Yale exhibition highlights pioneers of digital architecture

This February, the Yale School of Architecture (YSOA) will launch its 2014 exhibition program with “Archaeology of the Digital,” a look at the foundations of digital architecture in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the exhibition will be on view Feb. 20–May 3, 2014, at the YSOA’s gallery at 180 York St. It is free and open to the public.

“Archaeology of the Digital” looks at four pivotal projects that established bold directions in architecture’s use of digital tools: The Lewis Residence by Frank Gehry (1985–95); Peter Eisenman's Biozentrum (1987); Chuck Hoberman's Expanding Sphere (1992); and Shoei Yoh's roof structures for Odawara (1991) and Galaxy Toyama (1992) Gymnasiums.

"Too often the word ‘digital,’ in architecture, has been qualified by the words: ‘In the future,’” says architect Greg Lynn, the Davenport Visiting Professor of Architecture at Yale and guest curator of the exhibition. “This exhibition proposes that digital technology should be discussed ‘in the recent past.”

For “Archaeology of the Digital,” Lynn selected four architects who pioneered the use of digital technologies and predicted the role and influence that it might have on their creative process. In each example, the architect either sought out specific hardware and software, or engaged programmers to invent the tools they needed to realize their vision.

The exhibition highlights this dialogue between computer science, architecture, and engineering at the core of these early experiments. During the design of The Lewis Residence, for instance, Gehry’s office developed the innovative use of digital tools that allowed Gehry to harness the power of computer modeling to precisely fabricate the sculpture-like elements of his designs.  These technical innovations became the core competence of the independent software and services company, Gehry Technologies, which developed Digital Project, a 3D modeling tool for architectural design, based on an application known as CATIA, which was being used in the aircraft industry. 

On the other hand, Peter Eisenman’s Biozentrum tested the computer’s ability to generate its own formal language. A vanguard attempt to digitally script the design process, the Biozentrum’s geometries emerge from abstract representations of DNA structures, manipulated through digital processes intended to simulate genome replication.

Another section of the exhibition explores how the scaffold-like minimalistic roof structures of Shoei Yoh’s Odawara Municipal Sports Complex and the Galaxy Toyama gymnasium were analyzed and virtually tested for structural integrity through a process of intensive software coding.

Finally, the exhibition looks at Chuck Hoberman’s Expanding Sphere, a finely tuned dome structure that smoothly expands and contracts, opening the way to later explorations in mechanically responsive and adaptive architecture.

Beyond showcasing the genesis of digital architecture, the exhibition is part of a larger project at the CCA to develop a history and archive of digital art and design. In particular, researchers are interested in how to display digital material and make it accessible to the public.

“‘Archaeology of the Digital’suggests a great sense of loss marked by the fact that most of the digital material produced for these projects is gone,” said CCA’s director, Mirko Zardini. “The imminent danger of losing even more records compelled us to take a first step towards collecting, documenting, and making them accessible.”

To further the project, CCA will open a second exhibition on digital architecture in spring 2014 and a third in 2015; both shows will travel to Yale.

The exhibition has been made possible through the generous support of the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Conseil des arts de Montréal. The presentation at Yale is sponsored in part by Elise Jaffe + Jeffrey Brown. Graphic design for the show was created by Jonathan Hares, based in London and Lausanne, Switzerland.

“Archaeology of the Digital” is accompanied by a 400-page, fully-illustrated book of the same name. Released in English and French, it was co-published by the CCA and Sternberg Press, and supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and by Elise Jaffe + Jeffrey Brown for the oral history project.­­­ The publication includes an introductory essay by Lynn and interviews with the featured architects and consultants, including aerospace engineers and software programmers. It is available in print and as an e-book. 

On Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m. in Hastings Hall, Lynn will present the keynote lecture for a symposium, “Digital Post-Modernities: From Calculus to Computation,” which will take place at the YSOA Feb. 21–22. Convened by Mario Carpo, the Vincent Scully Visiting Professor, the symposium will bring together leading architects to assess the way their own digital work has changed over time. Both programs are free and open to the public.