Despite the justified controversy surrounding the art of AI, architects need not worry about being usurped by software capable of generating images of buildings, says Will Wiles.
These are uncertain times, but we can be sure of two things. The first is that art created by artificial intelligence (AI) is here to stay. (Many will think the word “art” in this sentence needs the protective embrace of quotation marks; some will think “artificial intelligence” does too. Feel free to imagine those marks if you prefer.)
The second is that the art of AI will remain controversial, and rightly so. Human artists fear, quite reasonably, that this will consume much of the daily work they depend on. To add insult to injury, the AI is something of a plagiarist.
Nevertheless, it is here. Barriers to use are falling: In September, OpenAI ended the waitlist for its Dall-E imaging platform, so it can now be immediately used by anyone who signs up. And earlier in the same month, an image created by Jason M Allen using Midjourney, another AI art app, won the digital art category of the Colorado State Fair fine art competition.
Art created by artificial intelligence is here to stay
Sites like Midjourney, Dall-E, and Stable Diffusion use AI to create original images from text prompts. The “intelligence” involved has more to do with learning and computational brute force than intuition – the technique essentially based on training computers to scramble and unscramble images until they” know” how to create an image out of noise, as Daniel Fein writes in this handy explainer.
Even at their best, the images created have a characteristic muddy quality, and certain subjects, like the human hand, seem to defeat them. Nevertheless, they are just good enough to spark widespread fears that they will deprive eternally undervalued human artists of much of the commercial work they depend on, while ripping their work away from them as human users tell programs to imitate the work of creators they admire.
The AI architecture looks like a more distant perspective. Architecture, after all, is a discipline that extends far beyond the visual – one day a single program might design a building, render it as a buildable set of drawings, detail its drains and gutters, and all long working with a client and an assortment of contractors and officials, as we expect of a human architect.
But are there already signs that software-generated images of buildings are encroaching on the architect’s prized ability to generate architectural ideas? That they can remain unbuilt does not mean that AI-generated concepts would be uninfluenced – paper architecture can be of great importance.
Allen’s award-winning AI-generated image, Space Opera Theater, features robed performers in a grand, cavernous interior dominated by a huge circular opening. And a growing number of people are using these platforms to create architectural images in the same vein.
There are over 32,000 images on Instagram using the hashtag #Midjourneyarchitecture, and the Midjourney Architecture Instagram account, which collects interesting examples, has over 34,000 followers. The “architecture” presented is mostly fantastical, but at times eerily real.
More and more people are using these platforms to create architectural images
Sometimes the Midjourney architecture can be compelling enough to create real-world ripples. California-based Egyptian artist and designer Hassan Ragab uses Midjourney to experiment with ideas, but also to create exaggerated homages to the traditional Islamic architecture of Cairo and Alexandria.
One of the images in his “Cairo sketches” series, a wall of Escher-style windows, bound together by intricate and implausible intertwining stones and decorated with Islamic tracery, was seen by an astonishing 8.5 million people. Instagram users. On Facebook, a post claiming that this image was from a real building went viral, and journalists started contacting Ragab asking him to verify whether it was real or not.
“It went beyond Egypt: Iranians claim it is a Persian tomb, others claim it is a Spanish building,” Ragab wrote on Instagram. . “Also, what was really ironic was the way people were arguing (supported by their own beliefs and ideologies) about what was going on in that building.” Fact-checking reports on the image followed, including from AFP.
It usually takes no more than a second to determine whether or not an image emanates from AI, but it seems that few internet users can spare themselves that second, especially in the slaughterhouse of truth that is Facebook. . So there is potential for confusion and deliberate mischief – but not of a new kind, even if it uses new technology.
For now, AI architecture is just another form of architectural vapourware: the never-realized bling-bling concepts and dubious utopia that are spreading like a visual mushroom online. But even this mushroom has little nutritional value, as small and ambitious design and rendering studios use it to promote their work and attract attention.
And so does the fantastical architecture created as art by the energetic and often brilliant digital artists who congregate in places like the DeviantArt online community. If some people mistake the images for real buildings, or projects that may be coming soon – if some studios are sneakily encouraging that impression in their copy – it’s a matter of conscience.
At the moment, AI architecture is just another form of architectural vapourware.
The AI architecture integrates in addition to these areas, producing more fragile results. Allen’s architectural backdrop is superficially impressive, but there’s less to it than meets the eye. It’s just an impression of baroque ornamentation and sophisticated structure, an unoriginal interpretation. It has the quirks that can be seen in all AI architecture: a distinctive smear; inability to follow a line; a strange blindness to symmetry; and faked and impossible edges, seams and details.
And, of course, we remain firmly in the realm of the visual, not the real. The machine handles pixels in two dimensions, not materials and space. Architects can rest easy that AI isn’t coming for their work just yet, though it’s not impossible to imagine AI images winning a student or drawing competition, if allowed.
In general, architecture auditions new technologies on its avant-garde and then construction employs them in the boiler room. Prefabrication briefly left metabolists dreaming of endless reconfigurable flexibility, and today offers cheap uniformity. CATIA was popularized by Gehry and became part of the background. After promising parametric exuberance, 3D printing will probably end up being used for service hearts or something equally unglamorous.
Artificial intelligence is more likely to play a role in generating apartment floor plans or solving utility layouts – that is, exactly the areas where computers are already used the most – than any visionary creative application.
The visionary is naturally what catches the eye, and it’s worth considering the appeal of images on #Midjourneyarchitecture. This could start by viewing some of the quirks listed above as strengths rather than flaws.
Obviously, the results depend on the contributions of the human user – which, generally, we do not know – but it is interesting that there are recurrent resonances with the work of some particular architects with very strong individual styles: the Gaudi’s biomorphism, the strangeness of Eisenman geometries, Hadid liquid.
But, more seductively, AI is alien to orthodoxies. The fascination it generates should deter die-hard architectural ideologues and proponents of style, who cling to rigid objective conceptions of beauty and who regard deviation as a moral as well as an aesthetic flaw. The machine disagrees. Generative architecture is deeply degenerate, and all the more interesting for it.
Will Wiles is a design writer and the author of four novels, most recently The Last Blade Priest.
The top image is by Hassan Ragab.