Discussion with Andrew Goodhouse + Albert Ferré

This text is based on a discussion between Andrew Goodhouse and Albert Ferré from the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, and Garet Ammerman from SCI-Arc. The topics covered include the curatorial and archival role of the CCA in the recent Archaeology Of The Digital and When Is The Digital? research and publication projects. 

Garet Ammerman: There has been very interesting research work going on at the CCA in the last few years, and maybe it is especially intriguing for designers in LA because it involves a few influential LA based architects. Today I would like to talk about the Archaeology of the Digital project published by the CCA and the round table panel discussion with Greg Lynn, Devyn Weiser, Peter Testa and Wolf Prix at SCI Arc last spring. We can approach this conversation as a follow up to that discussion, hopefully answering a few more specific questions, and digging a little deeper into some of the reasoning behind the work.

Andrew, do you mind giving a short introduction to the CCA’s research work on the Archaeology of the Digital for those who may not be as familiar with it?

Andrew Goodhouse: Sure. Archaeology of the Digital is a research program that the CCA has been carrying out since 2011, and it's structured around twenty-five projects. The CCA identified these projects with Greg Lynn as important to look at in order to understand the role of digital tools in architecture practice, in a period between about 1987 and 2012. The research program addresses how the digital was integrated into ways of working that were already defined, and how the digital aligned with the interests of architects who were already working in certain ways. It  started with the CCA’s acquisition of Greg Lynn’s Embryological House project in 2004. In this project, Lynn used scripting to design about fifty thousand houses, and organized all the digital  files into subsets according to structure, cladding and how the houses meet the ground. He produced almost one thousand physical models through 3D printing and CNC. The CCA received these models, and Lynn asked us if we would also like the digital content. The files—which are Wavefront files that originated on Silicon Graphics computers—were an integral part of the process; you really need more than just physical models to understand the project. So Lynn sent us the computers, but we couldn’t open the files. That was a threshold we crossed, and it led to many questions in terms of how to collect the digital work, how it was archived, how it is published and exhibited and how it can be made accessible for researchers in the future.

Ao D Epubs Gif

Digital publications produced by the CCA as part of the Archaeology of the Digital research program. Edited by Greg Lynn (Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2014–2017)

AG: We have not completed one thing after another, following a typical sequence of collecting, archiving, exhibiting and publishing. Rather, we’ve collapsed everything into one process—the three Archaeology of the Digital exhibitions produced are also research projects. Greg Lynn conducted oral-history interviews  with the architects of the twenty-five projects, which we published as digital publications. The epubs are a way of making the archival material accessible to researchers and students. In general, we wanted to frame a few questions that others would be able to take in their own direction. This is part of the reason we published not only the epubs, but also the two print books. The first book is called Archaeology Of The Digital, which was the first phase of this project, and included work by Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Chuck Hoberman and Shoei Yoh. The second book is entitled When Is the Digital in Architecture? It was released after the third exhibition, and is meant to encourage people to consider the questions that arise regarding the origins of the digital in architecture.

Archaeology Of The Digital Spread

Archaeology of the Digital, pages 84, 292–293. Edited by Greg Lynn (Montreal and Berlin: Canadian Centre for Architecture and Sternberg Press, 2013). Images © Hoberman Associates

Albert Ferré: The donation of the embryological house project coincided with a conference that was held here at the CCA in collaboration with Daniel Langlois Foundation. The conference was called Devices of Design, and can be read about more in the second book, edited by Andrew. That was about how forms of representation are also evolving with digital tools. There was always an interest from the CCA in representations and drawings. The fact that these two events coincided was really the starting point of this reflection.

GA: The CCA has a lot of lectures and videos online.  It’s an impressive archive of historical and theoretical conversations, but there is. Also a separate category that contains your own publications, including the one we are discussing today. But does that also have the Devices of Design conference online for us to view?

AG: The conference wasn’t published online, but it is quite present in When Is the Digital in Architecture?, as Albert said. You can read edited transcriptions of presentations from the conference.

GA: I think that was a great introduction to the research, so I’d like to ask a little more about the archival process. You’ve mentioned before the difficulty with simply opening older files, which led to more procedural development in the archival process, but can you describe the logistical problems you encountered with this project?   

