Interview. Digital Architecture: Passages Through Hinterlands

Marjan Colletti (2009)
Published as edited interview
by Ruairi Glynn and Sara Shafiei with Marjan Colletti and Marcos Cruz (marcosandmarjan) in:
Glynn, Ruairi; Shafiei, Sara. Digital Architecture: Passages Through Hinterlands. London 2009.

Q. How would your describe your style?

Marjan: I describe it as 'convoluted'. Convolution conveys the various notions of blur (pushing the boundaries of the discipline), overlap (layering of contexts, ideas, technologies…) and interference (interdisciplinarity and multitasking). Perhaps the style is exuberant, experimental, expressive yet inclusive, interpolated and infiltrated by all sort of things: it includes typology, volution and properties to the usual variables of CAD (topology, time and parameters).

Q. The practice's work often has an intimacy, how do you design for concepts of closeness, softness, and the grotesque in a digital system?

Marjan: My goal within the practice is to engage on the one hand with the exploration of different 'subjective' subjects such as memory, vision, cognition, hearing, touch and motor skills on the human side, which within CAD - I believe - transform into automatic, intuitive, mimetic, and reflexive processes, as well as with more computer-related issues such as performance, communication and interaction, which again give feedback to the former aspects as ‘digital mimesis’, ‘poetic automatism’ and ‘symbolic bliss’. Such approach favours the formulation of DigiTales - digital narratives about the strange, other and alien as well as the familiar, intimate and contextualised - that discern (actually reveal) a whole series of events and haecceities within digitality beyond the usual aspects of techniques, technologies and technics. Techniques are here understood as process and method, technologies as scientific knowledge and applications, and technics as skills and functions. This setup involves and invokes a plethora of arguments on the performance (understood both as task and as staging) of poetics in digital architecture. Under these circumstances, what is at hand is an alternative to the understanding and the production of truly contemporary, innovative and progressive digital architecture. Does not the convoluted nature of the subject matter go beyond the functions of complexity and intricacy? Does it not invoke something ranking above beauty, elegance and smartness? Does it not evoke the sublime, the blissful and the mysterious, the grotesque…?

Q. Do you seek inspiration from other disciplines? If so any in particular?

Marjan: Architecture is by nature a multi-disciplinary practice (that is why some say it is a strong discipline, and some other a weak discipline). And CAD is be default a multi-tasking process. Hence the boundaries of the discipline are blurred and only approximatively defined. That is why I describe architecture as a convoluted discipline: it blurs, overlaps and interferes everywhere all the time. I particular, I seek inspiration within architecture itself: its history and theory. If one wanted to look further: I assimilate protocols and particularities from religion, sociology, and the humanities. Technology, of course, is a big open Pandora's box.

Q. How is a digital play or experimentation different from pen and paper?

Marjan: Digital design is not detached from analogue design and research issues. CAD will not, and should not, replace analogue annotated sketches, drawings or scaled models (a fly-through animation does not replace an intelligent circulation system; a new script does not substitute typological and structural ingenuity; ultra-photorealism cannot stand for lack of originality). In fact I disagree that an architectural digital project cannot be communicated and evaluated by ‘traditional’, analogue representational techniques and documentations. However it has an additional set of criteria and strategies that allow it to go beyond the analogue drawing.

Yet CAD is not identical/symmetric or analogous. If CAD were analogous to analogue design, there would be a similarity in function, but not in structure and evolutionary origin. The fact is that digital drawings perform and function differently, hence I believe the similarities to be homologous: they exist in terms of structure and evolutionary origin. In terms of origin: 2D CAD has undoubtedly evolved from traditional line drawing, and 3D from traditional model making. In terms of evolutionary parallelisms, I see the CAD rendering to be linked to the work of Piranesi, and Étienne-Louis Boullée’s tableau. Or to photography as a matter of fact, since all 3D CAD software packages allow different ways of displaying digital space on-screen.

