The Dilemma of Technology

Peter Rice

Any essay on technology is about a very modern dilemma. In building and architecture, this has come to be typified by the argument between the modern and post-modern styles, between the Grande Arche de la Défense in Paris (pp. 224-25) on the one hand and the National Gallery extension in London (pp. 272-75) on the other. Both use the same modern building technology and have the same aims, in performance and comfort, and in efficiency, and yet they represent very different views of today's technological world.

Technology and its power define the essence of our life today. Not only is it everywhere, it is in and about everything, a continuous, massive, growing influence which controls and dominates every aspect of Western life. To talk of technology as something separate is to misunderstand the issue. Anything you touch or do is inextricably embedded in its own technology. It demands know-how and skill, and the utilization of an evergrowing amount of new information, mostly not fully comprehended. Technology is out of control, that is certain, and cannot now be stopped. But whether it will lead to our destruction or will continue to benefit us, as it has largely done up to now, is not so clear. There are ominous clouds overhead.

As a simple test, to understand technology and what it means, look at a non-technological activity like gardening. As I write, I am looking out on an English country garden, a haven, you would think, from all the aggressions of our technological age. But is it? The plants have all been bred and cross-bred to produce special strains to give extra colour, extra quality in the fruit, extra shelf-life. The mix of plants is carefully chosen to suit the soil. The lawn, filled with weeds though it is, demands to be treated and fed with special lawn compounds. Really there should not be a lawn there at all, as it is not the right soil, but that can be solved. The toolshed, with its lawnmower and other machines, its special organic feeds using traditional methods', is filled with the products of our industrial society. The farm opposite, which has 150 overweight cows, now confined because it is winter in an ugly industrial shed to improve the milk yield, pollutes this environment too and must keep up with the latest developments, otherwise it cannot survive. And beyond are the Downs, with a prehistoric burial mound; cleared in Roman times, they have been preserved from change as a memory of our past.

Building, providing shelter and water and roads, was the first wholly man-made technology. It has a long history, containing as it does many of the leaps in understanding made by man as he sought to control and dominate his environment. The architecture and that understanding often went hand in hand. The Romans, the Gothic masons, the early-19th-century entrepreneurs and many, many others developed an architecture which reflected their understanding of the materials available to them and how these could be used. Architecture and technology were one. An architecture could be understood by looking at its technology - not always, of course, but there were generally clues of form, shape and texture which derived from the materials being used. Technology was simpler in those days. One man, an individual, could know all the rules of building and a talented individual could advance that understanding and invent new forms.

The structure of the architectural and construction professions reflects this long history. In most Western societies, especially in Europe, architecture remains with medicine and the law one of the liberal professions. This comes from those simpler times when one man could expect to understand how to build, and instruct others in what to do. Those days have long disappeared. First there were specialists. Structural engineers, like myself, calculated how a building would resist gravity and other environmental forces. Then came services engineers, deciding on plumbing, heating, cooling. In the beginning this was welcomed; it offered architects and designers a wonderful new freedom. But slowly all the functional aspects of construction were controlled by their specialists. The architect consulted and worked with them and, by teamwork, together they designed the building. This is where we are today. But this implies that the architect and his design team control the process of building. Sadly the reality is not quite so simple, because this model ignores the role of industry. It ignores above all the role of the industrial product called modern building.

Renzo Piano, The Menil Collection Museum,

Houston, Texas

Renzo Piano, The Menil Collection Museum,

Houston, Texas

You could describe the process differently. Like the gardener, the architect, with his team of specialists, goes to the catalogue, selects the industrial products he will use and assembles them. He or the team may not even understand how these products work. And it is only those in the catalogue which he may use. In varying degrees, and depending on the development of the industrial nature of the society, the choice of what he builds, of what he may use, is becoming more and more limited. The industrial-financial framework in which building takes place is the overriding factor in deciding what we build and how it will be built. Today's building has moved a long way from the direct relationship between materials and form. What a building will look like is a completely separate discussion from the way it is built. Often, as I see a new building go up, I play a game of trying to guess the materials, the architectural lineage of its final appearance. Usually I am wrong, because there is no need for any relationship between the way a building is built and how it will look, and in the infinite variety of modern built form it is impossible to guess what the final image will be.

This, then, is the first and most important reality of technology today: substance and image are separate. And in the years since 1970, this has become more evident. We, the designers, are losing ground all the time. We can no longer decide what a building should be, but only how it should look. There are illusions of control. We may feel that we instruct the contractor, but in reality we select and suggest.

If America and Japan are the harbingers of the Europe of tomorrow, then the situation is disturbing. In the US, the choice for many building elements is very limited. Recently, in a project in Houston, Texas (The Menil Collection Museum), the European design team proposed roof elements in ferrocement, chosen because of its lightness and visual fragility. Houston is close to the Gulf of Mexico, where boat manufacture and the use of ferrocement would normally be found. After much research an American patent method of manufacture was chosen, but we were unable to find a US contractor to make the elements. Their manufacture did not fit in with management systems. They were too unusual. The contractors offered to make the closest precast parallel, by a standard production method. They would look the same,' they said, which was not true. Surface texture and certain critical dimensions would have been different and they would not have had the same durability or resistance to deterioration in the Houston weather. Eventually, a number of European companies willing to manufacture them to the specifications were found and they were shipped to site.

In Japan, this same monolithic approach permeates the industry. Then there is the added problem that most architects and engineers work for contractors. Most design is done in-house. This means that the company's latest technology dominates the decision making. And what is built, even when designed by one of the few independent designers, is translated into acceptable contractor designs before building actually takes place.

