Automation Takes Command: Kiel Moe’s History of Numerical Control

via Serial Consign by Greg J. Smith on 6/8/10


Fabricating Architecture: Selected Readings in Digital Design and Manufacturing

For the past few weeks I’ve been incrementally working my way through Fabricating Architecture: Selected Readings in Digital Design and Manufacturing, a forthcoming collection of essays published by Princeton Architectural Press. The text is edited by Robert Corser and contains a range of short texts on building information modeling (BIM), mass customization, structural surfaces and case studies by practitioners including KieranTimberlake and ShoP.

One essay that I keep coming back to is "Automation Takes Command: The Nonstandard, Unautomatic History of Standardization and Automation in Architecture" by Kiel Moe in which the author sketches out a long winding road of a backstory to contemporary fabrication practices within architecture. Moe describes the adoption of fabrication as emerging from much broader systems of "numerical control" tied to military and management modes of organization – he's essentially debunking the "we're in the middle of a manufacturing revolution" rhetoric and instead advocating a more expansive consideration of the historical relationship between design and technology. An excerpt describing which aspects of fabrication actually are novel:

What is “new” in digital fabrication, and thus the source of much promise and interest, is the control of a tool along a path no longer guided by the neurological-muscular feedback loop of a human technician. Instead, it is now controlled by a path in a numerically controlled blanket of points. Our current use of the term numerical control in digital fabrication was coined by the U.S. Air Force after World War II in their search for an elaborate manufacturing system of producing primarily repetitive and occasionally complex components for warplanes and weapons systems.

Moe identifies numerical control as a predominant mode of social organization and points to “floating currencies, future markets, [and] the proliferation of digital technologies of all types” as evidence of this pervasive ideology. The author then steps back from the 21st century and conducts a survey of past technology that considers the role of the clock within Benedictine monasteries, the laws of perspective, the Jacquard loom and early 19th century ordnance production by the U.S. Army. This whirlwind tour of temporal and spatial organization and the shift away from artisan crafted manufacturing provides an absorbing setup to discuss WWII-era electronic numerical control and the development of rudimentary CAD/CAM workflows.

MIT - Numerical Control Servo-System

[US Patent 2,820,187 / Motor Controlled Apparatus for Positioning Machine Tool / 1958]

While other architectural theorists (such as Michael Speaks) have discussed how the WWII aerospace industry foreshadowed fabrication in architecture, Moe directs his attention to highlighting the unemployment caused by the adoption of these techniques within the automotive industry in the 1970s and 80s. This shift to a labour perspective is jarring and the author leverages this tension and states that “digital fabrication technologies will not change building production without fundamental shifts in the social and market structures of design practice.” He cites Gehry Technologies as an example of a "social" implementation of digital design and manufacturing – a success story. I feel Moe missteps in not acknowledging how a new generation of designers are exploring craft through mass-customization – is this not relevant? Does this fact not problematize the discourse surrounding "traditional" numerical control? Apparently not. This grievance aside, it is impossible to dismiss an essay that sketches out a middle ground between Manuel de Landa's War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991) and the aforementioned Kieran & Timberlake's prescient book Refabricating Architecture (2003), I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more research by Moe on fabrication, labour and the history of technology.

Fabricating Architecture: Selected Readings in Digital Design and Manufacturing will be released on July 17th.

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