"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked me for faster horses." Fortunately or unfortunately, Henry Ford didn't ask anyone, he followed his instinct, and changed transportation and the means of industrial production forever. After the Ford T, the world was never the same.
The personal computer, the internet and the mobile phone also initially triggered storms of scepticism. Then, companies and governments agreed on ingenious plans of technological democratization and capitalism in full color to make them disappear. Similarly, artificial intelligence (AI) has crept into our lives in the form of personal assistants on the phone, online commerce, autonomous vehicles, and real-time translators. However, it is only now that we are beginning to realize that machines are going to transform the future with applications and uses that we are not yet able to imagine. In fact, even the governments of the most important countries are not very clear about how to regulate a phenomenon that "poses significant risks" to human life, as emerged from the recent Global Summit on Artificial Intelligence (AI) Security.
What does seem certain is that this new technological leap will bring unflattering changes for those professions whose high degree of automation makes them susceptible to being replaced by machines. However, in the face of neo-Luddite attitudes in the 21st century – Luddism was an organised movement of British craftsmen who during the first decades of the 19th century carried out acts of sabotage in textile factories in which they destroyed the looms and spinning machines that, in their opinion, would end up eliminating their jobs – It seems that our survival would reside, once again, in recycling. Some experts agree that the obsolescence of certain professions will be cushioned by the fact that innovation always generates new jobs. Apparently, as with energy, work is neither created nor destroyed, it is only transformed.
AI Narrating the History of Architecture Through the Toys of a McDonald's Happy Meal.Dr. Kohan
The working world of architecture is a good example of this type of ups and downs. The scenes of large architectural studios with work tables occupied by dozens of draughtsmen, ruler and pencil in hand, seem to us to belong to a very distant past. The popularization of computer-aided design (CAD) software completely revolutionized the way of making plans, but also the way of organizing the profession. "Already in the seventies we realized that the digital world could leave a lot of people unemployed," said Rem Koolhaas just a few months ago in an interview for ICON Design. In effect, technology has made many workers expendable, and today architectural offices are organized with a significantly smaller number of people.
"On the one hand, we are more productive and efficient; But on the other hand, we force ourselves to do more and more things for the same money, or even less, so we have diluted this effectiveness. In fact, architects should be paid to think, not to draw or to learn how to mechanize processes," says José María Echarte, architect and professor in the Bachelor's Degree in Fundamentals of Architecture at the Rey Juan Carlos University. An expert in the phenomena of vocational precariousness and scholarship of salaried work in the world of architecture, as he analyses in his doctoral thesis Labour structure of architecture in Spain (1211-2010): from the guildworkshop to the horizon workshop), Echarte believes that the irruption of AI may bring more precariousness to an already precarious profession. "The most widespread and naïve idea is that AIs will be mechanized helpers that will free up employees, who will now be able to dedicate themselves to research. I believe that this perspective does not correspond to the usual procedure in the Spanish professional structure, where we have always heard that 'tomorrow I have three students here doing the same thing as you for half the money'. AI reframes this situation: it's no longer tomorrow, it's now; And it's not for half the money, but for free. I think it's going to be problematic," he said.
So, can technology make the profession of architect expendable? Until very recently, the answer was unequivocally no. Machines could facilitate the most tedious tasks of an architectural firm and help us produce plans and models in a faster, simpler and more efficient way. However, they could never replace the ability to design a building with sensitivity and creativity.
Parody of Italian architecture made with paste using AI.Dr. Kohan
Now, this is no longer so clear because, in addition to automating heavy tasks, AI can also be trained to develop something resembling creative intuition. He paints pictures and makes music, even with the Beatles, who have been able to finish a song more than half a century after their dissolution. Chat GPT will soon learn how to write novels, if it isn't already: George R. R. Martin, John Grisham, and Jonathan Franzen are among the seventeen writers who have denounced Open AI, the owner of Chat GPT, for "systematic theft on a massive scale" of their works. AI also threatens film and television screenwriters, as well as actors, who watch in amazement at how machines can create digital replicas, a technological cocktail that fuels the labor demands of a sector on a war footing in Hollywood.
