Die SilhouettensindAbstrakta. Seine Beschreibungisteinebloβe Silhouette. Le silhouette sono astrazioni. La loro descrizione è una mera silhouette – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

New shapes
Ivo Caruso

To illustrate a critical analysis concerning the contemporary aesthetics, it is necessary to consider the influence of digital technologies on the possibilities of creating unusual morphologies and visual scenarios that are very different from the traditional Euclidean codes.

Gillo Dorfles, commenting on the results of the ninth Venice Biennale of Architecture, focuses on the theme of technological, digital and “cellular”  inspiration of the new shapes of architecture by stating:  “Perhaps one of the first reasons is not only the abandonment of the old Vitruvius criterions, the syntax that seemed to reign in “rectangular-inspired” rigor in the past, or the fact that many of these unusual shapes can not be achieved without the intervention of computer and those nanotechnologies non-existent in the past, but rather in the fact that their implementation often starts from handmade modules and models, still completely “hand-built” as happened even in the case of Gehry. So we could even talk about not so much a new organic architecture (as Zevi stated), but an architecture whose development is similar to that of cells of a living organism and that in short, an architecture aimed to create a sort of unprecedented «cytoarchitecture».” (Dorfles, 2004)

It is possible to assert that the introduction in architecture, design and arts (as in all visual disciplines) of digital technologies for representation (specific softwares) and for material realization of artifacts or models (3d printers and systems for the rapid-manufacturing) is allowing the final overcoming of the dichotomy of rationalism / organicism in favor of absolutely new rules.

As suggested by Teresa Macrì: “The present day promises us a body of multiple contaminations and unpredictable functionalities. These relations, which the body faces, oust its identity and redesign a mutant subjectivity.”(Macrì, 2002)


Today we are immersed in a sea full of stimuli, messages, digital forms. These forms, however, are not unknown for us. We are able to recognize them because they have been assimilated by our visual culture thanks to massive, continuous and global exposure. To the real world we have superimposed a virtual one, a cyberspace with its own language, its own architecture, its time, its codes and its own aesthetic rules. “The planning of cyberspace, the environment for communication and thinking of human groups, is one of the main aesthetic and political goals of the next century.” (Levi, 1966)

Over the last years a sort of collective intelligence layered, a form of thinking that connects and develops itself thanks to a unique technological language. The technological language is encoded and used to enable a dialogue between man and machine, between two or more machines, between more and more complex and efficient systems of men and machines. “Virtual worlds and cyberspace are not necessarily solipsists universes, abstractions separated from reality, they are effective representations, particularly well suited to connection with the world of technology and more generally with everything in the world that lends itself to formal modeling: in sum the universe of quantifiable, of what is mathematizable. “(Quéau, 1995)

It is furthermore misleading to consider computers just as tools for the representation, pre-visualization or aimed to control the machineries for production. The language of softwares today is the bearer of aesthetics due to the ability to return a given geometry or the creation of new geometries achievable only by digital and automated systems. Sometimes these spectacular capabilities, more or less consciously, influence the approach of the designer himself, guiding the choices, increasing the expressive possibilities. Paraphrasing Maldonado, it is coming true in an increasingly tangible way the shift from intellectual prosthesis to syncretic ones (that means able to aggregate motor, sensory-perceptual and intellectual functions).

“They are pre-programmed mechanical systems which, thanks to the extraordinary improvements in information technology and microelectronics, are able to interactively combine calculation, action and perception in the management of production processes.” (Maldonado, 1997)


