We live in the age of the glitch. As the Internet of Things joins more and more things together, so too it creates more and more opportunities for digital hiccups or glitches – those small moments of malfunction made visible, when we get to see what’s going on (or not) under the proverbial bonnet. Within visual culture, with the number of words and exhibitions dedicated to “The New Aesthetic” in recent years, it’s fair to say that the glitch is alive and well in the eyes of contemporary artists at least. But what happens when this digital phenomenon translates to the (increasingly digitalised) territory of architecture? Fiona Shipwright speculates for uncube.
So much of the aesthetic of the glitch is informed by and plays out within the realm of the digitally ephemeral – the brief glimpses of a blue screen on an ATM, the surprisingly pleasing mistakes that can be found littered across Google Earth, the strange beauty of digital noise on a corrupted file. It’s curious then to consider what this might mean for architecture as a discipline that is primarily concerned with the physical production of very solid form. How might the influence of the aestheticisation of error affect the manifestation of the built environment?
Furthermore, glitch surely warrants attention within the field of architecture precisely because it is in this realm that aesthetics and technology are so inextricably woven together. This idea of ever-narrowing interdisciplinarity is reflected in the way in which we now use the term “singularity”: originally used to describe the moment at which computer processing overtakes the capabilities of the human brain, it has now effectively become shorthand for the way in which a combination of technologies (among them bionics, nano technologies, adaptive augmentation) converge, bringing profound change to how we live – and design – as human beings.
That built structures no longer arise solely from analogue blueprints but increasingly through very digital – and thus glitch susceptible – means such as 3D rendering engines serves to underline the point. It is through 3D engines that a Dutch film director Mischa Rozema of PostPanic Pictures has offered a glimpse of how this trajectory might shape, in both theory and practice, the future of the built environment.
Earlier this year Rozema released a proof-of-concept short film for his project entitled Sundays. Set in a version of Mexico City that exists 50,000 years in the future, Sundays makes use of compelling architectural imagery that arises as a result of simple premise: buildings that are able to repair themselves. In this way they quite literally, to borrow the language of software updates, patch themselves – rendering obsolete the need for something as irksome as human intervention.
That the city looks instantly reminiscent of its current incarnation so many millennia down the line is due to the fact that it is a straight copy of Mexico City. Convincing as this reproduction is though, something about it doesn’t look quite right, for it contains digital faults. But these are faults that can be read as clues, as Rozema explains: “In every copy – there are tiny mistakes. And tiny mistakes grow bigger all the time. So after 50,000 years we have some really grotesque looking environments. There’s a lot of visual stunning-ness that we can create from a premise like that.”
And stunning it is: looking something like what one would expect the Mexican capital to look like had Lebbeus Woods gone on a rampage though the city planning department. But it’s perhaps not so far-fetched an idea – the buildings in Sundays are not simply filled in concept sketches, they are the result of scientific modelling accurately representing how all this could play out. All that’s missing is the technology itself. The city’s “horror” element, if it can be called that, seems to lie in its similarity – its uncanny likeness – to present day urban vistas, briefly interrupted here and there by the glitches. It is, but it is not quite – and that is creepy.
At what point does our affinity towards the built environment suddenly give way? At what point does technical wonder turn into technological dread, plunging us into the architectural uncanny valley? The onscreen universe of Sundays is a curious mix of low res polygons and incredibly detailed (and partially ruined) cityscapes that brings to mind the pixelated battle grounds of computer games like Star Fox and Doom crossed with the construction-based endeavours of SimCity and Minecraft. Rozema’s film is of course an extreme example, a speculative scenario as cautionary tale. But there are contemporary examples to echo some of its speculative ideas, forcing us to reposition the notion of glitch not just as mere curiosity but instead as something we should be on the look out for – before the mistakes get too difficult to spot.
In 2011 Gramazio Kohler built a brick wall with robotic assistance as part of an exhibition at the FRAC Centre Orléans. Over the past decade or so, the Swiss architects, who have a research unit for “Architecture and Digital Fabrication” based at ETH Zurich, have built many such walls utilising the skills of an impressive collection of robotic arms. However, this one marked a point of departure from previous endeavours, having been “dropped down” by a small swarm of drones rather than “built up” by a sedentary machine.
Whilst an arresting sight, “Flight Assembled Architecture” still adheres to the traditional understanding of the act of building: a mediating force, separate from and external to the building comes along, picks up materials and brings the design into physical being. In this respect, Gramazio Kohler’s dropped-by-drones wall is obviously a fair few steps away from the self-building architecture of Sundays, but such methods already indicate a subtle shift in the visuals of assemblage when it comes to our urban landscapes.
For should drone building become a more common practice, as the discourse surrounding the Smart City seems to promise it will, building sites could start to look quite different, with 3D printed components arriving from the sky as opposed to rising upwards from a network of scaffolding and hoardings. In this way we could lose a strand of our visual language – scaffolding as signifier of “something is happening here” – an often confusing and/or hyperbolic but nonetheless familiar vernacular so wonderfully documented by uncube correspondent Crystal Bennes in her Development Aesthetics tumblr project. Is it this loss of something so prosaic which is perhaps more uncanny than the epic constructions of doom in Sundays? The far more mundane sense of unease that may arise when we are presented with buildings (or even cities) that we as humans have no hand in building? And as the apparatuses of building disappear – be it scaffolding or drone – do the tiny mistakes become ever more undetectable?
After all, as Rosa Menkman, the Dutch artist and curator who has worked extensively on the aesthetics of glitch describes it: “the glitch is a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident.”
Accidents happen, sure. It’s the ones we can’t perceive that we should be worried about.
For further reading on more digital and physical confluence issues in architecture, including an interview with Jan Willmann, Senior Research Assistant at the Chair of Architecture and Digital Fabrication at ETH Zurich, read uncube magazine no. 36: Uncanny Valley