The Future of Architecture – Spontaneous and Virtual

The built environment must progress in step with the progress of society. It is therefore the task of the avant-garde segment of the academic discipline and profession of architecture to theorize and explore how best to guide the development of the built environment in ways that are congenial to the opportunities and challenges of societal development at the frontier of progress. What characterizes recent and current socio-economic transformations is the shift from an economy based on mechanical mass production to an economy based on robotic fabrication and web-based services that can afford much higher rates of innovation.

The new reprogrammable robotic production technologies can absorb an unlimited number of innovations and therefore allows all workers to become self-directed creative innovators. There is no technical or cost limitations in uploading new improved apps to millions of users every minute, or to feed 3D printers with new improved instructions. Also, robotic assembly lines no longer lock workers into routine work. All are set free to innovate. This means that all work will become creative, in science, R&D, marketing, finance, education, etc.

This implies a new level of urban concentration in knowledge-based creative industry hubs with a much higher degree of complexity and dynamism in the social life process and thus also in urban and architectural development. This socio-economic shift from Fordism to Postfordism finds it congenial architectural response in the paradigm shift from modernism to parametricism as the epochal style for the 21st century.

The unprecedented level of dynamism in social interaction processes in contemporary creative industry work environments calls for adaptive, responsive, and indeed creative built environments. The discourse of so-called ‘intelligent buildings’ has to be radicalized and related to the core competency of architectural design, namely the ordering of social interactions. If these patterns of interaction become increasingly variable this implies the demand for an unprecedented level of real-time spatial flexibility.

This demand can only be met by perceptive, responsive environments. However, the next step here is truly intelligent, creative environments that operate in a self-directed fashion rather than merely responding in routine ways or waiting for instructions. The architectural elements that are meant to facilitate an increasingly complex and dynamic pattern of interaction must become congenial participants in the collective life process.

The scene is set, within contemporary advanced work environments, for the architectural instrumentalization of the artistic experiments with interactive art installations powered by the new easy availability of sensor and actuator technologies. Doors, windows, blinds, partitions, screens, tables, desks, chairs, lighting devices, etc. will all become self-directed agents, with a life-long machine learning curve, steered by the prerogative of maximizing their inbuilt utility functions that guide then to be utilized and thus useful in the social communication process. This is the concept of spontaneously intelligent environments.

In our post-COVID-19 world, these work environments will have to be seamlessly connected with the virtual communication spaces for those who will participate remotely rather than via physical co-presence. Our physical spaces will afford windows into virtual spaces where the logic of gathering and communicating is similar. We will increasingly see mixed meetings where multiple real and multiple virtual participants join a single communication event. The design of these virtual communication spaces will increasingly become the domain of architects rather than of mere graphic designers.

All the design disciplines, from urban design and architecture to fashion and graphic design, form a unified discourse and practice with a unity of purpose: the sensuous framing of communicative social interaction. This also includes all telecommunications. Here too our colleagues’ framing design work is always involved.

The internet started in the early 1990s and some of us architects imagined that the internet would develop into a virtual three-dimensional navigation and communication cyberspace. The design studio I was teaching at TU Berlin in 1995 was exploring this idea under the heading ‘Virtual College’: Online learning as a collective experience facilitated within a virtual architecture. However, the internet became a magazine-like medium instead, the preserve of graphic designers rather than architects. This will change now.

I would design the world after Covid-19 as a virtual four-dimensional navigation and communication space, as cyberspace. This is where all the architectural action and innovation will be happening in the coming period. Any design project in this space involves all of the three parts of the architect’s project I have distinguished in my theory of architecture: the organizational project, the phenomenological project, and the semiological project. The semiological project is crucial: While all urban spaces are never only mere physical containers that carry and channel bodies but always already also information-rich navigation and interaction spaces, this information-rich communicative charge and capacity is the very essence of all cyberspaces.

It is this crucial semiological project that I have concentrated on, that I have theorized, explored, and designed within the framework of the AA Design Research Lab and in other research arenas for the last 10 years. I know how to design architectural projects, real or virtual, together with a grammar empowered spatio-visual language, with a much-enhanced communicative capacity and I know how to craft dense, navigable, and legible information-rich environments for multiply layered societal interaction forms, purposes, and audiences. The only thing that is missing are the entrepreneurial clients who understand what could emerge and flourish now.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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