Horse Drawn Plow

A century ago a farmer needing to work his fields would rise early each morning and set about the task of harnessing his team of work horses, or oxen, to the plow or cultivator or wagon before setting out. Farmers did this with greater or lesser skill, but every farmer did it. At the end of the day the team was unharnessed, fed and cared for before the farmer could retire. Periodically manure was cleaned from the barn and used to fertilize the adjoining fields. When the tractor arrived on the scene all of this changed and the effort that went into the harnessing, driving, and caring for the farm’s horse-power was drastically altered. The horses were sold or sent to pasture or worse. Before too long the task of harnessing and driving a team of horses became a “lost art”, practiced only for pleasure or show or sales, purposes far removed from original utility.

We begin with this little analogy because many of the skills and tasks involved in the production of architecture are about to go the way of harnessing and driving a team of horses, becoming “lost arts” replaced by the rapidly expanding capabilities of new computers, the “Tractors for the Creative Mind” of our title. Predictably some will bemoan these developments and mourn the “lost arts” especially those of drawing by hand. They will forget that drawing as an art is not the same as drawing as a tool used in the making of architecture. What will drive the developments we are about to describe is a desire for simple convenience, for more precision with greater ease, just as tractors replaced horses because the point was not harnessing horses, but farming.

Our interest in the topic has been sparked by the realization that contemporary CAD systems have too many component pieces, are too awkward to use, and are too expensive to allow the university to put one in the hands of each student in a design program and, in their denial of cluttered desks, conceptual sketches, multiple references, and simultaneous tasks, don’t work as designers do anyway. In addition, it can be said that, at the moment, most CAD systems are merely an expensive alternative for doing the usual kinds of drawings faster, the benefits of which can be quickly neutralized by increased demand. We began to wonder what a computer would be like that added something new to the design process while offering economies of speed as well. Aware also that some criticism within the design profession accuses computers of separating people from each other by substituting electronics for direct contact, we felt it necessary to address an emerging dehumanized design process that threatens to isolate the architect from the client via modem, fax and telephone, to isolate the designer from the tactile quality of design by substituting screen image for the physical movements of drafting tools and the touch of pen or pencil to paper, and even separate design team members from one another by allowing them to do much of their work from home.

The specific questions we raised for ourselves were what impact would portable devices like the TABLET proposal from the University of Illinois or the Knowledge Navigator from Apple Computer have on the teaching and practice of architectural education? What might computers do for designers that is not merely a duplication of existing mechanical technique? How might the computer be used to offset the trend toward isolation? Our paper is not addressed toward the technical aspects of these issues, but toward suggesting directions for future developments in the CAD field. Our answers are part specification, part prediction and part challenge, intended to stimulate discussion in response to rapidly approaching change. Our intentions are not merely to predict, but are an attempt to share the future.

In approaching the questions posed above, we decided to focus upon the architectural drawing conventions by which designers communicate with themselves, with their clients and with building contractors. We decided to focus on what a designer does early in the building design process in order to master the programmatic requirements of the building, the presentation of a preliminary design to the client and the use of construction documents at the building site.

A few provisos are in order before beginning. First, future forecasting works like a simulation in which one variable, like TABLET, is introduced while all of to¬day’s normative values are assumed to continue unchanged and no catastrophic events of any kind occur. We know such a set of circumstances is highly unlikely, and therefore our predictions are most likely wrong. Second, while admitting that the misuse of technology is possible and potentially dangerous, we have an underlying optimism in the coming computer technology. We doubt that anyone currently younger than fifty will be able to avoid the need to develop computer skills. Third, we are the first to admit that the technology is no panacea, no guarantee against dumbness. As long as there are architects and students of architecture there will be some truly awful design work because ultimately it is not the technology but the ideas that are important. Finally, we think that architecture students generally are not well prepared to make positive contributions to the state of an environment undergoing severe stress. We think the new computer technology holds out a promise of doing things better.

In brief we think this tool will dramatically alter architectural education in four ways: (1) by affecting the acquisition and application of graphic skills; (2) by affecting the acquisition and application of the information which comprises professional knowledge; (3) by enhancing the synthesis or integration of skills and information in the design process; and (4) by allowing an emphasis on questions of human and social values that are at the heart of how and why any building is designed.

What follows is a series of scenarios illustrating how the TABLET technology might be used in the future, about the time someone who began first grade this fall, enters college twelve years from now. For certain 18 year olds then will be much like 18 year olds are now, with similar hopes, aspirations, fears and uncertainties. But computers are bound to improve substantially in that time. These improvements will be so marked that today’s technology is likely to bear little or no resemblance to the technology of the future. We think that in the space of two business cycles, computers will allow us to do easily things which were previously thought nearly impossible, like near instantaneous translation of foreign language documents, voice activation, electronic sketching, or sculpting virtual solid shapes out of thin air. What will almost certainly be different then is how the process of acquiring a college education occurs, even in that bastion of conservative change, architectural education.

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