I'm just back from Tokyo where I attended the 2011 International Union of Architects (UIA) triennial meeting, a gathering of the world's architects. Japan was chosen as the site for UIA several years ago but the organizers seriously considered cancelling or moving the event after the disaster in Fukishima on 3/11/2011. Deciding that pressing ahead--and shifting the focus of the conference to "Beyond Disasters, through Solidarity, towards Sustainability" would demonstrate the resilience and dedication of the Japanese people to recovery and rebuilding. The opening ceremony, presided over by the Emperor and Empress of Japan, concluded with a silent presentation of photographs of the destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami. Even for those of us from the West who are becoming inured to the destruction of natural disasters (think Katrina, the Texas drought, or even Hurricane Irene) these pictures were extraordinary. One amazing image--of a large yacht sitting atop the partially crushed remains of a building like some sort of horrid marine/architectural sculpture--has stayed with me as a reminder of how the things we build are fragile, impermanent, and completely yielding to the larger forces of nature. We'll never be able to fully resist these forces, but we can certainly plan better for them. But how?
I was asked to contribute to one of the sessions called "Architecture for Human Security" that addressed how architects respond to the challenges of disaster recovery and, by implication, sustainable design. My charge, from my friend Kazuo Iwamura (an architect and professor at Yokahama University) was to describe how digital technology might contribute to such challenges. After watching a series of dedicated designers describe their work working to either repair or anticipate disasters around the globe (including northern Japan) I felt a little like the guy who was asked to talk about hammers and chisels after several sculptors presented their masterpieces. And I opened my remarks accordingly, suggesting that digital tools would be the least important topic addressed during the afternoon. I hope that my thesis wasn't too obvious to the attendees: that digital models and supporting analysis provide the sort of comprehensive insight that's tough to do well with paper and markers, or even CAD. And that those tools might, someday, provide a consistent sort of data and knowledge that the world's designers could tap to share their insights and strategies. For those of us who tout this sort of stuff for the broader building enterprise this was old news.
I watched the last presentation by a brilliant Japanese architect who was describing his designs for disaster-resistant regional plans. His slides were a series of photographs from his sketchbook, in a notational style familiar to those of us architects of a certain generation: deft, beautifully clear felt-tipped pen and pencil sketches that described both process and result. As someone who lives in an almost exclusively digital world, these images were almost a relief to me--exclusively analog yet completely cogent.
But I found myself wondering, after the session was complete, how these various architects (none of whom, I would note, seemed to know or use modeling technologies) could share their collective insights more broadly. Ours is a solitary profession, and this UIA session made me realize how much we work in our locales in isolation. Without Iwamura-san these architects, all working on design problems that are so important, would likely never know about each other's work, and few others would either. I don't think that digital tools will ever completely supplant the drawing process that is so critical to design thinking, but important work that is described digitally--and made fluid and accessible accordingly--at least has a chance of escaping from an individual designer's sketchbook. So I might have missed a critical aspect of my assignment: the possibility that the world's designers could memorialize, share and augment their burgeoning insights with models and accompanying algorithmic analysis. Maybe a digital chisel has a place in the discussion between sculptors.