The Digital at Human Scale.
Author: Sarah Ceravolo
The course of the ages, from as far back as the Neolithic era through to the Iron Age, the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution have provided us with historical comparisons. Using the milestones of these eras, we can compare and identify the present age as something as significant. It is as disruptive an epoch if not more as those which in the past had shaped humanity’s future forever and delivered us into the 21st century. The radical achievements over just the last 500 years have transformed every facet of the human condition and ecology. The past century alone has seen the discovery of the chemical structure of DNA, allowing us to alter the genetic code of relatedness. An achievement with just as much impact was the recent activation of standardised internet protocol and proliferation of information sharing. This digital revolution democratised information for all, unlocking talent and inviting synergies across fields.
The age of Enlightenment in the 18h century was disruptive and transformed societies from the antiquarian to the ‘light’ of rational science which included the archaeological. The exponential growth in science and technology ever since has continuously brought new frontiers and new cultural movements. It has resulted in a great challenge for this era in providing for a rapidly growing global population; hence our plight to sustain humanity’s increasing needs has given rise to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is driving unprecedented progress, stationing the 21st Century in one of humanity’s great epochal milestones – and we are just at the beginning. The major factors contributing to this such as: Big Data, along with 3D information, nano, digital and cognitive technologies, have pushed boundaries and propelled society forward.
These factors have created paradigm shifts in human behaviour which are identifiable through the global innovation economy. Monitoring our impact on the natural environment through Big data and long term statistical studies has paved the way to a greener future. Changing perceptions and realities in the face of the consequences of our actions on the environment and human ecology have become clear – and so began the Sustainability Revolution. Developments and attitudes toward production industries are becoming environmentally conscious, while innovation in technology is preparing for a sustainable future to combat the results of the growing global population.
The 21st century has also seen the ubiquity of technology become an ecological element, which has transformed our experiences within our environments. Embedding itself throughout the fabric of society and so, into the lives of the population, the digital realm is now of second nature to most. Human behaviours and systems have been dramatically altered through this artificial intelligence and now in the form of an infrastructure of cogs (specialised software agents) introduced into our immediate environments. Symbiotic seamless networks between humans and cogs also extend our global reach, greatly enhancing our networking and problem-solving capabilities, thus accelerating change.
As a result of these metaphysical interactions with real world, a mixed reality of the virtual and physical has developed. This introduces a new aspect to our human ecology, advancing a new state of being. As a consequence of natural human behaviour being our urge to connect and network, we embrace the digital and its immersive cognitive environments. This is the invention of the modern age and also now its existential problem: we have not mediated a balance between the co-existence of the digital realm and its devices with humans.
This impressive use of artificial intelligence has been endorsed by each and every user, potentially without understanding the impact on daily life and relationships. IBM describes how cogs engage with humans, by “using spoken dialogue, gesture, and advanced visualisation and navigation techniques. They learn and leverage sophisticated models of human characteristics, preferences, and biases so they can communicate naturally”1. This occurs as a type of anthropomorphosis of the digital realm and its devices, forming a hyper reality with users. Architect Daniel Liberskind asks, “Humanity has changed, how can we change with it without sacrificing what is deeply human?”2 The deluge of perpetual change effects our ability to concisely comprehend and assist in developing proactive outcomes and considered urban environments.
Our dependency upon networking devices, which we treat as prostheses and the multiple avenues developed to momentarily detach ourselves from reality have become so apparent that it made the 2019 cover of the Economist magazine. The magazine titled: “The World in 2019” comprehensively outlined through illustration the cognitive and physical distractions and major changes to humanity over the past 500 years. This list included current politics, genetic therapies, networking devices, drugs and more. Most notably, the cover bastardises the Vitruvian Man – the illustration depicts the most common and disruptive distractions and human interventions applied onto his body and sensors.
