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Admittedly, it would be difficult to throw a technology-themed party in Las Vegas without making it seem like the final Roman baths before the machine apocalypse. As such, the introductory keynote at this year’s Autodesk University conference was equal parts tone-deaf and basking in the squalor. To partake in the ritual, throngs of technologically-savvy designers were herded into an enormous barren convention hall and funneled toward the light show and DJ booth on stage by a series of paper-thin LED panels. On these panels were depicted cryptic animations of the productivity and progressivisms of machines. I imagine that some sly video developer with a penchant for science fiction films slipped in references to robot invasions as we sauntered through the flashing tunnel with phones out to broadcast the experience to social media.

We had come to hear Andrew Anagnost, the Autodesk University keynote speaker and CEO of the largest design software company in the world, give his vision of the future of the industry. After stepping onto the stage, he immediately acknowledged the existential concern before delving into his pitch. Technological advances have always transformed industries, creating new jobs and making others obsolete, while directing the affected industry towards greater efficiency. In the world of architecture, we can imagine machines freeing us from the mundane tasks of drafting, tracking paperwork, or compiling specifications so long as the onset of machines capable of effective creativity is on a far, far horizon. After all, architects prize their membership among the creative class and are forward-thinking enough to avoid knowingly becoming the last of our breed. The question, then, is whether the adoption of advanced technologies in architecture will simply increase our capabilities or will also accelerate the timeline towards our obsolescence.

Armed with the pronouncement that the future would be promising for architects, Anagnost introduced the exhibition hall which was designed by Perkins + Will through a process that integrated generative design. This new design process creates potential solutions based on user-defined goals. While still in its infancy, the process promises increased efficiency by automating tedious tasks and will inevitably push architectural firms towards adoption in such a competitive marketplace. Titled The Future of Making Things, the exhibition hall layout was a product of computational parameters and manual editing. The design team that brought the hall to life was not disclosed, but one could imagine that such a group, utilizing generative design, would be made up of high-level project managers and decision makers – parameters do not yet write themselves – along with an assortment of architectural programmers.

A key speaker for understanding the state of generative design was Bill Allen, of EvolveLAB in Denver. Allen used the conference to promote his particular vision of generative design, which is accessible through the software package supplied by Autodesk. By linking a new software called Project Fractal to industry standard programs Dynamo, FormIt, and Revit, EvolveLAB made clear the software workflow for “option engineering” through iterative computational design. Lesser known and more experimental softwares like Grasshopper, Hummingbird, and Rhino have pioneered this design process over the last decade but the incorporation into the Autodesk software suite brings generative design into the mainstream architectural market at an opportune time. Academia has brought up a generation of young architects, instilling in them the benefits of iterative design, which supports collaborative design efforts and eschews the genius architect myth but takes an enormous amount of time to create through traditional methods. Iterations are used in the design process to test parameters, but the manual repetition associated with producing the necessary context for that parameter has historically been a necessary waste. EvolveLAB is making generative design work for iterations and design options through automated digital methods so that much of the waste is eliminated.

On the more speculative end of the spectrum, construction company Skanska showcased their recently developed holy grail for owners and developers. Without the pesky intermediary of an architect as a gatekeeper, they have developed a virtual reality viewer with design options and associated project cost estimate. This is a vision of the end of the professional as we currently understand it. Put simply, engineers and programmers embed the necessary technical knowledge into the software. Virtual reality makes the built environment easy to visualize. Cost estimating databases are embedded within the software. If the more nuanced values are not adequately conveyed, what role then is left for the architect?

Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost delivering a keynote address at Autodesk University. (PRNewsfoto/Autodesk, Inc.)

The status of the architect had already been a tenuous one. Now, globalization and technology are conspiring to remake the nature of work itself. The employed increasingly rely on technology for the tools necessary for work at a time when the freedom of net neutrality is threatened. The capability to marry the design-oriented with the technical has, to this point, allowed architects to maintain their status as masters of the built environment. If machines gain the capability to offer the technical expertise that currently separates designers from architects, would architects simply become fashion-makers?  I can’t help but wonder if the profession will even be recognizable in 100 years’ time.

This says nothing of the challenge to equity in the field of architecture. Automation tends to widen the gap between those with the capital to implement the technology and those beginning their career with only their talents and an offer of labor. The field of architecture has an admirable history of apprenticeship, which provides a reliable –if slow– route to mastery of the profession. Among the most threatening consequences of automation in architecture is the threat that the link between the bottom and the top of the field could be severed. Similar to a fabricator in a car manufacturing plant, those starting their profession in architecture could begin their careers by supporting machines rather than doing portions of the actual practice themselves. Architecture has gained a regrettable reputation for dissuading the working class from joining its ranks. The time and difficulty associated with mastering the profession toward comparable financial reward is already an obstacle to those relying solely on their own abilities. Expect that chasm to grow if automation interjects itself into the middle of the hierarchy.

While we can imagine much rosier scenarios, we should be deftly aware of how the coming industry disruptions could threaten what the profession holds dear. Architecture has already witnessed the fall of hand drawing as common practice. Before that, the architect moved from the job site to the office for administrative purposes. Architects have repeatedly accepted the increased role of technology in place of traditional labor so long as these efficiencies left more time for architects to do what we love – to design. On some horizon, though, the practice of architecture is already possible without an architect.

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