The Alphabet and the Algorithm
by Mario Carpo
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
184 pp., illus. 13 b/w. Paper, $21.95
Reviewed by Flutur Troshani
University of Shkoder
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 mutual 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, which premises that identicality should not be understood as static, isolated sets of practices and uses, but rather as a dynamic concept permeated by socio-economic, 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 phenomenolizes identicality across the trajectories of hands-craftsmanship, mechanization/industrialization and digitalization, but also re-calibrates 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 fifteenth 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 as 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, 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” (x) 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” (23). No doubt, Alberti’s model of authorship as exclusive property of the architect turns 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, “[a]ll 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, which Carpo brings together with 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 is possible to bring together the revolution in form, the concept of non-standard seriality and participatory or split agency, Carpo suggests, then historians of architecture have come full-circle and, from there, it is only a small step to argue that a revolution has taken place.
In conclusion, this book is valuable for anyone interested to understand the still-emerging significance and ramifications of “the digital turn” in architecture. Upon that, the relatively unstable distribution of authorship in digital architecture, on the one hand, and its still-nascent consecration, and, on the other, cuts across architectural theory, contemporary culture and digital technology. Page after page, Carpo has engaged a difficult set of issues, some of which strike cords that are still resonating, yet his voice is generally concise and to the point. There is a useful index at the end of the book.