Will architects soon be replaced by computers?
A recent study by Deloitte and Oxford University said that while two thirds of UK jobs are at ‘high risk’ of computerisation, there is only a 2% chance that architectural jobs will be supplanted by machines before 2035.
Yet with the rapid advance of robotics, software and computation, academics and researchers are predicting a second industrial revolution, and opinion is divided over the future of creative, highly skilled jobs.
Exponential growth signifies growth that is constantly doubling, and refers to the rate at which computation is accelerating. Computers are now learning from their mistakes and from previous experience. They are becoming more human. Simultaneously, buildings themselves are becoming more computational. Software advances mean buildings are beginning to adapt and ‘design themselves’. Experts predict that it won’t be long before algorithmic architecture dominates the built environment.
If this shift is as real and imminent as some predict, what does it mean for architects’ jobs?
Alex Haw, founder of multidisciplinary design practice Atmos Studio and a close observer of new digital technologies believes architects are already being shunted aside by advanced software. ‘For a lot of buildings - for example volume house-building or hospitals - there’s already not great room for architects,’ he says.
Director of Technical Innovation at Woods Bagot, Shane Burger agrees in so far as architects who can’t or won’t race with machines ‘will be pushed to the side.’ Technological and software advances, he says, will ‘change the kind of people working rather than the number.’ Architects, he believes will have to adapt the rubric of their trade, and develop their creative skills in computation in order to survive. In doing so, there is ‘an opportunity for a new kind of craft,’ as designing will apply to the architecture of the software and modelling programs that will allow them to ‘manipulate geometry.’
A recent exhibition of design-research unit, Wonderlab’s work at the Bartlett shows Burger’s hopes in material form. Coral reef like structures designed and made by robots in concrete, plastic and carbon fibre are the result of late nights and long hours designing software and coding. UCL professor and director of Wonderlab, Alisa Andrasek believes like Burger that this shift in job requirements will be both necessary and exciting. ‘Architecture’s superpower,’ she says, ‘is creative synthesis.’ She predicts that advanced computation will and must synthesise with the architect’s traditional role.
For Andrasek (a self-confessed ‘geek), the move from traditional architecture to computational architecture is not such a wrench. ‘Intuitively, architects understand code,’ she says, adding that students with scientific backgrounds can get obsessed with the numbers, while architecture students understand the inherent artistry in designing code.
Zeal for this new kind of built environment and the subsequent jobs that could be created is tempered by the absence of what Alex Haw calls, ‘human, emotional space.’ He believes the reality of this new kind of architecture is more mundane. ‘The design process has become about cost-saving and logical decision making. Even one off-houses are dull and self-replicating. Even there you can see the future displacement of the architect.’
The findings of the Deloitte and Oxford University study do not take into account the way architectural jobs will change as a result of computation. Jobs will be created in this digitised brand of architecture, but can we still call these people ‘architects’? It is increasingly apparent that today’s business-minded architects must waste no time in positioning themselves at the cutting edge of computation.