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16 Sept 2020

Digital Architecture: System or Inspiration?

Jorge Sarquis​


How to place the digital project in the contemporary context of architecture? Is it something new, or another version of the eternal disciplinary struggle between system or inspiration, themes of creation in the field of art in general or architecture in particular?

A few years ago I was invited to a Congress in Mexico, at the School of Architecture and Design entitled “Cut and Paste”. In that event, I presented the hypothesis that I think was timely to be presented here and where the presence of the digital tool was the most relevant. I said, and still believe, that before the presence or availability of that tool, there is the spirit, the sensibility, of the social collective that explicitly or implicitly formulates the need for such technology. That is to say that there would always be an imperceptible epochal sensibility that crosses all the disciplinary fields, that requests innovations on the one hand and systematicity on the other, not always coinciding. There is a spirit, an imprint, to systematize the activities that lead to an end. Thus, computers today have a leading role, in this projectivity, by appealing to the algorithm as an internal generator of Architecture. Operating from the genetics of internal relations of the project. It is not about designing forms, but about projecting the genetics of forms.


This procedure is framed in the debate that tries to put limits to a creativity without arguments, that in art shows clear signs of exhaustion and that Jacques Ranciere reads in the “Thought of Art” as necessary to rethink in function of an art linked to the new forms of life and politics whose base is the field of “the division of the sensible,” that is, aesthetics. The computational architecture is not a panacea that will solve all the problems, but it is a methodology that adds certainty to the systematic work process, the intention of working not only quantitative aspects of knowledge of the recipients, but sensitive of the project. But let’s first see what was the history of the procedure that shapes the architectural form we have today.

The Historical Development of the Procedure

The classical architecture with an aesthetic systematized in the formal language (Doric, Ionian and Corinthian), was accompanied by a conception where invention was not what it was from the Renaissance or Romanticism, but the search in external or internal archives of the best solution already existing; therefore there was no place for creation or invention for every occasion, as we understand it today. That is to say, at the very beginning of architecture, the generation of architectural form was systematized as a dominant conception, and it was called composition, (to put together, put together known parts that were subsumed into a unitary whole, following certain laws of said composition). The curious thing is that until the Renaissance this idea was maintained, even in Gothic architecture, with a strong religious imprint, it was considered a detour from the true architecture that continued with a systematizing conception in the construction of forms.

Nearly parallel European architectures, although different in their expression, establish similar composition criteria. They maintain the idea of unity, harmony, rhythm, proportion, symmetry, although the contents of these constructive principles of the project are different. In both cases the construction systems divided their tasks in the unions. The unions are a systematized organization that in the fifteenth century collides with the idea of author of the project and work that is imposed with the classical principles, which are recreated and assumed from the Italian Renaissance.

It is only during the Renaissance that the idea of creation is introduced, the rupture of the system and the fight between two positions arise: those who maintain the spirit of the system and put together the Treaties and Manuals that last until the twentieth century, with pedagogical and construction results nothing despicable; and those who create from these, but altering and mixing the styles. If we call the first classical Greek Hellenic period from the 5th century BC Classical Composition; the one that begins in the Renaissance will be called Project Composition. The actions of Filippo Brunelleschi and the predicates of Leon Battista Alberti, incited to the creative freedom, to the invention, beyond the Treaties and Manuals. From there, each architect carries out his works following these guidelines, but with a gradient of alteration or creation that forced the author to generate a new great book of the discipline that from now on was going to guide the next architecture. Thus, we inherit the books of Andrea Palladio, Francesco Borromini, Donato d’Angelo Bramante, Vicenzo Scamozzi, Carlo Lodoli, among others.


Arrived at the Enlightenment, the political, economic, philosophical, artistic, scientific, technical and technological revolutions and the visions of the world that begin to move from the Renaissance, make an explosion in the English and French revolution, in addition to René Descartes, Giambattista Vico, Immanuel Kant, Jean Jaques Rousseau, the Encyclopedias, the creation of the Art Schools and the Polytechnics, there is another contamination to the theoreticians and methodologists who now come into crisis with the presence of the projects and works of Étienne-Louis Boullée, Claude -Nicolas Ledoux, Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, among others. In the theoretical field there is a debate between “order and canon,” or creative freedom. The paradox is that Antoine Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy wants the system, but without modifying the classic that is clearly insufficient to contain the new social aspirations of habitat, that’s why Jean Nicolas Louis Durand struggles to maintain the idea of a system, but expanding his examples and from there the innumerable amount of plants proposed as permanent renovation for the new activities of the social collective. To this period that we have called Project Composition, parts that were organized by symmetry and unity, in the Enlightenment we must change our position and speak of Compositive Projectuality, and although there is no longer the classical proportion, nor the Doric, Ionian and Corinthian languages, that are eliminated, although in the nineteenth century they return with the Neo-Classic and the Eclecticism, the design experimentation is imposed of which Kauffman called the revolutionary architects: Ledoux, Boullée, Lequeu, among others.

