by Annie Locke Scherer

Below is my reflection on Mario Carpo’s“The Alphabet and the Algorithm” that I shared:

With the rise of computational design and mass customization came a separation between form and material possibilities; designers focused on the exploration of new, sinuous geometries and chose the construction material to best suit the design. What needs to be respected and not so easily discounted, is the critical interdependency of form, material, structure, materialization, fabrication, assembly and performance as a built object. In Carpo’s work, “The Alphabet and the Algorithm,” he addresses translation of design notations, transmission of architectural information, and fabrication through mass production. He discusses the evolution of Computer Aided design in architecture, referencing the transition between 18th century picturesque smoothness, to a differential mathematical calculus, and finally evolution into fully digital, smoothed curvilinearity: “blobs.” What is common amongst all these series is that each one has a inevitable, detectable trace of the tools being used to create it (92). This section of the Alphabet and the Algorithm struck a chord with me; it synthesized many of my pre-existing thoughts in a way I had not been able to express before. As I have a background in fabrication (both digital and analog), the concept of tools leaving a trace was extremely important in my method of working. The material chosen for my dissertation, concrete, inherently exhibits these principles of “leaving a trace”; the stretch of the fabric, the hydrostatic pressures and gravitational forces, even the pattern of the warp and weft of the membrane are all readable within these casts.

Carpo also dives into the topic of repetitive elements, a core tenant of my PhD research. Referencing the over-simplification of building materials, he writes, “Standardization inevitably begets oversizing and wasted material” (104). The cost of excess material in industry is negligent compared to the savings of mass-producing uniform section beams that are optimized for the greatest point load. Concrete Form[ing]work aims to situate itself directly in the middle of this discussion, challenging our notions of standardization and what is possible with mass-production. My research acknowledges uniform-section beams, as Carpo describes as “dumb structural design and waste of building material” (104). Mark West, together with C.A.S.T (Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology) at the University of Manitoba, pioneered research of fabric formwork and cast concrete, using these materials to create structurally efficient beams with variable cross section. The smocking research of my dissertation dives deeper into these ideas, giving the designer the ability to tailor flat sheets of fabric both locally and globally. This allows for the mass-production of unique elements with no additional cost, as Carpo discusses.

Non-uniform sectioned beams by C.A.S.T.

With the rise of computational tools, robotic fabrication, and mass-customization, there is a potential for a paradigm shift from the “technical, economic, social, and visual principles that have characterized the mechanical age for most of the last five centuries. But the transition from identical to differential reproduction also revives some aspects of pre-Albertian technocultural environment, a world of shared technical lore and collaborative making” (105). This paradigm shift contextualizes my research very succinctly, with the marriage between materiality and form, digital and analog, designer and fabricator.