Level up – emerging technologies in architecture

25 August 2016

The rapid advancements in generative design and the growing influence of gaming on architectural modelling point to a future in which architects will have to be as comfortable with code as they are with CAD. Rod James looks at the effect that emerging technologies are having on the nature of the architect’s job, and what it means for the future of the built environment.

The excitement of playing a video game from the 1980s or 1990s today is often tempered by a degree of frustration. You propel your avatar headfirst into a strange new world, eager to explore the possibilities of your environment, only to find doors that don’t open, vehicles that can’t be commandeered and, in the case of Super Mario, large green pipes that don’t always lead to magical lands. The desire to explore and experience is cut down by the limitations of two-dimensional technology.

Virtually real

Over the past 20 years, technological advancements have seen games evolve at a rate comparable with popular music in the 60s and 70s. Some of today’s games offer endless avenues for exploration and are so detailed that they seem immersive, as if the player has transcended the physical.

This sense is created in part by the design of virtual structures that respond to their environments, such as facades that fade and building materials that decay, all of which create a sense of time passing in an organic way. Increasingly, game designers are tapping the expertise of architects to create this effect: The Witness, a sophisticated 3D puzzle game set in an abandoned island civilisation, called on the services of San Francisco’s FOURM design studio during its development.

Partner Deanna Van Burren was surprised at how much she learned from the undertaking. “From the architect’s perspective, I know that we like to make stuff in the real world, and perhaps don’t think [virtual design] will be rewarding,” she said of the experience. “Architects often might not understand how games can be of service. Many think it’s all about coding and that we need to have this skill. I also think architects may not see the value of the video game industry and its products, which is, unfortunately, an ignorance that I also possessed prior to working in the industry.”

In truth, while architects are making their mark in the gaming world, the latter’s influence on the former will prove more significant in the long term, from technical and methodological standpoints.

Gaming principles are already being used to enhance architectural tools. Autodesk, a software company perhaps best known for developing AutoCAD, recently unveiled Project Expo: an architectural visualisation tool with a built-in game engine known as Stingray. Effectively a bundle of software modules governing things like 3D rendering, collision detection, sound and animation, Stingray is designed to bring the kind of depth to architectural models that only games can provide.

“Really, what it means is the ability to add more augmented reality and virtual reality to design, to submerge someone in the design,” says Angi Izzi, global industry strategy and business manager at Autodesk. “The programme doesn’t necessarily have modelling tools, but it allows customers to really feel what the building will be like when it’s built. The gaming engine will at first be geared around visualisation, but over time, we will even be able to use it in construction, as a way of understanding where a pressure valve might need to be changed, for instance, or where joist or sprinkler heads are going to be located.”

The model

As well as enhancing the tools that architects have at their disposal, gaming – and computer programming more broadly – is opening the door to collaborative models that could completely change the way buildings are designed and built.

Jose Sanchez’s post-graduate studies were in generative design: the construction of architecture based on computer code. One day, he was struck by the idea of combining these technical skills with his childhood passion for video games. “I had a gut feeling there was a connection between these two fields and that there was great potential,” he says.

He started a studio and set about creating a game that could empower ordinary people to design their own environments. It was given a boost in 2012, when the University of Southern California proffered a full-time post, allowing him to dedicate all his time to what had, until then, been a pet project. The result was Block’hood: a game that allows users to design their own highly detailed neighbourhoods while never letting them untether from reality. Reams of computer code underpin complex systems of cause and effect: trees that don’t have water will die, poorly placed solar panels will fail to generate power, and polluting factories will kill local residents.

As well as helping people think more carefully about cause and effect, Sanchez sees Block’hood as a democratising force. The game could enable collaboration between hundreds of invested people who, but for the inevitable disagreements, could create something that fulfils the needs of the greatest number. Sanchez hopes that as the range of available tools grows and more people contribute, an architect could make some of these crowdsourced creations a reality.

