When it opened in 1997, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao demonstrated how computers could reinvent contemporary building. The art museum's complex, irregular forms were designed with software meant for building fighter jets. But in tech terms, 1997 is prehistory, and since then architecture's leading edge has been reshaped by the digital: How buildings are designed, how they are (or can be) made, how we talk about them and even how we think about space.
Witness the competition for the next proposed Guggenheim museum, in Helsinki. It attracted 1,715 entries online, arguably the largest number ever in an architectural competition. The winners flooded social media and were picked over on design blogs within hours. If one is built, it will likely employ complex geometries rendered with the help of robots.
Making sense of this situation is Troy Conrad Therrien's job. Therrien, a Canadian, was recently named the Guggenheim Museum's curator of architecture and digital initiatives. This role gives him two challenges: interpreting the tech-loaded world of contemporary design and using digital tools to communicate about it.
And as the Helsinki competition moves toward a winner – the six short-listed architectural firms submit their revised visions next week – Therrien is looking to do something with the other 1,709 submissions.
"To me, because there are so many, it felt like the dawn of big data in architecture discourse," says Therrien, 33. "I've been asking, what do you do with that material? How would you think of it as a historian who can work with data?" Do you mine it, electronically, for similarities in form? Do you apply natural language processing to analyze its texts? And then in what form do you make it available online?
These questions begin to suggest the complexities of thinking about, and curating, contemporary architecture.
On a personal level, the digital revolution has changed our experience of space. The city street is a profoundly different place when you walk it with a smartphone. Within the professions of architecture and building, technical details and much conceptual work happen in the digital realm. And on a theoretical level, conversations about the culture of buildings, which had always explored physical spaces – the hut, the temple, the brick house, the steel-framed skyscraper – now confront a new digital space, which is beginning to intersect with the real, from design software to the beginnings of the "smart home."
Therrien cites the Italian scholar Franco Berardi: "The Internet is not a tool, it's an environment." To him, this represents a "fundamental transformation of the conception of space," born of a profound disruption – just as the spasms of the industrial revolution set the stage for modernism in Europe a century ago. "Today we're in the wake of a digital revolution," Therrien argues. "Digital permeates our life, and it has for long enough that we can ask questions of it."
A native of Coquitlam, B.C., Therrien began studying computer engineering at the turn of the millennium. (At the time he was equally serious about sports: He played football at UBC before a broken clavicle ended his varsity career.) A stint working at Microsoft while in school gave him a close-up view as the dot-com bubble burst, and he soon chased a deeper interest in architecture – bringing his skills as a coder to his studies at Columbia University just as a "fetish of the digital," as he puts it, crested in the architectural academy. Work as a "digital strategist" for idea-hungry corporations, and as a curator, followed.
Columbia was one of the centres of experimentation in "digital architecture" during the late 1980s and the 1990s, when architects such as Greg Lynn and Peter Eisenman used new tools to build an avant-garde of theory and form. Gehry advanced that tradition. Such exploration, around 2000, found expression in the built work of many leading designers, including Gehry and Zaha Hadid – the computer as a tool and also as a means of generating forms.
If you are trying to mount museum shows about architecture, this is a challenge: What do you show? And how? Brendan Cormier, another young Canadian curator, now with the Victoria & Albert in London, says Therrien's appointment is timely. "Today, museums with architecture collections are struggling to come to terms with the archives of modern architectural practices, which are largely virtual," Cormier says. "While archives from the 20th century are awash with paper drawings, letter correspondence and working models, today's practices are producing future archives that will be mostly contained in servers."
The Canadian Centre for Architecture, a leading research and curatorial institution, has tackled that problem with an ongoing project called The Archaeology of the Digital. "We are just at the beginning of understanding how to have digital within the museum," says the CCA's chief curator Mirko Zardini. "The digital will profoundly transform the work and the idea of a museum." In a 2011 essay, he wrote that museums need to imagine themselves as having "two buildings: the physical one, anchored to a specific place, and the digital, accessed online from anyplace at anytime." This, he suggests, is an opportunity "to engage the public, in some cases perhaps a much larger public, in a different way."
This is where Therrien's musings about Helsinki take on special relevance. The Guggenheim is not a leading architecture museum: It has made its mark on architecture through its buildings, though, and these days it is often criticized for its franchise model, taking it to Abu Dhabi (with another Gehry building) in 2017. In Helsinki, the idea of a branch-plant art museum, which asks a franchise fee from the city, has not been entirely well received. The scheme has prompted a sort of protest competition, The Next Helsinki, which calls for alternative strategies of cultural development. One of its protagonists, the New York architect and activist Michael Sorkin, complains of the Guggenheim's "Starbucks museology."
But the design process is moving ahead, and the six finalist proposals, some of them quite innovative, are from small, relatively obscure architecture offices. "It is exactly what you would want from an open, international competition," Therrien says.
And the design ideas for the building, digitally classified and analyzed, will become the substance of an online conversation. It's a slice of "how architects think in 2014 and 2015," Therrien says – "an incredibly rich data set." It's something that Gehry and his staff in 1997, who presented their finished work only in newspapers and glossy magazines, could not have imagined. "But what people in the engineering and tech world have understood," Therrien says, "is that technology changes everything."