Designing the Computational Image, Imagining Computational Design – An Excavation of Digital Form

“Designing the Computational Image, Imagining Computational Design” is an exhibition that excavates the foundation of computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) and weaves together several ‘origin stories’ for contemporary consideration. The show recently closed after a seven-week run at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and CAN was fortunate enough to get a guided tour with curator Daniel Cardoso Llach as it was winding down. The exhibition offers an encyclopedic pre-history of CAD/CAM and its applications across architecture and design, and also underscores links between this early research and present-day computational design.

“The exhibition deals with the developments of the first annotations and inscriptions in software to drive numerically controlled machines. It documents the development of these first computer numerically controlled machines – on punched tape or magnetic tape – and how these projects aligned industrial and academic interests,” says Llach as our tour gets underway. These annotations and inscriptions did not emerge from benign curiosity – they were rooted in "more Air Force per dollar” postwar military doctrine; unsurprisingly, the earliest forays into computer manufacturing were fueled by Cold War anxiety. Extending out of this nationalistic starting point, “Designing the Computational Image, Imagining Computational Design” deploys photographs, models, films, and software reproductions to delineate the early years of computational design and connect them to the present.

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