on this criteria, knowledge transmission functions through a few primary structures; Oral forms, communal/familial guidance, written manuals, one-on-one instruction or, more recently, institutional training. Importantly though, in most building cultures, construction knowledge is held broadly and allowed to move back and forth between builders of all levels. Only since the 18th century within western cultures, with the control of knowledge and the professionalization of building and architecture, have most people been removed from the list of those allowed to possess construction knowledge.

This codifying of Building knowledge as the private domain of architects and engineers has never been total however. Architects, because of their privileging of institutional, rational and scientific forms of knowledge, were never able (or willing?) to fully appropriated the forms of craft-knowledge necessary for the actual construction of the building. They may be perfectly able to draw the detail for a brick wall, but the act of putting brick on top of brick is a form of craft-knowledge only achievable through performance. In addition, the very forms of representation and abstraction utilized by the architectural drawing served to perpetuate the existence of certain forms of craft-knowledge outside of architecture. When a wall is drawn in plan it requires a certain amount of translation by the builder, the abstraction ‘wall’ on the plan is made actual only by the builder deploying their craft-knowledge about fastener types, gap tolerances, member spacing etc.

This craft-knowledge, the understanding of each specific member, joint, fastener and the knowledge of how materials act when worked in a specific fashion, is no longer being overlooked by architects. New technologies are making possible not the representation of the built object, but a digital simulation of the project, built from components and materials in exactly the same manner that a the ‘real’ building will eventually be built. This expansion of architectural tools (the drawing and the model) to encompass this craft-knowledge is a significant difference from earlier modes of practice and represents the real power of digital fabrication technologies. The digital model is now the central locus of building knowledge, able to store, transmit and generate construction information in ways never before imagined. As Branko Kolarevic writes, “[It is] this newfound ability to generate construction information directly from design information, and not the complex curving forms, that defines the most profound aspect of much of contemporary architecture.” (Kolarevic, 57) It is still unclear, however, whether craft-knowledge can actually be stored and transmitted in this form or if certain types of knowledge, certain ways of knowing the built object, will ultimately be lost in this transition to the digital.


When architects speak about digital fabrication, it is normally in regards to its effect on design process, building form, increasing cost-effectiveness, performance and allowing increased complexity and diversity of form. Architects are utilizing digital technologies to develop forms, if not impossible, at least impractical during the era of hand drawing. Complex geometries are for the first time deployable at the level of real architectural design. As Kolarevic writes, “The introduction of digital modeling software into architectural design provided a departure from the Euclidean geometry of discrete volumes represented in Cartesian space and made possible the present use of “topological,” “rubber-sheet” geometry of continuous curves and surfaces that feature prominently in contemporary architecture.” (Kolarevic, 59)

These formal and geometric possibilities are coupled with exciting new theoretical ideas related to these new objects and their unique design process. “For the first time in history, architects are designing not the specific shape of the building but a set of principles encoded as a sequence of parametric equations by which specific instances of the design can be generated and varied in time as needed. Parametric design calls for the rejection of fixed solutions and for an exploration of infinitely variable potentialities.” (Kolarevic, 18) Similarly, Ingeborg Rocker writes of parametric designs, “While unversioned objects may be considered objects that merely occur in a single state, namely the current, the present, state which becomes overwritten as it is modified, each version presents a state of an evolving item put under version control. … Each revision of variant becomes solely identifiable in and through its complex relations to all other revisions. Links and relationships record the predecessors and successors as they permutate – and hence constitute – the object differently each time.” (Rocker, 13)

While these theoretical and performance based justifications for the use of digital technologies are certainly valid, it is important to realize that they explain only a part of the reason so many architects are fascinated with digital production today. This focus on technology has as much to do with the social and economic position of the architect as it does with the nature of the architectural product itself.


To understand the interest in digital fabrication technologies it is important to understand the place of the professional architect within our current building culture. Architects, like Doctors and Lawyers, were part of the project of professionalization in the western world, and their attempt to institute government licensure in the late 19th century was largely an attempt to claim exclusive rights to certain markets.

