Book Review: The Alphabet and the AlgorithmPosted: 7 March 2011
The author is dead. Long live the algorithm.
So says The Alphabet and the Algorithm, Mario Carpo’s addition to the “Writing Architecture” series (edited by Cynthia Davidson of Anyone), recently published by The MIT Press. Carpo is known for crosswise cuts to the history of architecture, and here he aims to reframe our still-nascent transition toward a digital architecture. The new frame is based on what he terms the paradigm of identicality. Carpo posits that the transition to digital production media is one from production of identical copies to mass customization and participation. Digital technology, Carpo argues, can and must change both the subject and object of architectural design; no longer will the designer have total authorial control, and no longer must the object be singular and specific. For Carpo, the choice for architects and designers is between powerlessness and control. They must choose between the production of what he calls “objectiles” (a term he lifts from Gilles Deleuze via Bernard Cache) and objects themselves. Objectiles – algorithmic constructs from which infinite variations originate – are the only future for authorial control.
Early chapters deal with Leon Battista Alberti – inaugurator of the paradigm of identicality – and his many representational innovations. Alberti, Carpo argues, was constantly struggling for control of his products, something nearly impossible in an age of artisanal production. He gradually evolved a system of orthogonal projection – plan, section, elevation – to enable a one-to-one relationship between design and product: identicality. We still operate under this set of assumptions today, but their days are numbered.
After Alberti, Carpo rapidly shifts toward the present, lingering in particular on that transformative digital decade, the Nineties. Carpo effectively synthesizes an unruly net of conceptual threads (Deleuze and the fold, Calculus, the Baroque, the Blob) into an engaging but misleadingly linear narrative of the recent past. His analysis raises many questions (not the least of which are the veracity of his prognostications) but provides a beginners guide to the onset of digital representation and production. As an attempt at writing history in progress, this book succeeds because of its clarity.
Students should be aware of the changes afoot in the field they are entering, and therefore this book would make appropriate reading material for BIM and information technology courses. It is vitally important that those learning current platforms understand where they have come from and where they are going.
Carpo argues convincingly that designers need to engage in the production of tools. The alternative, says Carpo, is confinement to a prison house of software, forever limited by the capacities of our mechanisms. Perhaps that’s not so different from the past …