The architectural field has steadily evolved and played a role in many new technologies. It is after all, a far reaching enterprise, as it comes in contact with anything from physics and engineering to computer science, sociology, aesthetics and art. In spite of this, some of its practices have remained fixed, both in theory and practicality. For instance, students are still generally required to learn technical drafting, even though hand-drawn architectural documents have been largely replaced by computer aided drafting (CAD). Some of the advocates for the perpetuation of these school programs in academia might be indulging in nostalgia, making the point that it is necessary for new architects to still understand traditional hands-on processes before embracing modern technology. Or perhaps some old-schoolers have not yet caught up with modern techniques for designing. Either way, architectural studies have drifted to being mainly digital. CAD is indeed more efficient than manual sketching, enabling faster workflows by facilitating the rapid generation, sharing, and revision of drawings. But where is our search for efficiency taking us next?
AI Text-to-Image Software: Midjourney
Efficiency in architecture tends to triumph over tradition, without ever shaking tradition’s influence. Seen as an artform, architecture must learn from the past and be influenced by it, even when it is rejecting classical concepts for a ‘black swan’ approach. Seen as science, architecture needs to work faster, to generate reliable information and to keep up with our modern requirements. These two necessities seem to meet, or attempt to meet, in the new reality of AI development.
The recently released AI Midjourney bot, made by a company under the same name, is one of the more widely used for generating architectural imagery. This AI works as a text-to-image generator, where the user introduces a written prompt and the AI searches its ‘training images’ for a unique result set. These generated images can then be regenerated or expanded. The AI is referencing myriad existing images yet creating eerily real-feeling and seemingly unique art and architectural pictures. It has rapidly gained popularity as a tool for the design stage in architectural work as well as for purely aesthetic purposes, with social media pages entirely dedicated to the publication of these images gaining hundreds of thousands of followers while promoting the work of many creators. It has, however, gotten backlash, especially from digital artists and photographers that argue that AI is copying from their images. Another emerging concern is: will quick-image-generator bots eventually put artists and architects out of work?
The Fear of AI: an Attack on Art | Midjourney architecture
Is AI text-to-image generation a tool, or is it being trained by people to ultimately replace them? As said earlier, efficiency is a primary goal in our modern society, and some programs can perform tasks at a fraction of the time, with more accurate results. But none of this means that people are not necessary. On the contrary, machine programs are deeply dependent on people, and there is no hard evidence to the contrary. As architect and Midjourney user Rolando Cedeño de la Cruz said during our conversations:
“Based on my experience of more than 15 years as an architect and designer of 3D content, I can affirm that applications like Midjourney are extremely useful tools for architectural conceptual exploration, especially in the initial phases of a project, or when studying specific details of it in later stages. The architect, for his part, has the responsibility of making use of his experience and knowledge to guide the AI towards the ideal result. (…) Like any new process, we are in a phase of exploring the tool, its scope, and limitations. (…) To date, the results have been surprising and very satisfactory, in a community that is growing by leaps and bounds thanks to great individual talents. (…) Some people fear or reject these technologies, but I think that if they are handled responsibly and professionally (…) they do not pose a real threat. Deep down, what scares us is that AI will become a reflection of what we don’t like about ourselves as humans.”
AI-Generated Images: Imitation vs. Referencing
Is the usage of existing art to generate novel AI images stealing, or just a faster version of something we already do? The search for influences, with the intent of inspiration, not imitation, is a valid necessity for all creative minds. Looking up references in a book, at an art gallery, or on the internet is not very different from what the ancient folk did when they recreated an animal or landscape on a cave wall. It is, in fact, generally required by students to search for references to support their work, or to refute it.
This is also not limited to the creative fields, but a practice used by all. Nothing happens in a void. AI art will certainly provide an outlet for those who practice imitation and plagiarism, but it is not limited to them. The creator’s task is to make something out of this flow of information, something with a voice of its own. And there can be real beauty in that process. As architect and artist Hassan Ragab put it in his emails with me:
“While these AI tools are developing at such a rapid pace to produce high quality renderings using the simplest prompts, the process of prompt crafting is fairly complicated and unpredictable. It requires several days and weeks of testing in order to have a glimpse of how these generators produce such visuals. This requires producing thousands of variations to finally get a result that you might be satisfied with.
The “artist’s” intent while working with AI is a personal matter. You can always craft a very strict prompt and variations to match your concept as faithfully as possible. I believe that the true potential for these tools is to use them to push human imagination beyond a point that could once be fathomed in a very short time. I am always interested in coloring my ideas with this unpredicted ambiguity of the diffusion models. AI is a tool that will follow the human’s abilities, skill and intuition.”