As Margaret Crawford writes, “The efforts of architects were part of a much larger American movement toward professionalization, in which an educated middle class increasingly established a “monopoly of competence” by claiming exclusive rights to previously unregulated activities. This professional project depended on two separate but closely linked goals: first, the definition and control of a protected market for professional services, and second, the assurance that membership in the profession would provide both social status and visible economic advantages.” (Crawford, 28) Unfortunately, Architects were unable to complete this project since there were powerful occupations with parallel claims to building knowledge. Engineers, Construction Managers, Carpenters, Masons, Local Governments and other Design professionals were all able to retain their influence over the built object. While the license “Architect” is only available to those who pass through the professional requirements, it is not true that those licensed Architects exercise exclusive control over the building process, primarily because they lack the technical competency of their chief rival; the Engineer. (Gutman, 64)

Unable to gain control over the professional market, Architects have been steadily loosing power and responsibility ever since. As buildings increase in complexity and legal restrictions become ever more stringent, Engineers absorb ever more functions of the process of building. As Robert Gutman writes, “The major loss for architects has been in the areas of the building process outside design. In this realm, they have been losing jobs to package dealers, construction managers and contractors. But this loss is critical because so much of the economic and political power over building projects, and therefore over the design, in concentrated in these functions.” (68)

In addition to professional competition from Engineers and other Designers, the Architects’ own tools enforce a separation from the process of building. Kolarevic writes that “... the history of architecture’s dissociation from building started in the late Renaissance with one of its most celebrated inventions – the use of perspective representation and orthographic drawings as a medium of communicating the information about buildings. (57) These abstractions and representations, although effective at certain forms of communication (and very effective as legal documents, incidentally) have purposefully served to separate the architect from the actual process of construction. In addition, the legal framework these drawings underpin has set up an intentionally adversarial relationship between contractors and architects, further removing them from the actual construction process. Indeed, within the rules of the AIA today, architects are specifically forbidden from engaging in the actual process of construction: “ ...the architect will not have control over or charge of and will not be responsible for construction means, methods, techniques, sequences, or procedures.” (AIA) This enforced separation is beginning to break down as digital technologies allow, and force, the architect to engage more closely with the actual ‘means and methods’ of building construction.


It is from within this reduced position that Architects now find digital fabrication so seductive, suggesting as it does a re-centering of the practice of building around the figure of the architect as the reincarnation of the ‘Master Builder.’

The Master Builder is used broadly to refer to the medieval masons and the European cathedral builders of the 11th and 12th centuries, as well as Renaissance artist / architects such as Brunelleschi. “The Master Builder was a person who combined the roles of architect, builder, engineer, and scientist.” (Kieran, 27) While almost certainly exaggerated, the myth of the Master Builder continues to be a significant theme within Architectural discourse largely because of its ability to place the architect at the center of power.

Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake, in their book “refabricating Architecture,” argue that, “By allowing architecture to become reduced to the current degree and by relinquishing responsibility for assembly, product development, and materials science to specialists, the architect has allowed the means and methods of building to move outside the sphere of architecture.” (31) In the form of digital technology however, they see the possibility of reforming the process of building: “While we cannot return to the idea of the Master Builder embodied in a single person, the architect can force the integration of the several spun-off disciplines of architecture - construction, product engineering, and materials science – all with the aim of reuniting substance with intent.” (31)

Kolarevic echoes this sentiment when he writes that “By integrating design, analysis, manufacture, and the assembly of buildings around digital technologies, architects, engineers and builders have an opportunity to fundamentally redefine the relationships between conception and production. The currently separate professional realms of architecture, engineering, and construction can be integrated into a relatively seamless digital collaborative enterprise, in which architects could play the central role as information master builders, the twenty-first century version of the architects’ medieval predecessors.” (57)

Both of these arguments in favor of a greater role for architecture within building practice envision utilizing digital fabrication technologies as a way of completing the professionalization of the architect. Only though control over building knowledge, they argue, will architects be able to gain exclusive control over their professional market. It is important to note, as well, that digital fabrication technologies are being used to bring traditional practices and knowledge into the purview of the architect by integrating them into the architects existing tools. Architects refuse to gain control over the building process by, say, actually building. Instead they insist on deploying the weapons of architecture, the drawing and the computer model, as a way of changing and expropriating the construction process. The solution to the problems of architecture, the argument goes, is quite simply more architecture. Whether these newly expanded forms of architectural production are capable of dominating the construction process remains to be seen.


In order to understand how the transmission of building knowledge has changed thanks to these new technologies, it is first important to look at the various ways that knowledge was shared historically.

