Cambridge Talks: Other Histories of the Digital

Cambridge Talks 2019

The historical narrative of digital architecture that has developed in the past two decades has been narrow in scope. Accounts have often focused on North American and European architects using personal computers and modeling software in schools and offices. Other Histories of the Digital aims to expand the discussion. What stories and methods come to the fore as we look at computation as a phenomenon with global reach, and which implicates many media and diverse forms of labor?

Organized by PhD students in the History and Theory of Architecture program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design: Matthew Allen, Phillip Denny, Christina Shiveres


April 1

PhD Colloquium (Stubbins 112)

Keynote (Piper Auditorium): Michael Osman (UCLA)


April 2

Symposium Presentations (Stubbins 112)

Panel 1: Global

The digital is global. Digital processes involve global infrastructures: data centers, trans-oceanic cables, programming outsourced to workers in developing countries. Computers have been used in unique ways by architects the world over. (Is not “global history” always about the details of local contexts?) And yet the modern electronic computer was initially a product of the Anglo-American military-industrial-academic complex. Nevertheless, computation has sometimes been portrayed as a thorn in the side of Western architecture’s canon: data is opposed to precedent, formal logic is set against creative intuition, automation versus autonomy. The computer arrived in architecture offices and schools as no more than (and no less than) a disruptive force. How can reframing the digital as a global phenomenon open up other histories of architecture?

Panel 2: Media

Media techniques, media infrastructures, media regimes: the many overlapping valences of “media” has made the term a favorite among historians seeking to reframe their subjects. At the same time, digital architecture involves one of today’s most ubiquitous mediators: the interactive computer. This poses a wicked problem for historians: potential directions of investigation tend to spiral outward, from mines of rare earth metals and factories producing chips, to corporate offices and management techniques, to manufacturing processes and software ecologies — the list goes on. Within such assemblages, buildings and their architects might begin to disappear as insignificant parts. One thing is certain: history is written differently when it is written from the perspective of media. What should be included in media histories of the digital? And what are the methods to use?


Panel 3: Labor

Computation has often been understood as a threat to architecture in a very concrete way: optimizing workflows threatens to make architects obsolete. This has not happened, yet, but digital architecture has employed new forms of labor and redistributed power across the professional landscape. Offices now employ so-called “CAD monkeys” and “digital savants,” and “draftsman” is an anachronistic job description. Hierarchies have not disappeared, and yet authority sometimes consolidates in the hands of whomever “owns” the BIM file. Slick renderings of alluring forms might be all the more effective at occluding abhorrent working conditions than were their hand-drafted equivalents. Historians face their own conundrums in sorting out these issues. How can historians give voice to the voiceless? Where do we find the evidence of practices and thoughts so common as to be left unrecorded?

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