Why Architects Can’t Be Automated


Workers in many service-based industries are watching computers supplant their livelihoods. Is architecture at risk?

by Daniel Davis

In many service-based industries, workers have found themselves supplanted by algorithms. Accountants have given way to personal finance software, travel agents have been displaced by websites, and taxi drivers are poised to face off with self-driving cars. In a recent interview with NPR, Andrew McAfee, co-director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy at MIT, predicted, “Twenty or 40 years from now, we will not need the labor of a lot of the people alive in order to have a very, very productive economy.”

So if a computer can do our taxes, drive our cars, and book our holidays, could it also design our buildings?

Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building was the subject of a Boolean formulation in a 1972 paper from the University of Cambridge.
Flickr user Miguel Angel Labarca via Creative Commons License
Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building was the subject of a Boolean formulation in a 1972 paper from the University of Cambridge.

This question isn’t new. In the 1960s, as computers were first applied to the field of architecture, a number of researchers began devising ways to automate building design. Their work focused on optimizing floor plans to reduce walking times—a legitimate concern for a time when people had to hand-deliver documents. Books such as The Automated Architect by Nigel Cross (Methuen, 1977) detailed how computers were perfectly suited for performing the tedious calculations to quantify travel time between rooms. Perhaps, researchers postulated, computers could eventually optimize floor plans based on other factors.

This research would largely prove to be a failure. Although computers could optimize floor plans based on walking distances, it turns out—to no architect’s surprise—that walking distance has little effect on the success of most buildings. Despite the researchers’ faith in quantitative building science, quantifying aspects of architecture, such as constructability, was nearly as impossible as accounting for qualitative characteristics, such as context, aesthetics, and spatial experience.

Eventually the issue of walkability was largely solved not through architecture, but through the invention of email and cellular technology. But the idea of automating architecture lives on. The rise of big data and cloud-based computing has renewed the notion that computers can tackle the complex task of design.



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