Jan Vassina has developed an extensive classification system to understand the various oral modes of knowledge transmission within ‘traditional’ societies. His classification system assesses transmission modes on a variety of criteria, both the form itself, but also the purpose and significance of the knowledge being transmitted. His five primary categories of oral forms include Formulae, Poetry, Lists, Tales and Commentaries. These forms of knowledge transfer are notable in that they are often multi-layered, having as much to do with non-architectural knowledge as they do with the nuts and bolts of construction. Oral knowledge “… involve[s] settlement patterns and orientation, location and spatial organization, social structure and family type, territory and inheritance.” (Oliver, 161)

While medieval building practice began primarily as an orally transmitted form, importantly, it evolved to include significant non-verbal methods as well. “Before the appearance in the thirteenth century of the legal system of formal apprenticeship of pupils to a master, training was in practice from father to son, or at any rate, from an elder to a younger member of the same family. Craft skills ran in families and were in fact quite often the stock-in--trade of a tribe” (Harvey, 13) The highly developed Masonic skills which allowed for the monumental gothic cathedrals required not just sophisticated construction and material knowledge, but new forms of design and communication technologies. Again, as John Harvey writes, “Apart from the technical skill to cut stone to true shapes, to lay foundations, to work out adequate scaffolding and temporary supports for arches, vaults and roofs, the building masters must certainly have acquired a knowledge of principles of design. It is evident, partly from the study of buildings, partly from treatise written later, that this knowledge consisted quite largely in systems of proportion.” (30)

The proportional system used for the cathedrals required only limited mathematical and geometric knowledge and was translatable to different contexts which used different standard units of measurement. While construction techniques were still transmitted mostly orally or ‘on-the-job,’ it was this new ability to read plan and extrapolate elevation that instigated the formation of the masonic ‘lodges’. These new social institutions, “…probably to some extent a survival of the guilds (collegia) of Roman times,”(Harvey, 13) served as both professional organizations protecting the mason’s economic and social position, and storehouses of building knowledge. These lodges also served as the basis for complex legal forms of apprenticeship and institutionalized training, a significant shift from the ad-hoc, familial education of the pre-lodge era. (Harvey, 48)

The institutionalization of knowledge seen in the Masonic lodge was not an exclusively western concept. Indeed, almost all of the important technical and material advances which allowed for the creation of the Gothic cathedrals almost certainly came from the non-western world. The ribbed cross vault, finely worked ashlar, the use of larger stones and better cranes were all techniques imported from Arabic cultures by Europeans returning from the Crusades. (Harvey, 25)

One of the earliest known and strictest codifications of building knowledge was the Yingzao Fashi construction manual, developed during the­­­ Song dynasty (960-1125 AD) in China. Qinghua Guo describes the manual as “… starting with a concise definition of the main terms used in the manual by tracing their textual origins. The main body of the book specifies the units of measurement, design standards and construction principles with structural patterns and building elements illustrated in drawings. Furthermore, it specifies standard estimates for labour works, documents material data, and lists recipes for decorative painting and coatings, etc.” (1)

The manual utilizes plans, sections, diagrams and tables to describe and codify practices of building construction. This institutionalized knowledge became important as a means of policing and exerting governmental control over the rural population. Significantly, this manual attempts to codify certain forms of craft-knowledge into official forms in a way very different from the western medieval lodges. While both institutions attempted to delineate between official and unofficial forms of knowledge and their allowed practitioners, the lodges remained largely focused on the mason’s social, legal and professional position, while the Yingzao Fashi focused much of its energy on specific construction and craft processes.

During the Colonial era, settlers imported their traditional forms of building, hybridizing them to their new circumstances. This knowledge functioned at the level of the community, as in the barn-raisings common to the American North-East. John Stilgoe writes that, “Every builder understood the folk “ground-rules” of making perfectly square or rectangular subassemblies. Using only a long rope and a peg, ... a man totally ignorant of mathematics could produce a few rectilinear shapes as perfect as any grid line run by a federal surveyor. On “raising day”, when his neighbors assembled to help lift the immense, awkward sections into place, he knew that traditional shapes would fit perfectly into a whole everyone understood.” (154)

