GAM 06


Urs Hirschberg

Can nonstandard become the norm? The creators of those architectural icons that in the present age of city branding keep popping up like mushrooms after rain seem to think so: nonstandard everywhere. If something is not nonstandard, it must be substandard. Not everything that is nonstandard has been able to gain popular approval, and it is not every time that the means are so appropriate to the context as with the project featured on the cover, the Mur Tower designed by the architects of terrain:loenhart&mayr and the engineers of osd. Quite often these creations lead to the sobering insight that spectacular forms in themselves will never be enough to make a state. Nonetheless, even in the financial and real estate crisis, the topic of the nonstandard remains virulent. It was the Bilbao hysteria that gave nonstandard architecture a necessary impetus, made it respectable and inspired experimentation and progress in construction. The economic crisis will not seriously impede this trend, for nonstandard technologies do not stand against the demand for efficiency. On the contrary, efficiency was quickly incorporated in the specifications of nonstandard technologies, and there is more and more reason to believe that they will revolutionize the production of architecture.

Where this revolution will take us is not clear, however. It is a revolution that cannot as yet be embedded in any master narrative. In his contribution, Mario Carpo says that it takes place outside any established philosophy of history. It arises from the new possibilities offered by computer technology and numerically controlled manufacture. Its consequences are sweeping: it mitigates the borderlines between traditional professional roles, demands more commitment and new competences from architects and engineers, and produces a new kind of craft. GAM.06 “Nonstandard Structures” looks at these connections from many perspectives. The bemusing potential of the nonstandard as norm is examined in three sections: Theory and Debate, Process and Performance, and Digital Crafting.

When we started to work on this issue of GAM a year ago, the Call for Papers thematized two apparently contradictory tendencies that characterize globalization: standardization and individualization. The universal availability of information and knowledge levels the global competitive playfield and ushers in the Flat World, to use Thomas Friedman’s phrase, by countering the head start that developed nations enjoy as regards access to education and the markets. But this is just one side of the story. One would expect that the flattening of the world would also make it easier to understand. But that is not happening. The universal standardization of measures and norms is paradoxically accompanied by a demand for individual, even outlandish, solutions. In the globalized and hyper-individualized world the distance from the norm becomes a value in itself: that which fails to conform to a norm is no longer a deviation but an expression of individuality. In architecture, the interplay of both tendencies is determined by developments in digitally controlled production technologies. The norms of the industrial era are questioned, when not replaced, by the new conditions of production in the information era.

The Call for Papers quoted William J. Mitchell who in Constructing Complexity[1] describes the evolution of architectural forms in light of changing conditions of production. In preindustrial times, it was possible to expend a lot of “loving care per square foot” and create buildings in which every detail was individually designed and crafted. Such an approach was no longer economically competitive during the process of industrialization which demanded the repetition of identical elements, in particular in larger projects. An emblem of this condition are the gridded façades of 20th century architecture. A new possibility emerges at the outset of the information era, according to Mitchell who argues that “information technology enables large scale without reducing complexity”. Thus for Mitchell this new technology is not primarily about how to build arbitrary shapes. It is about a new approach to dealing with complexity. Not only is the computer an essential tool for managing and structuring complex assignments into partial tasks that will then be delegated to others. These “others” are now increasingly also computer applications or computer controlled machines. Unlike traditional machines, the latter do not care if they repeat the same task or follow a new set of commands each time. Mitchell argues that by exploiting the new technologies it will be possible to construct large institutional buildings that can engage complex conditions by consisting of nothing but exceptions. In effect, then, we can again lavish that kind of meticulous love for detail on our projects that we admire in historical architecture – but instead of craft technologies we will apply digital means.

This fascinating, optimistic vision will be debated in the present publication. In the selection of papers we wanted to keep the feet on the ground. The topic is relevant precisely because of its far-reaching implications for the practice of architecture. You will find reports of actual experiences, discussions of concrete projects, critical voices and realistic estimates about the conditions for nonstandard structures, their production and architectural consequences.

In order to structure the discussion, we have organized the papers in three sections. The first section, Theory and Debate, concentrates on the implications of the new technologies on architectural thought and aesthetic discourse. The second one, Progress and Performance, is dedicated to the processes of formal development and performance optimization, and the question of how these can be brought together. The third section, Digital Crafting, concludes the issue with papers that thematize the new craftsmanship in architecture through an examination of current nonstandard practices. The sections and their headings should not be seen as hermetic categorizations. While each section foregrounds some essential aspects of nonstandard structures these aspects will be scrutinized in one form or another in all of the papers.

The clearing wafts of early morning mist around the Mur Tower in our cover image stand for the way the papers below let a clearer view of nonstandard structures emerge – or perhaps their presence suggests that there are still questions that remain open. It could also be that they announce the theme of our next issue which will again address the scale of landscape. The Call for Papers for GAM.07 – Zero Landscape is included at the end of the issues, as usual. We wish you a thought provoking reading experience. ■

[1] William J. Mitchell, “Constructing Complexity”, Keynote Presentation at 11th International CAAD Futures Conference held at the Vienna University of Technology, Vienna, Austria, June 20–22, 2005. See also the keynote paper by W. J. Mitchell in Andre Brown et al. (eds.): Computer Aided Architectural Design Futures 2005, pp. 41–50, Vienna: Springer, 2005.