Developed during the Renaissance in the fifteenth century by Leonardo Da Vinci, this important human scale model was based on the work of engineer and architect Vitruvius, during the 1st century BC. The model of a male figure in 16 poses within a square and a circle conveyed balance, the divine, beauty and the cosmos, making it the perfect host for juxtaposing the Economist’s selection of contemporary issues. The model was a tool intended to find the means between the extremes and create a balance between two realms. It provided an understanding of scale and proportion, represented through the perfection of man, created in the likeness of God. It was the tool for relating architecture to the human and providing a pathway to a higher being through its transcendental constructions. These edifices still stand today and provide a solid example of the power and influence of architecture on society. It is also a reminder of just how reliant the built and human ecology are upon each other in making sense of cultural shifts.
Although it may not have been the intention of the Economist, the cover appears to suggest that the contemporary contributions to society inflicted on the human may require an evaluation of the human condition. It certainly provokes the question: could rethinking the human scale model for the built environment be critical to designing a human-centered future?
Evidence of the built environment employing types of human scale models throughout its extensive duration is clear in almost all ancient civilisations and even some modern. These provided rules to ensure buildings of importance would reflect and shape the cultures they reside within, while imprinting back into architecture. Vitruvius himself was inspired by the ancient Greco Roman classical order which strove to create links between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Using the human figure as a model, it was a transcendental response for architecture during the early fifth century BC.
More recently, architect Le Corbusier formulated Le Modulor, a human scale model which was developed using an ancient Greco-Roman technique, ‘The Golden Ratio’. Although similarly based on the figure of a 6ft male, it was exempt of metaphysical concepts. Ornament, which once represented beauty and the divine, surviving in architecture for over three thousand years, was completely removed. Transcendental metaphysics may no longer be a basis for architectural discourse, although the fact we are constantly dealing with the more tactile metaphysics of digital space should be.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian draftsman, architect, print maker, and art theorist of the 18th century, was the first to delve into virtual worlds. Piranesi’s famous etchings of Roman Prisons were described by him as ‘capricious inventions. Using analogue techniques such as depth, gradient, perspective, and inscriptions he successfully drew his audience into his imaginary worlds. In doing this, Piranesi introduced the first type of immersive virtual experience into the architectural language. The concept of cerebral worlds was explored long ago but never properly engaged with until the 20th century. Superstudio, an experimental architecture firm founded in the late 1960s around the beginning of the digital age, addressed the existential concerns of the effect of technology on the human condition and environment using a virtual utopian world. In their film created in 1972 named Supersurface - An Alternative Model for Life on Earth, they expressed a type of rule system, a human scale model which considered human and environmental connection. The film narrates the effect of the cognitive environment, primitive at the time, as follows:
“The new symbiosis of tools as extensions of senses, increasing the potentiality of various phenomena, create new values of use, developing that function of science which makes it appear as an innovating factor of production prosthesis, thus new transpersonal defences are created, who’s complex mechanisms tend often to fragment the behavioural models into rigid patterns.”3
The film also touched on other future forward architects who addressed similar notions, such as Reyner Banham's Environmental Bubble, or the gigantic geodetic structure covering Manhattan designed by Buckminster Fuller. There were also the performative-architectural sculptures of Haus Racker-co, proposed to facilitate 4 mental change through bodily prosthetics and social interventions. These groups at the earliest implementation of the Digital were already pioneering the conceptualisation of a dynamic human scale model: one which considered the digital and the virtual, which also foresaw the potential of distributed networks and its effect on the human ecology. All of these models, ancient, modern and in between, aimed at order and harmony with a human centric ideology, architects who mediated between the world and the human condition.
Today, there are a number of architects who practice in this way, for example; The Norman Foster Foundation encourages cross disciplinary and divergent thinking. The foundation aims at the discourse around these and other existential concerns, while shedding light upon unprecedented urban and environmental issues. Foster says, “The issue of human development in cities is one of the greatest problems of our time. The issue is we don’t really know how to work on that scale”4. At this rate, cities will depend on the use of digital tools and fabrication techniques – a future of Digital Darwinism becomes a probability. American author, educator, media theorist and cultural critic, Neil Postman, describes the possible digital phenomena as a ‘Technopoly’; this is the Surrender of culture to technology, Postman warns “we should not take technology as if it is the natural order of things or think of it as natural we should not perceive it as inevitable”5.
