Architecture as Systemic Thinking (and Making)

Roubo - Robotic Timber Fabrication

By Dr T.Dounas, published in the RIAS journal “Quarterly”

Koolhaas in his Pritzker prize acceptance speech referred to mortar and brick versus mortar and click, as an oblique viewpoint on the emergence of digital and automation technologies that come to enhance much of our physical world. Within the fourth industrial revolution, the convergence of physical and digital technologies allows for an unprecedented integration between thinking machines and our physical environment. While others consider Architecture, the old-school-discipline of assembling bricks with mortar, obsolete, replaced by the architecture of digital systems, I believe the opposite. It is Architecture and the kind of thinking behind it that encompasses and incorporates digital technology. Instead of thinking of the digital end of automation tools as a separate entity that only steals and borrows from the discipline of architecture, what is taking place is the slow feeding of digital discretization into the body of architecture, where we can finally start to cancel the distance between the thinking and the making of Architecture.

The concept of automation of course brings in the forefront the question of increasing productivity, but also, if one is truly a humanist, the question of increasing leisure for most of us. We are not yet of course at the level where no human labour is required to produce architecture and let us not forget that thinking architecture is also labour. Still, we have realised the first elements of a system that alludes to an era where buildings might be realised completely with machinery, assembled rather than build. The first batch of tools that we needed towards that realisation; architects have been using for the better part of thirty years in the wider form of computer aided design. What now is emerging are the tools that can take our drawings, our thinking, and organise its manifestation and building in physical form. Some might imagine here the loss of the personal touch, the artisan craftsmanship that many find alluring in the architectonic manifestation. However, an automated and fully digital manner of producing buildings, is actually closer to the original idea of the Masterbuilder. It us actually that have forgotten how to build, by focusing on representation and its organisation as a vessel for encapsulating our thoughts. Modern automation allows us to truly return to craftsmanship, bypassing the need for graphical representation. In a sense, since the first invention of the notion of architectural design by Alberti, we face the second re-invention of our discipline.

In this direct connection between the thinker and the maker, robotic and automation technologies forge a climate of potential. Beyond the obvious possibilities for industrialising construction, while still retaining the unique character of craftsmanship, Robotics allows us to re-think systematically the manner of production and cost of say, housing, for which there is increased need in Scotland and the UK. Recent research work at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and the Built Environment has resulted at the invention of new robotically fabricated cross laminated timber joints, that makes it easier, better and more cost effective to produce housing kits, further advancing a Scottish tradition. Beyond the joints and the CLT panels, robotic fabrication has already started to produce experimental buildings, where there is a tight integration between the system invented by the architect and its manner of construction and assembly. One way to understand robotics as an architect is to think of it as an oversized tool that does the architect’s bidding, rather than just as a piece of machinery in an industrial production line. The most conventional way of running a robot would be by representing in CAD and translating into computer aided manufacturing the representation of the artefact you want to produce. However, the machine does not understand geometry, but rather code. It is the same format that 3d printers use to describe the movement of the tool in three dimensions, and it is in its basis totally architectonic, spatial. I would argue that learning to think in code programmatically should be the next task you handle in your continuous learning as architects either as an extension of the geometrical representation or stand alone, as it will allow you as an architect to capture and realise much more in terms of process of making.  

Robotics would also allow the extended, large scale use of 3d printing or added manufacturing. Beyond the potential for rapid manufacturing that this would allow, architectonically, 3d printing allows for the control and fine tuning of textures and the surface of a material. As with any compression acting structure, the architect needs to translate the geometric representation, the spatial digital artefact into a choreography for the machine to follow. We start to see now with machines like that the creation of feedback systems between architects and machines, where code is not executed in one go, but interactively, in dialog with the system. This again is true craftsmanship where the digital system becomes a tooling of material and method in service of the discipline. 

To allow this coupling of material and method, of craftsmanship and automation, we have seen digital software to start acquiring systemic traits, properties that elevate it close to thinking systems.  The two thinking systems that will bring us closer to new forms of organisation and production in architecture are Blockchains and Machine learning. Blockchain, or decentralised ledger technologies are the underlying technology of cryptocurrencies like bitcoins. They have three traits that are crucial for the discipline of architecture in the fourth industrial revolution, they  are immutable, i.e you can not delete something from them, they allow the decentralisation of organised systems, and the automatic, immutable execution of software code on the blockchain system. Decentralisation would allow architects in remote places, say the Highlands and Islands, to compete with large firms in a global arena, by exploiting the stigmergic capacity the blockchain allows, for organisations emerge and coordinate without needing to engage central systems of trust. The automated execution of code on the ledger, smart contracts as they are called, could potentially allow new business models to develop. For example, an architect could release a set of drawings for a house online, which someone orders through the internet, and the smart contract would ensure payment, but also, protection of the architect’s intellectual property, by recoding of the files on the immutable ledger. In a sense blockchain inherently works with extreme transparency and through that transparency builds trust.

Machine learning on the other hand, in certain aspects works as a dark box, at least to the eyes of the uninitiated. Machine learning uses a huge amount of data to train “thinking” algorithms, software that learns to infer certain information from the data it has in front of it. By looking at images of a horse, the software learns to recognise other horses. Exploited in the right manner, one can design software that automatically designs or evaluates certain types of buildings, for example apartments for Manhattan, or cabins for the Scottish highlands. In one manner Machine learning allows for the extreme and endless exploration of variants within an architecture universe. On another hand though, one still needs a human to select which one of the variants is going to get built, and with which robot 

Between now, and a distant point in the future where all of these technologies are fully integrated there lies an infinite range of possibilities on how we can exploit them to design and construct better buildings. Where are you going to start?