As Industrialization expanded across the US, new construction forms based on mass-produced, low-skill materials became common. The balloon and platform frame houses, based on the timber stud and the wire nail, were the first instance where Industry embedded building knowledge into its products, allowing those without any traditional construction knowledge to erect simple structures easily. “The balloon frame marks the point at which industrialization began to penetrate housing. Just as the trades of the watchmaker, the butcher, the baker, the tailor were transformed into industries, so too the balloon frame led to the replacement of the skilled carpenter by the unskilled laborer.” (Gideon, 201)

These new industrial construction technologies were especially significant because they represented a decisive shift in construction knowledge away from the builder and into the building material, the manufacturer and the engineer. While on-the-job training became more and more important, especially as extra-economic social structures began to disappear, the manufacturers of building materials have continued to assume more and more construction knowledge. Both legal, as well as technical reasons have encouraged this shift towards increasing industrial control of building components. Elements can be quality controlled and inspected in a factory setting in a way that is impossible in the field. In addition, the increasingly complex legal structure which underpins modern buildings has required more and more guarantees of quality. These technical reasons, combined with an overarching ideological project to institutionalize and rationalize knowledge have combined to shift almost all but the most rudimentary elements of construction knowledge away from the builder and into the hands of the manufacturers and engineers.

It is clear then that compared to existing and historical forms of building knowledge transfer, the attempt to embed the entirety of construction knowledge within the architectural drawing and specifically within the digital model is a significant change. The firm Sharpels, Holden Pasquarelli’s (SHoP) Camera Obscurra project in Greenport, NY is a very clear example of an attempt by architects to pursue this form of practice. The project, a park pavilion which functions as an optical device that projects a live image of the exterior world onto a round projection table, was one of SHoP’s first experiments in digital fabrication. Gregg Pasquarelli describes is as, “Designed and fabricated entirely within a 3-D digital environment, the construction of the camera is communicated as a kit of custom parts accompanied by a set of instructions much like those of a model airplane kit. Primary aluminum and steel components will be laser cut using digital files directly extracted from the computer model, with crucial information etched into the components for ease of fabrication.” (SHoP, 91)

This form of practice seems to fall in line with Kolarevic’s vision for digital fabrication as a way of utilizing the computer model to simulate the construction of the building and to then extract construction information from that model. “Every piece of that structure, including the foundation formwork, was output directly to milling machines and assembled on-site using clean, clear diagrams that resembled instructions for building a plastic model. Where shop welding was needed, the firm provided templates that could be printed out 1:1. Pasquarelli described the process: “Fold, weld, bolt, screw: fuck you, it’s not that hard.” The contractors reportedly loved it—no measuring, no cutting.” (Nobel, 92) This repositioning of builders as assemblers could only occur if they are no longer required to possess any construction knowledge of their own. Every bit of construction knowledge needed for the erection of the Camera Obscurra was contained within the digital model, being output as needed in the form of diagrams, spreadsheets and instruction packets, indeed - certain forms of information were even inscribed on the very building components themselves.

This mode of practice is exactly what Kolarevic had in mind when he suggested that, “… the digital model becomes the single source of design and production information that is generated, controlled and managed by the designer. It encodes all the information needed to manufacture and construct the building.” And he is absolutely correct when he asserts that it is “[t]his newfound ability to generate construction information directly from design information, and not the complex curving forms, is what defines the most profound aspect of much of the contemporary architecture. (57)

If it is true that digital fabrication strategies are employed by architects primarily because of their ability to reposition the architect within the web of building production, it is important to evaluate and judge the appropriateness of this newly re-centered building process. If we, in fact, question whether or not the contractors really loved it – we might begin to find some problematic aspects to this newly-found power of the architects.


The technologies of digital fabrication touch on so many aspects of the building process that it may seem difficult to judge their effect in any comprehensive way. Howard Davis, however, has developed a framework of “Building Culture” which attempts to take into account the full breadth of influences upon the built environment and therefore provides us with an excellent lens though which to evaluate the newly centralized position of the architect.

Davis describes what he means by ‘Building Culture’ as, “…the coordinated system of knowledge, rules, procedures, and habits that surrounds the building process in a given place and time. This culture is a collective phenomena: thousands of different buildings are produced through shared processes held together by shared knowledge - of what to build and also of how to build - rather than through individual acts of creation.” (5) Davis uses this concept of ‘Building Culture’ to develop a comprehensive outline of what constitutes, in his words, an unhealthy and a healthy building culture.