“Even if we can consult the community, there is always the chance that a larger community, a collective intelligence, could emerge and have a stronger idea of how to build better cities or neighbourhoods,” he says. “Block’hood is very much in its infancy, but going into the 21st century, architects need to start addressing a new form of design – one that could have a much larger impact and provide platforms for design that have a wider reach than just one project.” 

Computer love

In Frankfurt, another studio has been flirting with a similar concept. AWARE, made up of architects Anton Savov and Diana Hadzhitseneva, employs the democratising principles of generative design and crowdsourcing, but with the addition of a third step: digital fabrication.

In 2012, it embarked on Project Avocado, in which it allowed Facebook users to adopt a plant and gave them the digital tools to design a house for it to live in. Users got to define parameters such as the plant’s exposure to light, water intake and proximity to its neighbours, and after four days, the specifications were turned into detailed 3D models. The data underpinning these models was fed into a laser-cutting machine, which rendered each of the 120 uniquely dimensioned boxes in cardboard.

Projects like these are driven by the desire to solve real problems. With a billion new homes needed globally in the next 35 years, according to Savov’s calculations, there is a desperate need for a less-centralised design process that can allow houses to be built more quickly and to the taste of those who have to live in them. Savov is careful to emphasise, though, that this is not an attempt to put the architect out of business.

“If everyone’s equal, and there are no experts and no amateurs, it would not really work,” he says. “That’s why we are looking at games and how they are structured. They are made by game designers and developers who encode a certain experience. What I see is the possibility of engineers and architects to encode our own experience and expertise into rules, and into a kind of atmosphere – an experience for
the participant who wants to take part in solving a problem.”

The man machine

Every significant technological breakthrough throughout history has triggered fear that the role of the worker will be made redundant. But the rise of generative design and 3D printing do pose questions about the nature of the architect profession, at least in its current form. And then, looking further down the line, there’s the inevitable rise of the robots.

Swiss studio Gramazio Kohler Architects has been incorporating robotics into its projects since around 2000. Its aim is to maximise the potential of robots to carry out manual tasks so that architects are free to think bigger and tackle concepts that currently seem too expensive or even physically impossible.

As sensors become smaller and cheaper, a golden age of robotics is dawning. Recently, the studio has been creating a robotically fabricated roof at NEST, an outsized living laboratory owned by Swiss materials research institution EMPA. NEST consists of an array of newly developed plugged-in and built-in architectural components, and provides a stage upon which new ideas can be tested and marketed to potential investors. Partner Fabio Gramazio believes that even the most basic robot has revolutionary potential.

“Our early experiments with bricks showed that a robot is able to pick up and place a brick in the right geometric position,” he says. “For the machine, the right position is evident, because all of the places it can reach are the same in terms of energy consumption, time and complexity. For humans, however, there are big differences. There are positions you can reach quickly because you have an optical reference: for example, you can pick up a brick and place it next to the last one you placed. But if that brick is not there, we need a tool that helps us measure. This is a law that has basically determined how we use bricks over the last 10,000 years. The machine, even when limited and without any sensor, was able to break this very simple rule to open up new spaces for design.”

New technology will not make the architect redundant, but it is already affecting the way they think about their profession. Sanchez believes that architecture is becoming more like the games industry, with fewer all-rounders and growing numbers of specialists – many of whom are as well versed in computer code as they are in design. Gramazio thinks a golden age of design is in the offing, but architects will have to embrace new technology to ensure it is they who benefit.

“There is a risk of [architecture] not being self-confident as a profession,” he says. “But what is not claimed gets occupied by somebody else. Building is not a side issue – there is political interest, there is money and there is a need; and if it isn’t the architect that defines the way this will change, others will do it – engineers, investors or maybe information giants like Google. And this will be bad for us, because they will not bring in the same sensitivity and awareness.”

Architecture and video gaming collide.
Block’hood: communal virtual architecture.
AWARE’s Project Avocado saw participants design houses for plants to best meet their light and water needs.
A screen capture from Autodesk’s Stingray engine.

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