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SPACE10 study by Mollie Claypool digs into the evolution of 'digital in architecture' (1/2)

The report authored by the UK-based theorist-historian and visualised by Pentagram traces significant developments that led to the merging of digital thinking with architecture.

by STIRworldPublished on : Dec 17, 2019

The digital is integrated as an intrinsic component in designing architecture worldwide. The use of diverse digital tools - from augmented reality for construction to 3D printing architectural models to using artificial intelligence within the design process and many more - is allowing the contemporary architect to see a concept modelling into a built reality way before the project comes on ground.

The digital is everywhere; from the infrastructure we use to navigate the world to the objects we use to communicate.

SPACE10 teamed up with architectural theorist Mollie Claypool and design firm Pentagram to bring together, ‘The Digital in Architecture’. The report authored by Claypool ‘aims to describe the ways in which innovations in digital tools for design and fabrication in architecture have contributed to the way that people experience the built environment today.’

The report uses the voice of an architect trained in the US - now a theorist-historian based in the UK - to first look backwards in order to look forward into the future Image Credit: Anne-Sophie Rosenvinge

We delve deep into the study to look at the key developments that took off in digital thinking within architecture from the late 19th century until the present day. And as the report time travels into the past, we follow the path to help anticipate the probable future.

Below are the excerpts from the report ‘The Digital in Architecture’.


Our concerns about the future of architecture in an age of digitisation have direct links to how we understand our relationship to nature.

Illustration from page 1062, Volume II, Chapter XVII (1917), of On Growth and Form by D’arcy Wentworth Thompson | The Digital in Architecture | SPACE10 | STIRworld
Illustration from page 1062, Volume II, Chapter XVII (1917), of 'On Growth and Form' by D’arcy Wentworth Thompson Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Charles) Darwin’s theory of evolution — detailed in his book The Origin of Species (1859) — explained that evolution occurs through natural selection caused by variations in phenotypes. In short, phenotypes are all observable traits of an organism — from its shape to its behaviour. As for (D’Arcy) Thompson, his work On Growth and Form (1917) emphasised that physical and mechanical factors — also known as structuralism — are crucial aspects to consider if we want to understand the behaviour and form of all species.

Together, the work of Darwin alongside Thompson’s more structuralist thinking inspired architects to harness aspects of nature and its behaviour in their designs.

In America, this notion translated into architect Louis Sullivans’ work on the notion of functionalism — the idea that the form of a building must emerge from its functions. Other architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright (often abbreviated to FLW) — who had worked for Sullivan early in his career — further articulated the importance of integrating natural behaviour into architectural design through the notion of ‘organic architecture’.

This was fluidly embedded in many designs of this period — from how motifs and patterns from nature were used as decoration, to how all of a building’s pieces were designed to be in relationship with one another through their unifying geometry.


Insight into the principles of nature, and the mathematics behind these principles, hugely influenced architects in the early to mid-20th century.

During this period, Sullivan’s idiom ‘form follows function’ began to take on new meaning.

The Italian architect Luigi Moretti argued that if function — a building’s purpose — could be described through a set of parameters, then architects could design form using mathematical equations that relate to performative criteria.

Moretti proposed that the sets of relationships that emerged created the notion of ‘architettura parametrica’, in which parameters are assigned to the performance of architectural components — much like how the 0s and 1s of computer code represent certain actions.

 Information designer Giorgia Lupi (Pentagram) consolidated the history of digital evolution in architecture as ebbing and flowing illustrations that guide one through key buildings, architectural movements and digital developments in the report | The Digital in Architecture | SPACE10 | STIRworld
Information designer Giorgia Lupi consolidated the history of digital evolution in architecture as ebbing and flowing illustrations that guide one through key buildings, architectural movements and digital developments in the report Image Credit: Anne-Sophie Rosenvinge

And while it is arguably the first time the word ‘parametric’ had been used to describe how one understands relationships in the processes and forms of architecture during a period of technological innovation, it is not the first time that architects have thought in an algorithmic way.

Famously, the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi worked computationally, but in an analogue way, in his models for the Sagrada Família (1882-1926) in Barcelona.

Gaudi rarely used drawings as a method of design, preferring to work rigorously with physical and material behaviour. Other proto-parametricists of this period include the American architect, systems theorists and futurist Buckminster ‘Bucky’ Fuller. From geodesic domes to inventions in modular deployable housing, Fuller advocated that through technological innovation, humans could do more with less and use resources more efficiently.

His work could be seen as an architectural precedent to much of the ethos behind digital design and digital fabrication today.


Hugely influential in architecture and design throughout the latter half of the 20th century until today, cybernetics sets out a theory that all behaviour, including that of humans and machines, is part of a system of feedback loops of inputs and outputs.

Among architects working under this mentality, the most well-known is Cedric Price, one of the most visionary British architects of the 20th century. (His work has inspired a later generation of internationally recognised architects including Archigram, Richard Rogers, Rem Koolhaas and many others.) Price’s unbuilt project with cyberneticist Gordon Pask and theatre director Joan Littlewood, titled Fun Palace, was originally designed with an aspiration to become a ‘laboratory of fun’ and ‘university of streets’ in the 1960s for the east end of London. The design of the Fun Palace incorporated a flexible framework and programmable spaces that could change and adapt to different needs and activities.

