Virtual Medium: A History

medium (n):

1580s, “a middle ground, quality, or degree,” from Latin medium “the middle, midst, center; interval,” noun use of neuter of adjective medius (see medial (adj.)). Meaning “intermediate agency, channel of communication” is from c. 1600.

– etymonline.com

I continually find  myself returning to this word. At the risk of oversimplifying things, I’d like to posit the theory that design is contingent upon the existence of a medium. No matter the trade, there must exist some set of rules, parameters, resistances, grains, interactions. The painter pulls the paint across the canvas; the sculptor delicately manipulates the wet and malleable clay; the architect negotiates the desires of the client and the restrictions of the budget. All incorporate varying types of push and pull. Without some kind of feedback, the designer is stranded. Tabula rasa may seem like an interesting concept, but at the end of the day, restrictive media don’t just improve design: they make it possible.

To explore this concept, I will focus on the use of media in the early stages of architectural design – namely, in the act of drawing. The medium in this instance can be represented as a field with three major forces at play: the input from the designer, the resultant representation (including the in-process work), and the feedback that presses back upon the designer. This last aspect is critical, for it gives architectural design its playful and exploratory qualities. Drawing is far from directional, or even linear. Alison Hirsch speaks to its back-and-forth nature in her introduction to “The Landscape Imagination”:

“As an ‘eidetic medium’ that indicates a process rather than an object of composition and communication, drawing negotiates between a given reality and an idea and between an idea and its physical embodiment.”

In the past several decades, drawing has undergone a significant transformation. Initial input methods were largely restricted to ink or graphite. Mastery of these elements yielded effective representation: points, lines, planes, tones, gradients, and textures all evolved from manipulation of the medium. Feedback involved multiple senses, from the visual spread of the ink on the paper to the friction of graphite as it was drawn in various directions. Over time, knowledge of the medium accrued, making it possible to achieve intent more quickly and push the boundaries of the medium’s capabilities. New techniques were discovered, old techniques were honed, and personal style developed.

With the advent of digital technology, however, the concept of media required some kind of translation. In order to communicate with the computer, the forces at play had to use an appropriate language – one that could relate to both the subjective act of drawing and the binary nature of the computer. Geometry provided the answer, as its simple shapes could encompass the formal expressions of architectural drawings and yet at its core it could be reduced to mathematical formulas. Representation, one of the most quickly-developing and exciting aspects of digital technology, was thus easily accounted for.

Input required a bigger jump. All software programs attempt to predict user input to one degree or another. Designers are continually presented with a series of options, actions, tasks, or menus. While opportunity is occasionally provided to program special actions or customize input options, the form of the input is still the same: discrete selections and largely pre-programmed formulas. This is echoed all the way through the physical devices (keyboard and mouse) that service the computer. Even more recently, this concept of discrete selection has been abstracted even further. Using simple points (combined to make gestures, words, and actions), the touchscreen has flattened the mechanics of the “click” and allowed the concept of points (touching the tablet once, then releasing) to drive all communicated intent. Hardware has been almost entirely replaced by software.

Most notable in this digital transition, of course, was the loss of feedback. The use of a physical medium incorporates a kinesthetic learning that is directly connected to the design process. Although the instrument in use is nothing more than a tool and entirely subservient to the designer, the haptic feedback provided by a pen or pencil encourages a sort of critical slowness. Discoveries made in the design process do not arise from numerical iteration alone. It is often only during reflection – whether still, and removed from the process, or actively in the midst of it – that design develops. It is this that separates the act of design: the notion that solutions are not necessarily exclusive or universal, and thus cannot be determined via brute mathematical calculation. Digital technology removed haptic feedback, eliminating the need (and thus the value) of time imbued in a drawing. Representation provided the only form of feedback. With time eliminated, the medium of the design process has been reduced to the point that it is no longer a physical design-space, but instead merely an interface.

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