Cyberspace and Architecture
Interview with Christian Hubert
by Stephen Perrella
SP: As an architect, how are you engaged in virtual reality and how do you consider this work in relation to “built projects”?
CH: I think it is important to understand VR as a phenomenon that circulates with other technological developments and in relation to existing techniques of representation. VR’s implications for architecture may derive from its capacity to sit at the juncture of these issues. For example, Rem Koolhaas gave a lecture at Columbia last November and he claimed that architects would be the last people for whom Newton’s apple would fall. His polemical resistance to the dematerialization of the built object which computer technologies seem to suggest reveals a conservative aspect of the profession of architecture. The built project has played a particular role in the self-definition of architecture: as object, as objective, and even as a source of objectivity, all of which have come into question on a number of fronts, both critical and technological. But the architectural object has a more complex mode of existence than is generally assumed. If one considers buildings in relation to design and construction, to what happens to them once they are built, to networks of signification, of economy, and socio-political context—in short as evolving in time- they emerge as highly complex objects that resist simple classification. Although I have experienced some disjunction between my works as a practicing architect and some of my thoughts on this subject, I would nevertheless not want to place one in opposition to the other.
SP: The subject being virtual reality?
CH: Virtual reality and all the new tools for thinking and simulation increasingly enabled by the computer. I do not want to privilege one particular technology, such as virtual reality. VR is only one part of a large and very significant shift taking place in the textual and visualization technologies becoming available to architecture: hypertext, VR, CAD systems, information networks … these technologies already exist, and more are coming.
SP: Does this shift entail architecture becoming synonymous with information?
CH: If one begins to think of architecture as information, it is possible that these new tools will take on more meaning and potential applications. It is important, however, to modify this “newness” and the future oriented discourse it provokes by looking at how these tools are currently entering the culture and at what kinds of interesting hybrids already exist. For example, a number of books have recently appeared with supplementary discs, such as J. David Bolter’s Writing Space and Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins is a biologist known primarily as the author of The Selfish Gene, in which he theorizes that genes use us to propagate themselves rather than the other way around. Bolter’s disk contains the bulk of the text of his book in hypertext, a medium that allows multiple readings of a kind not possible in print. The flexibility of the medium also allowed Bolter to include digressions that would not have been accommodated by the narrative structure of the book itself.
Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker describes evolution as nondesigned, as based on randomness and the interaction between randomness and natural selection. The accompanying disk contains a kind of mutation program, with which I’ve been playing to create odd little forms. I want to loop this process back into architecture, because the program introduces randomness into design and makes the designer into an informed selector rather than an all-seeing creator. This is why I am interested in generative programs like these – Bolter’s produces readings and Dawkins’ produces forms – rather than simply representational programs like CAD.
SP: Does the generative software relate directly to anything we would recognize as architecture?
CH: This particular software creates biomorphic forms in that they are either bilaterally or radically symmetrical, and is meant to evolve creature like beings. However, I have been able to generate geometric patterns that, simply interpreted as sections, for example, are architecturally suggestive.
SP: What do you perceive as the future of print media given the development of this new format?
CH: The era in which book technology dominated is undoubtedly coming to a close. However, this domination has lasted some 500 years and the book is not going to disappear overnight. One should not be too quick to herald the beginning of an electronic age of communication technology which will inevitably occur, but over a longer time frame than 1993 to 1994. Books won’t disappear but will play an increasingly marginal role, just as manuscripts were marginalized by printing press. Much current thinking about the emergence of the electronic media is extremely shortsighted, or rather short-ranged. In many respects, book technology seems very natural to us now, so natural that we tend not to think of it as a technology. But when scholars look at the shift from manuscripts to books, they see a technological change that provided the material basis for a transformation of reading and writing. Although the transition may be so smooth as to be barely noticeable by anyone except specialists, as books cede to electronic technology, reading and writing will change again.
Hypertext, for example, clearly suggests’ the possibility of reducing, if not doing away with, the distinction between the reader and the writer. Hypertext has been described as nonlinear because various choices are possible at any time. Bits of texts are linked in various ways. Instead of following a line of thought, one navigates a conceptual space that undermines any linear narrative. Book technology not only affirmed the dominance of such structures of writing, but made the writer the author(ity) on reading. In a hypertext environment, acts of reading are individual and idiosyncratic, depending on the person, the context and their particular preferences. Each act of reading, according to the proponents of Hypertext, encourages a new itinerary of reading. Because it is also easy to add to and manipulate the text, hypertext also tends to dissolve the distinction between reading and writing. The results are all kinds of strange problems such as the erosion of the idea of copyright, the legal guardian of authorship; and textual ability.
Some writers claim that these technologies enable precisely what poststructuralist writers have been theorizing: destabilizing the text and the relationship between reader and writer. George Landow has written about the convergence of critical theory and technology. He notes that while for some, this has meant the unhappy death of the author and the end of the book, hypertext enthusiasts are seeing the beginning of a new electronic textuality full of possibility and promise.