"These tools may be able to reduce creativity if we all fall into the same use, but I think it would be a mistake to highlight their great potential," says Guillermo Taberner Llácer (@estudiotaberner), an architect who is an expert in the implementation of generative AI in the design process. "We had been stuck with a project in the studio for a long time. I've been able to generate more than twenty-five images in just fifteen minutes with OpenAI's Dall·e3. None of them specifically fit everything I asked of him, but it allows me to broaden the imaginary." Taberner elaborates on his understanding of the tool: "There are already programs that analyze 3D modeling and provide solutions to make a building more energy efficient. It won't be long before we see software capable of considering basic parameters such as the current urban planning regulations of a plot, the weather conditions of its location, the real needs of users or updated prices to generate a budget, and combine them to produce a project with all the necessary work plans for its execution".
Meanwhile, networks are flooded with hyper-realistic images of AI-generated architectures. Fables abound depicting famous buildings from the history of architecture as if they had been conceived by architects other than their true authors. Can you imagine the Sydney Opera House designed by Zaha Hadid, Antonio Gaudí, Frank Gehry or Le Corbusier? The results oscillate between puzzling anecdote and ridiculous joke and, of course, nowhere near the strength and sensibility of Jørn Utzon's original design.
Dr. Kohan narrates the history of architecture from the Egyptians to the Bauhaus through board games in his thread about "a traditional family enjoying a game on a Thursday night."
Among all of them, it is worth rescuing the work of Dr. Kohan, who captures his research into the applications of AI in architecture with fine irony. "Architecture, Calatrava, memes and all possible combinations" is his motto, and on his Twitter account he offers parodies of Italian architecture made of pasta or classical churches and buildings seen as cheap bazaar toys, as he praises "the benefits of a classical education" in his series of Greek domes and pediments converted into hats and backpacks. He also narrates the history of architecture from the Egyptians to the Bauhaus through board games in his thread about "a traditional family enjoying a game on a Thursday night," in the form of models to assemble or in candid toys to give away from McDonald's children's menus.
Kohan uses sarcasm to mask a critical attitude towards the way architecture is done in the 21st century. "There are several technologies that fascinated us at first and then we have forgotten, such as virtual reality or, more recently, the Metaverse. Maybe the same thing will happen with AI," he tells ICON Design. "I see potential in tools that 'translate' information from one medium to another, such as turning a crumpled ball of paper into a photo of a mock-up or a pencil sketch into a photorealistic image. AIs can do that very well. However, I believe that, in a scenario of saturation of photorealistic images, the hand sketch will take on a much greater value." He continues: "There are many aspects of an architect's job that are automatable and boring. But design is not one of them. Architects love to design! It is the most stimulating phase of our work, and it demands many subtleties: from the language we use to describe something to the strength of the strokes of a pencil. This requires a sensitivity that AIs don't yet have and may never have."
Dr. Koham ironically extols "the benefits of a classical education" in his series of Greek domes and pediments converted into backpacks.
In the same vein, Taberner argues that "the architect is more than just an 'executor'. Now more than ever we must recover the figure of the architect as a 'humanist', with a more reflective character, capable of providing a sensitive experience that machines cannot yet produce." Echarte is less optimistic: "Using AI to design a building shouldn't be a problem as long as we know what we're paying for. It is not the same to do architecture at the touch of a key, than with specialized professionals who must be paid, legally. There are other industries that have been able to convey this issue of service quality, and that's why a custom-made suit doesn't cost the same as a mass-produced one. Unfortunately, the precariousness of architecture has meant that this issue is not scalable in our sector."
Back to the Sydney Opera House: its construction began when not even the engineers of the prestigious firm Ove Arup knew how to solve the sail-shaped shells of the building's roof. Over the years, more than a dozen solutions were tested, leading to an unacceptable cost overrun and delay that ended up costing the architect his job. Utzon didn't get to see his project finished: he left Australia and never returned. He wasn't even on the list of guests at the inauguration. The same thing could have happened to Frank Gehry with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, but the software of the CATIA aerospace industry made it possible for him to realize the capricious forms of a project that was constructively far ahead of its time. Alas! If only Utzon had had an AI at his disposal for his opera!
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