Architecture + Innovation

Following what I wrote recently about the “PC takeover” of architecture, as posited by renowned Zaha Hadid Architects partner Patrik Schumacher, I’ve been further intrigued by his sentiments when Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, recently announced a revolutionary new roof system.

This kind of technology is the innovation that is sorely lacking in the profession of architecture. Technical prowess has been dismantled from the profession as the architect begins to lose focus of the core aims of the profession – utilitas, firmitas, venustas (function, structure and beauty) – aims that are as old as Vitruvius himself. These are the pillars upon which our profession is built, yet we somehow seem to forget this as we begin to take on more abstract roles as politician, social justice warrior, philosopher, bureaucrat…  

Our lofty goals of achieving social justice, of shaking the foundations of dogmatic political practices and ushering in an era of collectivism, of social coherence and aesthetic and cultural harmony through our designed environments appear as noble pursuits. And no doubt they are essential, for we are in a unique position as a practice that situates itself at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. We can balance these precarious entities through our designed intervention and intellectual prowess powered by years of pouring over precedent, theory, political studies and the philosophies that empower us as architects.

However, the technological agency that lies at the heart of our profession – the technological agency that binds the trifecta of utilitas, firmitas, venustas, is the very thing becoming rapidly marginalised in contemporary practice. We are being sidetracked by more ambiguity rather than pouring our collective talents into actually innovating the architectural technology that ultimately transforms our abstract world into the physical manifestations that form our built environments.

Musk’s development of a unique solar roofing system is exactly the kind of architectural innovation that is being “outsourced” to those outside our field. Yes, I acknowledge that as architects, we are not trained in the minutiae of such technical systems; the kind of product that Musk announced is the culmination of a variety of fields (industrial design, electrical engineering, manufacturing…). However, we are trained in the field of ideas. We should be the ones embracing and advocating for such advances. The Tesla + SolarCity roof tile system is the kind of product that is inherently architectural. It ticks all of the great Vitruvius’s boxes: it is functional (it is highly efficient at collecting solar energy and storing that in the Tesla PowerWall), it is incredibly strong – far stronger, in fact, than traditional building materials like terracotta – and it is beautiful. This last one is particularly important: in order to gain mainstream traction, aesthetics are paramount. 

The Tesla roofing system proposes, for the first time, a viable technology for taking buildings off the grid entirely. As architects, we are in the business of consumption – the very act of building requires consuming the earth in order to make space for our creations. The age of sustainable design is well and truly underway. The urgency for technical architectural innovation – the proposition, promotion and integration of imaginative technical ideas that further the environmentally-cenered design approach that will make or break this era – is sorely needed in a time when the role of architect as master of information is being challenged from within.

BIM: It’s a State of Mind

Building Information Modelling is not a single software system. It’s not a debate of Revit vs. ARCHICAD. It’s not a process, either.

It’s a way of thinking. 

A state of mind.

2D CAD was merely a digitisation of an age-old process: the act of putting pencil to paper, using a slide rule to draw. CAD merely replicated this using a keyboard and mouse. BIM, by contrast, is a vastly different beast. BIM is as much about data and information as it is about “drawing in 3D”.

The organisation, parsing and manipulation of information encoded into the digital “virtual building model” is as important, if not more so, than the act of designing and modelling in 3D. This is the inherent power behind this next phase in our industry. It’s perhaps, also, why many architects have been so reluctant to jump onto the BIM bandwagon.

The failure of BIM in practice could thus be traced back, in most cases, to the adoption of BIM by a company. One cannot assume that they can simply flick a switch and transition an entire workforce from 2D CAD (or the common 2D CAD/3D model – generally the fan favourite SketchUp-AutoCAD tag team) to a sleek new BIM package. This is corporate suicide, in my opinion.

