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The alphabet and the algorithm
Carpo M., The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011. 190 pp. Type: Book
Date Reviewed: Aug 17 2011

Reaching from the Middle Ages on into the 1990s, this book has a broad sweep and a narrow focus, and follows the changes in the designer’s work during that period. For reasons of Carpo’s own choosing, the “designer” the book refers to most often is an architect. Obviously, the designer’s work has changed radically over the centuries. Carpo does not attempt to catalog all of the changes, but rather to focus on the tools at the designer’s disposal during the earliest and the most recent decades.

Obviously, the tools of the Dark Ages were less sophisticated than those of the late Middle Ages. The craftspeople of the Dark Ages made products such as swords, sandals, and clothing, by hand, and perhaps alone, using tools of quite limited function. By the late Middle Ages, though, there was a demand by kings and popes for edifices of more grandiose style and proportion.

The design (architecture) of a palace or a cathedral presented a substantially grander array of options (and problems). One of the greatest differences facing the Renaissance designer was the need to express the design in a fashion that was readable by others. Such an undertaking was not a simple matter of carefully tracing the original design on the equivalent of modern tracing paper. For building purposes, the original had to express the designer’s conception, and the copy had to be constructable in conformity with the design.

Designers did this by creating drawings and instructions using drafting instruments of the time, which did not necessarily satisfy the need for a perfect copy. Further, the niceties of perspective, and the cruel world of rectangles and other standard shapes, did not necessarily play well between the original and the copies.

Much lies between the Renaissance and the 1990s--too much to recount. Carpo picks and chooses his examples with a clear eye on the page limits allotted him. He picks up the pace fully in order to treat the rise of (computing) machines. Here, many questions occur with respect to designs. Who owns them? Who can make copies? Who may have a pecuniary interest in a design? The designer, the maker, the buyer, or the software house that invented the algorithms embedded in the software sold to the architect?

These questions are not always difficult to answer, but they are so often enough that intellectual property law and computer law had to be invented to answer the question, “Who owns this design?”

Reviewer:  Anthony L. Clapes Review #: CR139360 (1202-0152)
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