Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Creativity in the Shadow of Modern Technology

As part of ARCHITECTURE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, AN INTRODUCTION, course by Antoine Picon, Harvard University.

Vesely D., Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation: The Question of Creativity in the Shadow of Production, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2004, Chapter 6, "Creativity in the Shadow of Modern Technology", pp. 281-315.


The question of differentiating architecture and technology is a relatively new phenomenon. In the 16th and 17th century, technical devices and machine used in constructing buildings were part of the mechanical arts. It changed in the 17th century when the practical nature of arts was absorbed by the theoretical project of instrumental thinking. Today traditional forms of creativity are being absorbed into one dominant way of making and thinking. While we can distinguish between invention, creativity, and pure production, it is not clear how the distinction should be established: this lack of clarity may be the cause of the current debate's confusion and frustration.

The subject of this debate is the merit of technical efficiency versus that of aesthetics. One obstacle to a better understanding of the nature of technology is our inability to discuss technological problems from a non instrumental point of view. Instrumental thinking tends to impose its hegemony by creating a world it can control, e.g. The conditions of the will to control is the 'knowledge of power'. Knowledge as power represents the essence of modern science leading to the vicious circle of our 'understanding' of technology e.g. Martin Heidegger.

Art originates in 'knowledge related to making' (techne in Greek). In mathematics we find the transformation of techne into technique and finally into modern technology. Making is based on productive knowledge, but such knowledge is never complete. It always depends on a prior understanding that has its origin in the spontaneity of making. The sciences that contributed to the formation of modern technique were astronomy, harmonics, optics, and mechanics (the middle sciences) because of their position halfway between metaphysics and physics. In the 16th century, artisan engineers were aware of the gap between mathematics and concrete reality (it required universal reality and explicit proofs). This is in the mid 16th century that the boundaries of mathematics and physics crossed, giving birth to the universal mathematics as the queen of science. This has happened by the supporting evidence of the the physical world in mathematics, particularly mechanics. Mechanics was the critical discipline to shape modern science and technology. Treating physical reality and movement as predictable was motivated by the desire to discover more tangible links between human and divine reality, which in Galileo's time meant links tangible links between physical and mathematical reality (Galileo: the law of acceleration of falling bodies in that their time of descent is independent of their mass). Then to apply knowledge through making made mankind be 'like God'.

We have not progressed beyond the 17th century philosophers, as we do not understand the real nature of experimental knowledge on which modern technology is based. There is a gap between situated knowledge and productive knowledge and this gap represents “a radical discontinuity with the natural world, reduces the cognitive value of productive knowledge and makes it merely a technical tool.”

The key problem of technology is in its dual productive and creative complex nature, with complexity being the result of an attempt to reconcile different spheres of reality. It the reconciliation is successful, the situation may be enriched, if not it remains only 'an unfulfilled promise of richness.' The Eiffel tower is a key example as seen as an intrusive object in the city (autonomous abstract structure) and only a few decades later it was the symbol of Paris. The distance between its abstract form and the richness of the Parisian culture was articulated in relation to the tower through films, literature, etc.. and the tower took its place in the city.

It does now matter how we call each others from architects to engineers anymore as long as we understand that the higher we want to build the deeper the foundations must be. We need to see the intricate relationship between human perception, orientation in space, and intelligence. Results depends on the knowledge of our experience of space, the precondition of design. Society today is dominated by faith in the unlimited possibilities of technology including A.I. Which at term can lead to the impoverishment of culture.



Architecture, science and technology from the renaissance to the modern movement

During the Gothic tradition (medieval), science and technology and architecture had a natural connection, for instance geometry was a force and central base in the building technique. The question begins in Renaissance (late 13th beginning of the 14th) when architecture begins to define itself as an art and as port of the humanities, then the relationship to science/technology becomes more complex.

Architecture is defined as medium between knowledge (humanities) and know-how reinforced by rediscovery of Greco-Roman. The 19th century begins to look like society in the roman empire: science becomes more autonomous in this period and crisis in the theoretical foundation of architecture.

Renaissance - 18th century: Architects believed they knew the foundation of architecture (proportion, etc).

18th: greater autonomy of technology and striking difference in building designed and built: they rediscover the Gothic and the question about what is architecture about, what are the true principle of architecture are the challenges addressed to architecture from science and technology. Crisis of the theoretical foundations of architecture.

What is the essence of architecture?
During the late 18th, theorists such as Viollet le Duc was trying to find something essential in architecture and trying to identify new and real relations of architecture with the connection between the anatomy of the body and architecture. Trying through science and technology to form the relation of architecture, and the modern movment has similar attitude towards technology (e.g. Gropius, le Corbusier). Was trying to purify architecture and define its true principles.

Concert hall by Viollet le Duc

Relation between architecture and society
Architecture has adapted to the society (relation to more global regime). Most people had in mind the roman temples and in the late 18th they went to visit grecs, e.g. Leroy has visited Acropolis at Athenes. Indeed Grec architecture is dynamic and linked to a certain type of society (greek and roman societies are different), it may not be anything transcendental, just best architectural representation, and is linked to global representation of society. Ruskin hated modern technology (railways, ...) and thought that technology is depriving us from the essence, from the authentic experience of architecture. Same idea in Perez Gomez and Rykwert.

Acropolis, Athenes

Towards a cultural history of architecture
Science and technology are culturally determined not purely just progress, ex. materials.
Before the 18th century it is not clear the difference between materials and structure, for instance the stone grows (a theory about organic material), Viollet le Duc us bones as part of the structure, use bones in junction of buildings, is bone a material?Reinforced concrete is now seen as a material, before concrete was the material and reinforcing was seen as a structure.

The social construction of materials
Material has properties so needs testing, for instance iron was unreliable and Sweden has mastered the properties of iron and France was importing Iron from Sweden, also for concrete in order to be qualified as hard machines have been developed.

Why a material is successful or not?
In France building a house in wood is inacceptable (cultural factors) but concrete is seen as solid; materials are different then for cultural values. Peter Collins seen concrete as providing new objectivity to construction. The concrete has no define shape unlike wood so needs a physical image, there is then a relationship between concrete and photography, the idea of transforming the building into a gigantic scientific instrument.

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