Eric Staudenmaier Koning Eizenberg Architecture's See-Through House in Santa Monica, Calif.

In reaction to my recent column about the presentation of exhibition proposals for Columbus, Ind., several people have asked me: “What do you have against technology?” They also insinuated that, as I was born in the pre-digital age and never made the most advanced computer rendering and modeling techniques my own, I was just an over-the-hill Luddite. That might be true but I am as fascinated as the next person by the whizbang innovations of new machinery and I love the spectacular effects the bestiary of computer programs can produce. What bores me is process and what scares me is the belief that the logical results of any process are necessarily good.

I am interested in results, not process. I am fascinated by effects, not techniques. And I am more focused on the effect of how you move through a space than I am on grids, diagrams, and the “parti.” It is the experience that architecture produces, not the codes by which it is produced, that matter. It is the social scene and the landscape out of which architecture emerges that I think should shape buildings, not the sticks and stones from which it is built.

Of course, like all dichotomies these contrasts are problematic and shaped as much by my upbringing as they are by any verities. I love a good grid as much as the next architecture nerd, especially when it is layered, eroded, or twisted. However, when I obtained my education at Yale, that school was firmly in the camp of the “Grays”: those who preferred complexity and contradiction, were interested in the vernacular, and saw themselves as working with the plastic and imperfect medium of building towards social aims. We contrasted ourselves to the “Whites,” whose work was collected in the 1975 book Five Architects: Peter Eisenman, FAIA, Richard Meier, FAIA, Charles Gwathmey, Michael Graves, and John Hejduk. Their work focused on geometry and systems, and it restricted its effects as much as possible to what the complexity of their limited palette could produce.

Yale University; Department of Manuscripts and Archives Vincent Scully, Yale professor and Metternich of the Grays.

Even while I was still defining myself by trying to take a place in the Gray phalanx led by Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, and, later, Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, with Vincent Scully serving as our Metternich, the lines were already beginning to blur. Graves sort of defected from the Whites, although he maintained his love of order and classicism, however eroded those might have become. Hejduk began creating “masques” and writing fairy tales. The neo-Shingle Style of which Scully was so proud became a developer tool spread out across the suburbs in ever thinner skins, and postmodern confusion reigned everywhere.

Then came the explosion of computing power and with it the takeover of the avant-garde, as I described in my previous column, by the machine operators who spun out their dizzying array of blobs, clouds, algorithms, and, later, parametric structures. They claimed to be making endless process, leaving the architect to just push a button at the right moment—whenever that was—to pause and press (3D) print. Through deep planning (as Ben van Berkel, Hon. FAIA, called it) they thought those processes would be able to assimilate all social and economic, as well as technical and constructional, forces into coherent form that promised an equally dazzling set of effects.

As the decades went on, the digital pioneers became partners in firms whose size and scope rivaled and then eclipsed those founded by both the Whites and Grays. The likes of van Berkel, Patrik Schumacher, and their corporate imitators came to dominate the architecture scene. Their disciples lived in the world they had created, and those students’ response was to push the possibilities further and create ever more outrageous uses of technology and presentation techniques. That part of architecture devoted to experimentation now appears to belong to them.

And yet …

Recently, we hosted a lecture by New Zealand architect Jeremy Smith at the School of Architecture of Taliesin (where I serve as president). As soon as he started showing the houses and buildings he and his partner, Andrew Irving, design in that faraway country so close to Middle-earth, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia for the ways in which structures can be open frameworks that ramble and adjust themselves to the landscape and to view. Smith’s buildings lead you on in hopscotch journeys of exploration and provide views that cut through the house, leading your eye from inside to outside and the reverse. Their buildings fit themselves in and cut themselves off when they run out of a need for space, then keep going when more shelter is needed.

Patrick Reynolds Irving Smith Architects' Bach with Two Roofs house in New Zealand
Patrick Reynolds Irving Smith Architects' Bach with Two Roofs house in New Zealand
Patrick Reynolds Irving Smith Architects' Bach with Two Roofs house in New Zealand
Patrick Reynolds Irving Smith Architects' House with Villa Silhouette in New Zealand

I do not want to hold this work up as emblematic of a simpler place and time that somehow, through the magic of global culture, is now available to us. But I would point out that, across the world, designers have remained committed to spatial explorations and experience-focused structures, even if Smith and Irving do not always use the wood-heavy vernacular that took me back to New Haven in the 1970s. Whether it is Harquitectes in Spain or MADA s.p.a.m. in Beijing, Koning Eizenberg in Southern California or Burkhalter Sumi in Switzerland—plus countless younger firms I don’t have time here to list who are still building up their practices—there is an alternative to machine madness.

Garage courtyard, with a retractable glass roof.
Adrià Goula Harquitectes' House 1014, in Granollers, Spain
Koning Eizenberg Architecture's Informal House was a winner in the 2014 AIA Housing Awards one- and two-family custom residences category.
Eric Staudenmaier Koning Eizenberg Architecture's Sobieski House in South Pasadena, Calif.

The problem is that this work is often restricted in its scope and size, both because it is expensive to make and so specific to its site, and because the designers explicitly do not want to produce within a larger corporate and technological system—whether that system be the economic one that favors large corporate architects or the building processes that look for an image to put on BIM-produced platforms. Thus the work is bound to both place and to small, almost artisanal production. This sort of architecture is also, all too often, conservative in its approach and nostalgic in its imagery and materials.

Luckily, as somebody trained as an architect who has mostly given up practice, I do not have to choose. I can just look for good work everywhere. I can find a good slip and slide in a building, whether it is the result of a consciously crafted computer glitch or a reference to the Sea Ranch. I can delight in the unfinished and the ruinous, and the erosion of systems that allows us to experience them, rather than having to figure out how to produce such a wealth of effect. And, I can continue to rail against the capture of the architectural imagination and imaginary architecture by the mindless spinning out of codes by machines set loose by those too lazy to figure out how to make good architecture—both in a social and a formal sense.