A Blueprint for Re-evolution: The New Normal in Architecture

Work expands to fill the time it is given. It was a common assumption and goal during the Industrial Revolution that once we mechanized our mundane everyday tasks, we would have an abundance of free time for leisure in which to pursue enjoyable activities. Centuries on, it turns out that it’s actually work that is our most enjoyable pursuit. Humans are by nature industrious and intelligent. We like to occupy our free time with projects: quests of the unknown, creative endeavors, ideas and inventions. More activities and less vegetating on the couch or even deep thinking. There’s only so much we like to think about: after a certain point, we prefer to have our thoughts translated and manifested into verifiable results. We are forever in the pursuit of fulfilment as opposed to a need for comfort. We prefer to do. “The lust for comfort murders the passions of the soul,” as Kahlil Gibran put it, and vice-versa.

Whenever we have time, we fill it with new challenges and new problems to solve with the newfound ease of doing. So it turns out that our scarcest commodity is time: seemingly infinite, but never enough. All those contraptions that were born with an aim to create more free time were always outpaced by the number of things we could do to run out of time.

The new inventions of today will be commonplace tomorrow, so much so that we don’t notice their presence but cannot stand their absence. The tools we use for computation, communication, visualization, rapid prototyping, even rapid portability are still new and yet unimpressive. An artificial moon to replace streetlights and reduce power consumption? A hyperloop that takes you across the planet in a matter of minutes? Drones that can erect complex structures in days? Smart materials that expand and shrink as needed? Spaces that detect our presence and provide light or heat? These are conveniences we may not have heard of a few years ago but will be taken for granted within the next few years.

In this context, as an architect starting to gain a foothold in the profession, I have long been in search of a satisfactory way to define the role of an architect. Is an architect a creator, a master-builder, an inventor, a visionary, a changemaker? A specialist or a generalist? So elusive was the answer that it became a recurring question while interviewing potential team members in my studio, in hopes that perhaps the new generation might have a clue. The sneaking suspicion that there is no correct answer has proved itself over and over. Furthermore, there has most definitely not been a universal answer that could be applicable across time and place.

Our society, our schools and our systems are all under the fraudulent impression (and one they misguidedly pass down to future generations) that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things, and that there can be only one correct solution to any given problem. I call this the Single Solution Syndrome. The truth is, there is no black or white to any real situation, and any real problem can be solved in multiple ways, each meeting varying criteria more or less satisfactorily. Life is a series of questions, and rarely, if ever, can there be one clear answer descending from the top down.

The practice of architecture, I strongly believe, is more about problem-solving than about creating artistic masterpieces. As architects, it is our obligation to respond to the rapid and unprecedented change around us. The variables are society, lifestyle, needs, technology, political systems, culture, the environment. The only constant is change. The common denominator that can ensure architecture as a profession and individual architects and practices are able to respond to these variables is adaptability. Architects may not necessarily be able to predict future developments, but must be able to project what could be and design solutions for anticipated challenges.

 

Architect as Shape-Shifter

Architecture is the Swiss Army knife of professions. The architect of tomorrow cannot be contained within the confines of one discipline. An architect can create something from nothing, can preserve what exists, and can destroy and rejuvenate, at once assuming the attributes of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. There is a blurring of lines between disciplines today, with skills and methods being shared between fields. As such, an architect needs to become multiskilled and gain influence over many domains of the professional multiverse. This allows for a more rounded and cross-disciplinary practice. What is needed is a mutant superarchitect who has the collective skills of many different disciplines. The architect as a shape-shifter can encroach upon other disciplines and expand the scope of architectural practice. As a developer, this allows more control over decision-making and execution processes. As a writer or teacher, an architect can spread awareness and educate students and entrepreneurs, as well as clients, about the importance of design. As a policy-maker, architects can have greater influence over how cities can become more accessible, safer and more egalitarian. Through the means of architectural activism, architects can bring about meaningful change that is impactful and revolutionary.

Above: Fractals Workshop, a generative design workshop.

Above: Prototyping architecture-inspired wearable tech.

Current technological advances and computational tools (most borrowed from other professions) have made it possible for us to work in ways that were never quite within reach before. At our studio, we try to push the envelope to see what being an architect could really be defined as. We use digital tools in the design process not only to simulate and fabricate but also to speculate and experience, to analyze and project the future.

Digital fabrication can quickly create multiple prototypes that can be compared and evaluated tangibly. Working in a range of scales and materials allows for testing of the performance of a particular design decision, generating a feedback loop between the physical and the digital, the real and the speculative. Virtual Reality tools make an immersive environment that gives the user an experiential understanding of the designed space before it is realized, acting almost like a time portal into the future.

Above: RepRap 3D printer, VR experience, adding furniture via AR in SnapChat, DesignAware studio, Hyderabad.

 

The Virtual Studio

“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

Design should be democratic, and the design process inclusive. The idea of a solo starchitect is often misleading, as all great work is collaborative effort behind the scenes. Team-based studio work facilitates learning from peers as a by-product of the design process. As team members come from different backgrounds, a platform is created not only to share their experiences and skill-sets, but also to apply them into a plural, multi-layered project.