In a short article, the art critic Domenico Quaranta says: “In the end, the New Aesthetic does no more than state the obvious: that the new technologies are changing our reality and our outlook on the world, and that this is new and strange; that the real and digital merge and mingle; and that for years we created and saw through the same machines, whose logic and ways of seeing had an impact on what we see and create. (…) The New Aesthetic is not interesting as an idea; it is interesting as a phenomenon. Its success shows that the fusion of real and digital worlds has now reached a very high level of visibility and recognition; and that when we see a QRCODE, a pixelated pillow, a photoshopped picture, an error of compression, an architecture of Zaha Hadid, a satellite shot, a Guy Fawkes mask, we all know what we are seeing, and we all know that we are seeing the same thing, even without having the faintest idea of ​​what is meant by terms such as “robot vision”, “parametricism” or “augmented reality”. All this is now a part of reality, any more than we are willing to admit. Its influence in fields such as fashion, architecture, advertising and mass communication, the design of objects and the design of softwares, however, demonstrates the rapidity at which research, initially grown from a niche, now penetrated into the mainstream areas: a velocity that completely resets the traditional relationship between avant-garde and kitsch, radical experimentation and common taste. “(Quaranta, 2012)

Digital technologies so evolved from tools for the representation of an idea, a project; so from a functional level, more or less analogous to the “old” and “beloved” perspectives, rulers, mirrors, study models and prototypes; to an evolutionary approach, now generative and inspiring. The enormous potential of computing systems so became the source of concepts and morphological innovation. A “different” morphology, which emphasizes its difference from traditional figurative codes starting from them and acting with modificative instruments. [1]

According to the principle of synthetic otherness “images are becoming more and more abstract, less and less material forms and ever more languages, increasingly less visions and more and more pre-visions. They are not closed universes of meaning but open worlds of possible meanings (…) . Shapes (N/A) (…) we can consider open to manipulation, transformation, new synthesis. They are always in another place and in a otherwise.”(Faccioli, 2001)


The shapes of simplification
Angela Giambattista

The digital method is essentially a manipulative approach, which deconstructs, cleans, degenerates with extreme ease simple shapes or scans of existing forms. New technologies “store the external world but, at the same time, they translate it in the terms of the mechanisms and of the physiology of their memory and return it so interpretated; that is to say they are not mirrors. “(Costa, 2005)

“The sampling procedure transforms continuous data into discontinuous ones (discrete), informations belonging to separate units: people, pages of a book, pixels. Then each sample is quantified; namely, that he is given a numerical value based on a predefined scale. “(Manovich, 2002)

In a nutshell, it is possible to assert that these operations of return, of “digestion” of the geometries by digital technologies can basically follow two paths: that of simplification, understood as a reduction of the resolution, the definition of a given form; and that of the complication seen as adding elements and their free processing. They are part of the first group the aesthetic variations arising from those which are the smallest units of digital images or virtual models, that are the pixels, the layers (levels) and the meshes (triangulations). Instead belong to the second group the resultings of modeling softwares’ modifiers as the noise effect (interference), fluidizing, the generative computational solutions or the fragmentation.[2]

It is important to note that, in the case of complex geometries, also the operations defined “simplification” inevitably lead to an increase of the signs of which a geometry is composed. Let’s take in consideration for example an elementary volume as a sphere; we can approximate the shape with pixels, layers or meshes. The smaller units will be the minimum permitted to create a final result that will be similar to the original ball. In the first case the return in pixels of the ball will be a conglomeration of small cubes inscribed in the starting volume. The concept of simplification is not therefore concerning signs or composition, but it works on the degree of resolution of the visualization. A resolution that excludes shades, softnesses, continuity.


There are some case studies of projects that skillfully exploiting the aesthetics of pixels, as for example the dresses designed by Kunihiko Morinaga for Anrealage or The Family Tree 2.0 series by the young Indian artist Nandan Ghiya. In 2010, the British designer Julian F. Bond sets up a machine for molding small ceramic objects that, thanks to the regulation of thin mobile plaster forming the casting cavity, produces objects that are always different, but always united by a recognizable and characterizing pixelated aesthetic.