While he provides criteria for the evaluation of almost any aspect of the building culture, most important to this discussion is his delineation of the knowledge-sharing characteristics of a healthy building culture. These include, but are not limited to:

- A widespread sharing of building knowledge, and allowing knowledge to evolve in appropriate ways.

- The availability and sharing of the rules across society, and the capacity for cross-fertilization of the rules.

- The ability for the culture to change the rules when necessary, thereby promoting innovation across the culture (Davis, 132)

It is obvious that the centralizing and increasing control of building knowledge by architects utilizing digital technologies is problematic in this context. From an economic perspective, perhaps the most damaging effect of centralizing control of knowledge is the loss of innovation coming from the bottom up rather than the top down. This not strictly an architectural problem however and many other markets, especially those involved in digital and intellectual property, struggle with the balance between innovation and control. For the architect however, potentially the most distressing effect is the loss of the cross-fertilization of knowledge related to building construction. The view that assemblers of buildings are no different than any other machine in the chain of fabrication eliminates the possibility of feedback and two-way communication about the built object. And importantly, it is this feedback from the physical object which is the basis for craft.

-Tunis house type variation


Davis commits a significant portion of his work to the question of craft and its importance to a healthy building culture. For Davis, the craft relationship is key in determining the success or failure of a built work. “The Institutional, typological, economic, contractual, and regulatory systems . . . all converge on the actual shape of the buildings: the processes through which drawings are made, brick is put upon brick, concrete poured into formwork, windows installed in a wall. These processes and the built result are given their character by those systems: and in the end the systems determine the extent to which the making of the building is the product of craftsmanship, considered in a broad and modern sense.” (Davis, 219) Here, Davis supplies a series of criteria which defines what he labels the ‘craft relationship’:

- A sense of responsibility toward the artifact

- Immediate feedback from the emerging reality of what is being made, as it is being made.

- The ability to make judgments about how tools are applied to the artifact, as a result of this feedback. (Davis, 219)

Davis positions craftsmanship as a decisive element in any successful work. Not only is craftsmanship an inherent element or quality discernable in the finished work, but Davis understands craft as a distinct relationship between the producer and the product. For Davis it is a way of understating the object under design, a form of knowledge requiring propinquity and based on feedback which in turn drives the designer’s judgment about how to proceed. As he writes, “At whatever scale, craftsmanship is characterized by implicitly understood and intuitively executed decision-making processes that are allowed to operate locally, close to the actual site and building.” (Davis, 220)

At first glance then, it might seem that digital technologies such as rapid prototyping and digital simulation modeling might open architectural production for the first time to the notion of craft. If these technologies allow architects to come into closer contact with the actualities of the built work through simulations, then perhaps they will be able to utilize the feedback from these models in a craft mode. While the move from representational modes of working into simulation-based models opens up this possibility, it is questionable whether digital models could ever replicate the physical environment in the ways required to provide feedback in forms sufficient to allow for the craft relationship to develop. But even excepting technological barriers, architects must first significantly shift their attitude towards the objects they design before the possibility of craft ever arises in the first place. Specifically, the ‘sense of responsibility towards the artifact’ would be the most radical shift in the traditional architectural relationship and perhaps the least likely to occur.


Architects are utilizing new technologies of digital fabrication both because they allow for more complex and efficient buildings, but also because these technologies create the possibility of radically restructuring contemporary building practice, reforming architects as the central figures in the process of construction. While it may be easy to dismiss this attempt at professional restructuring as merely an expression of individual egos, or a professional power-grab - it is also true that it is simply another expression of the project of rationalization; the codifying and regulating of knowledge based on the relationships of power.

The question of craft and its relation to forms of building knowledge remains unanswered. Integrating the full breadth of building knowledge into the digital model may turn out to be a way for architects to reconnect their traditional tools, the drawing and the model, with the built artifact. For this to be true however, architects will need to develop a new attitude towards the built work, one which accepts feedback based on real-world performance and does not insist on the primacy of the ideal. They must develop a greater sympathy for the buildings they design and see them not as expressions of their individual genius, but as collaborations based on shared knowledge; a collective endeavor that does not end with the ‘completion’ of the building but continues to grow and change along with the people that inhabit it.


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Stilgoe, John. The Common Landscape of America: 1580 to 1845. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1982.

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