The Second Digital Turn: Design Beyond Intelligence

by Mario Carpo
MIT Press, London/Boston
240 pp

The 21st century digital revolution of Big Data, AI and Robotics in architecture, and elsewhere, not only definitively supersedes its 90's 1.0 precursor, but, argues Mario Carpo, is also connected to the printing revolution's replacement of oral culture.

Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, digital architecture 1.0's foundational statement
With the digital world ever more pervasive, any part of the architectural firmament, which ignores the disciplines digital edges, does so at its peril. At the broader cultural level, the hum of discussion has reached an incessant pitch, whether robotics, AI, Big Data or pervasive social media, rippling out and across architecture’s trans-bordered networks. Yet this overlap tends to break down when the mainstream architectural world is invited into the theory led field of literature focused on digitisation. And when such a step also requires a move sideways into other fields, whether the shift from oral to literate cultures, the arrival of the printing press or the contemporary media landscapes 2.0 digital technologies need framing in, a disconnect kicks in making these architectural related themes terra incognita so distant that they might as well be on the dark side of the moon.

The printing press as cultural threshold hovers in the background of Mario Carpo’s The Second Digital Turn, as it did in his 2011 The Alphabet and the Algorithm, which explored how the arrival of digitisation has been as significant a break as the coming of the book. Carpo’s new, provocative book is explicitly focused on how the more recent 2.0 algorithmic ecology - encapsulated in the move from mass customisation to mass collaboration - has replaced the first 1.0 era of digital experimentation.

3D Printed Chair (2015) A robotically extruded chair
combining a curved toolpath with a voxel-based data
structure by Bartlett students Gilles Retsin, Manuel
Jimenez-Garcia, aD research Cluster 4, B-pro M.arch
architectural Design, the Bartlett UCL.
The 2016 Elytra Pavilion in the V&A courtyard by
Achim Menhes and ICD, Stuttgart,

The first digital turn of the 1990’s, the world of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenmann, and Greg Lynn, of splines and the rise and fall of curvy biomorphic Blobtecture, became possible because of the arrival of a new set of digital playthings. For Carpo, who has been the Reyner Banham professor of Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett since 2014, these experimental architects, while realising their design potential applied the new tools, such as CNC millers and routers, in old, pre-computational ‘small data’ ways. As computational power increased through the naughties, the new science of Big Data – dated by Carpo from 2009 – began to influence working methods. Most clearly symbolised in the Google seeded phrase, Search, don’t Sort, where split second googling has replaced long hours uncovering (sorting) answers, a new generation of computational architects began applying the new rulebook to their work, allowing computers to do what they do unencumbered by understanding or human intervention. The result is this second turn, a new architecture borne out of this alien posthuman digital world, rather than prehistoric 20th Century humanist modernism.

Across two parts and four accessible, fluently written chapters, alive with a wry irony, Carpo draws out four overlapping themes to this current 2.0 digital landscape. The first two chapters, the eponymous Second Digital Turn and The End of the Projected Image, which comprise fourth fifths of this short book, are the most provocative. Both chapters frame the changes within an expansive historical arc, from Classical prehistory to the Renaissance era transformation of verbal (spoken communication) to the visual ‘information retrieval tools’ of the alphabet, print and books. A key figure for Carpo is Leon Battista Alberti, instrumental in creating the image making technologies and geometric processes that ushered in the technical planar era of drawings and plans and the slow beginnings of the professionalization of the master builder. Less visible are Walter Ong, Eric Havelock and Elizabeth Eisenstein, philosophers and cultural historians of the turn from orality to literacy, and which Carpo’s thesis is an elegant extension of, if only briefly figuring. Throughout Big Data appears an unalloyed positive; ‘data opulence’, and ‘the new data science nouveau riche’ set the descriptive tone, compared to the ‘data poverty’ of the ‘alphabet (which is) consigned to the history of data compression.’ Maybe, if the printed word sole use is data mining, but surely more complicated if it’s a repository of knowledge.

Digital Grotto, and detail
Photos with kind permission Alisa Andrasek and Gilles Retsin

Alisa Andrasek and Jose Sanchez, BLOOM, a crowd sourced garden,
urban toy, and social game, developed for the London Olympics (2012).
Visitors were invited to change the layout of the initial pavilion and to add or
combine new pieces for seating or other purposes.
Photo Alisa Andrasek and Jose Sanchez.

For Carpo, the shifts digitisation 2.0 is enabling are paradigmatic, represented in the move from the two dimensional planar perspective, the logic of flat geometric information, to the three dimensional spatial properties introduced by 3D scanning and printing, robotics and the accompanying software. Last years V&A Elytra pavilion project by Achim Menges and his Stuttgart based ICD//ITKE team, where the robot made the ‘form-finding’ or ‘form-searching’ design decisions, physically demonstrated Big Data in charge. Likewise Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenberger’s 2013 Digital Grotto, (composed of 260 million individual surfaces and 30 billion voxel space) cyber-baroque piece is at the far edge of what can happen when the non-standard world of mass-customisation becomes viable. Each illustrate this emerging ‘disjointed and fragmentary’ Big Data, ‘search don’t sort’ informed digital architecture.

Part two, the shorter tail end chapters on mass customisation and collaboration, appear much less optimistic. Despite some stirring early rhetoric, the open source revolution, like collective intelligence and hive mind thinking, has signally failed to take broad architectural root. He underlines how fiercely the profession has defended its authorial privileges, though surprisingly doesn’t reference 00’s WikiHouse. By its close, despite entertaining dream like possibilities arising out of artificial intelligence, Carpo’s conclusions regarding ‘real world’ architecture – including a throwaway shot at BIM; ‘the regression of the consensual’ – come across as uncharacteristically bleak.

Parts of The Second Digital Turn range so far into, and straddle, rather than merely touch upon, broader technological issues, both current and historical, that its subject is actually technological change, seen through the lens and application of architecture, as much as architecture itself. The twenty years between the opening of the first digital turns its foundational architectural statement, Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and present day phase 2.0, could be an ‘augenblick’, or blink of the eye. Fifty years hence, these two digital moments may look less significant. For those wanting to get a handle Carpo’s up close slant is richly evocative, though if both long view and broader technological issues spark curiosity, you may finish The Second Digital Turn feeling frustrated at how academic walls hive off and determine artificial boundaries.