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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

AI in A and I


There was a poem from Lao Tzu, written several thousand years ago, that I had given as a

graphic design assignment in Design Communications. I don’t know if you were in that cohort, but you are now. It went something like this:

30 spokes share a hub

but it is the hole in the center that allows the use of a wheel

Shape clay to form a pitcher

but it is the void inside that gives you the use of the pitcher

cut doors and windows to make a room

but it is the emptiness inside that provides the use of a room

Thus, what we create is something

but it is by virtue of nothing that it can be put to use

I was once asked by a contractor why architects and contractors/engineers are so often in conflict. I told him it was because we deal with different media- the contractor and engineers are concerned with things where architects are concerned with the voids- the experiences that happen within the things.

Engineering had long had the advantage of architecture because there were ‘correct’ answers: strongest, least expensive, tallest, lightest, etc.:binary answers, ones and zeros, yes or no. But that certitude may have become an Achilles heel. It seems that any question that can be solved with a definitive, provable answer could be answered by a machine just as well and probably cheaper and more quickly.

While working on a residential project in Arlington, I  made a simple, physical model to help me better understand the form of a residential project. To be able to work through iterations, I took a photograph of the model and brought it into a tablet app that allowed me to draw a perspective overlay and a cursory investigation of materials, roof forms, etc.

A friend of mine is teaching at a University in DC. For a class demonstration, she took that rendering and ran it through AI with various parameters added. In 20 seconds the computer produced a night view of that perspective. Materials, interior lighting, entourage, AI understood almost all of it. I was amazed- her students’ reaction, however, was less enthusiastic: will we have jobs when we graduate?

In my small practice I constantly receive emails from companies that ask me to consider having my documents/renderings done overseas. I’m sure these requests will be soon include AI. The cost would undoubtedly be lower. I resist the offer because I’ve grown fond of humans and I want them to be happy and productive.

There is no doubt that AI will be able to create documents-The answers tend to be right/wrong for a wall section or detail. My concern is that if we gut the cohort of younger professionals by outsourcing overseas or to AI, we will be creating a dearth of seasoned architects down the line. The creative abilities of the veteran designers is directly linked to touching the walls and windows that create the experience of the void. I may not decide to outsource but I may have to compete with those who do.

When I am interviewing potential hires, I make a point of trying to look beyond their abilities with software. The underlying thought is, “I know what the software can do, but what can YOU do?

Besides the professional concerns, there are social costs as well. I heard an interview on the radio a while back on the topic of AI taking over vast swaths of jobs. The interviewer asked the AI representative, ‘what will all these people do?” His response was, “don’t you remember when you were a kid and you just played all day long? That’s what they’ll do!” My thought was, “this guy doesn’t know much about humans”.

Victor Frankl was a psychologist that was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. When captured, he was on the cusp of publishing a book, but the manuscript was confiscated and destroyed. He credits his ability to survive on his need to rewrite that manuscript-it gave him meaning that transcended his miserable daily existence in the camps.

I agree with Dr. Frankl that meaning is the most powerful life force we have. It is internal to humans and needs to be cultivated and nurtured.

I hope to continue writing blogs to help myself unspool some thoughts I’ve had about art, meaning and it’s value in society.

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