This book is a fleet-footed and exhaustive survey of the role of Eliot Noyes, Charles Eames and many others in the IBM Design Program. Though ostensibly focused on architecture, author John Harwood effectively integrates industrial, graphics, and exhibition design through a series of chapters that explore their roles in the development of both the computer and the multinational corporation. Harwood argues that these designers, Noyes in particular, were essential in assessing the importance of interfaces on both fronts. In outlining the division between “parlor and coal cellar” in the design of computers, and naturalizing the increasingly prominent role of computers and other teletechnologies in daily life through exhibitions and architecture, the IBM Design Program transformed the role of design in both realms.
The strongest and most engrossing of Harwood’s chapters for me is his third, which deals with IBM’s architecture. Not only did Noyes’ firm complete a series of buildings for IBM on their own, Noyes hand selected the architects for most major commissions. The results, though typologically (and topologically) similar, speak to the diversity of thought on modern architecture during the mid to late 20th Century. For Harwood, what makes these buildings important is not just their aesthetic diversity, but the integration of their technological function with their organization. Many of these buildings were either inward-facing or entirely isolated, though their control on the surrounding environment belied this isolation. The further inward these buildings focused, the more command they embodied.
Harwood’s concluding observations have to contend with the recent trajectory of corporate design (1976-Present) and this presents some difficulty. Noyes, through his prominent role as design consultant, seems to have designed and managed his way out of the process, to have made his role redundant. Today’s corporate design culture is much different and more resistant to outside influence (for more see my recent article on Apple’s architectural patronage in CLOG: Apple).
Harwood sees methodological transformation in the research at hand, specifically progress toward the removal of aestheticization from histories of architecture and technology. The appearance of things can no longer be the only way of assessing their significance. The world that present-day historians have to contend with is dramatically different from that even a generation ago, and their methods must change in response. Harwood has provided an elegant model.
This was originally written for a seminar taught by Lisa Hsieh at the Ohio State University (it’s been heavily edited since then), but it seems appropriate for this format as well. It’s a bit longer than usual, but I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while and want to just get it out there. I’ve been a bit afraid to publish it because at the moment it feels a bit like Walter Pichler is my own personal hero that no one else is talking about. I’m sure I’ll get over that. Here goes…
[Architecture] is born of the most powerful thoughts. For men it will be a compulsion, they will stifle in it or they will live – live, as I mean the word. […] [Architecture] has no consideration for stupidity and weakness. It never serves. It crushes those who cannot bear it. […] Machines have taken possession of [architecture] and human beings are now merely tolerated in its domain […] 
A statement of singular nihilism, unabashed iconoclasm; a statement Ulrich Conrads once called “the most absolute thesis” in all twentieth century architecture. Austrian sculptor and architect Walter Pichler wrote these words in 1962, on the eve of an exhibition on which he collaborated with fellow Viennese architect Hans Hollein. Titled “Absolute Architecture,” the exhibition added two new voices to the growing chorus of dissent aimed at derailing architectural functionalism. For Pichler and Hollein, architecture was not what it enables, nor what in encloses, but what it is. Architecture is a thing, and it can take whatever form an architect wishes. Given this seemingly impossible assignment, Pichler and Hollein developed a series of underground buildings, modeled by Pichler in bronze and concrete. These underground environments were to have extensive environmental controls so that their position underground would not matter. The two were at this time fascinated by such simulation and the media by which it is accomplished. Though the weight of these first models ended with “Absolute Architecture,” both Pichler and Hollein recycled their conceptual bases in subsequent investigations.
For Hollein, this took the form of literal environmental simulators like his Non-Physical Environment Pill (1967) and later Svobodair Spray (1971), both of which were hypothetical propositions about the power of environmental simulation. Pichler also experimented with such hypotheses in the late sixties, most transparently in the works of his “Prototypes” exhibition of 1967. These strange objects critique new media’s ability to induce laziness and atrophy. Three of these works in particular—TV Helmet/Portable Living Room, Small Room, and Intensivbox—form a kind of suite, all taking roughly the form of an isolation chamber and including media inputs. For Pichler, it seems, media isn’t architecture, hence he makes it architecture by creating armatures to embody its physical presence.