We arrived in this way to Joseph Paxton who in 1851 builds the Crystal Palace, which, according to Otl Aicher, is the first work of modern architecture with a project that forgets tradition and a young architect who inaugurates a new architecture without greater awareness. Here the clean and realized idea of the project appears, although in extreme rigor something of the classical archaic composition is maintained. A typology of greenhouse garden base inspires this work in cast iron, without formal budgets, that is, it does not precede a formal language but rather emerges as a result of the design conception and its compositional systems.

Then, with the masters of the twentieth century whose history is known, the idea of the project is ratified as an idea of doing and assumes its denomination as a Configurative Procedure of the Architectural Form that we know keeps both ideas: Rules vs. Inspiration, in other terms, the abstract systematization of Le Corbusier versus the phenomenal creative freedom of Frank Lloyd Wright, or better yet, the freedom of Erich Mendelsohn that seems to be subject to no rule and which finds creative freedom in modernity, not thus in the “Aesthetic Regime of the Arts” (Jacques Rancière, 2006), an incentive not to continue in the search of exhausted architectural production systems, but again the struggle between the two systems that are becoming contaminated one of the other , Le Corbusier with his Modulor, builds the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France of absolute creative freedom and Wright with its hexagonal modules in their rural homes, is released in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, USA. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is systematic in the construction systems of each work, which modulates rigorously and which bet on the greatest possible industrialization. In any case, all of them build a formal language that they apply almost as a priori of their achievements.



During what some called postmodern architecture from the 1960s and 1970s, and from the hand of Team X, the certainties of modern architecture fall and the formal search emerges in open challenge, which the arrival of personal computers towards 1985 help develop. Thus, Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Greg Lynn, Alejandro Zaera Polo, among others, constitute since the eighties our contemporary disciplinary landscape. Some operating from the germ of digital methodologies, such as diagrammatic and systems in the case of Eisenman or Zaera Polo; others from the technical and theoretical potential of the incipient digital technologies as is the case of Lynn, from the legitimation of constructive methods and unpublished representational techniques as Gehry demonstrates in his early works. Although it is a cultural landscape, they have been naturalized and occupy the central places of all publications and have even lost the revulsive effect they were trying to have.

Extravagance and Contemporaneity

This could be one of the axes of analysis, of the debate that goes back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophy of the 6th century to the 7th century BC, between both extremes the dilemma seemed to be played. Parmenides said nothing changes and Heraclitus everything changes: “nobody bathes twice in the same river”. More current phrases sustain the only permanent is change, or nothing changes, everything is transformed. All these phrases or aphorisms have some reason, that is to say, they construct realities according to the real world that each one visualizes, for both they are infinite and complex, not now but always, from there on each one of us constructs the realities that each one can or agrees with, it´s your own vision, desires or interests that position you in agreement or disagreement with that real world.

Architecture maintains some constant structures whose contents mutate in historical time. But the changes in the contents affect the structures. The practice and its concrete results affect the theory of architecture, they are not indifferent to each other. The important thing is to detect and reveal what things changed in the conditions to do the project: that is, the before; what things in the during: the project methods and techniques; and what things in the after: the results of the project. I believe that computational projectuality changes and maintains simultaneously in the three indicated moments.

It is necessary at this point to detach from certain frivolous currents, morphologically extravagant and eccentric, whose purpose is the spectacle and to boast of its own technical capacity. It is necessary to realize that Architecture with computational design bases, intends to operate in the current world, to realize that the procedures used have been developed, studied and put to the test a long time ago. It is imperative to understand that the calculation capacity, flexibility and high speed of response of computers must be used in pursuit of a design advance, a deep exploration in the generation methodology and not in a stylistic makeup with traditional methods.


Since this makeup is quickly discovered and does not intend to generate any kind of innovation or knowledge either in the ways of living, the methodologies or the way we see Architecture. It is necessary to dissociate the computational methodologies from the curvilinear, the unpolluted surface, the elimination of the right angle, the continuity, the smoothness. The end is found in the algorithm and its intricate or simple relationships, the end lays in the beginning.

Originally published in Antagonismos Revista de Arquitectura, n° 1. Buenos Aires, 2019.

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