But the similarities do not necessarily exist in terms of function: 1) Although CAD is commonly regarded as less technical and more abstract than generative techniques and CAD/CAM technologies, it nonetheless functions and performs within the parameters of a domain overpowered by Technik, albeit transcending it. 2) On the other hand the danger is to disregard CAAD as replication and simulation of analogue models, reality, craftsmanship and building construction. Instead, it is about drawing a unique symbolic world through systems of signs and premonition, of prediction and strategy. It is about construction, representation and feedback. 3) In its multiple presences (line, wireframed, shaded, rendered) CAAD escapes and hybridises the dichotomy of concept/image, strategic diagram/pictorial vision, 2D drawing and 3D model, it synthesises thing/image, object/space, sketch/product, but most importantly it entails an organic spatial and a strategic vision that includes materiality, atmospherics, and use: geometric… parameters and cognitive properties. Consequently it can transcend Technik.

Q. How do you perceive the digital to analog interface – will the analog evolve to run concurrent to the digital, or do you feel it will meld or become obsolete?

Marjan: It has already. It is important to distinguish upfront between the concept of interface - in the most general terms described as the boundary between two disparate systems; and the term I always use: ‘intraface’, which could be described as a homologous framework bounded inside a controlled feedback system. In contrast to dissociated and symmetric (both sides are equal, but different and separated) or direct and analogous (both sides are similar in function, but not in structure and evolutionary origin) human-machine environments, intrafaces act in the homologous manner I just explained. This typological turn from interface into intraface implies a geometric transition from line to convoluted field, where digital and analogue properties converge. Intraface is partly analogue and partly digital.

Q. How do you determine rigour in a digital world?

Marjan: State-of-the-art 2D and 3D CAD software packages are used to design organic and precise ergonomic pieces to fit contextual, mechanical and bodily attributes without loosing the notion of Digital Poetics within the parameters of the digital an its technologies, techniques and technicalities. That is rigorous to me. Furthermore, rigour is the approximatively exact coming to terms with an anexact yet definitely maybe rigorous process; the coming to terms with ambiguity towards control by extrapolating individual observations towards a common strategic agenda and social proposal.

Q. Are their moments when the ‘theories’ block the ‘practice’ and how do you resolves such instances?

Marjan: Yes. I keep trying.

Q. The Nurbster series is continually evolving, firstly as Cartesian ‘swiggles’, later disjointed planes, how do you see these experiments continuing in the future?

Marjan: I see them built: a lot larger, more exuberant, certainly functional.

Q. You are both successful professors at various schools of architecture around the world. What influence if any has teaching had on your own work, and has it aided in creating new methods and new practices in your office?

Marjan: If we regard architectural education as the strongest multidisciplinary domain of architecture - regularly engaging with design and research issues and being more than just a perseverant duplication of the teacher’s ideas - it must provide evidence of equal consideration towards digital Technik and towards Digital Poetics, and thus not fall into the trap of monotonous digital morphological breeding. Teaching has taught me to construct an opinion, hypothesise failure, and formalise bulls#i┼.

Q. Do you see teaching as your own personal learning curve?

Marjan: Yes, of course.

Q. What changes have you experienced in the use of digital in student production and representation?

Marjan: On a critical note, I have to say that I have noticed that many understand digital design as mechanics. That is, you need to understand the common process and then you follow it. I cannot but disagree with this. My approach is - that's the way we teach also our Bartlett and Westminster students - less mechanistic and more of an an inside-out approach, initiating the project by each individual's observations, sensibilities and skills. Moreover, I see an enormous lack of historical knowledge, and of building knowledge, as well as structural knowledge: CAD has no gravity, and thus designs the new generation...

Q. What shifts if any have you noticed in students and recent graduates aspirations since you first began teaching?

Marjan: Thankfully, more graduates are exploring different trajectories than the 'big office' path! Also, many former students of mine are now teaching in London's best architecture schools and abroad.

Q. Who would you love to design something for?

Marjan: For God (I do not mind which one actually...): I'd love to build a cathedral or a mosque or a temple - spaces of contemplation, celebration and meditation. And for the State (again I do not mind which one): architecture equals politics!