These works are also a critique of his one-time collaborator Hans Hollein’s ironic assertion that “everything is architecture.” TV Helmet/Portable Living Room (1967) and Small Room (1967) are to be worn, while the unrealized Intensivbox is a spherical chamber into which a subject is slid on a track. These isolating simulators remove one from a given reality and can be seen as the ultimate conclusion of technology’s encroachment on the body. Constructed of plastic and embedded with television sets and speakers, these helmets enhance the television experience to the detriment of all else. Pichler hoped to isolate and insulate himself (and his viewers) from the pitfalls of consumerism and media obsession, but in his helmets this took the form of a literal representation of such pitfalls. The “consumer” is isolated from her environment, but within the helmet only media are permitted as input.
For Pichler, media are far from participatory but instead somnambulating and hypnotizing, pulling humanity’s attention away from its greatest attributes. Instead of making human abilities more numerous, like prosthetics, the Portable Living Room and Small Room disable a subject from moving with their usual acuity. Unlike the other helmets designed by his Viennese contemporaries, Pichler’s don’t provide more experience or more engagement, but instead subtract. It’s terribly ironic, therefore, that Pichler subtitles his piece “Portable Living Room,” because it is certainly not portable, and at best a shoddy simulation of a living room. The Portable Living Room enables a person to remain motionless, separating them from their obligations and necessities to simply be entertained. Pichler sees media not as enabling but disabling, entrapping, enabling of nothing more than laziness.
Pichler’s critique mirrors German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology.” Like Heidegger, Pichler rentains a rigorous skepticism towards technology. Speaking of techne, Heidegger writes, “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral […].” Pichler’s provocation is that if one let’s media (or technology more generally) isolate and insulate, it will be to the detriment of other abilities. If a helmet is a Portable Living Room, it means the only important part of the room is the television. Perhaps Pichler foresaw the perpetuation of television’s war on education, its wholesale adoption of entertainment and its denigration of objectivity, choosing to critique these regressions with ironic constructs enabling television’s conquest of attention at the expense of all other sensory function. As television becomes an ever-more self-referential and solipsistic media, early critiques like Pichler’s have only gained poignancy.
Many today sit idle at their terminals or on their sofas for extended periods, limiting the need for handicraft and patience. In Pichler’s world, these traits are paramount, and any device or medium that disables them is worthy of demonization. Pichler doesn’t see technology as an enabler of the strenuous life so much as a preventer. Like the simulation machines in the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix series, Pichler’s helmets and immersive environments provide an armature within which movement is unnecessary.
Instead of a destruction of the technology he demonizes, Pichler constructs ridiculous analogs to their abilities. If television provides a subtle escape from the ordinary, Pichler’s helmets enhance this ability to the point of absurdity. Pichler’s environmental simulators aren’t portable, and in fact limit one’s range of motion quite significantly. Portable Living Room is the best illustration of this fact, it’s elaborate counterweighted system protruding from both sides of the subject’s head obtrusively. It doesn’t fold, doesn’t retract, and doesn’t provide anything but sensory input. One puts it on because of a desire to be isolated. With his “Prototypes,” Pichler definitively states an interest in isolation, a concern that would come to dominate his career thereafter. It is almost as if he is rehearsing a retreat, one that would come to fruition in the mid-seventies, when Pichler indeed retreated from public life to his property at St. Martin’s in the Tyrol region of western Austria, a place dominated by its geography, removed physically and psychologically from the bustle of modern Vienna where Pichler received his artistic training. Returning only to exhibit and to sell his drawings, Pichler remains free to explore and create at his own pace and in his own idiom. These drawing sales have funded an increasingly isolated practice, concerned with sculpting and with constructing ever-more-complex armatures and environments for said sculptures.
