How is architecture as a profession turning digital from physical?
Updated: Jul 4
‘This is a software-powered world.’ – Satya Nadella
Today, more than earlier, design and architecture are high up on the global urban development agenda. It urges us to utilise technology as a tool to enhance our everyday lives.
Architecture can be deemed the mother of creative arts. As the stage of cultural perpetuation, it has always sought to be experimental and versatile. At present, the ways of project delivery are changing and so is the way we practise architecture.
So how is architecture, as a profession, becoming more digital? To answer the question, let us first cut it into bits and understand them one by one.
What then is architecture?
Things, humans, flora and fauna — the universe explained in the dimensions of height, length, and breadth is architecture. In other words, it is the ‘intermediate dimension.’ In the language of physics, it is an array of knowledge. But when too large or too small, it is only a metaphor to suggest the structure of things.Architecture at the atomic level is the structure of molecules and compounds. The galaxies and universes, for instance, fall under the 'cosmic architecture.’
Architecture, at the information level, denotes the data and binary digits structure. The term architecture is professional as well as metaphorical now. It adds a digital dimension to the field which is closer to the fourth reality, in its literal definition.
Most of us have witnessed the internet approximation of the “Eye of Sauron” (Lord of the Rings, 2001) to the Messier 87 supermassive black hole.
Quips and exhilaration aside, the internet also did its part in highlighting the contribution of women to the project. The now-famous image of this black hole came from data collected over seven days. At the end of that observation, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) didn’t have an image — it had a mountain of data.
Scientists like Katie Bouman had to develop algorithms to take five petabytes of data and make sense of it. Five petabytes are roughly equal to 5,000 years of MP3 audio, imagine!
Half a century ago, computer scientist Margaret Hamilton developed flight software for NASA. This software got Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969, the first time ever for humankind. Hamilton popularised software engineering with her work during this period.
This demonstrates how data helped us land on the moon and take a photograph of a black hole.
We are compelled to consider the importance of data and digitalisation in most fields. Architecture is but one of them now. In the AEC sector, the latest superhighway for growth is being paved with these weightless bits of light.
The construction industry is not alone in this transformation.
Each industry realises its success and even its existence depends on only one crucial thing– its capability to offer digital services and products in the future digital world.
Architecture is moving farther away from its mechanistic view of atoms and trajectories. And moving forward to a more digital view of energy and transformation. This view includes bits of cultural information. This change, both in theory and in practice, is perceptive and professional.
The monetary value of a building is determined by the value of the material it contains and the cost of its land. The value of its living heritage, though, could well exceed its monetary value. Currently, there is no way to calculate this. It is because atoms have endless exposure, and we look at building in relation to atoms.
When we start looking at buildings in bits, we may be able to measure the actual value of their design. To do so, we must understand and record the more dynamic aspects of their cultural impact.
Our concerns about the future of architecture, in the digitalised age, reflect how we understand our relationship with nature. To understand this, let us look back at one of the major movements in post-Enlightenment thought—the shift in 19th-century science from vitalism to empiricism.
Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi designed the La Sagrada Família in Barcelona in 1884. While doing so, he worked computationally but in an analogue way. He rarely used drawings as a method of design. He preferred instead to work with physical and material behaviour.
He developed the basilica's catenary arch structure using weighted interlinking strings. These were ‘turned’ upside down using photography and later drawn up into architectural drawings.
The physical model was a tool for him to compute parts of the building over many years. It allowed him to gain a deeper understanding of the structural and spatial relationships at play.
When experienced by visitors, these relationships play out in the structure's vastness. The upward spatial movement embedded in the architecture of the church’s central nave boosts. The geometry of its many columns morphs to adapt to the structural loads as they go higher. The church’s myriad-curved surfaces intersect as they ascend heavenwards.
We must truly grasp the other profession that has strengthened our profession’s movement in this direction. The best way to assess the implications of this change is to reflect on the difference between atoms and bits. This is where architecture becomes digital.
While buildings will remain physical, digital technologies will play a growing role. They will dominate the design and the three Ms — manufacturing, marketing, and management. They will focus on all the verticals that rely on nuclear energy, physical communication, and interpersonal relationships.
The proto-parametricism include systems theorists and futurist Buckminster ‘Bucky’ Fuller. Fuller’s keen interest in understanding how the universe worked led him to develop prefabricated architectural projects.
These projects, in turn, drew from scientific and technological engineering and innovation. From geodesic domes to inventions in modular deployable housing, Fuller advocated for technological innovation. He believed that through technology, humans could do more with less.
We live in a fast-changing world. Digital technology is establishing new paradigms of working. Perceptions of traditional communication, urbanism, and architecture are being challenged every day. Now is not the time to retreat.
Media, marketing, entertainment, products, and businesses will all converge. Transformative technologies have significant value because they convey meaning to the physical environment. Through digital analogy, they assist in the creation of spaces for all to cherish.
Now, businesses in architecture and construction are at the tip of a cultural transformation. But, to define them today, we must first understand the culture and meaning of digitisation, before the meaning of architecture.
About the Writer
Sana Paul is an undergraduate architecture student and writer at the Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi; hailing from the cozy streets of Punjab. She has experience working at the India Lost and Found (ILF) by Amit Pasricha, and Rethinking The Future (RTF).
About the Editor
Nishtha Singh is an editor, writer and researcher in the fields of Philosophy of Language, Ethics and Artificial Intelligence (AI). She has trained as an editor at the Seagull School of Publishing, Calcutta and is a graduate of the Department of Philosophy, and the Hansraj College, University of Delhi (DU), India.
About the Illustrator
Diksha Garg is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture Bhopal, hailing from Chandigarh. She is an illustrator, graphic design and writer. She has received a citation for G-Sen Trophy and a Juror's Choice Award for Journalism Trophy by the National Association of Students of Architecture (NASA), India.