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Architecture and the Structured Image: Software Simulations as Infrastructures for Building Production

Part of the Philosophy of Engineering and Technology book series (POET,volume 28)


This chapter shows how technical and conceptual innovations brought about by Computer-Aided Design (CAD) research during the 1960s and 1970s foreshadow current practices of building design and construction, and are foundational to a modern epistemology of the image in the age of simulation. No longer construed as pictorial representations of a design but rather as mathematically enlivened and operative artifacts performing it, computationally produced images elicited new aesthetic and managerial aspirations—crucially, to re-structure design labor and to destabilize the boundaries between design and construction. Interrogating the material and discursive tenets of this transformation through both historical evidence and ethnographic insight, the chapter proposes the analytical category of “structured image” to engage with its significance to architectural and visual cultures. It further proposes that the scale at which this reconfiguration is realized requires both historically informed perspectives and performative, localized accounts of socio-technical practice.


  • Computer-Aided Design (CAD)
  • Building Information Modeling (BIM)
  • Architecture
  • Science, Technology and Society (STS)
  • Design, Technology and Society

Never underestimate the power of a widely distributed tool.—John Walker

John Walker the chairman of Autodesk, the software company that developed AutoCAD, between 1982 and 1986 (Walker (Ed.) 1989: 300).

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  1. 1.

    Architect and BIM advocate Randy Deutsch provides a concise definition of BIM: “the software tool and process for generating and managing building data during its complete lifecycle, from conceptual design through fabrication, construction, maintenance, and operation of the building” (Deutsch 2011; see also Bergin 2015).

  2. 2.

    For example, Computer-Aided Design (CAD) pioneer Ivan Sutherland articulated the separation between structure and image with remarkable clarity (Sutherland 1975: 73–77). Computer Art pioneer Frieder Nake (2013) has also discussed it, retrospectively. For an extended discussion about early discourses of image-making during the early days of CAD, see Daniel Cardoso Llach (2013, 2015b). My use of simulations here aligns with Loukissas’ notion of these systems as “composed of theories, material processes, mathematical artifacts, and interpretations” the meanings of which are contingent upon the actors and practices they link (Loukissas 2012).

  3. 3.

    See Loukissas (2012).

  4. 4.

    This is illustrated by Douglas Ross’s work on language development for numerical control dating back to the early 1950s. For an extended discussion about the early days of numerical control see Daniel Cardoso Llach (2015b).

  5. 5.

    An early formulation of computer vision can be found in Lawrence G. Roberts, and Peter Elias (1963).

  6. 6.

    While independently funded, Sutherland worked under the advice of CAD Project co-director Steven A. Coons.

  7. 7.

    For influential formulations of cybernetics see Wiener (1965), and Licklider (1960).

  8. 8.

    During the late 1960s until the late 1970s, this line of work was further developed and enriched at the University of Cambridge, UK, by a group of researchers including CAD Project alum Charles Lang, Ian Braid and others. The academic researcher Charles Eastman spearheaded these efforts in the US (Cardoso Llach 2015b: 87).

  9. 9.

    The vision of design by the CAD Project engineers is linked to then contemporary cybernetic discourses. A particularly articulate vision of architectural work with computers is outlined by computer pioneer Douglas Engelbart in 1962, which starts with a suggestive “Let us consider an augmented architect at work (…)” (Engelbart 1962); see also Licklider (1960).

  10. 10.

    The terms of this redefinition and colonization were the subject of important debates among CAD researchers (Cardoso Llach 2015b: 149).

  11. 11.

    I have called this particular notion of design based on structured representations an “algorithmic tectonics” (Cardoso Llach 2013).

  12. 12.

    Commercial CAD systems such as AutoCAD and MicroStation dominated the market for decades. For detailed industry accounts, see Kristine K. Fallon (1997), David E. Weisberg (2008), and John Walker (1989). For historical perspectives on architect’s adoption of CAD see Robert Bruegmann (1989), and Alfredo Andia (2002). For a key source of ethnographic and historical insight regarding the CAD industry during the 1980s and 1990s see Allen B. Downey (2012).

  13. 13.

