The GSD's Digital Critical Conference: Pliancy as Survival

Sinking of the Titanic,” Stanley Tigerman, 1978Sinking of the Titans,” Josh Dannenberg, 2009






T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month. That rang true this year on several counts for designers. Not only did summer not “surprise us,” as it does in the poem, but it kept a gnawing distance—at least in Boston—and we shivered at our computers. News of projects put on hold and canceled deepened the chill. April numbers showed that investment in private residential, private nonresidential, and public structures each plunged at steep rates: 44, 33 and 17 percent, respectively. Predictions—that quickly proved true—emerged that America’s unemployment rate might hit a 25 year high. This was the psychological backdrop to my attendance at the 2nd annual Critical Digital Conference at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design April 18th.

The conference was entitled Who Cares(?), and I must admit that the pretentious and meaningless parentheses surrounding the question mark made me suspicious. But its publicized theme promised a robust conversation. It caught my interest when I read the following:

“The dependency on technology in contemporary design practice has raised critical questions of identity, authenticity, and responsibility at least on the side of the designer... How important is it for designers to know the mechanisms of software or hardware and therefore the limits that these technologies impose on design and does that even matter anymore?... This new realm [that of technology and globalizing economic & political forces] has emerged so rapidly, globally, and overwhelmingly, and yet so promisingly, enticingly, and conveniently, that very few care to address its long term consequences...Fancy images generated through computer graphics have replaced reality and, in turn, reality has been dominated, altered, and adjusted to fit a technological utopia.”

Indeed, some recent architecture projects were dreams fit for nothing but utopia—unrealistic, indulgent, and blind to the demands of function. One speaker, Josh Dannenberg, from Asymptote, introduced pliancy as a philosophy to address this problem. For material objects, substances, and—specifically relevant to the technological aspect of his discussion—digital surfaces pliancy describes flexibility and suppleness. It’s the ability to maintain the integrity of an internal structure while adapting to external forces be they mathematical (“algorithms, code blocks, genetics”), that is, quantitative, or environmental (physical, financial, structural), that is, qualitative. For designers pliancy is a question of submitting to the same external forces, but with recognition of intellectual limits and ethical considerations.

Josh purported that the rising level of digital skill in architectural practice would out of necessity and a forced pragmatism—born of our current economic crisis—overcome recent contemporary desires to practice free from the constraints of reality. See the towers sinking in his collage above. In other words, he argued that designers and their products would become more pliant. He argued, hopefully, that the crisis would inspire new technological applications.

Josh's presentation was a bit like a "yes we can" approach to digital technology's place in architecture's future. In fact, it reminded me of a weekly address Obama made in March. In it he reiterated the old idea that crisis is a time of great opportunity. Obama said, "And with every test, each generation has found the capacity to not only endure, but to prosper -- to discover great opportunity in the midst of great crisis." Pliancy might be a good philosophy in general for life's tests. Yet, pliancy will require the architect's ego to yield to what is sensible. That doesn't mean it shouldn't also be beautiful. We plan to keep a vigilant and expectant eye ready for examples.

 - N. Mendoza | Designer