Convention, Design /

Future of Design: Where is the Heat?

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Atlanta-based technology and business website Hypepotamus asked experts from all corners of the design industry, from architecture to lifestyle branding, what big influences and changes they’re see shape the future of design. Referencing his more than 35 years of architecture practice on iconic, complex projects both domestic and abroad, Principal Kevin Gordon offered a deep dive into his insights of the past, present and future of design. The following was excerpted for the article, which you can read in its entirety here

A close friend of mine, Satoshi Ohashi, was the visionary architect Zaha Hadid’s employee number 4, back when her office occupied only the gymnasium of a former girl’s highs school in the Clerkenwell neighborhood of London. At the time, the designs were hand drawn, based on swooping, emotional visions out of a wooden box of Victorian era railroad curves. These “hot” visions were translated into 2d drawings of X,Y&Z coordinates using a hand calculator that was jokingly unreliable, but still probably tenfold the power of the overwhelmed Apollo 11 lunar module. The black background paintings of Zaha’s theoretical projects, produced by Zaha and Michael Wolfson, have inspired my profession for almost 40 years.

At the same time, Max Protetch was hustling architectural drawings out of his Soho, Manhattan gallery for Michael Graves, John Heduk and others. These drawings were also “hot” in that they conveyed the process, emotional intent and intellectual curiosities behind the act of design in a single, precious, frameable act. Another good friend of mine, Peter Waldman, an early “employee” of Michael Graves, was “paid” with Michael’s yellow trash paper sketches, as if they were redeemable at the local grocery store as company script. These sketches, probably still hanging on Peter’s dining room walls, could now finance a comfortable retirement.

The point is, these “hot” drawings were valuable because they had value- they embodied a human, personal hand in an era that was reacting against the place-less “flattening” of the corporate manifestations of the International Style. If post-modernism was a reaction against the impersonality of modernism, then the return to drawing was the tangible evidence of that reaction.

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At the same time on the other coast, Frank Gehry, now known for his fluid, gestural designs for the Guggenheim Bilbao or LA’s Disney concert hall, jettisoned the bomb site fragmentation of deconstructionism, becoming mesmerized by fish, and attempted a pavilion for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the shape of a floating, shimmery 52 meter long fish- El Peix. Gehry’s compulsive vision was not easily realizable with hand-drawn drawings, so he turned to a computer software platform, CATIA, developed by the aerospace industry to mathematically document their fluid shapes. However, Gehry for El Peix and his later projects for Disney and Bilbao, continued to design by producing gestural fluid shapes through his personal explorations of thin paper models that were in turn translated into CATIA’s 3D algorithms using a digitizer wand- like something out of a Harry Potter movie. For Gehry, the act of design was still and is still “hot”- handmade, emotional and spontaneous.

Three decades later, why is all this still important to me? An unintended consequence of Frank Gehry’s adoption of computational, algorithmic documentation of his hand generated maquettes is the now common use of these “subscription” platforms – computer 3D design software applications that are globally available to both GENERATE and document design. This 3D drafting, commonly called Revit, can seamlessly link drafting to fabrication, with the resultant speed to market and profit (for the construction industry) implications of cutting out layers of traditional human intervention, and craft. Liberated from the speed governors of hand drawn 2d plans, sections and laboriously constructed perspectival views, young designers now conjure architecture free form like jazz using “scripts” of algorithmic, parametric equations. Ironically, coupled with a “go-to” resource of Chinese rendering companies that grew out of the visionary, entrepreneurial company Crystal, the liberation of this technology is fostering a new, “cold” international style of flattened culture. The result- a design envisioned in a historic district in Hanoi is equally not at home in Quito, Ecuador, because these new impersonal tools often enable an impersonal process.

So, where is the heat?

For me, Zaha and Frank Gehry had it right, 30 years ago. Design is an emotive, tactile, physical act. The hot, messy explorations of painting, modeling, or sketching are the procreative precursor to the emotive, tactile and physical joy of experiencing a lyrical work of architecture. Part of the human joy of inhabiting a work of architecture is the acknowledgement of the wonder of its creation by human hands and imagination. It is the unsung chorus between author and audience. Fortunately, the computer graphics industry, or CGI, is working to replicate a sense of Gehry’s process from the 1990’s. At present, designers “design” on QWERTY keyboards, a non-sensical merger of a high school typing class and three dimensional space. What the CGI industry hopes to recapture is the physical act of making- sketching, painting, modeling coupled to the speed to market documentation of the mathematical, algorithmic platform of Revit.

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At the commercially available moment, a large iPad Pro with the (magic) Pencil is the best bridge between physical and digital. The drawing nib is fine, responsive, pressure sensitive and position sensitive giving apps like Procreate, Paper 53, Sketches, Trace and Notability the ability to simulate physical drawing media. Outputs are both pixel based (those that can simulate wet media with limited scalability) and vector based (those that rely on line definitions and are scalable) and are as such able to be imported into CAD production software- healing the gap between design and documentation/fabrication. Some apps are working on the “slick” problem – the lack of the rewarding tactile “tooth” between paper and pencil. eMarkable touts a paper replacement which uses digital ink with a paper-like surface to simulate the most common and direct design tool – paper and ink. The “hot” market has even conjured up paint brushes that work on tablets.

However, I’ll probably never swap out my collection of Architectural drawings, or my beloved Kurt Vonnegut doodles for glowing iPads on my dining room walls. In the end, architecture is a “tangible” art. Its goal is to make something lasting, physical and memorable, and the record trace of its making should share those attributes. So the challenge remains for the software industry – bridging the gaps between the physical (design) to the digital (production/ fabrication) back to physical.

— Kevin Gordon, Principal