Computing without Computers

As the built environment becomes ever more digitized, Felecia Davis believes architects should adopt a more expansive definition of technology.

March 9, 2022

Detail from Systeme de la Mecanique a la Jacquard, a nineteenth-century French master weaver's book. Image via Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, via Creative Commons 0

Felecia Davis grew up sewing with her family, developing a lifelong fascination with fabric. Today, she leads SOFTLAB@PSU, a research lab in Penn State’s architecture school that explores the nexus of textiles, design, and computation. But her definition of technology goes far beyond the tools and processes typically found in firms’ IT departments. Drawing on her doctoral research in design and computation at MIT, she believes that traditional practices like weaving have much to teach architects about computing, communication, and creativity.

The League’s Anne Rieselbach and Sarah Wesseler spoke with her about her practice and the ideas behind it.


Sarah Wesseler: Your work has explored the concept that computation doesn’t necessarily require computers, but can be found in weaving, Black hairstyling practices, and other activities we don’t typically associate with the world of technology. Can you explain this concept and describe how it informs your work?

Felecia Davis: The field of non-digital computational design really looks at how our brain operates. One of the principal things our brains like to do is segment things, and this goes to the heart of design computing. If you ever want to translate something, usually you’re breaking it down into steps to tell someone else how to do it, or breaking it into parts so that you can come up with an idea or make something.

I think about computing in an expanded way that looks at the ways in which we use all our senses, as well as our brain. The brain is an embedded thing that is the senses—it allows us to have senses, allows our bodies to make sense of the world.

In other words, we each have a way that we understand and perceive things, and all the experiences we’ve had from childhood on collect together, in the senses of the body, to the brain. They’re hardwired to you, framing the way that you see the world, structuring the world. To me, that is at the heart of computing. What are different ways that people frame the world? Where are they coming from?

The whole computer thing—yes, it’s there, it’s related. But when we talk about computers, we’re talking about one particular framework for understanding the world. We can all jump inside that framework together, but I don’t see that as the heart of computing. Computing is something much larger that has to do with literally how we see and understand the world—and then, of course, how we communicate to other people how we understand the world. Maybe language is the first computing system, right? We can think of that as one way to understand computing without computers.

When I was at MIT we had thousands of discussions about this. I had a couple of amazing classes with George Stiny and Terry Knight, who look at design and computing in an expanded way that was simultaneously mathematical, visual, and tactile. I took their ideas to heart.

One of their methods of working with design and computing is called shape grammars. This method is rule-based design. When one thinks about rules, one thinks, “Oh, that’s a very rigid way to do design.” However, the idea with shape grammars is that we are always using rules, but we change our minds on the fly; we base new design ideas upon what we learn in the process, what we sense, see, taste, smell, etc. So this method goes to the heart of thinking and making.

But in architecture, when people talk about using digital stuff, usually it’s with a kind of limited worldview. And I get it—we need tools to draw buildings; we need tools to make sure people can be safe, to check against wind loads, etc. But those are a small part of what our capacity for creativity and making in architecture actually allows.

Wesseler: How have these ideas played out in your projects?

Davis: There have been several projects at my studio at Penn State, SOFTLAB, that carry this kind of thinking about architecture. We look at things in a couple of different ways: through traditional structures and through things you wear on your body.

The things you wear on your body challenge people most in terms of understanding the relationship to architecture. But I think they have great potential for what I’m trying to do in my practice, which is bring forward the invisible, the world we can’t see, as an overlay on top of something physical. The invisible can be manifested through sensors that you wear, through the electromagnetic waves that we send signals across.

There are so many invisible things that have been really prevalent in our cities and architecture. Walking around Manhattan as a Black architect, for example, I know that there are all these invisible presences—all these sites that African Americans once inhabited that you don’t know about unless you have the right guidebook, at which point you understand, ”Oh, yeah, that’s where the first Black-owned tavern was.” Or at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house in Virginia, the hidden servants’ spaces—the slave spaces that were meant to disappear.

But there’s an evil side to this revealing of the invisible. In the United States in particular, a lot of the companies that provide digital infrastructure have taken advantage of their invisibility to take data without asking permission. It’s a little bit like the Wild West. So now we have these large infrastructures that take architecture to a different place, like facial recognition systems that can grant or deny people access to certain spaces. Joy Buolamwini at MIT’s Media Lab showed that facial recognition systems weren’t able to map her face until she put on a white mask—she’s Black.

So to loop back to your question, we worked on a pair of leggings that dealt with putting sensors on the body. And the piece in MoMA was a warning symbol for looking at this invisible infrastructure that is being built on top of architecture.

