Can architects and planners keep up with technological developments or will they be replaced by algorithms and ‘big data’? Or by a 7-year-old with an iPod playing Minecraft? And who will push ‘stop’ when all systems fail? Some serious speculations by Michiel van Iersel.
NO CHILD’S PLAY
Last week my 7-year-old nephew designed my dream house on his iPod. I had given him a rather vague brief – asking for a dumbbell-shaped villa in green, with purple accents, placed on a coastal cliff – but he managed to visualize this idea in less than five minutes. Just like all his classmates and a fast growing army of tens of millions of kids and adults around the world he uses Minecraft, basically a computer game about placing simple blocks, to build anything you can imagine.
Shortly after he finished the design, which demands exceptional spatial insight and engineering skills, he sent me an iMessage with an aerial view of my dream villa perched on a sandy cliff with a floating pool in front of it. Clearly lacking in sophistication and detailing, it nonetheless shows his budding talent and the mind-boggling potential of games like Minecraft and other creative technologies.
If a first grader can make an 8-bit version of Casa Malaparte with just a few finger swipes, it makes you wonder how this will change our perception of architecture and the profession of the architect? Because this is no child’s play.
Still from Minecraft with aerial view of my ‘dream villa’, designed by my 7-year-old nephew on his iPod in just 5 minutes.
LEARNING FROM LEGOLAND
The fantastic structures in Minecraft seem far away from the physical world of architecture. The game boasts a plethora of mesmerizing flying palaces and fragmented urban landscapes, reminiscent of the imaginary buildings in Second Life. In both virtual words you will find ancient monuments like the Parthenon and Egyptian pyramids, meticulously reconstructed by thousands of amateurs.
But in addition to this, people have used Minecraft to copy buildings by some well-known contemporary architects. One team of ‘Minecrafters’ proudly presented a detailed version of MVRDV’s DNB Bank headquarters in Oslo, almost a year before the building’s completion and based on the computer renderings.
Moreover, it seems that a new generation of young architects in and around Rem Koolhaas’ OMA is shaped by the very game logic and aesthetics that enables others to copy their buildings. It seems that LEGO-like pixel-façades are now the standard for a growing number of offices, with OMA, MVRDV and BIG being the most prolific.
It makes you wonder how much time their interns and young designers spend playing with LEGO as a child and with Tetris and Second Life as teenagers before enrolling in architecture school? (Ironically, BIG is part of the winning team to design the new experience center for LEGO to be located in Billund, which is home to the LEGOLAND theme park.)
ARCHITECT AS SYSTEM OPERATOR
In a 2008 interview, MVRDV co-founder Winy Maas envisioned architecture to become more open, thanks to the rise of “planning through computers”. When participatory planning process are directly linked to CAD (computer aided design)-software architecture will become more democratic. The use of software transforms the role of the architect from mythical artistic figure to system operator.
Maas describes this trend as an intriguing potential and warns his colleagues who think this shift is dangerous. “Architects are hiding themselves, they behave like ostriches. If we deny these new developments, the profession will be taken over by others.” Sophisticated software is replacing the artistic genius.
Five years later, Winy Maas’ prophecy is becoming a reality.
In November 2011 a certain John Azerty published a series of screenshots taken from Minecraft, showing the so-called Hesperides’ Shelter, a phantasmagoric building with curved wings. More than a year later, the real masters of parametric design at Zaha Hadid Architects, revealed their so-called Beko Masterplan for the city of Belgrade.
Left: Hesperides’ Shelter (2011) made in Minecraft by John Azerty, Right: Beka Masterplan (2012), Zaha Hadid Architects
The visual similarities between the Minecraft-generated fantasy world and the demonstration of Zaha Hadid’s skilful use of Rhino, Maya and other 3D-tools is probably largely coincidental. However, what this clash of cultures – amateurs vs. professionals – quite clearly shows is that architectural designs that are calculus- or computer-based tend to look alike.
Just search for ‘parametric architecture’ in Google Images and you can decide for yourself whether the use of software to design buildings lives up to the promise that it will liberate architecture from Modernism’s monotony and allow for radically new shapes, endless variations and a seamless integration into the existing urban fabric.
More importantly, architecture that is based on computer code is more prone to piracy. Similar to software, games, music and other digital content that is illegally copied, computer generated architecture is becoming more vulnerable.
Late last year, Zaha Hadid herself had a first hand experience of piracy when here design for Wangjing SOHO, a large-scale office and retail development in Beijing, was shamelessly copied by another real estate developer in the city of Chongqing. Not only is the so-called Meiquan 22nd Century project a shameless counterfeit, its construction started before that of the Beijing-original. And as long as Chinese law enforcers are closing their eyes to copyright infringements, the illegal copy will probably outpace its original to become the world’s first ‘original copy’.
Left: Zaha Hadid’s Wangjing Soho project Right: Meiquan22nd Century project (Courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects / Sina) Source: A/N Blog
As with counterfeited designer bags and smart phones, China will continue to produce cheap replicas of highly desired objects and even architecture.
In his 2001 book Mutations architect Rem Koolhaas already called Chinese architects ‘Photoshop designers’: “Photoshop allows us to make collages of photographs — (and) this is the essence of (China’s) architectural and urban production…. Design today becomes as easy as Photoshop, even on the scale of a city.”
Zaha Hadid herself reportedly said that if future generations of these cloned buildings could display innovative mutations, “that could be quite exciting.” This of course raises the question whether copycats are capable of duplicating the spatial and material qualities of a building just as easy as its outer appearance? Probably these qualities will simply get lost in the acceleration of architecture.