Perhaps calling his buildings environments sells short his activity. His constructs are worlds, worlds in which his work is isolated from both critique and the media-obsessed culture it critiques. They are in fact alternate—but not virtual—realities in which his work can remain indefinitely. The “Prototypes” can also be thought of as such. More than mere simulators or enhancers, they offer the subject another world to inhabit, portable or otherwise. Pichler must have imagined himself within them, isolated from the laborious requirements of contemporary life. But ultimately this subtle escape wasn’t enough, leading Pichler back to the Tyrolean Alps, free from his obligations in Vienna and free to investigate the kind of craft- and skill-based sculptural techniques he felt technology would eventually preclude.
 Excerpted from Pichler, Walter. “Absolute Architecture,” in Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture edited by Ulrich Conrads (London: Lund Humphries, 1970): 181. In this manifesto, Pichler develops the thesis that architecture cannot act as anything but an impediment to humanity.
 Conrads wrote this in his introduction to “Absolute Architecture,” written in 1970. Programs and Manifestoes, 181.
 Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays translated by William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977): 4.
Remember the Villa NM? UN Studio’s house for upstate New York, completed a couple years ago and destroyed by fire not a year after its widespread publication? Haven’t we heard this one before? An impossibly pristine architectural vision is destroyed beyond recognition, only to come to prominence later in life? Like many lost architectures before it, the Villa NM seemed destined for destruction. A little bit too white, too shiny, too pristine to exist in perpetuity. Something like a Barcelona Pavilion for the age of Photoshop, in more ways than one.
Like Mies van der Rohe’s genre-defining collage of space and material, UN Studio’s Villa could serve as a watershed in the brief history of our digital architecture. Odd, then, that it should have its origins in such a simple diagrammatic model, a morphing of plane from horizontal to vertical. So much contemporary architecture is based on over-the-top complexity and excess, but its transformative diagram might have more power as an advance over the three modernist masters’ transformations: Wright’s blurring of inside to outside in his Prairie houses, Le Corbusier’s liberation of the ground in Villa Savoye, and Mies van der Rohe’s performative staging of the Farnsworth House.
UN Studio’s move, then, is the contemporary zero-gravity equation of wall and floor, the single-surface so central to the last two decades of design, but in simple, digestible form. Along with the Yokohama Port Terminal by FOA and perhaps OMA’s Educatorium at Utrecht, the Villa NM assembles a demonstrative canon of sorts, illustrations of the possibilities of the new, folded diagram of the twenty-first century. What does all this have to do with Photoshop, you might ask? It’s a question of collage.
At some point in the nineties, Rem Koolhaas coined the term “Photoshopism” to describe a group of new techniques overturning the hegemony of collage over post-modernity. If transparency and pure form (Analytical Cubism) permeated modernism, the logic of collage (Synthetic Cubism) has permeated all the movements of postmodern architecture since the seventies. Then came Photoshop, the logic of which overturns collage through the instrumentalization of blur, dodge, burn, pixelation, texture, et cetera et cetera.
The wall-to-floor diagram is a blur and a morph, formal as well as conceptual, social as well as political. It’s a connection between the three modernist diagrams, morphing between Wright, Corb and Mies, conflating their political agendas into a postmodern cocktail of libertarianism and socialism and performance. But then one night in early 2008 it disappeared, at least as far as further photographic documentation is concerned. All we have are some overworked photographs, some drawings and a digital model or two. There will be no Savoye-esque farm storage phase, no pilgrimage cycle, no rebirth. It was over before if got started. But maybe that’s perfect for this materialistic, media-saturated age, in which planned obsolescence is a problem as well as a solution.
Such obsolescence was part of the reason Barcelona Pavilion, along with Alvar Aalto’s Finnish Pavilion for New York and Melnikov’s USSR Pavilion among others, became so canonical. Their immortality was perpetuated by the unsustainable level of polish captured by photographs. It’s terribly premature to canonize the Villa NM, but this is just the internet after all, and the halflife of this post is most likely even shorter than the house itself.
