Soft Thought: Towards a Theory of Computational Design

Digital design remains one of the few areas within the discipline of architecture that remains relatively under theorized. This situation is in part the result of the novelty of the area, in that digital design is still a relatively new field that has yet to develop its own theoretical framework, but it is also in part the result of the still existent skepticism towards computation, a skepticism surprisingly common among architectural theorists. For many, it would seem, the computer is still seen as responsible for propagating an approach towards design that is superficial, apolitical, asocial and empty of content. For some, the computer is even seen as a potential threat to humanity itself. Alternatively, we might ask, is the absence of any substantive theory of digital design the result of a crisis in the world of theory itself? Have we encountered, as Michael Speaks has claimed, the ‘death of theory’? Or does Speaks’s position amount simply to an ‘anti-theory theory’? Or has architectural theory simply mutated into a different form that has been absorbed within architectural design to become a form of ‘design intelligence’? If so, could that new design intelligence be perceived as a new form of theory? And could the domain of digital design be capable of generating an entirely new form of architectural theory?

This course will attempt to address these questions. And it will attempt to address them not from the outside – from the position, say, of an art historian – but from within the world of architectural design itself, and from a position informed from working on actual computational design projects. The course will cover a range of topics, including digital culture, digital design, digital urbanism, digital fabrication and interactive design. It will look at material as diverse as biomimetic discourses inspired by nature, such as Swarm Intelligence, and robotic fabrication technologies for 3D printing structures on the Moon and Mars. On occasions, guest speakers from local institutions, such as Harvard University’s Wyss Institute or the MIT Media Lab will be invited to contribute to the course, and it is also hoped to include a few site visits. This course does not assume any prior knowledge of digital design techniques, and does not include tutorials on the actual use of digital design tools.