Cut flat jigs and overlap them has always been a simple method to obtain three-dimensional shapes starting from sheet materials or panels. A clear example are the ordered structures which are traditionally used for the construction of ships or aircrafts. One of the historical examples of this approach applicated to product design is the 0024 suspension lamp designed by Gio Ponti produced by FontanaArte in 1931. This lamp in some ways inspired in 1989 Titania by Alberto Meda and Paolo Rizzatto for Luceplan or Ferruccio Laviani in 2000 for Foscarini Supernova. This compositional approach today discovers a renewed interest with the increasing use of machines for laser or CNC cutting; machineries able to obtain shapes from flat surfaces in a simple and fast way.

Besides to “control” operating machines, the computer is also used to design individual sections, achievable in a more or less automated way. An example is the Clone Chair by Julian Mayor that in 2005, playing with layers of plywood, re-build a traditional Queen Anne chair. A similar outcome is the Layer Chair by Jens Dyvik made in Fablab laboratories and characterized by the possibility for the user to parametrically modify the three-dimensional model of the chair downloaded using an open-source platform. The manipulation operation is delegated to the end user of the product which can modify thicknesses, heights, proportions and details acting in an empirical way with the movements of his own body; these variations are recorded and translated into morphological instructions by a motion capture system.


Layers of Sound Chair of the artist Matthew Plummer-Fernandez are “drawn” by the sound waves obtained by frequency, volume and time of a specifically digitized noise. In this creative process, reducing the thickness of the layer, the designer can decide to increases the resolution of the shape of the final volume. An extreme example are the Subdivided Columns by Michael Hansmeyer. The architect creates conceptual columns layering 1mm thick cardboard and creating fabulous and phantasmagoric ornaments, able to achieve an amazing level of detail.

Many softwares for virtual modeling use meshes, that are networks (generally triangular) with portions that make finished elementary forms otherwise complex. It is therefore a discretization process that can return a form in a more or less adherent way to the original. The ability to make every single mesh an object of calculation and therefore a minimal element on which to apply stress, strain or modifications made this technique particularly suitable to be adopted in architectural projects including for example the glass cover of the fair district in Rho designed by Massimiliano Fuksas, the BMW Welt by Coop Himmelblau, the kaleidoscopic entrance of Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku by Hiroshi Kakamura or the Pulkovo Airport by Nicholas Grimshaw.

In 2011 Nendo designs Orime; a mouse for the company Elecom characterized by a body entirely rationalized using similar triangular surfaces. The result is a sort of stealth for desktops, able to live in a limbo between digital and analog world. In 2013, Plummer-Fernandez presents his “discovery” of the Venus of Google, a sort of personal and contemporary version of Venus of Willendorf. Sruli Recht created in 2013, the Lo /Rez collection imagining to reduce the resolution of draping of commons sweaters so creating jackets using thin wooden triangles able to deconstruct the bodies, stiffen them, wrap them in hard geometric armors. Triangular surfaces, repeated and scaled in a fractal obsession create Fractal. MGX Table by Gernot Oberfell, Jan Wertel and Matthias Bär or simple yet charming Paper Vase Cover by Pepe Heykoop.


The shapes of complication
Enza Migliore

A morphological approach quite similar to the aesthetics of the mesh is what could be called noise. The noise is an interference, the flickering of a malfunctioning screen, corruption of a original shape with anarchists, casual and dissonant details. It is therefore a method which complicates a starting geometry, it crashes it, it disturbs it in an arbitrary manner. Some examples are the emblematic collection Scam Share/d Heritage by the Belgian graphic studio Pam&Jenny, the project Good Vibrations by Ferruccio Laviani or the Noize Chairs by Guto Requena.

The latter scans some iconic chairs of the Brazilian tradition, damages the virtual models and returns them to the materiality using rapid manufacturing processes. The final effect of noise is also comparable to the formal results are typical of traditional origami technique, but ditching the concept of maximum abstraction, compositional balance, control the number of elements, sometimes even to the symmetries. Aranda Lash was inspired by these type of intentions designing 20 bridges for Central Park and fashion designer Qi Hu designed in 2014 Reflection masks for an event for Grand Magasin Printemps in Paris. Amazing faceted headdress purifying the technique of origami aesthetic from ethnic, traditional and oriental codes to create imaginative creatures belonging to a digital mythology.