In Receiving New Technologies: An Architect’s Perspective
In 1835, Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre invented the machine that produced the first photographic portraits. The Daguerreotype allowed widespread access to portraits, which up to then were only being made by painters. A painted portrait cost more than most working-class individuals could afford, so this new, quick, and cheaper technique allowed ordinary people to keep records of themselves in a way once reserved for royalty. And yet photography did not destroy painting; it did not even end portrait painting, though many at the time thought it would. In a way, it freed painting; it forced artists to push for new techniques apart from straightforward depiction. To look inward as much as outward. Perhaps it would be fair to say that modernism owes a debt of gratitude to the invention of photography.
Similarly, there is a case to be made that AI generated images entering the world of art is a positive, creatively generative event, and the same goes for AI in architecture. In the opinion of Hassan Ragab:
“These tools are giving a great edge to their users in visualizing unprecedented concepts in an astoundingly short time, which in turn reflects on the aesthetic quality of the overall concept. I believe that the involvement of AI tools in architecture and design will take huge leaps in the upcoming few years. But still, even with the status quo, I think our built environment will substantially be affected by the millions of concepts generated from these platforms by users all over the world. I like to think about it as democratizing tools: where novel ideas are no longer a monopoly to well established architectural practices.”
The Democratizing of Art: How AI Can Elevate the Human Spirit | Midjourney architecture
“The poetic image […] is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of any image, the distant past resounds with echoes.”
― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Architectural thinking is not limited to those who practice architecture. A building is primarily a shelter, and all people need shelter. Even in our distant past, caves and temporary settlements were expressions of this necessity. We are surrounded by architecture, and we inhabit it. Not just as a physical state. We carry with us the old house, the old city, the memory of a place long gone, the recollection of a dream of a place never seen before, or seen through the complex eyes of our imagination. In ‘House vs. Home’, Anne Balif says the following: “Asking a child to draw his house is asking him to reveal the deepest dream shelter he has found for his happiness.” And programs like Midjourney and many other AI tools might provide the chance for the untrained folk, child or adult, to recreate these reveries into a polished image or set.
Existing images can also be uploaded into the Midjourney chat to generate artistic alternate versions of them. Or simply write down a set of textual parameters (without the need to understand computer programing) and receive a carefully constructed visual rendition. Not just an image, but an image that possesses the possibility to evolve with further prompting into variations to which we might feel more attracted. It will not always curate to our precise desires, but that provides an opportunity to get creative, to rethink the prompt and explore the possibilities. How do we describe to the AI the childhood home, the dream house, the fantastical castle that a child imagines or draws? Just as the professional architect envisions a building with a central ramp instead of a staircase, or a house stretching on top of a waterfall, the everyday “experiencer of architecture” can bring their creative designs to life, edit them, and feel ownership over them.
Rather than feeling threatened by this new technology, architects and artists should embrace it as a catalyst for innovation and use it to create even more awe-inspiring and impactful works.
1_Green Facade_Hassan Ragab. Midjourney. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/hsnrgb/
2_Futuristic Interior_@Mohamad Darkazanli. Midjourney. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/mohamad.darkazanli/
3_ Pyramidal Building Interior_@Rolando Cedeño de la Cruz. Midjourney. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/ai.metaverse.cr/
4_Barrel House_@Rolando Cedeño de la Cruz. Midjourney. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/ai.metaverse.cr/
5_Tree House_@Hassan Ragab. Midjourney. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/hsnrgb/
6_Serpent House_@Hassan Ragab. Midjourney. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/hsnrgb/
7_Crochet Interior_@Hassan Ragab. Midjourney. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/hsnrgb/
8_Tree House_@Hassan Ragab. Midjourney. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/hsnrgb/
9_Memory of a Place_@by the author. Midjourney. [online] Available at: https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/
10_Childhood Home_@by the author. Midjourney. [online] Available at:https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/
Ragab, H. (2023). Interview for RTF. [email].
Cedeño de la Cruz, R. (2023). Interview for RTF. [email].
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The poetics of space quotes by Gaston Bachelard (no date) Goodreads. Goodreads. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/2353571-la-po-tique-de-l-espace (Accessed: February 10, 2023).
Stars – showcase of text, Archives, Research & Scholarship at UCF (no date). Available at: https://stars.library.ucf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6864&context=etd (Accessed: February 10, 2023).
About (no date) Midjourney. Available at: https://www.midjourney.com/app/ (Accessed: February 10, 2023).
Stevenholl (2022) Steven Holl architects present new book: ‘house: Black swan theory’, STEVEN HOLL ARCHITECTS. Available at: https://www.stevenholl.com/steven-holl-architects-present-new-book-house-black-swan-theory/ (Accessed: February 10, 2023).