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AFTER A DECADE AND A HALF, the twenty-first century is beginning to reveal some of its likely essences. Architecture has entered into a new engagement with digital culture and capital—which amounts to the most radical change within the discipline since the confluence of modernism and industrial production in the early twentieth century. Yet this shift has gone largely unnoticed, because it has not taken the form of a visible upheaval or wholesale transformation. To the contrary: It is a stealthy infiltration of architecture via its constituent elements.
Architects first embraced digital technology in response to the apparent virtuosity of digital manufacturing. In the face of constantly increasing economic and governmental pressure for standardization, which threatens to flatten the architect’s range, advanced software and digital fabrication announce the unfettered, direct translation of the architect’s imagination into physical form—3-D printing promises to short-circuit the laborious practice of architectural construction, performing a kind of magic bypass. . . .But printing has its own limitations. It can only produce seamless, connected shapes—it cannot assemble separate parts.
Now digital technology is no longer restricted to merely enabling design; it is rapidly integrating with architecture’s essential physical components. The nature of architecture’s new relationship with technology was made clear to me and my team while working on the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale (I served as the exhibition’s director). We proposed to examine the history of architecture at the scale of its individual elements—wall, floor, and ceiling, to name only those few with which three-dimensionality is constructed. While our initial focus was on revealing the breadth and knowledge of architecture as it evolved in various cultures across history—in most cases now long lost and seemingly irretrievable—we became increasingly sensitive to the constant acceleration of architecture’s “smartness” in the form of embedded devices, sensors, and systems. Looking at the traditional elements of architecture through a microscope, we saw the extent to which they had been penetrated, if not completely transformed, by new kinds of “intelligence.”
For thousands of years, the elements of architecture were deaf and mute—they could be trusted. Now, many of them are listening, thinking, and talking back, collecting information and performing accordingly. The door has become automated, transformed into an extension of the smartphone, with each opening and closure logged; elevators predict your intended destination by listening to your conversations and tracking your routines; toilets diagnose potential illness, building a catalogue of the user’s most intimate medical data; windows tell you when they should be opened and closed for maximum environmental efficiency. Your house may soon insist on an early bedtime to stop irresponsible consumption of energy. A Faraday cage will be a necessary component of any home—an electromagnetic shield offering a retreat from digital surveillance and preemption. ….