AG: There were logistical challenges that came up at different phases of the research, depending on what we were trying to do with the files. We were faced with questions of how to access the material, and how to make sense of it once we could access it, because obviously the organization of the files depends on the office that they come from. Some offices had very clear filing structures and others less so. That was the first set of logistical questions, and  we encountered other challenges further along the way. For example, in the third exhibition, Complexity and Convention, we had to decide how to display digital 3D models. We wanted to exhibit them in a way that would give insight into how the architects were working with them, but that didn't pretend to give  direct access to the file. The solution we came up with was to use a tablet that would allow you  to place the 3D model on a physical surface and, on the screen, you would see the 3D model on the table. You would then be able to enter the model, in a way.We also installed the Weaver script for Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser’s Carbon Tower project with a motion sensor, so that the visitor could interact with  it as it was being projected on a screen. In terms of publishing, there were certainly questions of how to represent digital files. We included 3D models in the epubs, but we had to reduce a lot of the geometry and the textures of the files in order to make it possible for the .epub file format to be able to host them. We used scalable vector graphics formats to represent AutoCAD files, so you can  see the images as vectors rather than as pixels. It certainly isn’t the AutoCAD file itself, but it's less of a translation than taking  a screen capture or publishing a jpeg. The technical challenges were always there, but they manifested themselves at different phases of the research program, and from project to project.

AF: Also as the collecting institution and a research center, these challenges are also touching upon how you make sure that you can preserve these files. Not only how you can open them,but also for researchers to be able to see them in the way they were conceived. This means we need to collaborate with software companies to make sure that we can continue to view AutoCAD files from the 90s in the way they were created. It becomes a very complex project which we cannot do by ourselves, we need to partner with several people on the work.

GA: I’ve become more interested in the curatorial aspect of the work because of the unprecedented nature of this project and working with this type of material. In the past, it was easy for libraries to collect books, or art institutions to collect original pieces, copies, or transcripts of writings. For the most part, everything is a hard copy and it’s not as difficult to collect that type of work. The difference with this work is that there were no precedents to look for because the digital tools were evolving so quickly. There were many versions of these programs and the further we moved away from them, the more likely it is for that material to disappear  simply because of accessibility, or inability for a tool to translate the digital language. The timing of allg this work was vital to the establishment of this as a history. It’s also unprecedented to write a history, or archaeology, so close to the actual events.

AF: A key figure in  this project is also someone in the collections department, a digital archivists. This was a position that was created shortly after the program started because there were no expertise in the collection of digital material. This person has been developing his knowledge at the CCA with Greg Lynn, with different companies that we’ve been in touch with and has tried to understand how our collection might have all these set of problems that other institutions might also encounter. This position is presenting our findings and also presenting other institutional collaborations to spread these expertise.  

GA: You had to invent a new position for conducting this type of work simply because it had not existed at the CCA before. I think that says quite a bit about how this type of work operates.

I was hoping we could talk a bit about  Guise. A title like this lends itself to multiple interpretations of contemporary work. If we can consider Guise as an outward appearance or a form of representation, which may be closely related to your decisions on how to represent this type of work. Is it possible for you to draw some conclusions on your work? What are some of the things you’ve learned from this? What kind of feedback have you received from other researchers who have visited the CCA in Montreal or others that have viewed the material online?

When Is The Digital Spread

When Is the Digital in Architecture?, pages 358–359. Edited by Andrew Goodhouse (Montreal and Berlin: Canadian Centre for Architecture and Sternberg Press, 2017). Image © Jan Sprij

AG: Well, we are still in the early stages of this. I think researchers who are looking at this material are making connections with other kinds of work. For example, the project records of Lars Spuybroek’s H2O expo pavilion are in the CCA collection, and Nathalie Bredella, one of the contributors to When is the Digital in Architecture?, was interested in looking at this material. She related it to her broader interests in media art in the 1990s, which is something that isn’t represented in the CCA collection. But because she had done research on this before, she could  make these larger connections and put the Spuybroek archival material in a context that it would not have had if it weren’t the subject of new research. We are just beginning to publish these archival findings on our website, and that has allowed us to reach out more directly to researchers. To a certain extent, this isn’t specific to the digital nature of the material.

