Architectural Blatherations

How IT Stuffed the Architecture Profession

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The Good Oil

Dr Garry looks back on his time as a researcher in computer-aided architectural design (CAAD, with two As: it becomes important later, trust us) at the University of Sydney, Australia.

Changing the world

I started my academic career in CAAD in the 1980s. We may have been at the Antipodean end of the world, but we were one of a handful of architecture schools on the planet interested in computing. And, unlike most schools, we had a solid research orientation.

We were going to change the world. We were going to revolutionise the practice of architecture. We technocrats would bury the effete and affected under a world of technology. This page explains why I renounced the whole enterprise.

My life in computer-aided architectural design

When I started, there were no wordprocessors, no spreadsheets, no PCs. I began by punching out cards in Fortran. A few years later and the best microcomputer you could get was an Apple II. A wordprocessor referred to a dedicated machine, costing tens of thousands of dollars, that did only one thing. It had the same processing power as your printer, today. Computer-aided drafting (CAD, with one A) systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars; the playthings of very large, rich and adventurous architecture firms.

I trained under Prof John Gero (of George Mason University) and later under Prof Anthony Radford (of the University of Adelaide). I later taught classes with both; to undergrads, postgrads and professionals. In my years there I met everyone who was anyone in those early exciting days of CAD.

I got on very well with Prof Radford. In the 1980s we developed innovative and exciting undergraduate curricula when Apple Macs were novelties. We wrote CADD Made Easy together, the best-selling text of its kind in the United States. It introduced computer-aided design to a whole generation of American architects in the early 1990s.

The Grail in those days was the creation of a super-intelligent drafting system. Buildings would almost design themselves!

Then I start getting worried

Great minds, Profs Gero and Radford; and the many others I met, all pioneers in the use of computers in architecture. Fine academics, prolific publishers all. Twenty years later all the worthies I met are still proselytes for computing.

I am not.

What's it all about?

I first started questioning the whole economic basis. Back then, CAD systems were sold entirely on the basis of productivity gains. Claims of 200% productivity increases were routinely bandied about. It occurred to me that if these claims were really true, we could halve the size of the profession (since architects have no influence over the demand for their product). So that's good?

Maybe for companies and their academic allies trying to push big capital purchases. Not for the workers they were trying to get rid of. I was uneasy. I loved the potential of CAAD, but I hated the idea of mass unemployment. I began to wonder just what the point of it all was.

They get it wrong

But I took solace in the fact that CAAD's most eminent exponents were blithering idiots when it came to predicting the future. The prime case in point is one Prof William Mitchell, the doyen of architectural computing. Well he was its doyen when the field actually existed. Bill is Dean of the school of architecture at MIT, and a fellow Aussie, to boot. In 1977 he wrote the bible for my generation (Computer Aided Architectural Design) which he prefaced by saying that we can confidently predict that during the 1980s computers will transform the practice of architecture.

He was wrong. Really wrong.

Computers were barely beginning to penetrate practice by 1990, a full decade after the revolution so ardently proselytized was meant to erupt. And this revolution was meant to be an intellectual one, extending the architect's mind into new dimensions. Instead, today computers are used for the routine tasks of management (like timesheets, project management, billing, communication and accounting), and the lower classes of architect are stuck in front of CAD screens. Production functions. A very few firms use them to design weird shapes that construction firms would prefer not to have to deal with, but then the world only has room for so many Frank Gehry's. And I suspect that Frank himself works with butter paper, leaving his employees to do the CAD details.

Not one single computer application that Bill expected to materialise actually has, and he failed to predict almost every application that did develop. Good track record.

Automating the wrong bBits

Another aspect that worried me was that the exponents of CAAD seemed to be trying to automate all the fun bits. True, creating a great CAD system was the initial goal; but even then they had their gaze set higher. They quickly lost interest in computerised systems for such mundanities as checking plans against building codes and moved on to computerising what went on in the designer's head. Wrong move.

Cold, dry and unpeopled

Then there was the disturbingly arid nature of the enterprise: no people. So we go back to Prof William Mitchell. From his The Logic of Architecture, you would be hard-pressed to discover that buildings had anything at all to do with people; that they existed to shelter and house them. I suppose that this is congruent with his—and his discipline's—increasing disappearance into the non-reality of computer graphics imagery (euphemised as virtual reality); far away from the hard and difficult realities of bricks, concrete and timber; of water, wind, heat and cold; and further still from the even harder realities of client demands, local building regulations, and truculent contractors.

I think it says reams that Bill's professorial title is Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences. Does this guy design buildings or consult to Industrial Light and Magic? I can't figure it out. His City of Bits had my hair standing on end with its facetious description of humanity as Monkeys 2.0 and his jubilant We are all cyborgs now. As far as I can figure, his best-of-all-possible-worlds is something like Star Trek's Borg. I was about to say Bladerunner, but that film depicts a world far too gritty, noir, and teeming with life for Prof Mitchell.

Today: Aristophanes' Cloud Cuckooland

When I started, we called our discipline CAAD or the rather more prosaic architectural computing. It was all about using computers in architecture. That discipline went years ago: no self-respecting academic would see themselves as part of something that became commodified when AutoCad took off. Now its remnants are only a tiny part of the very impressive-sounding design and cognitive science.

I delivered papers at conferences with names like Design for 1984: Computers and Building Form. I talked about how computers would let architects design better buildings. Today the conferences have names like International Workshop on Agents in Design. I see a lot of obscure talk about stuff like situated design agents. Why does this conjure up visions of oily real estate agents {realtors} trying to sell me apartments off the plan, no deposit needed? Must be just me. I have no idea what this is on about, and I do not want to find out. It could be spooky.

I have ploughed through many of the papers given at the modern conferences. I find them barely comprehensible. I do not know what a situated design agent is, but I would sure like to know why schools of architecture are paying people large sums of money to write about this stuff. The Design Methods movement demonstrated very clearly thirty years ago that all this was mere academic wankery; whose sole objective was to bring some credibility to academic architecture; and—by mere coincidence—to ensure a comfortable middle– and old-age for its academic proponents.