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From Drawing Board to Automation

(Originally published: Summaries of Papers; Architecture 1990, Montreal, U.I.A. XVII; Cultures and Technologies.)

The Medium is the Message

Marshall McLuhan's catch-phrase of the 60's, "the medium is the message" (1) creates a connection between man's inventions, ie. media, and their effect upon culture and society. The theory also provides a suitable framework for architects and designers, to consider the role of design methods, on the finished product.

This is particularly relevant as Architects continue to struggle in their attempts to comprehend the new computer medium. An understanding on the influence of the architectural medium can be derived from a comparison of the Beaux Arts movement and the drawing board medium, and the computer medium.

McLuhan's argument suggests that it is the form of the medium, rather than the content, that determines what is being communicated. Translated to architecture, the medium can be described as the design method, and the content as the finished building.

Drawing Board Architecture

The basic operation of a drawing board incorporates the use of a horizontal rule and a 45°/90° set square. Directly observing the method of work, it becomes obvious that the medium dominates the design process; for the use of 90° and 45° angles is commonplace. The conception of building volume is a further obvious response. Typically it consists of cubic volumes. The difficulty in drawing complicated forms, particularly curvilinear form, provides an answer to their limited use in every day construction. It comes as no surprise to view the work of Antonio Gaudi and discover that he did not use a drawing board, but three-dimensional models.

2D or 3D?

But, if the medium is the message, far deeper revelations can be found. In a similar manner to the paintings from the Egyptians to the Renaissance, and present day artists; the Architect deals with the illusion of describing three-dimensional form onto a two-dimensional surface. Conventions have been defined that produce imaginary cuts through the building volume, to form the drawings that we recognize as plans, elevations and sections. In effect, the building is described through a set of two-dimensional drawings.

As the designer becomes subsumed into the process of recording information in this way, a point is reached whereby it is automatic and the thinking process numbed to the effects of the medium. The end result is the designer developing his scheme in a two-dimensional manner.

While the design process is directly co-ordinated toward the erection of the building, it should be recognized for what it is: a complete and separate entity. The architect begins to build his ivory tower.

A Limited View

Design drawings provide a means to understand and, in a limited way view the building, before it is built. However, a problem develops when the impending building is judged from the drawings. The means to understanding the building is through the conventions of the elevations and the perspectives; but ultimately through the imagery of the finished drawings. A striking and impressive drawing suggests that the building will be likewise. The medium is the message.

The Visual Game

The end result of this is a snowball process. If the architect and designer is to be judged for his work visually it will soon develop that he will begin to design and conceive of the building in this manner.

This in turn induces a further separation from the process of construction and erection, and reduces the architect's process to one of styling. Following this, groups will jostle to establish bastions of 'good taste' and the avant garde will be created. Subjective responses can only develop as the means to aesthetics. The architects' world is reduced to that of a fashion game.

The Computer Medium

In direct contrast, the computer medium will induce an entirely different building design response.

Essentially, a computer is a machine that operates on a binary system. In other words, the computer has only two operations: on or off.

The means by which a computer can perform these operations at vast speeds, is due to mathematically defined instructions in the hardware and the software. A computer medium is therefore: logical, objective and mathematically based.

Building Form

The translation of this effect for the Architect is most obvious in terms of the means of describing the building form. The computer demands that every object be defined in precise units of length and size, and the shape in accordance with geometrical principles. Architectural elements and relationships need some form of mathematical description. Geometry has had a strong connection with architecture in the past, and could form the basis for future development.

The two-dimensional nature of the computer screen creates the same illusory problem as that of the drawing board. The ability to create an animated walk-through of buildings is a further step in the process of comprehending the building before it is built. But the emphasis on the surface layer remains. Fortunately, the computer medium offers far greater potential.

Computer Modelling

Computer modelling will provide the means to measure the efficiency of circulation to the building volume; calculate the extent of heat gain from the sun; the correct heating and cooling requirements for the building; test the acoustic levels and give an immediate estimate of the cost of design options. The design emphasis will move toward the performance of the building. Post-occupancy studies will be performed before the building leaves the designers office.

Architectural Systems

Parallel to this development, the computer is accelerating the automation of our society. Automation is currently inducing the leisure age as society is de-employed. (2)

Architects will not escape. In terms of computing power, the means to automate the design process is available today. The ability of the computer to sort design data according to functional requirements and to apply it through appropriate building systems, can be achieved through the use of 'expert systems'.

In architecture, the 'smart' building is already a reality towards automated maintenance. Automated construction techniques, utilizing robotics, are also being developed. A new era of craftsmanship is upon us.

The emphasis in architectural design will move toward the performance of the building and the means to assembly. Paxton's Crystal Palace stands tall as the shining light to the future. Architects must move closer to the process of manufacture and assembly. The development of system oriented components that can be assembled in varying configurations, to provide richly customized 'one-offs', is the goal. (3)

Architectural Practice

The current format of architectural practices will be dramatically altered. The advent of franchise outlets may develop to sell the building product, which is developed at a centralized research centre.

The current nature of the Architect as a design specialist will be replaced in the short term by the design generalist. Currently the required information necessary to develop a complete building design is not accessible to one person. But, through the utilization of the storage and retrieval capacities of the computer; this process could transfer to the realm of any individual, even to the untrained. The individual may design their own dwelling and the need for Architects will be diminished.

For whatever the future is to hold, the only certainty is that the standards of today will be replaced by new ideas and methods. One step forward for all, is to appreciate that the motor car is not a horseless carriage, and the computer is not an electronic drawing board.


(1) McLuhan, M.; From Understanding Media: the extensions of man; Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd; London; 1964.
(2) Jones, B.; Sleepers Wake! Technology and the future of work; Wheatsheaf Books; Brighton, England; 1982.
(3) Foster, N.; Architecture and Urbanism, June 1986; P. 25.

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