“Technical” vs. “Creative” in Architecture- an untenable distinction

Many architects continue to make a distinction between the “technical” and “creative” aspects of practice. Real architecture, of course, is assumed to reside in the latter. The former is often relegated to new graduates who are technically facile but inexperienced in every other way. One would think that the examples of firms like Gehry and Morphosis (whose work depends on deep understandings of technology that are of a piece with their design processes) would have dispelled this untenable distinction, but there are still many architects who insist upon it. I had an experience yesterday that reminded me of this.

The AIA California Council (AIACC) recently announced a very interesting conference titled “Now Next Future”. Unfortunately, it is scheduled to conflict with the annual ACADIA (Association of Computer-Aided Design in Architecture) conference. I say unfortunately because both of these conferences offer valuable content to any architect who is interested in the future of the discipline, which I hope is everyone. I wondered whether this conflict came about accidentally or knowingly, so I sent the AIACC organizers a note through their website. I got a very obliging and revealing response from Nicki Dennis Stevens, a Senior Director at AIACC. She told me that AIACC  did in fact try to coordinate their dates with ACADIA but in the end was unable to do so. I’m sympathetic- having organized a few conferences myself I know how difficult it is to accommodate speakers’ schedules and avoid conflicts with other events. But in justifying the decision to schedule their conference in conflict with ACADIA, she wrote the following: “After discussion and deliberation, the consensus was we were targeting different audiences with the event (ACADIA’s being much more ‘technical’ in scope).”

This rationale reveals a double misunderstanding. First, it implies that architects need only concern themselves with technology to a certain degree- that there are aspects of architecture too “technical” to be of general interest. Second, it assumes that the technological sophistication of much of the work presented at ACADIA means that they must somehow be a sideshow to “real” architecture- interesting from a technical perspective but not for architecture proper. Anyone who has attended an ACADIA conference knows that this is categorically untrue. But the point I want to emphasize here is the profound misunderstanding this attitude represents of the current situation of architecture, both as a discipline and as a profession.

Whether one looks at it from a professional or a disciplinary perspective, there is no avoiding the fact that computation is profoundly changing the nature of architectural thought and production. On the professional side, the now obligatory use of BIM for all but the smallest projects has upended the traditional hierarchy of design decision-making, placing design proposals under performative scrutiny much earlier and making project information available to a wider group of people without the architect’s intervention. On the disciplinary side, the generation of design “solutions” by parametric methods has radically changed the relationship of the architect to design, removing him or her a step from the direct manipulation of form to the indirect framing of design problems in terms of parametric systems.

These and related trends introduced by computation should be the focus of all serious discussion about the future (or the present, for that matter) of architecture. Their implications are far more profound and far-reaching than most architects realize. The real problem with the conflict of “Now Next Future” with ACADIA is that it perpetuates a fundamentally mistaken understanding of the the relationship that architects must have to technology in order to maintain their relevance. ACADIANs indulge in speculation whose relevance to practice is not always evident, but at least they understand where the challenges lie. Drawing, as the principal means of communication in the building industry, is dead. Computation is our new medium. Architects cannot remain mere “users”. We need to study and critically evaluate the effects and inherent tendencies of computation.