digital world, material boy


Yes another one of my allusions to a song or movie title. We are living in a digital world, and I am a material boy. Let that song stick in your head all day today. Speaking of things sticking inside one’s head, a walk across campus (I teach part-time) recently reminded me of my college experience. Then I started to think of connections to architecture. Don’t you know by now, everything relates to architecture?

Last week I walked past a student and happened to hear him answer his cell phone and say hello to his mother. It dawned on me at that moment that I never spoke with my mother on a cell phone while I was in school, but how cool that would have been to talk to her spontaneously like that. When I was in school, we didn’t have cell phones. Only the elite had car phones and a few had those ugly bag phones that required a small shopping cart to carry them. In fact, when I was in school I never even owned a cordless phone throughout my many apartments. If you don’t know me, I attended college from 1985 to 1991. My phone calls home were usually routine and scheduled for weekends because long distance rates were cheaper then.

After watching that phone call, I began pondering the difference between the shift from material (physical) things and processes to digital (non-physical). I made me think about the ever-changing process of making architecture. This is a big discussion all on its own. Later I spent the drive home thinking about the many other things that have changed since I was in school.

Recently I started to teach another year of studio to first year architecture students and I started a few new designs in my office. This made me very aware of my avid use of trace and #2 pencils to develop and study architecture. We use them in our first year studio too. Physical tools are familiar to me, I can think with them and I don’t feel inhibited like I do when working on a computer. I know if you are under a certain age, you don’t feel the same inhibitions as I do. To show you my stubbornness and firm belief in the tools of pencils and trace (bumwad is my preferred term), I do not let my first year students use any other pencils than ones that need to be sharpened (no mechanical pencils). They succumb to digital tools soon enough.

Other cultural norms that were non-existent or popular while I was in college are email, the internet and BIM. In fact, I still have a box of letters from my wife (then girlfriend) that I’ve kept because in those days, we wrote each other letters. It was something material. I asked her recently what would we have done if we could have been able to text each other. She said “I would have known that you were going to be late like you always were.” A good point, but that’s not what I was going for at the time. No email (or texting) meant we had to actually communicate with each other with sounds, body language and often written words. The only emoticon was my actual face and the smiley faces she wrote to me.

As for computers and architecture, they existed, but I didn’t take my first CAD course until I was in third year (1988) and it was on a tiny Apple Mac. We carried floppy disks in our shirt pockets or backpacks. Now that I think of it, Architrion was actually a 3D system. I used to print out my designs on the “dot-matrix” printer and sketch over it with…you guessed it a #2 pencil (and a Sharpie). Rapidograph pens were also the norm.

I am not wishing to go back to those days or say they were any better or worse, I’ve just been reminiscing and wondering how life would have been different if I was in college now versus then.

I still love my pencils and trace. You can’t take those away from this material boy.


apple mac photo is from the Wikimedia Commons (used under the Creative Common License)

…there’s a bonus if you can figure out the first photo

digital world, material boy

8 thoughts on “digital world, material boy

  1. Good aticle. I rememeber in school (Va. Tech) in my dorm (Lee Hall) the phone was down the hall and having to go get people if I happened to be walking by it when it rang.

    All communication “back home” was via letter. When I graduated but my then girlfriend (now wife) was still there, I got a letter almost every day from her. It was addressed to “Prince Charming” or “Knight in Shining Armor” etc. When I was moving out of that apartment I went down to the PO to fill out the change of address card and the guy behind the counter looked at the address, then at me and said “Oh. So YOU’RE Prince Charming!!”.

    Like you, we still have all those letters in a box.


  2. Great post. I was in school from 81 to 86. The only time I could talk on the phone with my empirical sweetheart was after classes at night. Never took a computer drafting class but they had one. My computer class was in basic and fortran. Remember the cards. A few years ago we found a stack of them in my father-in-law’s closet. He worked at Marshall Space Flight Center. That’s how the moon rockets were developed. Our phones were on the wall and rotary dial.


  3. P.W. DeLosSantos says:

    I remember painstakingly cleaning my Rapidographs, waiting patiently for the water in the sink to run clear. It was a labor of love. And the trips from Pratt to Pearl Paint on Canal Street to buy supplies such as huge sheets of foam core, lugging it all back to campus on the G train. Those were pilgrimages that the younger generations may never know.

    1. Thanks for sharing. I remember similar types of trips. It makes me wonder, what it would be like to be in school today with so many things different. It also makes me wonder where and how architecture will be conceived and developed in the future.

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