AMIR KARIMPOUR (Computation and Fabrication Critic, Yale School of Architecture. Founding partner of Alden Studios and founder of Walker Vail)
Recently, in the fields of design and technology, the push for greater computing power has focused on increasing the resolution of our current digital tools. Power, in this context, is defined as the computer’s ability to manage and display graphic information. This situation is very different from the early 2000s, when each year presented a significant leap in computing power focused on giving designers more freedom in their ability to design. Today, instead of new tools for designing, there are new means of perceiving the results of our digital designs, eg. virtual reality, augmented reality, extreme high resolution displays (or as Apple now brands them, “Super Retina” displays), and real time rendering engines.
The basic building block of the digital environment, the pixel, is now the main design problem. The pixel, akin to the atom, is our default unit in the pursuit for building truly immersive digital worlds. How do we free the pixel from its two dimensional state, make it so small, so dense per inch, per cubic inch, per virtual environment, that no matter how close we look, the resolution is infinite? This question has provided a whole new market for the Architect: the digital built environment. No longer is it enough to design physical spaces; we are condemned to also operate in a digital parallel. Working in between these two spaces, we are faced with questions of how to embed digital surfaces, digital environments, and digital experiences into our designs and physical environments. The implications of the digital parallel have been represented, not surprisingly, by the film Blade Runner 2049. In this film, the dimensions of the digital and the physical are so interconnected that it is difficult for the viewer to distinguish between the “fake” and the “real”. The resolution is inverted: the built environment of the city is always represented as foggy and blurry, while the digital representations are always crisp and sharp. The space of the digital is put in the forefront. The built environment acts as supportive tissue.
This reversal is contrary to the way in which we have been trained to use digital tools within architecture. We are accustomed to using the digital tool solely as a means for advancing the built environment. Architects use software developed for the design of spaceships, aircrafts, and boats to generate (what we believe are) complex facades and buildings systems. These and other uses, however fall short of the software’s full potential. If this is the case, then we must come to an agreement that there is an uncharted territory that architects have not fully conquered. Blade Runner 2049 gives a glimpse of what this conquered future could potentially look like, but it does beg the question: will digital architecture become its own realm?