ARCHITECTURE GOING VIRAL
Coinciding with the rapid increase of computer generated, and illegally copied, architecture, we can see the construction of buildings accelerating. And again China is setting the pace.
Changsha-based building company Broad Group has broken all speed records. In late 2011, Broad built a 30-story building in 15 days; now it plans to use similar methods to erect a 200-floor building in seven months. (Read more about this project in a fascinating interview with Broad Group’s founder and Chairman, Zhang Yue, on the website of Wired Magazine).
The 30-storey Ark Hotel was built on Dongting Lake in Hunan Province by Broad Group in 15 days (Image source: Mumbai Mirror)
Broad has started building a 1.33-million-square meter Building Factory which can produce about 500 of the 30 story building each year and many more factories will be built. The company is reaching these nerve wrecking speeds and volumes thanks to a clever combination of data-driven prefabrication, punctual just-in-time management and superior engineering skills. And they are eagerly keeping the architect out of the equation with their Excel-spreadsheet-no-frills-off-the-shelf buildings.
Computer generated and prefabricated architecture is now spreading like a virus, fuelled by network technologies and the need for rapid construction in cities and countries with abundant resources and a shortage of architecture.
Left: screenshot taken from SimCity trailer Right: view of the three-storey D3 cafeteria under construction by the Broad Group in Yueyang, Hunan province (REUTERS/Broad Group/Handout)
SIMCITY AS VIRTUAL SANDBOX
The unprecedented scale and speed of technological innovation forces architects, planners and other ‘spatial professionals’ to rethink their own position. It also brings to mind SimCity, the city-building computer game, which has always been a virtual sandbox for aspiring urban planners. With previous versions of the game you were able to plan and built entire cities overnight. It seems that reality is rapidly catching up with this virtual simulation, making the latest version of SimCity ever more realistic in how it can help us understand urban complexities.
When the design and construction of buildings and infrastructure becomes increasingly dependent on networked technologies and on the input from people outside the profession, from my nephew and his friends to the technicians at Broad Group, the skills that are demanded from architects (and deserve more attention at architecture schools) will go far beyond the simple understanding of the “play of forms under the light”.
In connection to this writer and urbanist Adam Greenfield recently sent out a powerful message when he wrote in Wired Magazine: “digital placemaking tools etch away at the professions of architecture and urban planning, eroding their claim to sovereignty over the authorship of plan, movement and the capacity for transaction.” The new architect combines data analysis, software development and interaction design with social skills.
Governments and developers have embraced the networked or ‘smart’ city, promoting ‘adaptive architecture’ and ‘participatory planning processes’. Engineering firm Arup is building collaborative structures in ‘the cloud’. Some architecture schools and architecture practices have also started experimenting with more dynamic and ‘open source’ design processes, counterbalancing Zaha Hadid’s broken promise to open up architecture and better adjust to the local context.
Amsterdam based DUS Architects for example, has launched the KamerMaker, a large scale 3D-printer which makes it possible to print entire rooms or houses of biodegradable plastics and to test novel types of ‘on demand architecture’.
London based strategy & design practice 00:/ (zero zero) went one step further by developing the WikiHouse. This open source construction set allows, in short, “anyone to design, download and ‘print’ CNC-milled houses and components which can be assembled with minimal formal skill or training.”
In a recent interview WikiHouse co-founder Alastair Parvin deliberately and explicitly marginalizes his own profession by emphasizing the democratic nature of the project: “If the factory is everywhere, the design team is everyone, one size no longer fits all. It gives us the opportunity to do for design what Linux does for software, to open it up.”
Left: the KamerMaker 3D printer by DUS Architects Right: WikiHouse-project by 00:/ and The Espians
Will my nephew soon be able to print my dream house using the KamerMaker or use the WikiHouse-portal to improve his design with input from other amateurs before sending it to Broad Company in China who will build it within 48 hours?
This still might seem far-fetched, but all developments within and around the domain of architecture are pointing in that direction. Technological innovations are putting enormous pressure on the position and skills of the architect, much like MySpace and Idols, and SoundCloud and Spotify have redefined the music industry and Flickr and Instagram are now killing the professional photographer.
The so-called ‘barriers to entry’, or the obstacles that make it difficult to enter the profession might be higher within the field of architecture, but the process of democratization is gaining momentum and seems irreversible and unstoppable.
SimCity: “Unable to load the city at this time. Please try again” (Source: Yahoo!)
Whether architecture can become truly ‘crowdsourced’ and ‘computer generated’ remains to be seen. What really is at stake right now is not so much the aesthetic quality of buildings or new towns, but rather the stability of the operating systems and network technologies that are supporting and shaping this new type of ‘technotecture’.
With ‘big data’ and algorithms becoming the fuel and engines respectively of new urban planning and design processes we are facing numerous challenges, from copyright and other legal issues to safety concerns and more political questions dealing with in- and exclusion of certain groups and people in the design process.
The disastrous launch of SimCity’s latest version last week clearly illustrates the possible danger of architecture’s increasing dependency on remote technologies. When millions of users tried to start building their own virtual cities at the same time, SimCity’s enormous and geographically distributed servers all crashed and automatically locked people out of the game for which they had paid and waited.
‘Unable to load the city at this time. Please try again.’ was the announcement that appeared on your screen when you tried to gain access again. Just imagine what could happen to architecture if the servers would break down, or were simply hacked, during the design of Masdar City, Songdo or any other (future) development? No 7-year-old, nor any AA-graduate can prevent such a situation from happening.