So the message is clear. Technology, with all its power and the investment made in it, is slowly but surely eliminating choice. And the trend is continuing that way. Part of the reason for this is the financial framework within which building is carried out. Time is money. Every building erected today is under enormous pressure to complete as quickly as possible. Perhaps it was always so. Even in 19th-century London, buildings such as the Savoy Hotel were finished in twelve months. The more efficient and quicker a building system is, the more financially viable the development becomes. American building techniques are typically 30 per cent faster than the best that can be achieved in Europe, and the typical Japanese construction is 10 per cent faster still. All this systemization, all the reduction in choice, gives buildings which are quicker to build, relatively cheaper, and more efficient than ever before.

This essay is not intended as a diatribe against modern technology. It is, however, important to understand it and its context. It is the reality of our life today, and tomorrow, and until or if there is some cataclysm which forces us to re-examine everything. Such a dramatic change could be brought about by the Green Movement. Slowly, all technology is becoming subject to scrutiny. The explosion at Chernobyl, the greenhouse effect and a general awareness of the fragility of our Earth are forcing us to reconsider the assumptions underlying our way of life. We are being asked to think about the long-terms effects of our decisions and to examine how the Earth's resources can best be used. The motor car, symbol of our modern way of life, is the first to be put to the test. Building cannot be far behind. No real analysis of the cost in environmental pollution, energy consumption and recycling exists for buildings. It will surely come, and when it does many of today's assumptions will be turned on their heads. This may become the catalyst which puts technology back in the hands of the designers.

What are the principal ingredients of this modern technological world which have changed most since 1970? I would choose three: manufacturing and assembly methods: old, new and redeveloped old materials; and information systems, which is by far the most important in the period since 1970. It is here that the real changes are taking place, and it is here also that we find the real hope, and fear, for the future. As the effect of the information revolution dominates everything else, we shall examine it first.

'Design by Computer' has become one of the icons of modern mythology. The term contains the essence of our dilemma, because it illustrates very clearly the way this exponential growth in our power to analyse has been used. It is perhaps inevitable that any new tool, like new materials, will be seen as a replacement for something that already exists. Computers can carry out much more complex and much more detailed calculations and analysis than were possible before. This has led to demands for more detailed proof that structures work, for example. No longer is it possible to hand-calculate a structure or environmental system and rely on engineering instinct to ensure that a structural solution is correct. Instead we must produce detailed computer justification for every effect and every detail. Complex detailed analysis, which the computer then sorts and explains, must be carried out even for the most banal structure.

The same is the case with computer drawing for architects. The computer can do it, therefore it must be done. The computer and its software has become an interface between designers and their product. Through this interface, designers are losing their physical feel for material and detail that was the hallmark of good designers in previous times. Computer programmes by their very nature are limited by the imagination and perception of those who write them. Good as they are, they are essentially replacing systems which already existed. Their principal use is to improve the flow of information between client, designers and site and to facilitate rapid change at a late stage. To date, very few people are using computers to explore areas where investigation is impossible without the machine's powers of analysis.

It is likely that this trend will grow; the principal use of computers and computer technology will continue to be as a communication and analysis tool. Clients, architects, engineers and contractors will seek an integrated computer system which enables each to understand and monitor the others' work. This trend has already happened in the case of larger, powerful clients, who often require their design team to equip themselves with computers and software which can be linked to their own in-house system. This enables them to record and monitor the flow of information between professionals and to store and archive information for the future when they are occupying the building. All this sophistication means that the process of design and project management has become more complex but more responsive. The client, the design team and the contractors become a single entity able to communicate quickly and simply, provided each has the ability to understand and manipulate the communication technology.

It is, of course, right that the building industry should become more efficient. Many outsiders, and indeed many insiders also, wonder how the industry can be so archaic in the age of the space shuttle and the intelligent bomb. The management changes and pressures just described have improved efficiency as their goal, and slowly this is happening. Many leading manufacturers and retailers have developed their products to the point that they can give a very precise specification and work method to their design and construction team, which enables them to have quickly and cheaply buildings which are suited to their needs. I see this becoming the industry norm, with effective and comprehensive packages available to the most unskilled client which will enable them to monitor the whole process of design and construction.

One further element needs to be noted in this general advance in the technology of management - the arrival in Europe of construction managers. These are 'management consultants' who carry out on the client's behalf all aspects of running the job, and many indeed run the site on the client's behalf as well. These construction management firms, which started in the US, have followed their US masters to Europe. Many major international projects in Europe, such as Euro-Disneyland, function in this way. It is likely that this too will become more common. It offers many advantages to clients, who can subcontract all those perplexing and unpleasant management tasks and can concentrate on just thinking of what they want.

All this offers the designer a confused picture of the impact of the computer revolution. Is this great change in the way we work and think really only going to lead to the designer becoming a small element in the whole process of design and construction of the modern building, or can it be used to reclaim the role of leader and progenitor of new ideas? The architect and designers must realize the possibilities that this new technology offers and use it positively to their advantage.

There is another aspect to the use of computers in design and analysis which is rarely explored, but which could in time lead to change as important and profound as the change in management structure. I am thinking of the use of computers to explore forms and shapes of construction not previously possible. The modern building is a complex machine. Not just in structure, but mechanically, electrically and electronically, and in environmental building management, modern buildings require a great deal of information to mat mat

Foster Associates, Stansted Air Terminal

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