Davis has described her Black Flower Antenna project, which was presented at MoMA's 2021 Reconstruction: Architecture and Blackness in America exhibit, as "a symbolic responsive receiving antenna." In the gallery, copper wire embedded in the piece's 34 knitted cones transmitted high-pitched sounds indicating the presence of electromagnetic waves, "serv[ing] to make visible and present the workings of an invisible urbanism that floats above the physical city, supported and constructed by electromagnetic waves." Image credit: Hayato Nishi

Wesseler: Can you say more about the implications of non-digital computation for the discipline? What else are you interested in looking at in terms of what this concept means for architecture as a whole?

Davis: Well, my PhD dissertation looked at emotion, which is really tricky to compute, right? Yet people are looking at facial recognition technology and reading our faces from our computer screens and gauging our moods.

I wanted to see if you could understand the relationship between texture and emotion through computation. I was remembering [Steen Eiler] Rasmussen’s book Experiencing Architecture, one of the first books I read as an architect. He talks about the sense of touch—I was like, “Yes!” when I read that. I also really liked what Juhani Pallasmaa had to say, rejecting all the slick images that were coming out of computing and saying, “Hey, there’s other stuff that we’re leaving on the table.”

So those were the seeds of the research. I framed my research looking at emotions through touch and texture, focusing on textiles, because touch was so much a part of my enjoyment of working with textiles. I think other people get a lot out of touching them, too. When you talk to people about textiles, they can tell you very precisely about how they feel about touching them—I was really struck by that and wanted to explore it more as a way to open that up in architecture. A lot of design computing has used visual media to look at architecture and the tools for constructing architecture, so I wanted to make a space for using touch, questioning architecture through other senses.

Images from Davis's Textile Mirror project, which she has described as "a prototype wall panel that changes shape in response to people's emotions read by sensors on the body or selection via a cell phone." The project was inspired by a J.G. Ballard short story in which homes are designed to react to their occupants' emotions. Research conducted in collaboration with Asta Roseway, Erin Cherry, and Mary Czerwinsky at Microsoft Research. Left image: Heart monitor sensor used with Textile Mirror, developed by Davis with Roseway, Cherry, and Czerwinski at Microsoft Research. Image courtesy of Felecia Davis. Middle and right images: Responsive textile panel and detail of fabric. Images courtesy of Microsoft Research.

The dissertation project was a huge, huge undertaking, a huge question. And after six or seven years of research, I would say it’s not so easy to map an emotion to a texture one to one, because we each come from different places and carry our experiences embedded in our bodies. However, textures experienced through vision and touch can communicate to people, and can often assist with getting people to communicate about their emotions.

I learned with that experience that these things are important to put in relationship to architecture because they don’t have any clear resolution; they’re really complex. I thought architecture had for a long time not dealt with this kind of complexity. There’s a lot of rationality in architecture, which I appreciate, but I also think there should be room for these other experiences that are not easily explained or computable—that we just can’t wrap our heads around, but that put us in awe.

People are working on these issues, though. You see research trying to map emotions to colors, to smells, to foods, to texture—everything—as an attempt to sell things. Much of this kind of work is done by large retail companies. But this research is really problematic because of the pressure to sell and manipulate people.

Wesseler: The idea of non-digital computational design seems to call into question who gets to be a tech expert, or what kind of practices get to be considered highly sophisticated. How do you think about this issue?

Davis: I was talking to somebody the other day about this, and they were saying that during recent years architects have been moving away from technology and looking at other things. But to me, it’s really important for architects to engage with technology, because it is shaping our lives. Google has a whole village out in San Jose, and they are playing the role of architects. Do we want tech companies being architects? That’s my question. And no, I don’t want to leave that territory to them. I think we as architects have something to say about this intermeshing of these systems within the physical world.

So yes, absolutely, architects need to engage technology, not only through the tools we use to represent our work, but also through the tools with which we make materials, shape spaces through these invisible electromagnetic waves that are the bread and butter of these technologies. We can’t say, “Oh, well, we turn away from this because we don’t think that’s important.” It’s hugely important! Worlds are being made, and we need to be a part of that.

I also think this is a problem for our kids of color. You’ve seen the example in Joy Buolamwini’s work, but that’s going to happen more and more. We already have places where people cannot access the internet. So not only do we have a world being shaped by these kinds of media, but we have places where people don’t have access to the basic digital infrastructure. There are systems being made that echo the systems in place in cities of the 1950s. Do we want to repeat this in the digital world? I would say no.

Wesseler: That’s really fascinating, although my mind went in the other direction with this question. I was wondering how the idea of technical mastery or agency changes if you think of weaving as a computational practice, for instance. If people like Bill Gates or Elon Musk are at the pinnacle of our society today, can we look at things differently and say, OK, other people have reached high degrees of computational sophistication using other kinds of practices?

