Free online AI platform such as Midjourney can quickly generate photo-realistic architectural visuals, while text services such as ChatGPT and Chatsonic now provide the opportunity to draft written technical descriptions in seconds.
Work that previously took hours of skilled labor at considerable cost to the profession can now be mimicked instantly, offering clients, architects and architecture students a new tool that could upset established business models.
While the technology is still in its infancy and AI-generated renders are clearly a long way off from being able to replace ones drawn by humans, the ability to quickly create ideas in response to a real-life brief could bring rapid changes and unexpected outcomes .
There are big questions about the impact this could have on the architectural industry, particularly when it comes to architecture competitions, which are often criticized for the tight deadlines and costly workloads, and on some university education programs where slick visuals are prized.
Heatherwick Studio’s head of geometry and computational design, Pablo Zamorano, said the company is already using AI as ‘an extra pair of hands we can use to explore design more effectively and efficiently’ on a range of projects, including its 1700 Alberni apartment tower scheme in Vancouver.
‘Clients will use the tools available to do what that tool is good at – like assessing the efficiency of sites and running feasibility studies,’ he said. ‘But they’ll still value the ability of designers to question briefs and find the unexpected opportunities on a site that creates real value for people and the city.’
Robert Fiehn, an architectural communications and business development adviser, said AI is still considered the ‘butt of some jokes’ by most clients but ‘some of the more experimental, younger developers have already started to use AI to create early concepts for testing before they go through any kind of detail design.’
He added: ‘Architects traditionally follow their clients’ demands, and deadlines are usually tight, so I wouldn’t be surprised if smaller practices started using these tools to win new work and develop multiple options for pre-planning.’
It’s a view backed by Tatiana von Preussen, co-founder of vPPR, whose Camden Highline was approved this week. ‘AI will radically alter practical processes in the very near future,’ she said. ‘The image bots seem a bit limited, although I am sure clients will start to use them to suggest ideas.’
But she thinks the real impact could be in the potential role of text service chatGPT to write design and access statements and other documents for simple projects. AI could soon deliver ‘much clearer and better English than most architects can muster,’ she suggested.
She added: ‘AI could also revolutionize our broken planning system by approving the simpler applications and certificates of legality, leaving planners with more time to plan’.
Architecture has already used AI for many years, with parametric tools such as Grasshopper responding to parameters specified in scripts to, for example, optimize a sloping form to achieve maximum solar radiation.
But architect and entrepreneur Alexandra Groszek said it still has limitations. ‘With basic parameters, AI can produce some interesting outputs on a small scale’, she said. ‘But when it comes to a larger building design, AI alone is not able to handle the complexity yet.’
She added: ‘As long as AI has no emotional intelligence, I think humans cannot be replaced in design for those who believe it has value beyond function.’
Russell Potter of SODA Studio agreed: ‘Architecture as an art form relies on sentient thought and an artistic vision, which cannot be simply replicated by AI alone. But it could enable us to look at new or alternative paths or creative pathways we would normally shy away from.’
Heatherwick’s Zamorano added: ‘Machines can take on tasks, like planning a car park, that enable designers to spend more time exploring ideas that make a real social impact. What will definitely change is the way we interact with these design tools.
“We can now “chat” with AI bots to find new design options where we used to be drawing or modeling. I think this will continue evolving as these workflows get more natural, so the interaction between machines and designers will be normalized instead of being separated.’
Anna Gibb, architect and illustrator
From my perspective, it is natural for architects to feel uneasy about a tool that, at first glance, looks as though it may be moving its favorite mug on to your desk and parking its bottom on your chair. But I think we’re going to have to get on board with it in some way. The idea that you can generate an image so easily is, of course, enticing, but we know that the image will only run skin-deep. For now, AI is only as clever as the questions you ask it and is not yet, to my knowledge, capable of looking at a site and deciding for itself what the appropriate references/styles it should seek out are.
The generation of these polished images misses a vital step: thinking through drawing. When an architect or designer has an idea in their head, the process of committing that to paper, to a model, however you express it, is the process of thinking it through. Working out the details, with all the relevant considerations – people, structure, environment, materiality, etc – inevitably means that the idea you had in your head morphs into something quite different. If that vital stage is missed out and a design goes straight from head to screen, the problems with that design will have to be ironed out at some point along the way, only now it’ll happen after the competition has been won and the client is most upset that they aren’t going to get a whimsical Gaudi-esque tower block suspended from large sky hooks.
I think there is a place for AI and machine learning at the early stages of the design process for large projects, particularly master plans. It could negate the requirement for that laborious process of optioneering of unit numbers and mix, making the process more efficient and freeing up the design team to get on with the designing.
Do I think AI will replace architects? Nah. But neither do I think it’ll disappear into the ether like the Sony Minidisc. I would say that though, my favorite tool is a 0.05 fineliner.
Andy Matthews, Roach Matthews
AI looks like it could become another useful tool in the studio at some point. At present it’s like when early CAD terminals arrived, useful and perhaps an exciting future, but not quite there yet or living up to the promises offered. We firmly believe that human intelligence, experience, ingenuity and creativity will still be required to deliver good architecture for a while to come. We would imagine that the human bespoke service will be even more valued and set us apart from the machines. Besides, the image is the beginning of the process and still requires resolution to deliver brilliant architecture.