The virtual modeling techniques consider a shape as a volume obtained by an infinite material on which it is possible to act as a clay sculptor would do struggling with a packet of material that can self-generate from inside, thus giving the artist the possibility to make infinite stretching, crushing , flues, bends, twists and revolutions.

It is a fluid material, soft, smooth, stress-free, able to melt at the touch of the modeler and then immediately freeze no more allowing any collapses. Examples of this kind of “ectoplasmism” are many architectures and products of design-stars such as Zaha Hadid, Ross Lovegrove, Ron Arad, Karim Rashid or Luigi Colani.


There are examples where it is clear the approach of amending pre-existing forms; like the clocks depicted by Salvador Dalí, rigid artifacts, can momentarily abandone their physicality, to be handled in a plastic way and then return to their rigidity. Often designers choose intentionally very traditional furnishings or objects such as Chinese vases blown away by the Front Design collective, as the Lathe series that modifies chairs of the XXVII century rotating, extruding, pressing, casting, or as the Twisted Sculptures by the artist Wim Delvoye.

It is also important to mention the Animal series: The Other Side of Evolution by Ana Rajcevic. The British designer imagines to expand bones of the human skull with fast and precise gestures. The result is a collection of eye-catching accessories that are extensions of chins, cheekbones, jaws and nasal septas. In 2008 Richard Dupont too worked on the human body with the projects Untitled and In Direction and the photographer Shinichi Maruyama for the Nude project.

Another interesting line of research in the field of creating digital shapes is the one which assigns to a powerful calculation software the management of generative rules. It is a computational method able to return very complex geometries that can not be managed by the designer. So the designer becomes the creator of the rule that produces the form rather than the form itself. This is the case, for example, of the famous experiment Sketch Furniture by Front Design, of the lozenges net that Michael Schmidt moulds on the curves of Dita Von Teese creating a dress entirely made in 3d printing, of the Dentelle lampshades by Samuel Bernier which makes correspond to a single silhouette endless self-generated structures of surfaces, of the footwear designed by Earl Steward which forms part of a three-dimensional scan of the human foot, and then takes the body with parametric interactions that create a phytomorphic structure, or of the bundles of lines that create the Protohouse concept by Softkill Design. It is yet to mention the Italian experience Collagene; a software aimed to create adaptive masks. The project, developed by Do The Mutation, explores the boundaries between physical and virtual worlds, connecting the abstractions of computer code with the intimate, visceral dimension of altered body’s own mask.

The topographic anatomy of the face acts as an input for algorithms that generate the fibers that make up the object, creating a material shape that, after production using 3D printing, can perfectly adapt to its territory, the face of the person/mold. It is a parametric approach in which the designer doesn’t directly manipulates shapes, but it studies the laws of aggregation, growth and structure and it rewrites the codes, the mathematical rules automatically executable. Examples are the work of the Co-De-It group or the bioinspired objects by Nervous System.

The extreme morphological and conceptual outcome of design driven by digital potential is the one we can call “fragmentation”. Starting volumes are exploded, pulverized, divided in thousands of molecules in order to form clouds of matter that at this point is free to join itself according a random magnetism or to distance itself away in a metaphysical cyberspace. Bruno Zevi, quoting Leonardo Da Vinci says: “(…) it must be remembered what Leonardo said about the need to consider mist, hazes, burrs, sunrises, rains, the ungrateful climate, the heat, clouds, smells, stenches, perfumes, powders, shadows, transparencies and almost sweaty thicknesses, fleeting evanescences. Architecture is now equipped to capture these values. “[3](Zevi in Marzano, 2004)

This is the visual effect obtained by the Scatter Shelf library designed by Nendo in 2011 for the Friedman Benda gallery. The acrylic layers reflect a figure in motion fragmenting the image, making it thin, turning it in a cloud of disperse fragments. Loose aggregations of molecules are the Bust of Lady Belhaven (after Samuel Joseph) by Stephen Jones or crystals, mists, cells and twigs manipulated by TokujinYoshioka. This generative/ molecular approach is a constant feature in the work of the Onformative studio such as Fragments of RGB (2011), Montblanc Generative Artwork (2011) or unnamedsoundsculpture (2012).



