Brooklyn, New York
I am fascinated by the intersections of the digital and physical worlds. We are increasingly co-opted by our technology. Life is continuously transformed and digitized through the osmotic barrier of our computer screens. It is a transaction of energy and presence that is neither unidirectional nor in equilibrium. It is a constant dance of concentrations between both sides of those “glowing rectangles”.
Increasingly sophisticated combinations of hardware and software allow us to visualize patterns of human consumption and production as parts of a much larger system. Now they can be studied empirically. We are beginning to understand how we participate in a number of metabolic processes – with identifiable sub-processes of catabolism and anabolism. These shifting concentrations occur at a variety of scales and involve the nearly synonymous resources of capital, energy and information.
Reducing knowledge or information to pure energy makes the metabolic model even more applicable. For most of history, intelligence has evolved through a similar pattern. Catabolically, we break down reality into smaller, more understandable units and truths. This refinement, or increase in resolution, continues as we extract more information and meaning from matter and experience. Anabolically, we continuously construct our awareness of ambient energy flows and our places within, through extensions of our senses, re-activation of old ones, and through the growth of completely new senses. For example, a shared wireless connection quickly reinforces a sense of collective responsibility when one’s downloads consume too much bandwidth – a new sense. Interestingly enough, at the highest levels of resolution, peering into the smallest units of scientific inquiry has illuminated models and forms resembling those found at the most incomprehensibly large scales.
It is amazing how far we have come since our existence as single cell organisms. As our species reaches ever-improbable levels of awareness, how do we record and communicate our limited understanding of life, and our place within? Music was the temporally fluid, equally mathematical analogue of Goethe’s era, when he described architecture as “frozen music”. In the modern era, we can now see architecture as “frozen code”. Architects, as generalist stewards of the built spaces that quietly support much of human life, must continue to have a role in the development of the intelligence that is injected into the built environment in the form of what is essentially solidified software. The language of spatial planning seems to acknowledge this when defining the “program” of a space. Architecture is indeed “content management”. Code is ubiquitous.
Gaudi’s understanding of the geometries of gravity, visualized through his chain and cloth experiments, was encoded into the vaults of La Sagrada Familia. Such steganography existed before the modern computer and will continue beyond its dissolution. This coding has occurred at a variety of times and scales, and perhaps finds its most compelling contemporary manifestation in the rise of nanotechnology and synthetic biology. We are now co-authors of our own evolution, both personally and as a species. How do we empower others to realize this promise and effect positive change without unleashing total chaos or an untimely demise? How do we preserve knowledge, and hopefully in doing so, life itself? What is the message in the bottle? What will the bottle even be? Whether overtly or subconsciously absorbed by the user or audience, perhaps we should consider successful evolutionary messaging, at all scales, as the new “materiality”. All “architecture” streams data into the future.
Time is a paradoxically ignored design element in an era of constant streaming, and a perpetually unfashionable one in a society of market-driven, planned obsolescence. We may supposedly be “in the moment” more than ever, but our long-term perspective as a species has always been far from superior. It may even be deteriorating. The immediacy of trivial electronic messages dominates our awareness. How do we separate signal from an abundance of noise? The “green building” movement is at best a re-packaging of common sense, and provides only a miniscule shift in what must become a much longer time-horizon. True perspective, potentially distributed through the code and signals of our environments, should encourage a generative future in which the dissemination of skills turns people into producers without reinforcing strongly codified silos of asymmetric information, taste and consumption. We need nimble, creative collaboration. Like ecological biodiversity, we need more voices, not fewer. But while every construction reflects the politics, aspirations and values of its creators, it also often communicates short-sighted failures. Should all signals be endowed with the longevity of built form? Conversely, what happens when the network binding us, our immaterial “electronic glue” as described by Charles Moore, dissipates through either a process of evolution or catastrophe? What good are our most valuable insights if they are trapped on the servers of a damaged grid? Signals of bricks, mortar, wood, steel, glass, 1’s, 0’s, and now G’s, A’s, T’s and C’s have a definite half-life if they remain locked in one specialized form too long. How do architects reconcile with this vulnerability as agents of change – as “metabolic catalysts”? Back to chains and cloth? Architects must be students of decay, knowing when to shift nimbly between media and scales – because if we ever reach metabolic equilibrium, we’re probably already dead.