The value placed by the 21st century on the mechanical reproduction of architectural designs has transformed architecture as an artistic endeavour into a primarily technical one. The many changes brought on as a result includes that of authorship of ideas and the ownership of work. The unique existence of architectural design and drawing is substituted with copies, which jeopardize the authenticity, its historical testimony and consequently, its authority. 1
The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical—and, of course, not only technical—reproducibility. Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis à vis technical reproduction. 2
Evidenced by history, however, man-made artefacts have always been reproduced and imitated by other men. Reproduction is capable of highlighting those aspects of the original work that are overlooked by the naked eye.3 It results in a sizable increase in the outreach of the original work. The method of learning by replicating originals has been in practice for decades in academic and professional spheres. Also, it has been adopted by third parties for unscrupulous monetary gains.4
The origins of the architectural professions can be traced back to when masons and craftsmen were the sole individuals responsible for the design and construction of monumental edifices. With time, a hierarchy was established with architects at the helm of large enterprises consisting of draughtsmen, interior designers, artists, civil engineers and construction workers.
The architecture was regarded as the master of the arts which integrated an art form with its technical counterpart, bridging the gap between art and science. Construction drawings were hand draughted by individuals which required aspirants of the profession to be artistically endowed, a condition that is not quite significant today. The temperament of architectural offices differed greatly with assertive and boisterous personas with a sensitive and talented core. Many of these skills have been replaced by computer programs at present, requiring architects to instead be efficient software specialists.
Since the eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was accelerated so enormously that it could keep pace with speech. 5
With BIM programs setting the pace in most educational institutions and modern architectural offices, the architects’ priorities have shifted to give preference to speed and accuracy while disregarding needs and demands of residents and cultural contexts. Designs are being calibrated and replicated at breakneck speeds without adequate research into the time and place the built form is situated in. In this realm, a disconnect between man and machine is not permitted. It is viewed as an imperfection that hampers the process and interferes with the fluidity of expression.
The architect constitutes a working part of the machine, often being dictated to by the latter. Designs in the 21st century are being created by the system, not by the architect. In this regard, the use of technology has made the role of the architect redundant. Mies Van Der Rohe’s claim of what constitutes good design is constantly being refuted by unnecessarily doing too much, overpowered by a virtual reality where a universal object is created and viewed from a distance. To conform to global trends and practices, architecture created today is irrelevant and non-responsive to the local context, detaching the built and the unbuilt, and as a result, the user’s response in either surrounding.
Conscious and sensitive design practices comprehend the potential of the system as a tool, a means to an end, which can be employed to deliver efficient and successful outcomes. In addition, this transformation has compelled architecture to disengage from the notion of sole proprietorship of an architectural work into a more inclusive practice taking into account the contribution of a collective.
The archaic notion of the architect issuing a stamp on the built environment through his creation has been eliminated. Design is now a team activity and problem-solving tool. Through these programs, the ability to perceive multiple dimensions of a project has been efficiently integrated which further enables multiple users to work on the same project at the same time. The technology is so advanced that it is now possible to 3D print a building directly on the site eliminating the role of contractors and other middlemen. This begs the question, however – Is advanced building technology responsible for a decline in employment opportunities and an increase in competition in the industry? Has this compelled society to conjure alternate means of employment, and resort to unethical means that lend loss credibility to these practices?
In retrospect, designers need to refrain from the allure of the algorithm, make allowances for the incredible naïveté that human beings are born with, and be wary of potential threats such as an increased functional dependency that programs such as these create. A conscious effort to redirect thinking, and redesign the role and responsibilities of the man and machine in architectural practice will enable individuals to function as professionals who create smart and sensitive solutions to issues that ail our built environment.
Benjamin, Walter “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
Illuminations,edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, from the 1935 essay New York: Schocken Books, 1969