The silhouette of the future
Where is the limit of architecture? Where is the point at which something technologically possible is still tolerable in a spiritual sense? Is it tolerable if a building with the required functions but with an ’alien’ appearance is constructed in a town’s historic district? Or, again in a spiritual sense, how tolerable will it be when buildings will be constructed exclusively by robots?
These questions are topical today, albeit not new. Similar questions were raised in architectural circles a century ago too. The erection of modern structures in the historic urban fabric provoked just as much disapproval as the idea of parametrically planned buildings today. Back then, when brick walls were replaced with reinforced concrete supporting structures and facades no longer had ornamentation on them, many lost their jobs. The employment of robotics and 3D printing in architecture will similarly take the jobs of many people. The technology with which buildings can be planned and constructed with autonomous robots already exists. Society is, however, not yet ready to give up human labour in the building industry. At this point in time even well-capitalised firms have not yet dared launch self-built houses that would require no human intervention.
The reasons for a paradigm shift are similar to those a century ago: a new language of architectural form being forged out of the interaction between technological innovation and the art of architecture, and the phenomenon of “we build a lot inexpensively” with a social objective that can make the new paradigm digestible for society.
The second decade after the Y2K – the anticipated horrors of a digital disaster at the turn of the millennia that never actually happened – is drawing to an end. The revolution of computerisation, which began in the early 1980s, held the promise of a new paradigm with the new interaction developing between animation, design, mathematics and artificial intelligence at the time. Driven by this promise of almost forty years ago, leading universities and architecture offices have invested tremendous resources into generating at breath-taking speed new forms that envisioned to define the character of 21st-century architecture. The new geometry (and new ornamentation) that developed from the employment of non-Euclidean geometry – including notable mathematical forms, NURBS surfaces, topological operations, algorithmic modelling, generative mathematical models, non-linear animation, simulations, particle systems, optimising algorithms – are opening up new opportunities for architects.
Has a veritable paradigm shift taken place? The hardware is lagging behind the software. Double curved surfaces can now be designed with computers, and it might be the case that all the conceivable (and before now inconceivable) architectural forms are realised in the ’wonders’ built in the Far East, but at what price?
“It’s so strange. You know. Since the quake.”
“But they’ve built it all back now. Haven’t they?”
“Sure, but they did it all so fast, mostly with that nanotech, that just grows.
Eddie got in there before the dust had settled.
Told me you could see those towers growing, at night.
Rooms up top like a honeycomb, and walls just sealing themselves over, one after another.
Said it was like watching a candle melt, but in reverse.
That’s too scary. Doesn’t make a sound. Machines too small to see.
They can get into your body, you know?”
(William Gibson: Idoru)
Building is still a difficult and long process requiring vast resources. There is no technological shift now, akin to reinforced concrete a century ago.
The protagonists of William Gibson’s famous novel set in the future are wandering the streets of Tokyo, a new Tokyo rebuilt from dust using nanotechnology after a massive earthquake. Gibson’s stories typically take place in post-apocalyptic environments, like the one in Idoru. Have you wondered how far humanity is from a post-apocalyptic world? In the book The Singularity Is Near Ray Kurzweil, an American inventor and futurist, draws attention to events in the near future that will drastically change the course of history. He mentions three types of technological revolution: a genetic-biological revolution, the revolution of nanotechnology and the revolution of artificial intelligence. The ever-increasing pace of development will eventually result in such a concentration that is inconceivable today: a kind of technological singularity. Whatever lies beyond this cannot be foreseen with our contemporary intellect. According to Kurzweil the date when this will happen is 2045, which his critics regard as radical. In any case, the unforeseeable future of technological progress is not a new idea. In one of his reminiscences, Stanislaw Ulam refers to János Neumann’s words: “In one of our conversations we discussed the acceleration of technological progress, which may create the opportunity for a singularity in history, after which point human history, as we know it, could not continue.” In 1965 I. J. Good envisioned that the development of artificial intelligence will result in a superhuman intelligence, while an essay written by Vernor Vinge in 1993 bears the title Technological Singularity. Kurzweil and other futurists assert that the technologies leading to a singularity are genetic engineering, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. So how will the three revolutions mentioned by Kurzweil impact architecture? Will they lead to a point when parametric buildings will be part of mainstream architecture? Will building material stores at that point in time sell packs of programmable, self-growing substance instead of bricks? And will there be no need for builders to build houses?
Similarly to the behaviour expected of nanomachines, living organisms are bottom-up, self-organising systems. The molecular machinery in living organisms is mainly composed of proteins and nucleic acids. Protein molecules are capable of joining to other molecules. This happens randomly. The random motion of molecules is called Brownian motion. Molecules ’try’ hundreds of millions of random relative orientations per second before they can find the right way of joining. Supramolecular complexes come into being with this method operating like machines, capable of self-reproduction and executing tasks. The molecular machines found in nature provide a good model for nanotechnology.
Since nanomachines are modelled on molecular machines found in living beings, the ’building material’ of the future will also be a synthetic organism with pre-programmed growth and quality, mostly resembling plants. It will not only create a supporting structure but – similarly to the differentiation of living cells – will be capable of changing its material quality and build the engineering and electronic systems of buildings, as well as their solid and transparent (glass-like) surfaces. Hence, buildings will not be additive objects constructed from elements but entities that grow like plants. Of course this description comes across to today’s readers as a mind-blowing stuff of science fiction but the direction of progress points towards the creation of such ‘golems’ sooner or later.
The nano-self-building plant, which will be programmable and even capable of self-reproduction, will make building machines and human labour redundant. In the future virtually anything will be possible to build with the use of a minimum amount of resources, which can easily lead to a social crisis. In addition to leaving a vast number of people unemployed, the development of nanotechnology – just like genetic interventions and 3D printing – will raise grave ethical issues. It is enough to just think about the emerging problem of 3D-printed weapons. Where will it lead if nano-construction machines and the advanced versions of 3D printers become widely accessible? How will the availability of the new (self-)building materials be controlled?
Eric Drexler’s Engines Of Creation (1986) tells the story of nano-robots on the loose: after an industrial accident in the future the nano-robots that get out of a plant start to replicate themselves in unimaginable quantities and inundating everything like pollen destroy the entire biosphere in a matter of days. If a criminal got hold of the nano-building material of the future that would enable him to build a pyramid in the place of the Parliament building, who could stop him? Regulations can be made of course but the entire situation would be different if the resources required for building became low. Like in the case of the possession of weapons, in such a future the possession of building materials will also have to be controlled. Architects will only be employed by the dozen building corporations that will cover the entire market and will sell or lease buildings like commodities. Hence, the building industry will resemble the automotive industry.
The end might come one day: the death of architecture, a dystopian age when all the building projects will be centralised, when there will be no building stores, nor builders, when there will be no need for architects. Robots and nanomachines will do the building under the supervision of global corporations. Houses will be ordered – and can only be ordered – from online catalogues. It will be forgotten that there was a time when people did the building. And then there will be somebody who will have enough of this and patch together a hut using faggot-wood. That will mark the beginning of a human activity the name of which will probably no one will remember: architecture.
 Gibson, William. Idoru. Berkley Publishing Group, 1996.
 Kurzweil, Ray, The Singularity is Near, 2005.
 Ulam, S., Tribute to John von Neumann, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, vol. 64, nr 3, part 2, May 1958, pp 1-49.
 Vonderviszt, Ferenc: Biomolekuláris nanotechnológia [Biomolecular Nanotechnology], in: Természet Világa [The World of Nature], 2013/11.
 Eric Drexler: Engines of Creation, 1986, and its film adaptation: The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2008.