When talking about digital technology in architecture, all discussions inevitably lead to the age-old question of “the chicken vs. the egg.” Did the first digital tools enter the realm of architectural design as a force shaping the practice or did the architecture field, already innately computational by the end of the 1970s, wait for the technology to catch up? Talking at the 2012 Yale Symposium entitled “Is Drawing Dead?” artist and architectural theorist Greg Lynn showed some of his proto-digital sketches and drawings, which illustrated complex construction methods for splines, laborious attempts to offset wall thicknesses, and time-consuming drawings of incremental changes and geometric arrays. “There was an anticipation in drawing that made the computer happen,” said Lynn.
Until the early part of the 20th century, architectural drawings were considered works of art. Architects used watercolors to put final touches on their work, which were embraced as valuable collectibles. The patent process eventually pushed this practice to give way to a more standardized engineering drafting technique. Those who wanted to patent their designs for new devices had to submit drawings in specific formats, which called for an economical production of the renderings. In an earlier era, engineering drawings were commonly executed using contraptions such as compasses, T-squares, and irregular curves. The Universal Drafting Machine, invented by Charles H. Little in 1901, combined some of the above-mentioned tools in order to allow drafters to create perpendicular and parallel lines. This was not a lighthearted affair: Drawing textbooks often had several chapters dedicated to the proper ways of sharpening pencils. Tracing cloths were also placed on top of pencil drawings, each line carefully traced using pen and ink, to produce final drawings.
Major technological advancements that redefined the architectural practice originated within the military, automotive, and aerospace industries working in close collaboration with universities and various research institutions across the globe. These collaborations resulted in the first CAD/CAM systems, developed for organizations’ internal use in the late 1960s. Working for Renault, Pierre Bézier proposed a new method for mathematically defining automobile surfaces. This system, based on what would later be called Bézier curves and surfaces, is still used in graphic applications, and has proven paramount in the development of the famous 3D-design CATIA software. Another breakthrough invention in the 1960s was Sketchpad, which allowed designers to draw on their monitors using a light-generating pen and then copy master drawings into many duplicates. The first 3D solid modeling program released in 1972, MAGI SythaVision, was used in the making of the 1982 move Tron, the first full-length film to feature computer-generated imagery. Despite its game-changing visuals, the film was disqualified from receiving an Academy Award nomination for special effects, because the Academy felt that using CGI was cheating.
During the 1970s, different CAD software programs proliferated, their success catalyzed by the simultaneous development of computer hardware. In 1972 IBM released VM/CMS mainframe operating systems, which were used for batch computing or time-sharing, allowing a large number of users to interact concurrently with a single computer. The first all-solid-state computers manufactured were leased to big companies for about $3,000 per month. Needless to say, the idea of individual designers using personal computers was still not even on the horizon.
Before architecture and engineering firms shifted from shared computers to machines that could be purchased for a single engineering department, the technology saw a transition from mainframes to “minicomputers,” which were manufactured by companies such as Data-General, Hewlett-Packard, and Prime. Despite their name, these were large machines that weighed a few tons and had to be specially shipped and installed on-site by a group of skilled workers. Along with the machine itself, manufacturers shipped accompanying software and even furniture that would be used by the engineers. Because CAD systems were extremely expensive, they were usually operated by those specially trained, and designated, for the task. Designers would bring their work to the “CAD Department” and come back hours or days later to receive plotted outputs. These drawings would be returned to the CAD operators for revision and returned again to the designer. This back-and-forth between designers and CAD departments sounds inconceivable to the contemporary architect, but back in the day, these systems could produce work that previously took 10 or 12 people to complete.
Following the lead of aerospace and automotive engineers, the architectural proletariat began using CAD technology in the 1980s. Computer manufacturers started selling personal computers, intended for amateurs and hobbyists, and later started selling engineering workstations for professionals. Soon there was no need for CAD departments. Designers were finally able to use computers and do the work themselves. PCs gained momentum as the CAD platform of choice. The first generation of graphics-capable desktop computers (such as Hewlett-Packard’s HP9845 series in 1978) encouraged engineers to experiment with programming and paved the way to today’s use of digital technology.
It was not until the 1980s that software began evolving to render solid models and true 3D representations of product parts. Software manufacturers finally developed programs that could completely represent structures in three-dimensional space so the designer didn’t have to imagine how the part would look like in real life. The availability of 3D CAD led to the development of rapid prototyping and 3D printing. The first fully functional 3D modeling software was arguably CATIA Version 1 by Dassault Systems in 1982, used by Frank Gehry’s office to develop and test the building system for the Disney Concert Hall in 1989. Physical models were reverse-engineered with a digitizer, and the surfaces were imported into the 3D software. CATIA was used for modeling the entire exterior of the complex.
The PC explosion in the 1990s caused a host of digitally designed projects to appear on the architecture scene. William Massie’s concrete formwork, Greg Lynn’s waffle typologies, and various attempts at surface manipulations happened simultaneously with the appearance of a powerful new software player: Autodesk. Since releasing its first version of AutoCAD in 1982, the company stepped into the realm of 3D modeling and became a strong competitor in the field of digital representation, form-finding, and system development. Since then the architectural community has seen a cascade of software debuts: Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD — particularly successful in the US and Canada — Autodesk’s 3D Studio, and Revit Technology Corporation’s Revit. Nemetschek AG appeared in 1997, with CAD/CAM software for CNC machining and various tools for digital fabrication entering the mainstream in more recent years.
With the evolution of software, architectural firms had a more pressing demand for fast, reliable computer systems they could use architectural visualization. The high demands of rendering software encouraged hardware manufacturers to create superior graphics workstations almost tailor-made for 3D visualizations and animation. A bespoke range of high performance 3D graphics workstation are now often developed in line with specific user needs and fine-tuned to the requirements of top-of-the-line rendering software. To help maximize the full capabilities of Autodesk’s software, HP and Intel developed a series of workstations aimed at engineers, architects, and designers, focusing on graphic performance as well as memory and processing optimization.
Recent technological advances make it almost inconceivable to imagine that only a few decades ago, designers used to manually draw splines and struggled to create simple geometric modifications. The 2013 exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Archtecture (CCA) entitled “Archeology of the Digital” and curated by Greg Lynn, showcased some of the earliest examples of digitally driven design, including the Lewis Residence by Frank Gehry (1985–1995), Peter Eisenman’s unrealized Biozentrum (1987), Chuck Hoberman’s Expanding Sphere (1992), and Shoei Yoh’s roof structures for Odawara Gymnasium (1991) and Galaxy Toyama Hall (1992). These pioneering works remind us of the indisputable impact digital tools have had on the way we design and think about architecture; as the tools continue evolving, so will the forms and structures we create.
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