Nevertheless, there are possibilities of visibility and dissemination that would not be exist if all of the material were physical. It's much easier for researchers to get a sense of the archives through the epubs without coming to Montreal and without making an appointment to look at the archival records. That would not be possible with only physical material. To your point about Guise, we are very aware that the epubs involve a process of translation. It's a compromise, but the fact that the material is digital is something that we want to take advantage of for the public-facing aspect of our ongoing work with the archives.

AF: I have been also reflecting on this notion of Guise, even though Archaeology of the Digital is about these 25 projects and it is about understanding a specific moment in architecture practice,  it is also about ourselves. It's also about the CCA as a collecting institution; what does it mean to collect today. As Andrew was saying, the epubs give you a sense of the digital archive that we have here, to what extent is it relevant for people to come here still. This building is has two underground floors with vaults containing all the materials stored and we have off site storage, but what is the future of this.

GA: I think it’s important to reflect on the implications of this work as a research institute, and to speculate on how people might do research in future. Obviously schools reflect on what programs they'll continue to teach and the pedagogical models of schools of architecture today. Coming from a more traditional architectural background, I typically move back and forth between current or contemporary practice a while considering  topics and/or theoretical concepts from history. While reading texts from the 60s or 70s I typically  consider the implications of digital programs during the 90s and 2000s and how they architectural practices.There is always a feedback loop between understanding recent history and considering how to move forward with your own project. What’s really great about the CCA’s work is that students and young architects looking for inspiration can view the archaeology and consider what was produced in this recent digital history. To read about influential  architects, and see what they were producing early in their careers through these epubs and books is something that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

Reflecting on the work after it’s’ completion is an extremely important aspect of moving forward in architecture. One can make assumptions but I’d like to ask anyways. Was this meant to be a collection of influential work ,or were you after a range of digital techniques, and contemporary work?

AG: It’s really about the projects, and a certain articulation of the digital in the practices that was interesting in some way. It’s less a question of covering a landscape and including people who were important in architecture at a certain moment, and more a way of considering which  projects to study in order to understand how the digital was operating in architecture practice at that moment. To your point about experiment and looking toward the implications of these things for contemporary practice, I think that's exactly right. In the first book, Greg Lynn and Mirko Zardini, director of the CCA, argue that the digital is too often presented as a promise, as if it will do certain things in the future. Now it’s time to look back and say that the digital has done certain things, that it has brought us here, and that it implies certain things for contemporary practice. With Archaeology of the Digital, we wanted to make a statement about the specific circumstances in which work with the digital took place.

GA: I have a few notes here written down about the discussion with Greg that you moderated. He mentioned a few things that I thought were really important for his own reflection on the work. He said “the collection was, in his opinion, made so that people would come to the CCA and be able to develop a critical opinion towards the digital instead of understanding it with a vocational view, as just a means to an end.” I think that is a great summarization of how the work could be viewed but as you know, there are many designers that use digital tools as a means to an end. Nonetheless, I thought that was a very good point Greg made in the discussion at SCI Arc.

AG: It’s important to mention the distinction between an archaeology and a history. We framed this research program as an archaeology of the digital, starting from the objects, starting from the material, looking at things on their own terms and then trying to figure out what they could tell us. Greg Lynn insists that any history of the digital is necessarily limited if it tries to weave a historical narrative on a theoretical level without looking at the material records, or the digital records. We wanted the three exhibitions, the process of collecting, the digital publications and the print books to lay a groundwork for someone to write a richer or more complete history of the digital. That is the aim of When Is the Digital in Architecture? The chronology that this book presents, beginning in 1521, long before computers, is a way to signal that the digital is about a way of thinking and not necessarily only about the technology. The chronology ends in 2002, with building information modeling (BIM). We wanted to suggest various points of origin for the digital in architecture that are based on digital and physical things, some of which we’ve collected here.  

GA: I'm glad you brought it up because the term archaeology evokes a kind of discovery of history or the writing of a human history through artifacts. I think we can safely say that this project has definitely produced the collection of artifacts. If the CCA had not done the comprehensive collection, a more biased version of the digital may have been produced at some point. It seems you’ve produced a platform for more in depth scholarly work to take place.

AF: That’s the idea of the CCA in general. Exactly what the CCA does is to welcome researchers. We have the material for people to visit and support their work through our archives. We view the collection as a collection of ideas and also a collection of evidence of projects.