    The software Archicad, by Graphisoft, is often credited with spearheading this transition.

  14. 14.

    Yanni Loukissas (2008) has shown how professionals use simulations to create distinct professional identities.

  15. 15.

    However, by the 1990s other market vendors had reverse-engineered the format and made it available to other software systems outside the Autodesk family—this is the origin of the DXF (Digital Exchange File) format.

  16. 16.

    Architects with knowledge of layer standards and data management were valuable for companies. In a sort of manual of technology for industry Kristine Fallon recommends companies examining new hires for their knowledge of layer color-coding conventions (1997: 78).

  17. 17.

    A standard for layer coloring was formalized by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization 1998).

  18. 18.

    The IAI was renamed to International Alliance for Interoperability in 1997 and to BuildingSMART in 2015 (Eastman et al. 2011: 72).

  19. 19.

    According to the press release “the alliance intends to enable new approaches to design through technology, to create more effective industry processes and a higher quality built environment. By applying and innovating new technology solutions to old problems such as waste, delay, and miscommunication, this new alliance will lead the process change that the AEC industry needs to confront future challenges. The group represents a new type of professional organization for the twenty-first century, one which embraces the possibility of technology to empower design” (Gehry Technologies 2011; Minner 2011).

  20. 20.

    For reports on the adoption of BIM in Europe, see Harvey M. Bernstein (2010), and Pete Baxter (2013). For reports on the adoption of BIM in Asia, see Lachmi Khemlani (2012).

  21. 21.

    For salient examples see Charles M. Eastman (2008), Andrew Witt (2011), and Andrew Witt, Tobias Nolte and Dennis Shelden (2011).

  22. 22.

    Respectively, Rob Howard and Bo-Christer Björk (2008) and Kristen Barlish and Kenneth Sullivan (2012).

  23. 23.

    See, for instance Randy Deutsch (2011). For useful case studies, see Carlos Andres Cardenas (2008), Shiro Matsushima (2003). Recent work by Carrie Struts Dossick and Gina Neff (2011) offers a new perspective by collecting and analyzing a wide sample of qualitative data from BIM users in the US and Europe. These researchers usefully illustrate that while the claim of enhancing interoperability costs is true to some extent, messier forms of communication crucial to design coordination (for instance, informal speech) are not enhanced by BIM practices.

  24. 24.

    The actors and events I describe exist within the larger contexts of the desert city and Emirate of Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, and the Middle East. Far from the relative technological comfort zones of Angloamerica and Western Europe—where BIM processes and technologies are closer to what Paul Edwards terms a “naturalized background.”

  25. 25.

    In the mall project, this was particularly true of the organization in charge of the Mechanical, Engineering and Plumbing (MEP) systems.

  26. 26.

    Or representing through performance.

  27. 27.

    In 2007 I was working for a large corporate firm in the role of “a computational design specialist” and experienced this crisp organizational separation, between the designers and us. A specialist –like me and the small team of people in this role- would engage several projects at the same time, providing parametric models and scripts to design teams, who would then “use” them.

  28. 28.

    Peter Eisenman used the expression in a Spring 2007 lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his keynote speech in SIGRADI in November 2006, John Frazer also described parametric modeling packages (specifically CATIA) as “the single most advanced piece of design software in the market today.” More recently, Patrik Schumacher has advanced the notion of “parametricism” as the key to a “new paradigm” for architecture (2012).

  29. 29.

    Some details about the project have been changed, and the names have been omitted, to protect the anonymity of the subjects.

  30. 30.

    As an embedded participant observer during this research, the author was directly involved in the activities described here.

  31. 31.

    “Loft” is a common command in 3-D modeling software, which produces a surface object from a series of lines.

  32. 32.

    For a discussion on ethnographic studies of infrastructure see Susan Leigh Star (1999), for a discussion of the human aspects of cyberinfrastructures, see (Lee et al. 2006).


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Cardoso Llach, D. (2017). Architecture and the Structured Image: Software Simulations as Infrastructures for Building Production. In: Ammon, S., Capdevila-Werning, R. (eds) The Active Image. Philosophy of Engineering and Technology, vol 28. Springer, Cham.

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