- The Alphabet and the Algorithm by Mario Carpo
This book enriches conversations about those aspects of modernity that have marked the history of Western architecture, the epistemic discourse of which is broadly reconfiguring itself apropos the now prevailing “digital turn.” To be sure, a sea of changes in how we design and build has been triggered by the advancement of digital technology capable of enacting the fluidity of architectural paradigms, but only as long as architects acknowledge their obligations to determine how digital forms evolve and how these may be both technically and aesthetically relevant to their projects.
In general, this study tends towards a modulated approach, with the premise that identicality should not be understood as static, isolated sets of practices and uses, but rather as a dynamic concept permeated by socioeconomic, historical and aesthetic factors. On that account, in the first part of his study, “Variable, Identical, Differential,” Carpo begins with a rather generic formalization of terms, which not only phenomenologizes identicality across the trajectories of hands-craftsmanship, mechanization/industrialization and digitalization but also recalibrates the focus of investigation to understand with more precision how architecture has attuned itself to the technological developments and cultural rhetorics of the times.
In the second part, entitled “The Rise,” Carpo foregrounds two important factors that have played a crucial role in defining the paradigm of identicality with regard to architecture. The first dates back to the 15th century and is embedded in the influential work of the Italian humanist Leon Battista Alberti, who suggested that architects, rather than making buildings, produce de facto only designs, which are then copied by builders. Any building, for Alberti, ought to be considered the “identical replication of an author’s intentions”; thus no one, including builders themselves, is allowed to make any changes to the final version of the project’s designs. Here, Carpo’s positioning may be partly due to Alberti’s approach of the meta-literature of architectural projects as a contrivance for setting apart the original from its identical replica; what matters most is how the identical offers glimpses into those layers of technology and culture that insist on the idea of the architect as the one and only author and therefore owner of the designs of his project.
In conjunction with Alberti’s positioning, the second factor that has encouraged the paradigmatic rise of identicality, in Carpo’s view, is the Industrial Revolution, the onset of which proved to be a momentous shift in history for having made available among other things the technical infrastructure necessary to arrive at the massive industrial standardization for producing identical copies, which, consecutively, proved to be a master trope of the Mechanical/Industrial Age. Indeed, to understand identicality as the mechanized regimentation of practices and uses that have come together with “master models,” “matrixes,” “imprints” and “molds” is to propose that the procedural protocols of authorship as envisioned by Alberti confirm the validity of his theoretical model.
Throughout Part II, Carpo has adopted a relatively dynamic approach: In seeking to map out the paradigmatic rise of identicality, he has not distanced himself from the putative trajectories of notation and standardization, thus indicating that by setting apart the architect’s original designs from their mechanical reproduction, “architecture ideally acquires a fully authorial, allographic, notational status” (p. 23). No doubt, Alberti’s model of authorship as exclusive property of the architect turns out to be a challenge for the notion of distributed authorship, which comes along with what Carpo calls “the rise of digital technologies.” As the prima facie evidence clearly shows, “All that is digital is variable.” For that reason, the technical logic of the digital has brought “notational limitations,” “mechanical standardization,” and “possibly . . . the Albertian authorial way of building by design” to an end. This argument is central for Part III, where Carpo brings together a compensatory analysis of the possibilities that the digital provides, including here the newer and richer forms of participatory authorship, interactivity and collaboration among architects, designers and builders. If it...