Archaeology of CAD

Software Reconstructions of Early Computer-Aided Design Systems

A project by Daniel Cardoso Llach with Scott Donaldson and Harshavardan Kedia

Date: 2017 (ongoing)

"Archaeology of CAD” is a series of interactive installations exploring the origins of Computer-Aided Design by reconstructing a selection of pioneering software systems from the 1960s and 70s. Drawing from primary archival and oral sources, these reconstructions playfully revisit these transformative technologies, which were central to re-shape architectural and engineering practices during the second half of the twentieth century. Developed with computational design students at Carnegie Mellon University using modern hardware and software languages, these reconstructions are instruments of historical inquiry. By evoking the embodied experience of interacting with early CAD systems, they shed light on the new forms of human-machine work that emerged with the rise of interactive computing during the Cold-War years, thus highlighting sensual and gestural dimensions of the “computer revolution.” At the same time, their development brings to light the limitations of early data structures for geometric representation and hardware, highlighting the interplay between technological constraints and design tools that is hard to grasp through visual or textual descriptions. Finally, they make tangible the visions of design practice that were engineered into these systems, giving us a window into the intellectual context that shaped design during the second half of the 20th century. An ongoing project, the installations developed thus far include Steven A. Coons’ “Coons Patch,” Ivan Sutherland’s “Sketchpad,” and Christos Yessios’ “CISP” system. Reconstructions of URBAN5 by Nicholas Negroponte, IMAGE by Guy Weinzapfel, BDS by Charles Eastman, among others, are currently in production.

Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; Carnegie Mellon University College of Fine Arts Fund for Research and Creativity.

Exhibited in
Designing the Computational Image, Imagining Computational Design, Miller Gallery (2017); SIGGRAPH Art Gallery (forthcoming 2018); UQAM Design Gallery, Montreal (forthcoming 2019).

Selected Press/Reviews
Leonardo Journal; Creative Applications Network.

History of CAD, Software Reconstructions, Design, Experimental Reconstructions, MIT, CMU, Cambridge.

Reconstruction of Steven A. Coons's 'Coons Patch' (c1964)

Developed in the early 1960s by Steven A. Coons, the ‘Coons Patch’ foreshadowed present-day methods for parametric surface representation and manipulation. Our reconstruction allows users to create their own patches and explore their geometric plasticity and mathematical structure (Coons Patch reconstruction by Daniel Cardoso Llach and Scott Donaldson, photo by Tom Little).

A direct ancestor of NURBS, Coons’s method was, in essence, a clever interpolation algorithm. It allowed early computer graphics researchers to create smooth surfaces between any four parametrically defined curves. Our reconstruction allows users to design and transform their own “patches,” appreciate their geometric plasticity, and explore their underlying mathematical structure.

Figures. Software Reconstruction of Steven A. Coons’s “Coons Patch”, a pioneering mathematical technique for curved surface representation. Photos byTom Little.

Reconstruction of Ivan Sutherland’s ‘Sketchpad’ (1963)

The first Computer Aided Design system. This interactive reconstruction approximates the ergonomics of the TX-2 computer terminal which Sutherland used, and offers access to many of “Sketchpad’s” original functions. Photos 1-2 by Tom Little and 5-6 by Smokey Dyar.

Reconstruction of Chris Yessios's 'CISP' (1972)

Parametric methods for architectural and urban design started to make their way into academic research in the early 1970s. Under the advise of Charles Eastman, Chris Yessios theorized a system for urban design called CISP as part of his PhD in Computational Design at Carnegie Mellon University. CISP allowed a user to define a vocabulary of elements and a series of constraints, such as views and accessibility, to configure different urban conditions. The system attempts to semi-autonomously create design solutions that respect the constraints. Given that CISP was never implemented, this reconstruction works entirely from research reports and papers found in the CMU archives.

Figure. “CISP” is a pioneering example of Computer-Aided urban design, proposed at Carnegie Mellon in the 1970s by Christos Yessios. Daniel Cardoso Llach and Harshavardan Kedia


daniel cardoso llach 2017 - all rights reserved