Future Perfect? Technology Interrupts the Architect’s Office

Ethel Baraona Pohl discusses how new communicative ecosystems are changing the way architects work and create

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I’m not afraid of ‘getting the future wrong’, as I almost invariably will. I’m actually intent on exploring our very mysterious and unknown present moment. —William Gibson

 

In 1967, when Richard Brautigan wrote his famous poem All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, he was predicting the current state of communications. He also slightly anticipated contemporary forms of labour and the ways we work and practice architecture nowadays, where machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and other experiences like ‘deep learning’ allow exchanges of information between humans, between machines, and between humans and machines. Even though a lot has been said and written in the past 15 years about how the internet represents major changes at all levels of communication, research, and design, now we can include the growing presence of algorithms and AI. This is a step forward that moves the work of the architect from the old mantra of the ‘solitary genius’, which has been the ethos of the architecture practice all through the twentieth century, to something completely different, the future architecture, where the sum of small parts is richer, and effectively more valuable, than individual efforts.

In this seemingly chaotic ecosystem, hierarchies and canonical statements become obsolete, and there is a whole new generation that is not working for a distant future, but for a future that is always here, happening now in an accelerated way. This level of speed is a massive challenge for young practitioners, because occasionally the velocity of architectural projects is slower than technological developments. It is now possible to train your own AI tools without coding knowledge, creating a fertile ground where these advances can be incredibly helpful if we know how to include them in our daily workflow or production processes. 

 

future architecture, future architecture design

As architects, the possibility of imagining unknown futures lies in our ability to harness communication technologies while also keeping the human component in the equation. In that sense, tools like Blockchain technology (the driver of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies) have allowed FOAM, a young team of architects and coders, to design not a building or physical space but a protocol to start up a ‘decentralized architecture office’. “The protocol can be utilized by devices that negotiate with and pay each other,” as they describe it, “such as drones that negotiate use of air space, self-driving cars that negotiate lane space or pay for road usage, among other uses.” With this, FOAM is changing not only the working processes, but also the financing, of the projects.  

Living in a world which is constantly in flux and where daily life for the younger generations is riddled with uncertainty and instability, the ways we work together become not only a means of inhabiting this ecosystem, but also a political statement. There are no fixed teams any more, and practitioners follow diverse paths to create relationships, both personal and professional, often context-based, following other kind of affinities, changing from one project to another, and also working together with non-human entities. Words like ‘collaboration’, ‘creativity’, ‘networking’ and so forth are shifting their meanings and becoming not only a form of practice but also a way of living, far beyond the simple acts of clicking, scrolling, and swiping.

Still from the BBC documentary series 'All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace directed by Adam Curtis
Still from the BBC documentary series ‘All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grac, directed by Adam Curtis

In this context, Future Architecture  should be mentioned: a European platform of architecture museums, festivals and producers that has created an incredibly rich network of institutions and practitioners in the past three years, and suggests several possibilities for young architects to work together on many different levels. Within this structure, the exchange of ideas and collaborations evolve in a non-hierarchical manner, giving participants the opportunity to access financial resources, archives, spaces, etc. They become part of a network of infinite connections, where access to work emerges from initial personal connections followed by the use of remote tools to create joint projects, almost all of them focused on changing the established status quo, and re-imagining the very concept of ‘architecture’. The richness of these encounters yields diverse results with a strong political position such as Humid Europe, which proposes the high seas as a temporary exception zone, like an embassy without nationality, where it is possible to eschew what we know about the relationship between state, individual and territory, and imagine new ones, with a new type of citizenship. But there are also other projects where the political relies directly on the use of the most innovative technologies, like Phi, an interface for P2P (peer-to-peer) energy designed to improve living conditions in remote off-grid communities, by connecting people with Blockchain networks with clean and low-energy resources.

This way of working between young architects and critical thinkers, combining human and non-human resources, creates a fertile ground where totally new ‘futures’ can emerge, creating different narratives to reinvent society. These narratives that can be helpful to envision other paths, starting from the mysterious and unknown present of architecture practice. 

 

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