Digital fabrications, meet the real worldShare
Assessing an architect’s earliest commission or first completed project is always fun (though perhaps not so for the architect), since such acheivements often document the architect’s early insecurities, capture what it is later recognized as a trademark flourish in an awkward state of development, or memorialize early mistakes that are hopefully not repeated.
Such observation is even more fun when the architect is already a noted figure (e.g., Zaha Hadid or Peter Eisenman, whose architectural theories made him famous much before he ever got to apply them for a real client). It appears we can now add Professor Lisa Iwamoto to that list, now that IwamotoScott (her firm, c0-helmed with her husband Craig Scott) has completed a modest house and nearly finished a small lobby renovation in San Francisco.
Until recently, Iwamoto’s impact on the field of architecture has largely related to her academic work and particularly, her “digital fabrication” research. And while her work in that emerging specialty has included many designs, competition entries, and even made her an author (I reviewed her book on digital fabrications a few months ago), her portfolio has thus far lacked an achievement (employing digital fabrication) with much more physical permanence than an art installation.
Not that it should make much difference. But for better or worse, practitioners do love deriding “academics” for developing expertise without ever venturing into the “real-world.” As the story goes, those who cannot do, teach. In architecture, those who teach spend their time formulating theories that are discussed in impenetrably abstract terms, crafting designs that are spectacularly illustrated but still hopelessly incapable of counteracting gravitational forces, or debating the nature and pace of the field’s decline or return to glory.
Of course, while this simplistic stereotype (like all others) has a kernel of truth justifying its existence, architecture has always seemed to flourish - in a very literal sense - on what practitioners often perceive as hot air. Elements from even the most fantastical design competitions have occasionally found themselves attached to an actual project, whether as a unique material application, spatial layout, or structural trick, and history is laced with strains of thought that quickly matured into real things as soon as a bored or eccentric patron threw up a bit of cash.
The stereotype about academics also overlooks the reality that architecture is more hard than soft science, when it comes to development of theories and use of research findings. Even the term “academic” tends not to apply in architecture, since the divide between schools and practitioners is not so much a canyon as it is a river with many bridges. This is especially true in digital fabrication, which has greatly benefited from links between schools like MIT and private firms as influential as Gehry Technologies and Office dA.
Given her influence in digital fabrications, I suspect that Lisa Iwamoto’s immersion into the “real-world” will accelerate the development of her specialty even more so than her academic work. One tiny indication of this already happening: an extruded honeycomb structure she and Scott designed to hang from the lobby’s ceiling needed modifications due to “complications involving details and complexity and pricing.” Ah, yes. Pricing.
Image courtesy of watz.