Architecture exhibit revels in 80s nostalgia

Archaeology of the Digital takes a closer look at how four leading architects, Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Chuck Hoberman and Shoei Yoh, became early adapters of 80s digital technology.

Frank O. Gehry & Associates, Inc. Lewis Residence, Lyndhurst, Ohio: Fish, Geometrical frame of the conservatory from Catia 3D model, 1989-1995.

Sure, the kids these days are all about early 80s retro chic with its airbrushed neon and Gordon Gano “Greed is Good” megalomania. What a weird world it was before smart phones, Netflix, Reddit, Skype and Craigslist. Those who lived through the battlefield that was the 80s generally have warm reminiscences about their first courtship with computers. As the newly opened CCA exhibit Archaeology of the Digital shows, architects in particular were eager to take the newfangled gizmos out for a test spin.

Archaeology of the Digital takes a closer look at how four leading architects: Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Chuck Hoberman and Shoei Yoh, were not only early adopters of digital technology, but shaped it in creative ways to suit their purposes. The computers available at the time generally held as much memory as today’s average coffee pot and cost as much as an SUV. Architects could hand draft as fast as a computer. The ability to shade pictures was unknown. However, all four men realized that computers were tools that could optimize their projects through the 80s and 90s. In doing so, they changed the way computers became part of architectural design forever.

The multiroom exhibit focuses on four major architectural projects, as well as a few smaller ones handled by the architects’ respective firms. Hoberman’s interest in software that could animate moving parts led up to bucky ball-like structures such as his Iris Dome (1993) and collapsing geodesic dome. Yoh’s elegant Odawara sports complex (1990-1992) is enlivened with an undulating roof whose design relied on a computer to optimize cost and evaluate stress points. Eisenman’s Biozentrum at J.W. Goethe University (1987) was drafted and modeled using a combo of technology and human effort. Computer generated diagrams of the building were FedExed back and forth between Ohio State University’s Comp Sci department and Eisenman’s New York office. Apparently, fax machines were a little too exotic at the time. Finally, Gehry’s Lewis Residence (1989-1995) is a study in the development of 3D imaging and construction. Gehry developed and patented his own software still in use today.

Wandering through the exhibit is like walking through a 20 or 30-year high school reunion. Careful, meticulous blueprints, sketches, and code are printed with dot matrix printers. Hand corrections on the digitally produced documents (including someone’s complaint: “Deep Shit”) are like snapshots of days past. Perhaps most entertaining is a room containing an MIT storage supply closet worth of old machines and printers.

CCA exhibits always feel like a scholarly book opened up. Enthusiasts and specialists will leave sated from this banquet. There is much information to savour and enjoy. The sheer act of displaying this material helps to spotlight the processes at work during a period of architecture that could easily be lost as old hard drives are tossed. Teased hair aside, the good ol’ days were creative, exciting times indeed. For those uninitiated in architecture or art history, the tendency is to stroll through, admiring the cool maquettes, having a giggle at the old computers and making a heroic effort to read all the wall documentation. The CCA is so thorough that reader’s fatigue sets in by room 3. Take advantage of the excellent daily guided tours to point out the highlights. ■

Archaeology of the Digital is on at the CCA (1920 Baile) through October 13.

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