Architect-Computer Symbiosis

Paul Emmons, Dalal Kassem


This paper elaborates on the particular symbiotic relationship that exists between the architect and the computer when working with architectural design programs, by studying the first graphic interface in 1963: Sketchpad. Sketchpad and the computer programs that evolved from it are used in architecture as tools, and are presumed to have powers in themselves beyond the skill of the artisan. However, unlike what happens with traditional architectural drawing tools that are largely transparent to the drafter, in computer aided design drawing the computer is always an active participant in the design process wherein the system by which the commands are executed is mostly invisible to the operator. The new expectation of computer drawing that originated with the birth of interactive computers fundamentally changed drawings’ role in favor of maximizing communication with the computer, and the objective of using line drawing for input data was to strengthen the symbiotic partnership between the human user and the computer. The ease of interaction between person and computer in this way was called an interface because it was equal to face-to-face meetings between people. The Sketchpad window implied such a powerful relationship that it was described and imaged to be another being. To demonstrate his new tool, the inventor of Sketchpad chose to illustrate a winking girl called “Nefertiti” that, through a series of changing left eye components, actually appeared to wink from the computer screen at the operator. This figure created by the operator became the identity of the computer, as Pygmalion’s statue became human under the creator’s touch. This gendering of technology, whether in the movie Metropolis or in Sketchpad, simultaneously allows its otherness to be comprehended and its threat to be more easily exorcised. Pygmalion’s statue and her numerous reincarnations vivify the otherwise lifeless. Maria, the seductive machine in the movie Metrop- olis, lures one into forgetting one’s responsibilities and deprives operators of their self-awareness. And the computer through its drawing function expresses its “ensoulment” as a thinking entity with a human-like face that is sufficient in order for it to “come alive” in the operator’s eye. 

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