The future is about establishing connections that consist of diverse nodes, each from a unique perspective, background, skillset, culture, and even location, which add value that cannot be matched by a sole practitioner. These networks are decentralized and expansive, and they do away with the preconception of a studio space. The architectural practice of today need not be bound by a physical location. The studio is now disappearing as it is possible for different members to work in different locations and the network itself becomes a virtual studio of sorts. The strongest networks consist of members with diverse ideas and shared values. Collaboration is where all disciplines are eventually headed, and architecture must embrace this direction.

The concept of authorship of design is slowly dissolving into an open-source sharing system. Ideas are now freely shared without remaining within the boundaries of their origin. Ideas conceived by one person may be further developed by another. The elimination of a closed-loop of ownership allows many minds to work on and take existing projects to different levels, perhaps even resulting in diverse possibilities with a single starting point.

Tools such as the cloud, live video, shared online platforms and real-time updates make this kind of network easy. Remote work that is common in today’s connected world, gives birth to the digital nomad, who lives anywhere and works everywhere. Architects can be nomads too.

Above: remote site visit, collaboration via Skype, collaboration and project management via Asana.

Remote site visits over video calls are an easy way to connect with other members of the team and with the site without being physically present. In one project where we experimented with the crowdsourced design of a public art installation for Dubai Design Week, the design, visualization, structural analysis and fabrication processes happened in collaboration between Hyderabad, Dubai, Cairo and Maracaibo. The designers, the engineers, the studio, the site and the fabricators were all variable.

Above: crowdsourced art installation, Street Nights, Dubai.

Social media creates a link between our virtual studio and followers who may come from varied backgrounds and are spread across the globe. Opening up our design process over live streaming of video in the form of an ongoing timelapse during the act of making is a participatory exercise in which others can interact with us and our work in real time. The architecture studio becomes a lab-like environment rather than like an artist’s workshop.

 “Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in a specific place at a specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible.” ~Nicholas Negroponte

New Babylon, a conceptual city envisaged by Constant Neiuwenhuys, anticipated the possibility of a New Nomad, one who is free of self-imposed boundaries of society, politics, typology, scale, material, location, context; free to walk, free to play, free to work across disciplines, across borders, across roles. The New Nomad is the new normal.

In complete dichotomy to the Single Solution Syndrome, the future, the new practice of architecture can have archetypical systems that respond to problems with solutions that are data-driven and parametric. Instead of a masterpiece that is specific to a single context, a prototypical scenario can be addressed in which a flexible system is designed that is applicable across contexts with tweaking of certain variables. This method of formulaic programming of architecture can create systems that are not just smart but also scalable, replicable, customizable, adaptive and sustainable.

“Architecture is a machine for living in.” ~Le Corbusier

 

Programming Matter

Architects don’t need to be in a rat race to catch up with changing times and stay relevant. The current digital tools and methods at our disposal, while valuable and convenient, do not and cannot define or redefine the role of an architect. The architect as a problem-solver must be wary of tools that can potentially become crutches, limiting our thought process. The more digital our world becomes, the more we must trust the physical performance of material and forces that impact our work, as architecture is equal parts conceptual and tangible.

It’s not necessary to invent something new to prepare for the future; oftentimes, it’s more about better management of the resources and skills we already have available to us. Knowing what we know about the environment today, it is imperative that architects design responsibly, spaces and solutions that reduce dependence on external resources and create buildings that are self-sufficient. Surprisingly low-tech methods can be applied and digitized to perform in very high-tech ways. One example of this is AutoMatter, a prototypical system we designed at the Design Research Lab at the Architectural Association. This low-tech recycled system made of moulded egg-crate material is controlled in a machinic process of embedding information in the form of material pixels in its cavities and activated using vacuum, resulting in many versions of form and with variable performance and use. The system is deployable in multiple scenarios, reusable, thus can live full circle from cradle to cradle.

The problems and challenges of today require solutions framed differently that they did yesterday. And the successful solutions of today will not resolve the issues of tomorrow.

AutoMatter: A Deflatable Architecture by Takbir Fatima, Federica Capodarte, Riddhi Parakh, Poonam Sardesai, AADRL 2011.

Above: Working across scales, DesignAware studio, Hyderabad.

Above: Analog vs digital model, Business Center, Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, Hyderabad.

 

The Kamikaze Architect

I believe the practice is headed toward the concept of architecture without architects. In contrast with most other professions, automation or intelligent machines taking over the act of designing seems unlikely. However, I propose that architects themselves systematize the process of architecture as we know it and make the current role of an architect obsolete. This way, architects of the future can focus on new problems, anticipate pressing issues, and project innovative designs. The skills that are being honed today can be applied to more complex problems and greater challenges tomorrow. It’s a laying to rest of the old ways of doing in a meta sort of way, giving way to lifelong learning and reinvention.

The architect of the future defies definition. I suspect that the practice of architecture will be a process of continual evolution and reincarnation till the very end of my career, and beyond.

 

This essay originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Indian Architect & Builder magazine

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