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Reverse Zone, weblog on urban planning, sustainability, and technology.

Martin Laplante

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Wed, 11 Feb 2009

The Telescope is Backward

Why is is that within a century we have moved from a rigid grid of streets and an elegant hierarchical arrangement of features on buildings to what we have now, mindless repetition of features on buildings and an elegant hierarchical arrangement of streets, when we know that both of these are wrong? It's ironic that the economies of scale from mass production optimize to such socially destructive solutions.

I was struck some time ago by an anecdote from Christopher Alexander where he describes how they were faced with the problem of creating intricate patterns in a two acre marble floor in Athens. While our distant ancestors found marble inlay work worthwhile, with the Taj Mahal the ultimate expression of this art, modern construction budgets typically do not allow that amount of labour or elapsed time. But modern technology came to the rescue, and they set up computer-controlled water jet cutters to pre-fabricate the pieces.

Is architecture technology constrained? Our ancestors did not have the technology for large thin sheets of marble, for large panes of glass, for the large spans we can get courtesy of the tensile strength of steel. They had to break it down and assemble it from smaller elements like columns and arches. Is is just nostalgia to prefer older styles? And has current technology made them a luxury no longer compatible with current production methods? The marble floor example illustrates that diverging from large-scale repetition of large elements is no longer difficult, with CAD and CAM and a variety of materials and methods. But architects choose not to. In fact, they use the awesome computing power of finite element analysis for deconstructivist buildings, creating structures that are warped in all senses of the word.


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