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“On Physical Mockups in the Age of Digital Reproducibility”

Mario Carpo

The full-size, three-dimensional mockup is a fixture of the industrial age. If one plans to reproduce the same bottle one billion times, it makes sense to study, try and test it many times over, in real size and in real life, before the blueprint is sent to the factory. The same would apply to a prefabricated, precast concrete panel meant to standardize all social housing for all times to come in all countries around the world or, more modestly, to a modular curtain wall panel which will be reproduced 2,784 times to clad a black office tower designed for a financial firm which will soon vacate it to relocate in Bangalore. The technical logic of mechanical mass production maximizes economies of scale on the condition that, after the machine is set in motion, it keeps churning out identical copies of whatever it is making for as long as possible. All changes and adjustments that interrupt serial reproduction entail additional expenditures: matrixes, molds and casts have to be remade, the assembly line reset, and costs pile up. Hence the importance of thoroughly testing a mockup before mass replication. Better safe than sorry. Traditional hand-making does not work that way. A craftsman—say, a preindustrial cobbler—does not make full-size mockups of shoes, because every pair of shoes he makes—indeed, every shoe he makes—is a mockup of itself. As all are custom-made, each item is made to fit the foot of each individual customer. When it fits, it ships; and until it doesn’t, the cobbler will keep working on it. Of course, today’s luxury bespoke shoemakers may keep a few ready-made examples in their shops, to show off their bravura, or to orient the choices of their customers; but those presentation pieces do not count, functionally, as mockups as they are not for testing, nor for trial, nor prototypes meant for identical Reproduzierbarkeit. The real work of art is the unique piece that will start to be made only after each foot of the discerning client has walked into the shop. Occasionally, even craftsmen are asked to produce identical copies–which free-hand making as a rule is not very good at. The builders of classical Greek temples, for example, often had to reproduce a certain number of identical capitals. Archeologists assume that in such instances, ancient stonecutters first made one capital, to serve as a template, or archetype (they actually called it paradeigma, or example), and then copied it as many times as necessary; when all capitals were done and put in place, on top of each respective column, capital number one would go the same way, as it was just the same as all others. But this procedure was and is the exception: hand-making, in most walks of life, does not aim at identical copies; quite the contrary, it aims at making each item on its own merit. Digital making, once again, partakes of both mechanical machine making and traditional hand-making, but it pertains to neither. Digital making straddles boundaries, hybridizes or muddles established patterns of use, and it may discombobulate, or worse, both makers and users. Digital notations may drift, change and morph all the time, because often they are scripted parametrically, and as the name indicates, parameters are meant to be parametrized. The customization of the original script may be the work of the persons who wrote that script, or not. Parameters that are free to vary may be set randomly, or automatically, or by a person whom we have never met. Additionally, the script itself—besides its parametric variables—may be tweaked or edited or transmogrified, by chance or by design; and even the software we use to write that script may be different tomorrow from what it is today. In short, achieving identical copies in a digital design and production chain is difficult, sometimes impossible—and in any event, it is alien to the spirit of the game. This is why digitally fabricated mockups do not and cannot work as old pre-digital mockups once did. Every instantiation of a digital script is a unique epiphany of sorts: occasional, ephemeral, and often unrepeatable. The next one in the same series will be different—albeit similar, as most of the script may still be the same. You may look at that digitally fabricated physical mockup and think that it is a sign of more to come, but this will be only partially true: as in all digital series, each item is only the evocation of more that may come, more or less similar to the first spin-off—but never the same. In the old mechanical world, a physical mockup—the archetype of the series—was one out of many that would be just the same; in a digital parametric environment, the algorithm is one into many that will all be different. The individual mockup may still stand for the whole series, but only in a vague, generic, and suggestive way: it stands for the series like a potato plant we bought in a pot may stand for the whole garden, or, in a metaphor which John Ruskin would have found more to his taste, like the first lilies that peep through the melting snow at the end of winter promise the bed of flowers that will adorn the meadow when the spring cometh. So it is good to play around the ambiguity of today’s mockups and probe the queries they raise. For every digitally fabricated mockup is bound to be, to some extent, a trompe l’oeil that cheats our eyes used to and trained by the worn-out logic of mechanical mass-production; indeed, it mocks them. 21 February 2011 Mario Carpo is Associate Professor of Architectural History in the French Schools of Architecture, Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Vincent Scully Visiting Professor of Architectural History at the School of Architecture of Yale University. He is the author of The Alphabet and the Algorithm (MIT Press, 2011), Architecture in the Age of Printing (MIT Press, 2001); and other books.

Published in conjunction with the WUHO Exhibition, Mockups.

Image: Jennifer Bonner’s project in the Mockups exhibition at WUHO.

Posted in 2011, Past

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