A cleverer, discreet and scaled process is far better. First, understanding the limits and capabilities of BIM is essential. BIM is not the answer to every single problem that we face as architects. Yes, it will accelerate productivity, but only if one knows how to tame this beast. The implementation of a company template, for example, is absolutely critical to unlocking a percentage of the power inherent in BIM. Not using a template would mean reinventing the wheel with every project. Working smart and not hard is the holy grail of our profession; the mindset that the quality of work is directly proportional to the hours spent labouring over a drawing needs to change. As architects, we need to understand that there are better, faster ways of doing things.

Changing one’s perception of technology in the realm of architectural design is the great challenge of this new generation of designers entering the workforce. If we are to succeed in this economy, to thrive as architects and assert our role as a key agent in the AEC industry, then the courage to venture forth into this digital age is paramount.

Bionic Citizen

Apple WatchWearables are the hot topic in technology today. What once seemed like something out of a Star Trek episode is now reality. And whilst Samsung, Motorola and others are veterans (if you could call more than two years in the product category “veteran”) I truly think that Apple’s design and brand-respected clout will be the final tipping point in solidifying this curious new niche as a distinct product line.

The Apple Watch’s gutsy move in positioning itself as a piece of haute couture is indeed a bold move; I have many questions about the longevity of such a device when the ephemeral (technology) is juxtaposed with the eternal (high-end watch design). It seems like a product conceived of contradiction as much as it is a device seeking to bridge two seemingly disparate factions of society (fashion and technology). However, it represents a progression of technology. A powerful progression, I might add: we are on the cusp of transcending the notion that technology exists as a realm separate to the organic body that is us. The Apple Watch’s ideal of being a fashion piece means it encompasses the design traits distinct of fashion: personality, individuality, intimacy.

But even more than that: wearables are a step closer to the assimilation of the inorganic — the world of binary code and cold, calculated lines of coding — with the organic: us, human beings, sentient creatures who have created these strange contraptions. Are we on the brink of becoming bionic? Is it possible that, by following this progression to its logical destination, we can assume that there will be a convergence: that these two worlds will properly collide; that we will become bionic creatures, beings made just as much with technology as we are with blood and muscle?

The singularity theory postulates a point in time in the distant future, called an event horizon. Beyond this point, we cannot predict, using the cognitive skills we have honed over millennia, what will occur next. The idea that we are assimilating ourselves with the technology that we use can be considered as an event horizon. The current state of technological development suggests that this is the case, but I think that if we examine the nature of our current society, we can further understand why this might very well be the eventual outcome of our species.

We live in an increasingly connected world. The Grid rules our lives: we are beings that connect to it daily; it is what provides us with a large amount of our daily intellectual sustenance. We cannot function without the Grid. Our society is hyper-connected, and devices like smartwatches illustrate how reliant we are on the Grid. That such a device exists signifies the ever-encroaching grip our digital lives have on us. Our lives are lived as much in the virtual sphere as they are in the realm of reality. When technology begins to disappear yet exert an even more potent force upon our existence, we begin to step closer towards that event horizon of the bionic being. Technology is beginning to disguise itself. It is no longer taking the visage of a “device that looks like a computer” — that traditional aesthetic is being challenged as microchips get smaller and more powerful, thus making it possible to insert them into devices that we are accustomed to for centuries.

As design becomes invisible, it will allow technology to ingratiate itself far more easily into our daily lives, slowly tightening the grip the Grid has on our psyche. As microchips become smaller and their power more potent, we will begin to subconsciously slip into a symbiotic reliance with the devices and the virtual networks we’ve created. This is going to change society in incredible ways. Everything from culture to politics to economics to the built environment will be affected. One area I’m particularly curious about is, of course, the urban architectonic. How will our bionic beings navigate an architecture of the future? How will our built structures evolve to support the new lifestyle that will emerge? How can virtual reality coexist with the concrete and steel that is so intrinsic to maintaining our human existence at the base level?

One simple device, oft derided and questioned for its very purpose, can have the potential for a significant sociocultural impact. For now, though, we play the waiting game: watching, patiently, as the progression of technology and society slowly merge, an intricate dance orchestrated by a plethora of parameters and the organic ebb and flow of time…