Architectural Profile Article

Developments in the use of CAD in Architecture

Richard Coyne
July 2001

There was a time when all that could be said about computers in architecture fitted neatly under the heading of "CAD" (computer-aided design). CAD draws our attention to the integrated system for design and documentation, the use of the computer as a management tool, the development and maintenance of a series of databases that describe the building and its systems, with input from product information, and the assistance of smart rules and algorithms for calculation and checking against constraints. CAD/CAM extends the management and documentation idea to the production of intricately interlocking custom-built components, of the kind seen in the spectacularly formed buildings of Frank Gehry, or of the London-based Foreign Office Architects.

The term "virtual architecture" gives a slightly different take on the use of the computer in architecture. Here we are dealing not so much with a series of techniques for representing buildings, but with devices for speculating about architecture; less with CAD's fixation on "reality," than with the computer and the Internet as a playground of ideas. "Virtuality" wrestles with the claim that we are moving into something radically new, in terms of the medium in which architecture is conceived, of new architectural forms, new building types, and innovative modes of collaborating and practising. It is common for advocates of virtual architecture to talk of re-configurations of practice, urban life, its buildings, and organisations. Some practising architects and teaching programmes seem to situate themselves under the banner of virtual architecture and are finding a niche designing web-based environments that have three dimensional qualities, such as the New York firm Studio Asymptote's design of the Virtual Guggenheim museum. "Virtuality" is the password for architects to cross over into the experimental realms of installation and performance art, and the mass media aspects of the Internet, the experimental and spectacular side of network and visualisation technology, tying in to video art, film, interactions, special effects, science fiction, and utopian or dystopian imaginings. "Virtuality" is exciting not least as it extends the boundaries of architecture. Architecture's grounding in the speculative design of space encourages other areas of the arts to come to architecture for insights into digital designing.

E-commerce ricochets off the virtual-everything bubble. We ran a small but spirited conference last December on the theme of Design and the Emerging E-Commerce Environment. Architecture as an enterprise in electronic commerce elevates the designer as entrepreneur, and brings issues of products, commodities, and distribution to centre stage. At the conference the topic rapidly moved to small scale consumable items, the highly distributed and interconnected mobile devices prefigured by mobile phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs). What are the implications for architecture of the myriad promised home entertainment and office appliances connected by wireless communications?

On the lookout for new metaphors that inform digital design, we have been exploring the use of mobile computing devices with students in our MSc in Design and Digital Media, investigating design on the move, peripatetic architecture. Students took their palm pilots into the streets of Edinburgh to record a first person account of their journey to some celebrated or lesser-known heritage site. They recorded their roamings on their PDAs, some in the manner of Walter Benjamin's surrealistic accounts of city streets as living rooms, others by devising a notation for finding your way through the streets, others in the manner of a William Gibson account of the city as a virtual environment, others as a game experience. The accounts were then beamed from one hand held device to the other for colleagues to retrace the journey and to critique. We then looked at VR environments for modelling each other's experience. Some students used a computer game level editor, others a CAD modelling system. They later had to design an electronic heritage companion to the city of Edinburgh, a prosaic brief, but one which was informed by their speculations as digital flaneurs.

Mobility and wearable networked computer devices also suggest a particular set of relationship with the computer and the human body, commonly summarised under the concept of the cyborg. A different set of students this time, looked at the design of a motion capture centre, a transient, highly specialised building type for digitising human body movements for film, dance, sports, medicine and computer games applications. Students began by creating three dimensional models of some "body capability," such as the waking, prostrated, poised, or reposed body. In the spirit of e-commerce, the resulting models were put up for auction, and students used the components so acquired as a basis for their designs for a building. The results demonstrate how building designs can be informed by such considerations as movement, bodily comportment, and the emerging mobile technologies. Some of this work is illustrated here.

Richard Coyne is Professor of Architectural Computing and Head of The Department of Architecture, The University of Edinburgh. He also teaches in the MSc in Design and Digital Media.

A proposal for a wearable PDA for navigating the city. Sachin Anshuman

The digital flaneur. Sani Razak

Inside a motion capture facility. Max Kettenaker

Inside a motion capture facility. Olivia Weston

Inside a motion capture facility. Brian Heron