Automating architects

sponge-aer-gardens2Replacing human beings with robots is a hot topic in economics these days. Accelerating advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are giving rise to predictions that entire categories of employment are doomed to be automated, including many that are considered skilled. What about architects?

There have been several periods in history when technology has put people out of work by taking over their jobs. Mechanized looms destroyed the cottage hand weaving industry in the early 1800’s, resulting in riots in England. Trains and cars replaced horse-drawn carriages, throwing untold numbers of people employed in carriage-making, parts of agriculture, stables and post houses out of work. In architecture, the introduction of computer-aided drafting threatened the jobs of draftsmen. In every instance, however, the new technologies created new jobs and increased the productivity, and therefore the value, of workers. Many economists think the situation we face now is different.

Many studies have been done to try to assess the likely impact of AI and robotics on a wide range of jobs. All of them that I’ve seen assume that jobs that require creativity cannot be easily automated, and architects fall into this category. Other telltales of jobs that resist automation are a need for negotiation, helping others personally and fitting into small spaces, all of which describe the work of most architects. We seem to be safe.

But are we?

All of these studies evaluate jobs as they are currently defined. They don’t consider how a given job could be redefined to make it more easily automated. Take architecture. Almost all buildings are now unique and must be designed one at a time. It’s part of our ideology that each design problem should be considered one its own terms and that valid design solutions are specific to a particular site, program and client. This is expensive and time-consuming and results in expensive and time-consuming construction. Unique designs mean unique pieces of construction that require extensive negotiation among the parties and create uncertainty as to their ultimate cost. Our clients would clearly benefit financially if the process could be automated to require less time and manpower and entail less uncertainty. BIM and other technologies may increase the industry’s productivity and reduce uncertainty to some degree, but as long as buildings are and must be unique, the process can’t be fundamentally changed. But what if buildings were not unique, or more precisely, uniqueness itself were redefined?

What if our clients decided that they were willing to sacrifice some of the creativity architects bring to their buildings in exchange for a radically streamlined design and construction process? What if buildings could still be responsive to a client’s specific needs without months of design and a long, uncertain period of construction?

Expert systems are already being constructed in many fields (including ours) that search databases of previous case studies and employ algorithms that take into account many variables to come up with solutions that work for a specific problem. Parametric design techniques are being used to improve building performance. For building categories like housing that tend towards a few typical designs, the task is even easier.

Architects’ jobs can be automated if design is defined as satisfying performance goals.

This is a problem computers can solve faster and better than we can. Many architects are already going down this path. Some have the explicit goal of improving building performance. In itself, this is all well and good, but market logic will take it further than they realize. Even architects who are using these tools to invent new processes and create novel objects and spaces are unwittingly enabling the market to redefine architecture so it can dispense with architects. If the market can replace labor with machines, it will.

The weavers entered the history books in 1826. What will be the year that history looks back on and says, “there went the architects”?

Peter Eisenman- Architecture as Idea (part 2)

In my previoEisenman supports architectureus post I argued that, by awarding Peter Eisenman the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education, the architectural establishment tacitly recognized the need for architecture to appeal to ideas that transcend the pragmatic demands of building. This is what distinguishes architecture from other building design disciplines. Such ideas engage the social, political, historical and philosophical questions raised by the activity and products of building.

Most architects believe this but have difficulty defending the notion that architecture represents ideas.

For business purposes, our mission is to serve the interests of our clients. For our own purposes (and for a select group of clients) we serve society at large. We are thus in the position of having to maintain a precarious balance between being a technical design discipline and a creative activity that can, under the right conditions, move people to feel and think in new ways.

Eisenman and others like him play a vital role in this balancing act. In this context, the ideas themselves are unimportant. What is important is gaining acceptance for notion that architecture embodies ideas. By whatever means (a fascinating subject in itself for another time) Eisenman has achieved this acceptance. This is true not only within the profession, but crucially among a small but influential group of critics and patrons as well. By lionizing Eisenman, the profession shares his elevation of architecture. He provides credibility for the idea that architecture represents ideals distinct from the pecuniary and performative interests of clients- a central part of the profession’s identity.

In celebrating Eisenman, the profession also proclaims its intellectual bona fides by embracing challenges to its prevailing doctrines. Furthermore, Eisenman diverts attention from the profession’s essentially economic function. He recognizes architecture’s social context only in terms of abstract historical transformations; he does not address the specifics of the interaction between architecture and a given social or cultural condition. He avoids any overt critique of economic and political bases of the existing system of building production. That would be tantamount to criticizing clients, which the profession could never embrace.

Eisenman’s radical challenge to the profession paradoxically allows architects to accept their situation and negotiate the difficult space between a noble vision of architecture and the daily realities of their work.

His ideas are safe, except insofar as they cause architects to question themselves (no small thing). They carry no real weight for practice, being manifestly unconcerned with actual work. They do, however, allow architects to see themselves as engaged in something transcendent. His ideas are like caged tigers- thrilling to contemplate yet posing no real danger.

I think that the heat with which many architects reject Eisenman and theory in general results from a profound disappointment. While they believe that architecture should embody ideas, the practical demands of maintaining a practice leave little room for intellectual exploration. They want to be reaffirmed in this belief- they want ideas that they can apply to their work. By their very nature, Eisenman’s cannot be. On the contrary, he dismisses their work to the point of saying it is not architecture at all. No wonder they’re angry. It’s sad, really. Architects are hungry for ideas, but it’s as if Eisenman is offering us cheese and we are lactose-intolerant.