Computers and Fieldwork

After being diverted and delayed for 24 hours due to bad weather in Chicago, I returned late last night from the 2008 annual meeting of the Vernacular Architecture Forum in Fresno, CA, where, among other things, I was elected to the board of directors, to thunderous applause. At least that’s how I remember it.

At recent VAF conferences, there have been anxious discussions about the status of fieldwork and the utility of digital technology. These have not usually been brought together until this year, when it happened in three separate sessions, including both of the ones in which I was a panelist (incidentally, does anyone else feel that it’s time for us to extend the number of time slots for sessions from 3 to 4?).

In her discussion of the Gaspe field school, Tania Martin observed, quite pragmatically, that all the new digital gizmos we have at our disposal are only tools, with particular strengths and weaknesses, and that it’s up to us to understand how and when they are useful, and when the old ways are better. Immediately after Tania’s sensible and seemingly uncontroversial remark, two of the other panelists  were both compelled to point out that they didn’t think too much of new technologies in the context of fieldwork, pointing out that they require electricity, for example, and that the visual qualities of hand drawing are superior to CAD drawing.

I suppose this is true as far as it goes, but why do VAF participants still feel they need to advertise their skepticism (or worse, their ignorance) about digital technologies in general? Film cameras require a complex chemical process to make a photograph but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. We need to call a moratorium on analog posturing at these meetings, like bragging that we don’t have a cell phone. It’s irritating, unproductive, and takes time away from more sensible, thoughtful conversations about our work that are sincerely open to new possibilities.

This conversation might be easier if we re-focused the discussion away from particular technologies, or tools, and toward research activities. The question need not be: is CAD better or worse than ink-on-mylar? It should be: when does CAD help me do my work?

The two techniques that came up in this context on Saturday were CAD and laser scanning. Laser scanning is a form of “remote sensing,” or measuring a thing without touching it. The technology makes use of a spinning laser and a measuring device that is attached to a computer. A technician sticks the device on a tripod, sets it to run, and walks away. For a few minutes, the laser whips around the room, recording distances at regular intervals and passing the results along to the computer. With enough measurements, the system can create a good representation of the space via a “point cloud,” or a series of measured points that can be translated into a 3-D model in CAD software. With the best devices, the point cloud can be dense enough that it captures quite refined details, like molding profiles and door knobs.

It’s a cool technology, especially for developing models of very complex spaces or ornate details, both of which would be extremely laborious to measure by hand. It’s a fantastic way to record the spatial characteristics of a building or a sculpture, for example, and probably the best way to capture, say, the ornate carving on a capitol. The process is time consuming, however, requiring a skilled technician to translate the points into planes and curves. It is, for the moment, expensive. It also fails to record color, and lacks the resolution to pick up cracks and other subtle changes in wall surface that can be important evidence in old buildings. It is not, in short, a replacement for looking carefully. It is a mathematical representation of a building’s formal characteristics that does not make analytical sense of it. If we define fieldwork as a process of understanding a building through recording it, laser scanning is not a great tool for fieldwork.

Clearly, however, it has enormous potential as part of a larger enterprise that includes close looking and careful annotation. In a complex building with many changes, a knowledgeable fieldworker will be required to make sense of how it developed over time and relate that information to the model. The newer, and simpler, the building, the more complete a representation the laser scan becomes. It is surely not a way to record the Peyton Randolph House in all its complexity but it might well capture most of what we want to know about, say, a modern warehouse, or a Target store.

It would be marvelous to have a scan of a building in hand before doing the analytical fieldwork that we still see as fundamental to our scholarship. If a technician can be given the task of making a scaled model, from which one can generate careful scaled plans, sections, and elevations, a field scholar can concentrate on annotating the building with descriptions, notes, etc. I might also add other kinds of documents to the model, such as photographs, allowing it to become the digital framework upon which I hang my analysis.

Modeling, in general, would only ever be one piece of the documentation puzzle. It is a means of representation, not a means of recording. Laser scanning makes modeling simpler, and perhaps makes fieldwork easier, but is not a substitute for fieldwork any more than board drafting is a substitute for field measuring.

And so we return to drawing. Drafting, whether by hand on a board or in a CAD program, is a technical skill. There is no romance to it, nor has there been since the professionalization of architecture in the nineteenth century defined the production of construction drawings as manual wage labor. CAD programs certainly reflect the technical nature of this process and perhaps we are right to resist market-driven definitions of our work.

On the other hand, CAD does bring the production of clear, clean, competent drawings within reach of even the clumsiest of us. We all love to look at a beautiful, hand-drawn illustration, such as the ones by Cary Carson and Chinh Hoang in “Impermanent Architecture” and Tom Hubka’s in Big House, Little House. But the ability to produce such images is a very rare skill. We can’t all be David Macaulay and we delude ourselves if we think otherwise. For most of the drawings that most of us need to produce, a CAD plan is likely to look better than a hand-drawn one, and can be completed much more quickly.

Some of us, to be sure, will continue to derive enjoyment from drawing with ink on a board but for most of the VAF, and for most of our students, it is foolish to imagine that ink-on-mylar has any future beyond a romantic hobby. Those who can draw beautifully will continue to do so, and my hat is off to them. The rest of us will be better served by learning to use the computer.

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