In the earliest days of production, each and every object was manufactured by hand, whether there was demand for one or one hundred. Each object created was inherently unique due to the mark of the artisan’s hand, and the natural variation properties of the raw material. Each product in essence was a custom production. Then with the arrival of Fordism the production of identical objects became a necessity and refined materials allowed for consistency. While the streamlined efficiency of the assembly line made products widely available and cheaply. The necessity of large-scale production resulted in a large stockpile of identical objects, and thus the most challenging part of Fordism is the not the production of the good but the manufacture of demand.
With the advent of CAD/CAAM technology and robotic manufacturing, in contrast to the assembly line, machinery set-up costs are reduced or eliminated, with only digital programming required. These great advantages have already begun to be implemented by industry and designers are already using computers in nearly every aspect of their work, producing news forms and designs with greater efficiency than ever before. Yet the boundaries between the two components have not yet been fully integrated and this holds the exciting promise of making the dialectic of the identical and unique a historical discussion.
With computer-aided design there is no longer the need to create fixed formal solutions,which themselves are inherently unique. This is going beyond current architectural practices where computer technologies are used to assemble standardized components into unique configurations. Instead parameters may be established to guide the design process to ensure manufacturability while the final formal solution can then either be automatically generated or guided by the consumer or designer. This presumes design or components of it to be a serial activity, where each product or component is in some way connected to another, which indeed almost all production is. The problem is that current production techniques offer benefits if products are near identical or consist of standardized components. This is suggesting an intermediate type of production,that of the serial, where no two objects are identical but all are alike, and operate fluidly. What is called into question are the formal relationships of the resultant products, whether they be consumer electronics or building components.
At issue is the formal character of an object. It is a concept found most often in typography, where each letter of a character set must have its own individual identity and function; an “i” is not the same as an “l”. These forms must not be mistaken for each other; but the two objects be similar enough to hold the same function (at times, different at others) and be recognizable as part of the same system. Each character of a typeface must operate according to the same set of formal rules so as to function together as a greater whole while retaining individual identity. There must be a flow between the individual letters that lets them operate as a unified family, functional no matter what the specific arrangement. This concept also extends beyond the individual font to the concept of the font family. Where the entire set of forms is variated to produce another set of characters with a slightly different function, but which operates together with the other sets as a type of greater system.
The importance of typography in architecture and design continues on to provide insight on how one can respond to Benjamin’s attention/distraction dialectic. Though the signified maybe received in attention, the graphic component of the sign is received in utter distraction while its effect is undeniable. The font sets the mood and like a field, responds to subtle variations of program and context with a fluid change in form without loosing its formal coherence to act as a unit.
The computer implies a continually shifting reality of endless variation and the form of the singular object becoming secondary to the design of systems/ parameters. Character then, is the moment of singular formal integrity in this field of vectors and forces, as it responds to a specific programmatic demand. As in typography, architectural elements must negotiate individual function (identity) with operation at an ever-larger scale. These same forces reveal themselves at social scale as the problem of the brand. The consumer’s ability to immediately recognize the work of Meier or Graves is directly related to the challenge presented by the endless variations of consumer-customized products enabled by computer-controlled manufacturing. Since Yves Klein and Warhol, the manufacturing of identity has been at the core of artistic practice. As robotic processes of manufacture make Fordist repetition obsolete, a culture of customization is becoming increasingly prevalent, identity and the brand converge. Architecture exists as part of this cultural, technological and economic fabric. In order to take advantage of its interweaving synergies, we must always be able to look at the larger context, historically and inter-disciplinary, even when focusing on its individual strands.
The computer is both part of and responsible for a shift in design discourse, in theory and practice. It is no coincidence that as theoretical paradigms shifted away from semiotics and towards fluidity, computer modeling enables endless variation and fluid form. This dissolution of the singular object (sign) into an adaptive system is the underlying thematic
It is in these variated systems of differentiated units, that span the conceptual realm between the identical and the unique, where design will find new territory. Slowly dissolving the individual with its need for attention and attenuating the systemic to mark its impression in this dizzying delirium of distraction that is the contemporary condition.