How do we create a balanced eco-system between humans, the digital, the virtual realm, nature and the urban form? To begin to understand what we are facing we must first consider not only how we interact with architecture now but how it interacts with us and our newfound individual and collective capabilities. We must explore the actual boundaries of an architecture which extends itself metaphysically and connects symbiotically to a network of built form, virtual environments, digital and physical human interactions.
Cities are not only growing in volume but in their outreach with global distributed networks of people, place and time. These actions expand, and in some circumstances, contract the cities through digital space on a log on log off basis. These new cognitive environments are contributing to the dynamism of life, place and time, opening architecture up to transformation once again. Architecture has been subject to the development of cultural shifts, from the transcendental metaphysical, the phenomenological, the proto-humanists, the digital, and now it could be Cybernetic, Tectonism, Morphological and Virtual or Hyper-real. The advent of the digital has penetrated further than our devices and cognitive environments; it has imprinted into architecture and become a useful generative tool for solving complex problems. With this tool, as we once made the transcendental evident, we will now make the virtual evident.
The Guggenheim Virtual Museum by Asymptote Architects, which created a virtual cultural precinct, is the perfect example for what architecture can be if not bound to its physical constraints and tethered to reality. The GVM was understood as building upon and adding to the existing “first-reality” Guggenheim venues in Bilbao, Berlin, Venice and New York. As Hani Rashid of Asymptote architects explains:
“The question today is not so much what forms or architecture will these transformations influence, but rather what aspects of our thinking and our comprehension of how to navigate reality and space are shifting and changing. By extension, we may ask what do such changes demand of the experiences we have (and desire to have) within the spatial realms? To remain relevant beyond merely building a house for art (or people), the spatial and tectonic results of what we create as architects needs to address this new, ever-shifting collective cultural realm”6.
With the introduction of the digital into architecture, spline geometry emerged which introduced new possibilities to designing function and form. The erection of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum or Greg Lynn’s exploration of spline geometry in the late 1990s dramatically expanded the discourse of architecture. The physical constraints which existed before this revolution were fading and the interceding of this method into all fields of design and engineering has changed these disciplines forever. The downside of the digital tool in architecture is that, rather than it being a tool for solving complex problems, it has become for some architects the driving force of their ethos. The new ornament in architecture is technology, sometimes so much so that it is hard to identify the architecture beneath.
If the Cosmos was the canon of the ancient Greco roman culture, what is the canon of our time? Is it the race to be the first and ability to be the most technological and scientifically advanced? It is easy to interpret as such when studying the edifices of Zaha Hadid Architects, coiners of the terms Parametrisism and Tectonism in describing this era of architecture. Although Patrick Schumacher, Principal Architect of ZHA said “we are addressing every aspect of the domain”7 while referring to the human centered aspects of architecture, it does not always appear that way. It was evident when the firm’s win of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was passed on to architect Kengo Kuma. Although ZHA profess that they are doing everything possible to address human needs in architecture it was not the opinion of the Japanese people who were going to use it. Kumar’s design, however, was profoundly affiliated with the natural world and vernacular of Japans’ spiritual province in which it was to be built.
Lei Zheng, architect at ZHA provides an insider’s perspective, stating that
“Parametricism has no sympathy to local culture until the local culture becomes part of the parametric system. It is a product of the global economy and negotiates specific boundary parameters resulting in new opportunities, gentrification and reformation”8.
This ideology of this reverse contextual relationship appears to have never truly worked, for example Le Corbusier believed that Le Modulor could cross cultures and continents as a standardised model, although his attempt in India disproved his theory. Chandigarh, a public building which not only denies its cultural context but also its climate, serves as precedent that architecture needs to be considerate of its cultural and environmental context, in contradistinction to the process of Parametricism. A rigid standardised model will not suffice; perhaps a digitised model can generate necessary variables across continents, assisting the design process toward bespoke solutions.
