Computer-aided design and construction methods will change the composition of architecture in the same way that new recording techniques have changed music. This is the underlying principle of a study for which Sang Lee (TU Delft) has been awarded his doctorate. He wonders what we will gain by this development and what we will lose.

In the last century, many creative processes have changed as a result of advances in technology. For example, recording technology ensured that listening to music was no longer a special, one-off event, like attending a concert.  As a result, musicians started making music in the studio for records and later for the iTunes store. “The same thing is happening in architecture, due to the arrival of digital modelling and other computer-aided tools,” says Lee. “And this comes at the expense of the versatility in our field. Instead of really designing, we now produce pictures.” Just as the sound of a violin produced by a synthesizer cannot match the same rich tone of a Stradivarius, a computer-aided design cannot replace the rich material experience, says Lee.

The PhD candidate and assistant professor in the Department of Public Building observes that there has been tremendous technological progress in the composition and modelling of buildings in the last four decades. He follows the technological developments in both disciplines in his thesis 'Architecture in the Age of Apparatus-Centric Culture'. With the advent of computers and design software, architecture increasingly became the domain of software programmers. It is a small step from there to the serial design and production of buildings, particularly if a computer-generated design can be produced by a 3D printer in the future.

Is that a good development? Not necessarily, believes Lee. “For example: a composition may be boring from a formalist point of view, yet it can become interesting and richly variegated through the varied use of materials and craftsmanship. This cannot be achieved with a hypothetical 3D-printed building, because it does not offer the material richness we expect from architecture."

Whereas a living environment for humans was previously created by humans – architects and builders – this will be done by machines in the future, according to the logic of the machines and their coding. The costs of building such a home may be significantly lower than those of a house built with craftsmanship, but Lee has his doubts as to whether such a house could provide the same level of comfort. The house simply becomes an industrial product, an appliance. He draws a comparison to the ‘Orgasmatron’ in Woody Allen's film Sleeper. Lee: “We feel  as if we are having sex, without actually having it.” In such a future scenario, we can have ready-made buildings produced by a machine.

Lee thinks the essence of what architecture is may have changed fundamentally. And that is something we could live to regret. “A hundred years ago, New York City decided to promote the car in order to rid the city of pollution caused by horse manure.  But now we regret this because there are too many cars.”

Published: February 2014