Notes from Mexico City

Acadia 2018 focused on imprecision in digital design

International Letter to the Editor Professional Practice Technology
Acadia workshops Day 3 with Kathy Velikov and Melissa Goldman (Angelica Ibarra)
Acadia workshops Day 3 with Kathy Velikov and Melissa Goldman (Angelica Ibarra)

For the first time in its 37-year history, the 2018 Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA) Conference convened in Mexico City. The conference was chaired by Pablo Kobayashi and Brian Slocum, and was hosted by the University Iberoamericana. The cultural implications of holding the conference in Mexico City were best explained by keynote speaker and professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana CDMX and principal at Estudio MMX, Diego Ricalde’s analysis punnily titled PPP (Prejudice, Paradox, Pragmatism). Ricalde speculated that Mexico’s architectural culture is at a moment where the unproductive division of old world single-vision, analog thinking, and new world “digital hysteria” needs to come to an end. Ricalde’s call for action can be read as a parallel to this year’s ACADIA theme “Recalibration: On Imprecision and Infidelity”. The theme encouraged participants to rethink a machine-driven infatuation with nano-centric precision, and recover other avenues of thinking and making.

Photo from Acadia 2018

Acadia 2018 chairs Pablo Kobayashi and Brian Slocum (Angelica Ibarra)

One of the keynote lecturers in the conference, Francesca Hughes, a professor and head of school at UTS Sydney, presented a historically guided parallel analysis between the development of machines and algorithms (in relation to precision and imprecision). She highlighted the architectural surface as an agent that inspired a world-wide (or rather architecture school–wide) cultural obsession with precision and the birth of the software-compulsive object. Critiquing our collective obsession with precision, Hughes offered “error” as a new architectural context in which to frame other digital and “real” systems of designing. Other conference participants (organizers, keynote lecturers, presenters, award recipients, and moderators) responded in their own particular ways to the same question.

Photo from Acadia 2018

Acadia keynote lecturer Francesca Hughes (Angelica Ibarra)

Every Acadia conference is unique, and the overall discourse generated from the discussions and presentations of the work varies significantly from year to year. The 2018 six-day endeavor, split evenly between conference and workshop components, attracted 282 attendees from all over the world. One could say that this year’s conference consisted of three primary categories: theory/speculative narratives, work that investigates the aesthetic potential of new technologies, and hyper-focused computation/fabrication oriented research efforts. These categories balanced and propelled the conference into a truly spectacular, inspiring, and educational event.

Projects, papers, and talks positioned on theoretical and cross-disciplinary grounds

This first category can be best illustrated by the materials presented (and materials included in the publication) by participants such as Neil Leach, Mónica Ponce de León, Patrik Schumacher, Axel Kilian, Behnaz Farahi, Brandon Clifford, Jose Sanchez, ACADIA president Kathy Velikov, and many others. These researchers and thinkers are engaged in cross-disciplinary work and therefore carry a certain responsibility for setting the tone for the overall theme of the event and the conversations that continue after the conference. Leach, for example, appealed to the audience to reassess its understanding of the digital and post-digital. He suggested that we are not yet, and have never really been authentically digital. On another note, Killian warned that the anthropomorphizing of robotics as a way to move forward is a false promise. Lastly, Ponce de León, upon receiving the 2018 Teaching Award of Excellence, illustrated her broader ambitions for digital fabrication from a pedagogical and professional point of view. She argued that the two must be intertwined in order to productively engage with professional and academic architecture. Other thinkers and designers contributed to this discussion with their own predictions and convictions of where the field is headed. This meta-discussion is most essential for the future of the conference. Theoretical and extra-disciplinary discourse sets the tone for the speculative fronts of the next conference, and the evolution of its ambitions for many more to come.