As a tool, the Digital provides a fast, reactive and precise outcome; as a designer, it fails completely. Many who use digital tools barely understand the discourse and the erection of unconsidered, non-contextually sensitive homogeneous and heterogeneous spaces are emerging. It is a concern that the computer is being used for ideas rather than as a critical instrument and facilitator of computational design. Peter Eisenman, a known user of the early digital tools in architecture states that, “Architecture is not on a fashion parade – it is a participant in a society and should be considered in its urban context as well as for its architectural significance”9. The edifices of the Roman Empire were a significant display of Rome’s power and
political prowess to citizens and outsiders. Our architecture does not only connect to us; it should also connect us to the world and represent its people. It is also difficult to control aesthetic values in digitally generated architecture because it uses a complexity of data that Humanity has only the machine can follow and understand completely. It can perform an artificial logic of iterations at rapid speeds and optimise form and function without our input. In the classical orders, harmony resided in a balance where nothing could be added, altered, or taken away; whereas, present technology and the digital allow for infinite variables, and it is that variability that we prize the most. The practice of design humanises technology, therefore in selecting a variable outcome produced by a computer, the design process has not been performed.
The seismic impact of the industrial revolution is forcing change upon us once again. The formation of digital Darwinism has the potential to leave our human-centered desires to fend for themselves. This disruption in our human, urban and environmental ecologies by digital technology presents new and variable possibilities. The possibility to address tactile and metaphysical elements in architecture, through the use of cybernetics is a contemporary privilege. If architects do not engage in the critiques of the modern era, architecture itself could become as subverted as the post and lentil structure left behind by the disengagement of the transcendental.
As a significant contributor to the way we experience space and time, the Digital place in our human ecology has not been determined by us, it has progressively integrated and established itself. Architecture has the potential to evolve its physical space, to place digital technology and be wired into our mixed reality, to be a participant and accommodate so much more of our needs than those of shelter and location. Time and time again, the transfiguration of architecture transitioned the human ecology into new eras. Over form, the architecture of the programs and systems we explore and design will indivisibly transition our cybernetic ontology into what looks to be a formidable future ahead.
1- IBM. “Cognitive Environments.” IBM, March 22, 2017. https://researcher.watson.ibm.com/researcher/view_group.php?id=5417
2- Liberskind, Daniel. Daniel Liberskind Interview: “The Voices of a Site”. Interview by
Marc-Christoph Wagner, Louisiana Channel, October 16. Audio 32:50 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pWov-9PMNQ
3- Superstudio, Supersurface: An Alternative Model for Life on Earth 1972 1:02
4- Norman Foster, “The Future of Urban informal Settlements. On Cities – Public Debates 2019,” May 2019 at The Norman Foster Foundation, Madrid, Spain, video, 41:17 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYleBQVWeP8
5- Neil Postman. Technopoloy: The surrender of Culture to Technology. United States: Penguin Random House, 1992,
6-Hani Rashid Learning From the Virtual: The revival of the Hyperreal” E-Flux architecture, July 31, 2017, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/post-internet-cities/140714/learning-from-the-virtual/
7-Patrick Schumacher, Dezeen, May 2019 at The Norman Foster Foundation, Frankfurt, video, 41:17 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PG24R3uUc4Q
8-Molly Claypool “The Digital in Architecture: Then, Now and in the Future.” Space10, November 12, 2019. https://space10.com/project/digital-in-architecture/
9-Eisenman, Peter. Parametric Architecture Pod Cast 14. Interview by Hamid Hassanzadeh.
Pod Cast, July, 2020. Audio, 35:25, Spotify Application, https://anchor.fm/login?return_to=%2Fdashboard%2Fepisode%2Fe18ka9p%2Fmetadata%2Fedit