The architect who proposes to run with technology knows now that he will be in fast company, and that, in order to keep up, he may have to emulate the Futurists and discard his whole cultural load, including the professional garments by which he is recognized as an architect. If, on the other hand, he decides not to do this, he may find that a technological culture has decided to go on without him. [Reyner Banham, 1960]
I’ve just finished reading Banham’s masterly introduction to early modern architecture, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, and was struck in particular by the above quotation. It seems to encapsulate the central problematic of not only that heady age, but our own.
The choice, as Banham frames it, is between Futurism and Academicism, between a framework emptied of history and one overflowing with it. Banham takes for granted (his later work notwithstanding) a mythical future age in which technology and architecture are in symbiosis, one in which Buckminster Fuller has been declared prophet and messiah, and the Futurist dream of disposable buildings has been realized. But it seems this future would also require the dissolving of disciplinary boundaries.
Intervening years have found architecture unwilling to submit, instead refocusing on the discipline’s “interiority” through several iterations of postmodernism. In the end, Banham’s was interpreted as just one more piece of what Manfredo Tafuri would come to call “operative criticism,” a motivated and subjective history meant to direct rather than document. But this Structuralist hyperbole has long since become untenable, and perhaps it’s time to reconsider Banham’s polemic.
Though it’s quite clear architecture and technology have maintained their delicate balance since Banham wrote these words, change has come in recent years to representation, not just realization. As many have observed, the modern movement was brought on by a critical mass of advancements to construction, but the technology of representation remained the same throughout it’s period of dominance. Like construction technologies, the digitization of drawing cannot help but have a revolutionary effect on architecture.
A more apt temporal model for the transformation currently underway might be the Renaissance, when technologies advanced to a degree that drawings could be reproduced in print. Mario Carpo has written that because of this shift, “the architectural forms being built throughout Europe changed in a sudden and radical way–but without any corresponding change in either materials or construction procedures.” (Architecture in the Age of Printing, 5)
That being said, what has Banham’s analysis to teach us? In short, to quit being so stubborn and acquiesce. Resistance to the onset of new methods is not only futile but untenable.
Banham faults the moderns for inadequately transforming architecture and ultimately returning to old modes of thought and composition. Change in construction methods was inadequate to transform modes so deeply ingrained. The modern movement fell short of transforming architecture at a structural level, maintaining the conventions of pictorial representation and of line, plane and volume as compositional elements. It’s revolution was both social and aesthetic, but failed to change the way we conceive and describe our buildings.
One might say technologies of digital representation have already allowed some to conceive of an architecture of points, an architecture no longer based on two dimensional drawings but on descriptions as complex as the buildings themselves. Greg Lynn says that this is the age of calculus, and perhaps he’s right. But we can’t fall into the same trap as the moderns, whose machine-mania was based on only a base understanding of the machines they championed; they jumped to conclusions, and ultimately only represented rather than transformed.
But there comes a certain amount of amateurism whenever architects proclaim an interest in anything but buildings; we are ultimately laypersons at everything else. Perhaps the expectation that architecture be transformed is based on a less-than-complete understanding of architecture itself.
In his last completed essay “A Black Box: The Secret Profession of Architecture,” Banham posits that architecture, as he understood it, is a mode of designing, one “recognized in its output but unknown in its contents.” (A Critic Writes, 293) Architecture, by his definition, isn’t building design, nor even “good” building design, but a mysterious modum architectum in which some makers of buildings act. He states that architecture, after all, isn’t defined by what is done, but how it’s done; Architecture, with a capital A, is only “the making of drawings for buildings in the manner practiced in Europe since the Renaissance,” and nothing more. (298) A transformation of this mode of doing architecture, then, would mean the end of architecture itself.
Now we know what’s at stake. We can either play the Futurist and discard the weighty cultural burden we carry, or keep our “professional garments” and ultimately be left behind. Neither seems terribly attractive.