The Universal Constructor, John Frazer & Students of the Architectural Association London, 1990 | The Digital in Architecture | SPACE10 | STIRworld
John Frazer & Students of the Architectural Association London, 1990. The Universal Constructor is a working model of a self-organising interactive environment. A series of cells containing integrated circuits communicate with each other, and the state of each cell can be mapped top a graphics output device Image Credit: © John Frazer

The work of Julia and John Frazer — prominent figures at the Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture in the 1980s and 1990s — uses generative and evolutionary algorithms as a new model for a design process. “Cybernetics will enable a new form of designed artefact interacting and evolving in harmony with natural forces, including those of society,” John Frazer reflects.


As complex forms designed with digital tools became more pervasive in the architecture and design industry over the late 1980s and early 1990s, computational tools became more essential to not only the design process but also the production of drawings.

The American architect Frank Gehry’s influence on the use of computational tools could be said to be more broadly spread, as he used digital technologies to develop design methods as well as design software. As exemplified in one of Gehry’s first projects to use a computer, the unbuilt Lewis Residence (1989-1995), he utilised an iterative design process of physical model building and 3D modelling over years of experimentation.

Guggenheim Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry | The Digital in Architecture | SPACE10 | STIRworld
Guggenheim Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Using computers enabled the architect to express what he called a morphological diagram that explored possible design solutions.

To enable his designs to be realised with minimal alteration to his intent and to facilitate the production stages of building design, Gehry and his team created an interface for CATIA. The software generated data that could be sent directly to manufacturers without adjusting for any specific tolerances that the fabrication machines may have. This was later developed into a separate building information modelling (BIM) software called Digital Project by Gehry Technologies.


The period of the late 1990s and early 2000s is marked by the realisation of the concepts explored in the previous decades at an architectural scale. The boom in the financial market meant that a huge amount of money was poured into architecture.

Architects who had otherwise only explored their work in the form of drawings and animations, or at the scale of installations or small buildings (if they were lucky), could now compete for large-scale projects.

The exploration of what are considered more expressive forms gave rise to iconic architecture in different cities around the world.

AZPA/FOA (Alejandro Zaera – Polo Architecture/Foreign Office Architects), “Yokohama International Port Terminal”, 2002 | The Digital in Architecture | SPACE10 | STIRworld
AZPA/FOA (Alejandro Zaera – Polo Architecture/Foreign Office Architects), “Yokohama International Port Terminal”, 2002 Image Credit: Ramon Pratt, Courtesy of AZPML

The Yokohama International Port Terminal, designed by FOA in 1995, was at the time considered to be a futuristic design. Realised as an over-400-metre long terminal with an undulating, intertwining series of forms and spaces, the roof of the terminal mimics a shifting landscape, where people can move seamlessly from exterior to interior of the terminal. Advances in computer-aided design enabled the concept to be realised.


Then came the Internet. And new communication technologies fuelled by its rise meant that collaboration — inherent to any architectural practice — could now happen at a pace faster than ever before.

No longer did one have to wait for architectural drawings to arrive in the post, which made the design process painfully slow. Instead they could be emailed, Fedex’d and uploaded, and worked on almost in real-time by people in different locations.

Today, it isn’t a rare occurrence to witness collaborations among multiple different offices for large international competitions.

World Trade Center: Ground Zero Memorial and Towers, United Architects (AZPA/FOA + Greg Lynn Form + Kevin Kennon Architects + Reiser and Umemoto + UN Studio) | The Digital in Architecture | SPACE10 | STIRworld
World Trade Center: Ground Zero Memorial and Towers, United Architects (AZPA/FOA + Greg Lynn Form + Kevin Kennon Architects + Reiser and Umemoto + UN Studio) Image Credit: Courtesy of AZMPL

United Architects (UA) was established for the 2003 competition for a new World Trade Center and brought together multiple internationally known architects including Greg Lynn, UNStudio, FOA and Kevin Kennon Architects. This competition for the World Trade Center reveals the success of these collaborative practices based on the potential of collective intelligence: the majority of the six finalists selected from over 650 entries turned out to be the proposals from collaborative teams including UA.


Digital technology allowed an evolution of morphological thinking in the 20th century, giving it new life in concepts of emergence, non-linear and self-organising systems, stimergy and agent-based modelling.

Collaborations between academic and industry partners resulted in work which experimented with generative design processes to find new shapes and forms.

This body of collaborative, cross-disciplinary and cross-industry design research connected together parameters into complex networks from which form emerged through the changing relationships in the network over time.

The Architectural Association’s (AA) Design Research Laboratory (DRL) and Emergent Technologies (EmTech) programmes, as well as the Delft University of Technology’s Hyperbody Group and Sci-Arc, also engaged rigorously with the notion of complex interactions between parameters and the resulting emergent patterns.

ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion 2013-2014 Stuttgart | The Digital in Architecture | SPACE10 | STIRworld
ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion 2013-2014 Stuttgart Image Credit: ©ICD/ITKE Universität Stuttgart

AA Emtech, on the other hand, developed frameworks for understanding the potential of emergence and natural systems in architectural design through a focus on material behaviour, biomimetics (understanding the rules that underlie the efficient of forms) and computational morphogenesis.

Later, the launch of the Institute for Computational Design (ICD) at Stuttgart University in Germany combined this approach with research into novel fabrication technologies. Often tested at the 1:1 scale of a pavilion, ICD’s work continues to this day with industrial and mobile robotics.

Read more: SPACE10 study by Mollie Claypool anticipates the future of ‘digital in architecture’ (2/2)

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