Recently, I resolved that I wasn’t going to be drawn into the silly posturing about how ChatGPT would take the jobs of every experienced architect on earth before 2030, but an intelligent post on this website by Geethanjali Raman and Mohik Acharya broke that resolve. What isn’t being stressed is that algorithms that sample internet-based information are only as good as the quality of that information. Architectural history suggests that all new things have a shelf life, quickly fading from view after being hyped. Only the best will persist after a lengthy period of evaluation and criticism. Any new architecture widely praised and available since the rise of the internet is likely to be untested by time and thus not worth using as a benchmark. And let’s face it: Some of the worst buildings ever designed by humans are out there in cyberspace, crowding out better ones that haven’t yet been digitized.
I am not a psychic, influencer, industry analyst, or business guru, so I won’t comment on the likelihood that AI will transform the way humans create, manufacture, and consume artifacts in the future. There are plenty of experts that are already churning out data and analyses about that. What I am concerned about is its influence on practicing architects confronting the challenges ahead: global warming and the rest. The profession is in crisis. We must not cave into hype about “new” methodologies or technologies that may make our jobs easier (or eliminate them altogether). We are the best judges of beauty, emotional valences, functional advantages, human needs, and every other factor that our clients—users—care about. If other sectors of the global building industry incorporate AI, so be it, but we are not compelled to swallow their Kool-Aid.
Regardless of the sheer power of digital technology to crunch data and speed up design of any kind, nothing about the nature of artificial intelligence, including neural network processing and machine learning borrowed from Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language, will convince me that it can replace the cognitive power of experienced master designers and artisans. The latter in particular have embodied knowledge that cannot be replicated by any machine or computer. Each carries more in their mind and body than the biggest computer network or digital cloud that any engineer could produce or imagine. Human memory is superior to any kind of machine memory, mainly because a genius or master artisan selects only the best examples to record and use in later work and mixes those examples in microseconds to make new things. Dip into Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross’s new book, Your Brain on Art, if you don’t believe in the unlimited capacity of our cognitive networks and memory archives.
Compelling evidence for this can be gleaned from any video of a traditional blacksmith, Japanese woodworker, master potter, painter, sculptor, or Swedish Sloyd woodcarver in their studio. AI will never produce works of craftsmanship or art comparable to that of these human wonders. Every work is bound by tradition yet is completely unique and unreproducible. Walter Benjamin can eat his heart out.
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Common Edge is a nonprofit organization dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design with the public that it’s meant to serve. To get there we will need more authentic public engagement and the rediscovery of some timeless design resources.
Mark Alan Hewitt, FAIA joined SAH in 1977. He served as a session chair at the SAH 2023 Annual International Conference in Montréal.