Davis: Yeah. I think if you look beyond the internet and computer science programs, or what I call softwares, other forms of computation have kind of been pushed aside and aren’t really considered. But they really have great possibilities for how we might consider setting up, for example, architectural practice.

When you talk about traditional practices like textile production or African hair braiding, there’s a huge amount of knowledge embedded in them. This isn’t necessarily considered computing, although I would say it is. This knowledge hasn’t always been seen as useful, but it could be immensely useful.

Ron Eglash, a University of Michigan professor who researches the use of fractals in Africa, discusses tools designed to help students learn math by studying Black hairstyles. The interview was conducted by Deborah Carter, managing director of PreparationTech, an online platform exploring how technology is affecting education and career paths.

In weaving, absolutely; one can talk about the ways in which people got together and made a mathematical pattern for cooperating to make something.

One way architecture could learn from this is that for too long it’s been about the hero architect—but there are certain things that will not be solved by one person. A lot of these practices have collective thinking embedded into their way of making.

Anne Rieselbach: This is painting with a broad brush, but would you say these are gendered issues?

Davis: Yeah, I definitely believe that. But I hesitate somewhat because I don’t like to essentialize things. I prefer to think about gender as leaving the possibility for someone to be fluid in their identity: They can be who they need to be when they want to be.

But you’re absolutely right that the place where my interest in textiles comes from is a gendered space. When I was making clothes as a child with my mother and my aunt and my sister, my brother was there too, and his friends would run through and see what was going on. But it was pretty much the women and girls working.

I’m putting together a conference now for computation and textile design. It’s called ArcInTex. And most of the people that you can call upon if you want to look at this issue are women, which is really interesting, right? There’s just no mistaking that. So they’re coming from a place that they know, bringing that to science, and then working with it in a larger sphere.

Detail of Felecia Davis's Fabricating Networks Quilt, which features embedded copper strips that viewers can touch to learn about images of Pittsburgh's Hill District, a historically African American neighborhood. Detail shown, which is based on a 1961 photograph by Charles "Teenie" Harris, depicts a group of young women in a sewing class. Photograph courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles "Teenie" Harris Archive. Fabricating Networks Quilt was produced for the Museum of Modern Art, 2020. The project team included Mona Mirzaie and Taylor Hufnagle.

There’s definitely something to be said about that—the spaces that women have been comfortable in and have worked in. But that’s not to say that that is necessarily woman’s work. It could be men’s work, or anybody’s work.

Wesseler: It’s interesting to think about how these issues have played out historically. In one interview with you I read, you talked about how textiles were one of the first large-scale industries to emerge because the logic of weaving corresponded so perfectly with the logic of machines. I know very little about this history, but my guess is that although women have worked with textiles in many societies, the men who owned the machines were the ones making huge fortunes once the industry took off. So it’s fascinating to think about who benefits from practices that can be considered computational and who has agency in different models.

Davis: You know, Countess Ada Lovelace was one of the first women in computation as we know it today. In the 1840s, she was looking at looms and working on Charles Babbage’s mechanical calculator. [Babbage, an English mathematician, is considered a pioneer of computing. His Analytical Engine drew on the programming logic of loom punch cards, which automated the process of weaving complex patterns.] It was she who saw the potential for Babbage’s machine to be more than a calculator: She saw that it could be a logic machine and a collaborative tool.

This idea of looking at the digital, on/off, the ones and zeros that formed the basis of the loom punch card obviously becomes the basis for all modern computers today.

Left: Nineteenth-century Jacquard loom with punch cards. Image credit: David Monniaux via Creative Commons 3.0. Right: Punch cards used by IBM computers in 1969. Image credit: Marcin Winchary via Creative Commons 2.0

But Ada doesn’t get credit for it, and her early death [at 36] did not help, because she could not fight to see her work through. Even as a countess, she kind of got pushed aside as one of the lady scientists who had to behave. She would be able to come to some of the dinners with some of the scientists, but not actually be in the club.

So that happened to Ada Lovelace, and I think that kind of becomes a model for computing. Once it gets coopted by the social structures of science, women are kind of cut out.

People are now trying to bring women back into computer science through methods like textiles, through looking at different crafts and things that are in our environment that women and girls like to do—but I don’t want to essentialize it, because some women don’t like to sew. There need to be many more apertures into computer science to connect with the diversity of people.

But women’s thinking is in computer science, and I think there are a lot of histories there that can get unfurled and unfolded. It’s going to be fascinating what we discover about these contributions in the future.

And on the question of agency: We’ve cut ourselves off from certain environments [in computer science], and also from the agency that came along with them—allowing people to bring their environment with them, bring who they are. Imagine if Ada had been able to be who she was and do her thing. Imagine her being able to have people over, women and men together, talking about this machine that she imagined.


Interview condensed and edited.