This may be symptomatic of a larger set of convergences between what C.P. Snow called the “two cultures” of science and humanities. I recently taught a course at SCI-Arc with Sylvia Lavin called “Weird Science,” where we saw evidence of this convergence by looking at chaos and self-organization, as well as computer technology and aspects of the cultural and textual thought associated with poststructuralism and postmodernism. The possibilities offered by electronic media as forms of empowerment, as enabling devices, as tools for thought, could be suggestive for people in many fields including architecture. However, this is by no means a realm of absolute freedom but is fraught with political difficulties, with the emergence of many new forms of coercion. Nevertheless, a profound transformation is occurring, and architects are in a position to play an important role in this change. After all, the convergence between the humanistic and scientific cultures has been an architectural concern since antiquity, and architects may be able to use these media to interpret these conflicts with a particular subtlety of thought. Similarly, the highly spatial experiences of hypertext, of virtual reality, of many forms of simulation and visualization now enabled by the computer could resonate powerfully for architects. Architects should not use a narrowly defined sense of the built object as a touchstone or measuring standard for thinking about these developments. Many opportunities will directly affect what has traditionally been called architectural practice. But these technological and cultural transformations will also allow architects to enter domains in which the ways that they think, the ways in which they are self-conscious about the design process, could have unprecedented importance.
SP: Landow’s Hypertext argues that the reading processes that Derrida and others have advocated are currently being made available by new electronic formats. Do you think that Derrida would be pleased with this development?
CH: I certainly would not want to speak for Derrida. However, it is interesting in this context to consider a certain ambiguity between his ideas and the technology of their presentation. In Glas, for example, he subverts the traditional idea of the book while at the same time produces what can only be called a book. Similarly, while Derrida helped open up a new textual field, this fact led to his re-reification as an author(ity). However, any discussion of Derrida needs to be within a consideration of a larger cultural phenomenon in which poststructuralist writing, current thought about the new media, and some contemporary sciences share common interests and themes. Certainly the ground of philosophy has been challenged by writers previously considered literary critics, through the kind of edifying philosophy that Richard-Rorty calls for in Philosophy and Mirror of Nature. The role of philosophy as foundational edifice has been threatened and the architectural edifice is similarly imperiled. The cultural problematic of technology is profound and has yet to be adequately examined.
SP: What about the new technology and the military-industrial base?
CH: In the United States during World War II an enormous impetus was given to computer technology through the development of the UNIVAC computer primarily for artillery tables, the organization of scientists into the war effort, the pioneering statements of Vannevar Bush in a paper called “As We May Think” outlining many characteristics of hypertext. Certainly in the United States the development of computer technology has been linked to defense spending, and modern warfare, as has been demonstrated by Manuel de Landa in his Deleuzian history of the subject, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, would be impossible without information technologies.
I’ve heard that the first salvo shot in the Gulf War was the introduction of a computer virus into the Iraqi anti-aircraft system rendering it inoperable on the first night of bombing. One could talk at length about the Gulf War in terms of the electronic media, how smart the smart bombs really were, how much the electronic media redefined the experience of warfare in a way that may have rendered Americans extremely complacent. The numbing capacities of such delusions as the idea of a war without casualties parallel those created by simulated war games in which the “unthinkable” becomes possible.
At the same time, the development of the computer in the United States is highly influenced by the firms of capitalism. The personal computer at this point is a marketer’s dream: computers become obsolete at an extraordinary rate. This naturally generates an enormous investment on the part of consumers who must buy the latest product. And computer technologies, in return, have an enormous effect on the workings of contemporary capital. Computer trading has become an autonomous stock market force.
The possibilities of the computer and the problematic of these technologies are, however, only partly described by their inscription in military and economic development. De Landa claims that the advent of personal computers seriously undermined the centralizing and totalitarian possibilities of original computers, which were extremely large, expensive objects: difficult to run and requiring a clique of “priests,” the programmers. Since then, the personal computer has significantly altered that balance of power. It is a vehicle for all kinds of self-organizing groups, including hackers, who I am thankful are around because, although often criminalized, they play an important role in keeping open information networks that would otherwise be closed. The Foucauldian surveillance problematic also exists through the institution of the information panopticon. We know that an extraordinary amount of information about us is retrieved-the trail of our consumer activities-that is then disseminated from one databank to another. This process takes on a life of its own, wherein mistakes not only abound but, because they proliferate through the system, become increasingly difficult to rectify.
My personal interest in these issues started in 1984 when I participated in an architectural folly show at Leo Castelli Gallery. I did a computer image on a paint system and was interested in the experience of space in a computer environment, and in, for example, how the history of the shift from perspective to axonometric might be experientially transmitted in a computer. But at that time, computer animation was prohibitively expensive, and far exceeded the capacities of personal computers. I’m currently working on a database entitled Weird Science in which various terms I’ve encountered in my readings can be related and turned into a productive dictionary linking, for instance, chaos or fractal programs so that one could move readily from verbal text to visualization. Through these means, I am hoping to reduce what I experience as a division between my archaic forms of architectural production and other interests, but even now they float together in an interesting and uneasy equilibrium: I have found the experience of reading in hypertext both exhilarating and problematic and I have personally felt enabled as well as dislocated in my engagement with new technologies. This is what happens when some of your habits are jolted and many things you take for granted suddenly come into question. But this is also what opens the space of new possibilities, which I feel I must explore.
Christian Hubert is principal of the Christian Hubert Studio and president of the Forum. He teaches and writes about architecture; Stephen Perrella is the editor/designer of NEWSUNE, Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.