Recently, I resolved that I wasn’t going to be drawn into the silly posturing about how ChatGPT would take the jobs of every experienced architect on earth before 2030, but an intelligent post on this website by Geethanjali Raman and Mohik Acharya broke that resolve. What isn’t being stressed is that algorithms that sample internet-based information are only as good as the quality of that information. Architectural history suggests that all new things have a shelf life, quickly fading from view after being hyped. Only the best will persist after a lengthy period of evaluation and criticism. Any new architecture widely praised and available since the rise of the internet is likely to be untested by time and thus not worth using as a benchmark. And let’s face it: Some of the worst buildings ever designed by humans are out there in cyberspace, crowding out better ones that haven’t yet been digitized.
I am not a psychic, influencer, industry analyst, or business guru, so I won’t comment on the likelihood that AI will transform the way humans create, manufacture, and consume artifacts in the future. There are plenty of experts that are already churning out data and analyses about that. What I am concerned about is its influence on practicing architects confronting the challenges ahead: global warming and the rest. The profession is in crisis. We must not cave into hype about “new” methodologies or technologies that may make our jobs easier (or eliminate them altogether). We are the best judges of beauty, emotional valences, functional advantages, human needs, and every other factor that our clients—users—care about. If other sectors of the global building industry incorporate AI, so be it, but we are not compelled to swallow their Kool-Aid.
Regardless of the sheer power of digital technology to crunch data and speed up design of any kind, nothing about the nature of artificial intelligence, including neural network processing and machine learning borrowed from Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language, will convince me that it can replace the cognitive power of experienced master designers and artisans. The latter in particular have embodied knowledge that cannot be replicated by any machine or computer. Each carries more in their mind and body than the biggest computer network or digital cloud that any engineer could produce or imagine. Human memory is superior to any kind of machine memory, mainly because a genius or master artisan selects only the best examples to record and use in later work and mixes those examples in microseconds to make new things. Dip into Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross’s new book, Your Brain on Art, if you don’t believe in the unlimited capacity of our cognitive networks and memory archives.
Compelling evidence for this can be gleaned from any video of a traditional blacksmith, Japanese woodworker, master potter, painter, sculptor, or Swedish Sloyd woodcarver in their studio. AI will never produce works of craftsmanship or art comparable to that of these human wonders. Every work is bound by tradition yet is completely unique and unreproducible. Walter Benjamin can eat his heart out.
Have architects embraced this model of creative thinking and handwork? Alas, no. Would we benefit from doing so? Yes, as my recent book argues. One of the tragedies of Modernism and the alienating late capitalist landscape has been the false narrative of novel “solutions” as the Holy Grail of creative design. If parametric or generative design algorithms are let loose in the world to choose the “best” example among thousands, or millions for that matter, nothing good will come out the other side. Most of the optimal solutions to bathroom, kitchen, and room design of any kind have been thoroughly tested by architects and users over the centuries. Putting 100,000 additional solutions into a computer program will likely produce either those paradigms or (more likely) garbage.
Many contemporary experiments about user preferences in buildings or environments offer dozens of contemporary examples, and a tiny selection of those built before 1900. Even a recent double-blind neuroscience survey of “spiritual,” “meditative” and “peaceful” spaces asked participants to judge from about 25-30 photographs. These contained not only Gothic cathedrals and the Grand Canyon, but also every canonical modern church in the history textbooks, including Corbusier’s Ronchamps, Aalto’s Church of the Three Crosses, and Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel. Negative examples might show an average superhighway or shopping mall. But a few historically obvious prompts are unlikely to give scientists the kind of data one needs to draw global conclusions.
As I noted in a review several years ago, surveys of optimal office environments generally ask users to choose from only fair-to-middling examples, or at least those commonly offered during the past 30 years. Not one is taken from Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Charles McKim, Harvey Wiley Corbett, Eero Saarinen, or any modern master of tall buildings or loft design. How many of these architects’ great buildings or interiors are available in digital form? Unless one goes directly to the Society of Architectural Historians website, very few. What is commonly stored in cyberspace is vacuous, uninspiring, and often horrible. More disturbing, the work of contemporary lions such as Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Bernard Tschumi, Zaha Hadid, and Frank Gehry has been seeded in every corner of the digital ecosphere. Novel and “cutting edge” solutions to library design point right to Seattle, where the building is failing and falling apart. Transit hub architecture? Try the World Trade Center PATH hub/station by Santiago Calatrava, a budget-busting disaster. Google provides a ton of garbage for every ounce of wholesome, useful knowledge. This is particularly true of any search for “great architecture.”
Although the giants of the industry trumpet the thorough, deep, and comprehensive capacity of their algorithms and search engines, any digital database is only as good as what has been included in its sampling of products. In environmental, urban, landscape, and architectural design these data sets are pitifully small. Even the work of neuroscientists and environmental psychologists is poorly represented in any but specialist databases. The truly innovative thinking that might be presented annually at AIA, CNU, or APA conferences does not reach decision makers or Google experts. Moreover, the most intelligent and accomplished hard and social scientists who might critique such databases are kept in the dark by academic and professional leaders because it is in their interest to do so. And commercial interests tend to crowd out research that isn’t supportive of their products and services (viz. the opioid crisis).
One only need look at the influence of the glass industry on builders, developers, and architects to confirm this. The AIA website and architecture journals are full of ads for Pilkington wonder glass and other translucent curtain wall products. Most buildings are clad in those products at the expense of energy efficiency and even good natural lighting. They penetrate similar media throughout the world. Revit contains specifications for such products in lieu of other cladding alternatives, including traditional ones such as terra cotta and stucco. Designers are already just clicking on a mouse to create innovative “solutions” for many building assemblies, but getting old and tired ones.
And when it comes to software that tested the hypothesis of whether great architecture could be replicated according to formulas, George Hersey and Richard Friedman’s Possible Palladian Villas (1992) proved it could, as long as you could accept dull copies. I bought the book with its floppy disc and, unlike Tetris or Sim City, it kept me interested for a couple of hours, at most. Around the same time, a music professor gave students the secret to writing Mozart sonatas and most had no trouble doing so—they were just boring. Charles Rosen wasn’t wrong in calling his book on Mozart and Beethoven The Classical Style. Any style can be copied, but no masterpiece can be replicated. Not Mozart’s, not Palladio’s.
Experienced architects carry the best precedents in their long-term memory, to be used whenever a new project comes along. When they appear in short-term or working memory they are immediately changed or transformed by the process of moving into a cognitive space. When I design using sketches, I keep my short-term memory flexible and my fingers loose. If I am working on a computer in AutoCAD, I may make a “sketch” of a plan while in my conceptual mode of thinking. If one uses SketchUp or Morpholio Trace one can do more, and many younger designers are adept at this.
No one I know who likes to work this way has any use for AI problem solving or algorithms during the conceptual phase of design. I doubt that any master architect—except perhaps those on the staff at Zaha Hadid’s office—would turn to this kind of software if offered. One would no sooner ask ChatGPT to generate a plan in the style of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1930s work than request a takeout burger using the latest digital Chess engine. What advantages does such a shapeshifter offer? Five tepid alternatives that one would have thrown away after putting them onto yellow trace?
If AI engines start to invade my design space I will take to the barricades to resist. So will most experienced architects around the world. Unfortunately, if younger leaders in our profession don’t do the same, we are in deep trouble. A line must be drawn. By humans.
Featured image: The author’s pick for best international airport terminal, Eero Saarinen’s magnificent Dulles Airport. 1962 Wikipedia Commons.