Beyond the possible categorizations, these case studies make it clear that the first aspect of digital aesthetics concerns its universality. As we anticipated with the essay by Quaranta these signs obtained by our computer are completely independent from any local tradition, any topical feature or any reference to a specific culture. The “place” that produces these forms is a global and virtual place, which makes them understandable because these shapes are already assimilated by a widespread and increasingly strong contemporary visual culture.

These aesthetic codes are so strong that it is possible to state that they are more durably than the technologies that have generated them. If today we observe a game of twenty or thirty years ago we recognize the limits of technology during the period of its creation that did not allow a good definition of characters which were identified in a summary of pixels. The aesthetics of pixels instead remains contemporary, and it can be revisited and updated in much more recent design experiences.

The objects and architectures that are morphologically inspired by digital aesthetics are “bridges”; forms-through on the now weak boundary between the real world and the virtual world. The risk of this computer-centric approach might be to overshadow the human factor, the design culture that dominates it. The examples show that, to get a good project, to apply a modifier in a just automatically way is not enough. Despite all, the computer, although capable of processing very complex calculations and sometimes with unexpected results, there remains a “dumb-obedient.” That is not capable of design thinking that must move actions. The sociologist Derrick de Kerckhove says: “Design is a modulation of the relationships between the human body and the environment, while they are changed by technology. The technology is a result of the human body and Design has the aim to give it a meaning. “(De Kerckhove, 1993)



– Costa Mario, Dimenticare l’arte, Franco Angeli, Milano 2005

– De Kerckhove Derrick, Brainframes, Baskerville, Bologna 1993.

– Dorfles Gillo, Come vivremo. L’architettura del futuro alla Biennale, Corriere della Sera,17 settembre 2004.

– Faccioli Patrizia, In altre parole, Idee per una sociologia della comunicazione visuale, Franco Angeli, Milano 2001.

– Lévy Pierre, L’intelligenza collettiva. Feltrinelli, Milano, 1966.

– Macrì Teresa, Il corpo postorganico, Costa e Nolan, Milano 2002.

– Maldonado Tomás, Critica della ragione informatica, Campi del sapere, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1998.

– ManovichLev, Il linguaggio dei nuovi media, Olivares, Milano 2002. Marzano Paolo, La città desiderata, Fluttuazioni e piegature dello spazio architettonico, www.archietturaweb.it, settembre 2004.

– Quaranta Domenico, Una Nuova Estetica?, Flash Art n303, giugno 2012.

– QuéauPhilippe, La posizione del virtuale, in F. Berardi, Cibernauti, Castelvecchi,  Roma 1995.


[1] Il cortometraggio Walking City di Universal Everything è un esempio di applicazione delle potenzialità espressive dei modificatori di cui dispongono gli attuali software. Creative Direction: Matt Pyke, animazione: Chris Perry, audio: Simon Pyke. http://www.universaleverything.com/

[2] Una mostra che indaga le influenze estetiche che le tecnologie digitali hanno prodotto su arte, design e architettura è Out of Hand, materializing the Postdigital. A cura di Ron Labaco. MAD Museum of Arts and Design, New York. Dal 16 Ottobre 2013 al 01 Giugno 2014.
[3] Zevi Bruno in Marzano Paolo, La città desiderata, Fluttuazioni e piegature dello spazio architettonico, www.archietturaweb.it, settembre 2004.