As a member of Bouwkunde, you have likely become familiar with the work of Bernard Rudofsky. If you haven’t, please grab a copy after rounding off the last page of this issue! In his discourse Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, he takes a look at vernacular construction and argues the position of architectural practice as a universal phenomenon born in the hands of non-specialist and non-architect. Who, according to him, acts spontaneously, often out of necessity, supported solely by experience gathered within his/her community lifetime.1
As I navigate through pages of Rudofsky’s efforts to bring attention to the unfamiliar or otherwise what we could describe as informal architecture, I can’t help but notice that the array of examples in the book is everything but uniform in form and shape. The diversity comes in typology, tools and materials used, ornamentation (or complete disregard for it), and endless other parameters of unique identity each of these structures carries.
Isn't this historical narrative pictured by Rudofsky quite the opposite of what today's urban landscapes look like? Populated by same-looking structures, only now and then interrupted by work of some more daring designer or global starchitect? The popular yet monotonous residential building type of '5 over 1' was developed in the United States in the 80s. Like in the case of other typologies, it was essentially a product of the housing crisis, a need to accommodate many people in affordable, easily buildable and replicable dwellings. A similar situation drove the development of twin solutions in European countries, resulting in the unification of how residential units look today.
With all the above perfectly justified by economic and social factors, I still get carried away with a thought - what if our cities were a collection of one-of-a-kind buildings instead? With each structure looking utterly different from its neighbour? An urban scape from a dream, escape from the monotony? Would it add more colour to the urban environment or create confusion in navigating the city without clear distinctions between various functions? And more interestingly, would we be capable of creating such variety in the age of mass reproduction and high demand for construction?
Today, Rudofsky’s idea of ‘architecture without architects’ or, more broadly, design without designers takes on a new meaning and leaves us with crucial questions on originality and authorship. This relatively recent discovery is AI [Artificial Intelligence] generated imagery which has quickly become a new obsession or, in some circles, a source of despite and genuine worry about the future of all kinds of creative professions.
In 2015, when most of us mortals were bouncing to the rhythm of Uptown Funk, AI scientists broke through a kick-starting development – automated image captioning. From that moment on, the computer would be able to describe the scenes from any image in a human-like language. This invention soon triggered the discussion on the mirrored operation where the images could be generated from the captions – later called prompts. However, the ambition didn’t stop at retrieving the images from an already existing dataset, similar to what you might be familiar with from the Google Image Search engine. Instead, the AI would generate a new scene that has not yet existed - a completely new fantasy. This process started with asking the AI for impossible scenes such as ‘elephants flying over the New York skyline or ‘tiny whale having dinner with Donald Trump’ – you get the idea. Soon this technology evolved into DALL-E and Mid Journey – two pioneering platforms now used as a medium for creating art pieces and new design concepts. AI image-generating revelation was welcomed with split interest, owe and anxiety over a possibly endangered future role of a designer. Technology has already threatened professions such as graphic designers and digital artists, which could become reduced to AI-generated proposals in the future. As expected, a critical thought formed in the process.
Everything we create is empowered or inspired by the collection of our experiences and knowledge, as Henri Bergson would rightfully notice. At the same time, our thinking is limited to confinement of this past, broad but limited references, which consciously or subconsciously influence our views and ability to create the novel. Hence, it can be argued that ‘new and original doesn’t exist per se but that every invention is an interpretation of an old through the lens of today. Speaking in architectural language, you might observe that many of our projects look alike. It is indeed challenging to develop an entirely new typology as we are somewhat limited to the bounds of particular architectural styles and morphologies we are well familiar with. In contrast, despite being initially trained on the existing images, the AI sets free from constraints of, e.g., educational templates and allows itself to generate completely new combinations, motifs and styles. Still, in the diapers, DALL-E or Midjourney remain a 2D tool. However, since speedy development since the 1950s (when the first speculations on artificial brain design), the capability of AI could soon expand into 3D. Combined with 3D printing, gaining the popularity in the industry, could AI generate unexpected, new designs and at the same time perform its construction? Maybe today, this question sounds like a dream (or a nightmare), but 50 years ago, AI wasn’t even a term, yet today it continues to surprise us with its capabilities!
Now the actual question is, how do we feel about it? Throughout history, machines managed to ease the hardships of human labour, allowing for the expansion of human intellectual endeavours, which in return triggered the development of yet new technology (basically a Perpetuum mobile). But is the design and creative field something we would like to give up and trust in the hands of the machine? And to what degree, if at all? The act of artificial pro- and repro-duction carries a danger of detaching the pieces of architecture from our culture and tradition, depriving the pieces of what Walter Benjamin calls an ‘aura’ – the unique presence of an object in time and space of its creation, and, one might want to add, an image of the creator behind it. What is indeed the future of the design, and what role you and I will play in it?