Photo from Acadia 2018

Acadia award recipient Mónica Ponce de León (Angelica Ibarra)

Work that explores aesthetic potentials in new technologies

The second category of the conference, broadly speaking, can be characterized as an intermediary between the more theoretically-oriented work and work embedded in deep studies of technology, borrowing critical aspects from both. Many participants that plug into this territory discussed projects executed at the pavilion scale. What distinguishes this work from the purely technical or scientific experiments is that many of the projects synthesize serious visual problems and broader research themes. A great example of this type is Jenny Sabin’s Lumen project for the MoMA PS1 pavilion. Lumen, a robotic knitting project, demonstrates multiple layers of tremendous effort and research. While the project showcases deep fabrication/material knowledge, one cannot help but notice its balancing act between material performance optimization (robotic knitting, custom analysis software, form-finding simulation) and an equally sincere interest in visual studies (composition, lighting, color). Other exemplary practices represented at the conference operating in the same mode are Oyler Wu Collaborative, Matsys, Stephanie Chaltiel and Maite Bravo, Chandler Ahrens, Tsz Yan Ng, and many others as featured in the proceeding’s publications.

Deep dives into technology and science

This last category, central to the overall theme of the conference, is probably closest to the initial ambitions of ACADIA as it was originally conceived. It is fair to say that almost all the projects participate in technologically-driven research and scholarship. However, a few of them focus on a more scientific approach; their project ambitions seem to culminate in the search for novel processes. The evaluation of such projects is perhaps the most speculative because the criteria are abstract and yet to be discovered. Philippe Block, one of the keynote speakers and a professor at the Institute of Technology in Architecture at ETH Zurich, presented a very thorough research project centered on the use of concrete and its capacities for structural integrity and material thickness (or thinness). Another interesting example was Madeline Gannon’s research. Upon receiving the Innovative Research Award of Excellence, Gannon presented her work on synchronized, real-time robotic motion. Her work takes form in unique environments (trade shows, gallery exhibitions, and biennales), but what was most interesting about her investigation was the custom workflows and software that she developed during her time at Autodesk’s Pier 9 space. Dr. Gannon’s interface design supports the exchange of information between different parts of machines that were never meant to communicate with one another—introducing a new type of cross-contamination of machine vision and reactive motion.

During the last five-plus years, the workshop segment of the conference has been heavily focused on this last category (tech/engineering/computation). The 2018 workshop series, hosted by the Facultad de Arquitectura at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) however, was more balanced and plural by comparison; solar optimization and robotic spray-painting workshops were held in tandem. The workshops held true to the theme of the conference and interrogated various recalibrations through concentrated production-events. In the workshops, leaders investigated a reassessment of machine and software-thinking related to visual ideas, specific projects, and scientific research.

Photo from Acadia 2018

Acadia workshops Day 1 participants (Angelica Ibarra)

Final thoughts and thinking ahead to next year’s event

Of course, it is important to note that the three categories outlined above are inextricably intertwined with one another. One of ACADIA’s strengths is that it provides a unique platform for these conversations to occur under the umbrella of computation’s presence in the expanded territory of contemporary architecture. Perhaps the project that best illustrates a scenario that accommodates these three modes of thinking in a non-hierarchical manner was presented by another keynote speaker, the Mexican-born, electronic artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. For Lozano-Hemmer, the artwork is not simply a thing on display but an interactive environment that promotes human-machine symbiosis. For example, Population Theatre (2016) is a beautifully orchestrated collection of self-inflicted responsibilities. In this work, a highly diverse team of artists and scientists collaborate to generate funds to support a politically-driven project. Population Theatre is technologically-supported by the use of 3651 Raspberry Pi boards to create 7.5 billion points of light. This exceptional keynote lecture was accessible to the public and was held at the Alberto Kalach and Juan Palomar–designed Biblioteca Vasconcelos in downtown Mexico City.

Photo from Acadia 2018

Acadia president Kathy Velikov (Angelica Ibarra)

It was events such as Lozano-Hemmer’s keynote lecture that made this year’s gathering extraordinary. The organization and curatorial efforts for the 2018 conference were impeccable. It was very clear that the board of directors (comprising 20 members) and the president of ACADIA, Kathy Velikov’s ambitions were to widen the scope of the conference as a pedagogical and professional platform and to challenge the organization to evolve with the discipline.

This year’s conference was heavily supported by industrial and academic sponsors, and by the Universidad Iberoamericana, which hosted the workshop series, the project exhibition, and the first day of the conference. Next year’s conference will be held from October 24 to 26, 2019, at the University of Texas at Austin and is titled “Ubiquity and Autonomy”.

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