David Celento

Winter 2008

Stanley Tigerman

David Celento
Assistant Professor, Architecture: Digital Fabrication
Penn State University

David Celento considers himself a digital "tweener." He first trained at Carnegie Mellon University as an architect during the '80s, beta-testing a crash-happy version 2.0 of AutoCAD, more than a decade before BIM, 3D modeling, and digital fabrication took hold of the profession. After impacting some of Pittsburgh's most memorable spaces – including the Andy Warhol Museum, the Heinz History Center, and Pittsburgh's Children's Museum – he headed to Harvard Graduate School of Design to better understand how digitization is radically changing design education and the business of architecture.

Today, this AIA award winning designer is at Penn State, teaching the next generation of architects visualization, design, and digital fabrication via the electronic tools that enable the collaborative and interdisciplinary approach that has come to define Generation Y.

Below are excerpts from a conversation with Dave Celento.

What impact is digitization having on the industry?

The one curious thing about architects is that we have historically relied upon other people to build our ideas. We have the idea, but someone else performs the act. This is not the case with other fields – surgeons plan and perform surgery, programmers design and code their solutions, lawyers research and argue their cases. But for architects, pre-digital work requires translation from ideas into drawings, which are then given to a contractor, which in turn are given to a subcontractor, then to a manufacturer, etc. Anyone who has played the game of "telephone" sitting around a campfire is familiar with how different the result is from the original message!

With digitization, there's potential for less translation and greater design intent to be realized, as well as greater complexity. Using digital tools, designers are much more directly involved. It's taking the lid off "form-making" in architecture. Anything that can be reduced to data can impact the form of the building in a meaningful and useful way. The results can be crazy (the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, by Frank Gehry) or much more pragmatic and environmentally responsive ("The Gerkin" aka 30 St. Mary Axe by Sir Norman Foster and Assocs).

The great part about digital data is that when you design something on the computer you can actually have it made directly from the design data – and that's the future in my opinion. It's enabling. For the first time, architects and manufacturers are able to work directly together from the original design data without having to translate it numerous times.

How will this new generation approach architecture differently?

I think personally we're going to see a blending and blurring of distinctions between disciplines as they relate to creative endeavors.

Engineering, manufacturing, industrial design, and architecture are now all using the same digital tools. We can now work together using the same software to exchange ideas and reinvent the way we approach our work—and this is terrifically exciting for all. This exchange will undoubtedly bring about more diverse and better products.

Looking at both the changing landscape of the industry and the collaborative style of the next crop of young architects, how are those trends changing the way you approach education?

Today is possibly one of the most exciting times to be involved in design training, since perhaps the birth of formal architectural education. For those who want to open the dialogue between designers of all stripes, the rules are currently being reinvented. We're seeing much greater fluidity. Things are happening faster. People who see this potential and want to explore and adapt, can.

What does this mean? Well, compare design to the sciences where the PhD is the gold bar, especially in academia. In design, it's very rare that one has a PhD, since design education is often more about developing "breadth" than "depth". Many companies are now finding that people with broad skills are the ones who have the key ingredients needed to create game-changing products like the iPhone. A friend of mine who runs a successful interdisciplinary product design firm astonished me when he said that when considering new hires a PhD is a red flag for them. Today's young, innovative firms are finding that reaching across disciplines is ultimately more beneficial than assembling teams of people with deep knowledge in limited areas who often have a hard time communicating with or inspiring each other.

The designers in demand are those who are somewhat "T" shaped — a broad perspective with specialized skills. Or even better, like a "table" – an expansive top with many supporting legs of knowledge. This "table" model is the current one favored by leading design schools. This model also favors collaborative interdisciplinary design among all players involved in the design, production, and marketing of products.

The greatest challenge in this environment for (many pre-digital) faculty is simply keeping up with these students!