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INDUSTRY INSIGHTS

  • Writer's pictureRandy Deutsch

WHY I BELIEVE ARCHITECTS WILL PERSEVERE

Updated: Feb 12




“In terms of strategic thinking and real-time analysis, AI is already way beyond what human architects are capable of. This could be the final nail in the coffin of a struggling profession.” —Neil Leach, Architecture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

 

When it comes to the nightly news, we’ve all heard “If it bleeds it leads,” and that the word “death” in a book title sells.

 

Pronouncements of the “Death of the Architect” don’t take human agency, creativity and adaptability into consideration. In 1897, Mark Twain read his own obituary, and then remarked, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” 

 

While we all will be challenged by the rise of AI in all aspects of our lives, it is safe to say that we can ignore pronouncements about “the final nail in the coffin” for architects.


Reports of the architect's death have been greatly exaggerated

 

In addition to being just plain wrong, such fearmongering can also be – depending on the person – demotivating, immobilizing, irresponsible, aggravating self-esteem and mental health, increasing cynicism and helplessness.

 

Most of the negativity is a filter or lens problem – some call it the ‘CNN effect’ – the people one tends to listen to and how one sees the world. Believing in the media, buying into dire pronouncements – then a couple paragraphs in these same news pieces inevitably walk back their fear-inducing, heart-racing headlines. It’s dishonest or misinformed.

 

The world is getting better, our prospects are huge, I remain optimistic.

 

So don’t panic. Architects do hundreds of things besides strategic thinking and analysis including: assess site conditions; analyze existing architectural forms (the scale of the building – how it relates to the city and pedestrians and existing infrastructure like transit and utilities); architects review the full range of regulations – zoning ordinances, building codes, etc. – to identify health, safety, and welfare requirements; they assess legal limitations for development, including zoning and environmental regulations; they document a plan for all building and space requirements; architects prepare comprehensive documents and work with engineering consultants to develop coordinated plans for the engineering systems; and they utilize technology to help find clashes in the systems; architects develop alternative conceptual designs to explore possibilities; they design buildings, cities and hundreds of more things.

 

Whether AI will one day do everything the architects does today – we’ll just have to wait and see. But why would it? AI has bigger fish to fry.

 

One area that will never be usurped by AI: an architect is by nature and training, an orchestrator and synthesizer, one who crosses fields to make connections that open new possibilities.

 

We underestimate the human – as we do the architect – at our peril.

 

Why is it so hard to be optimistic?

 

We’re predisposed as a species to pay attention to the negative – it’s a survival tactic.

 

Better to play it safe and sleep in trees than risk being eaten by a tiger.

 

When writing novels, it’s the kiss of death writing a story about happy, well-adjusted people.

 

The same with journalism: ‘Architect Does Well’ is not a headline anyone will read anytime soon.

 

As for non-fiction, twice as many people have read (and apparently purchased) Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail than Why Buildings Stand Up.

 

Architects are more comfortable being dissatisfied, discontent, skeptical and critical and

less comfortable being optimistic, supportive, and positive (we don’t want to look bloody naïve.)

 

Buildings are expected to not fall down – no one likes an overly-optimistic architect.

 

Don’t underestimate the negative as a motivator:


Thomas Edison – who had many competitors throughout his career – said that people underestimate having enemies as a motivator.

 

Reasons architects should be optimistic

 

Soon, many owners and clients will opt to work directly with AIs.

 

Human architects will be perceived as difficult to work with in comparison to AI, but some owners and clients will prefer the slower human interaction over the higher productivity, lower cost, higher speed and reliability of working directly with AIs.

 

Architects would do well to work on their people skills.

 

Architects with AI will replace most architects without AI.

 

Jobs will be lost – but new jobs will be created. You won’t lose a job to AI – but to someone who uses AI (so use AI.)

 

I like the idea put forward by Robin Hanson in his book The Age of Em (short for ‘emulators’; robots who emulate humans.) Anyone who wants an AI-generated and delivered building experience, working directly with AIs should hire an EM.

 

Apparently with architects only responsible for 2-3% of buildings in the built environment, 97-98% of people are already doing so.

 

For those who are concerned that owners and building clients will be working directly with AIs anytime soon, only have to look back to the 1st quarter (Q1) of 2019 when AEC start-ups were all gearing their software to work with for owners – because of their deep pockets.

 

All of that switched in Q2 when start-up entrepreneurs went back to working directly with and for architects and haven’t looked back since.

 

Q1 2019 proved clients don’t want to work directly with technology. They want a human intermediary (HI).

 

That would be the architect.

 

This I have learned from working with private equity (PE) firms venture capitalists (VCs) in the industry: if you want to create a new digital tool or work process for architects, for a tool to be taken seriously and receive funding you must work in the domain.

 

Look at jaw-droppingly brilliant and unexplainable architectural marvels. We forget just how remarkable architecture that architects bring into the world is.


In studio last week I watched a student discover for the first time Pierre Charron’s Maison de Verre. It felt like an almost religious experience to witness.


People complain about architects’ fixation on the ineffable but work like this – projects by CO Architects, ZGF, Carol Ross Barney, Angela Brooks and Lawrence Scarpa (how did they do that?!), Morphosis, Herzog and de Muron and even coop himmelb(l)au among so many others – truly makes life worth living.

 

Try this: Pick your favorite piece of architecture then watch an AI model being built – e.g. a high rise – in 2 minutes on YouTube.


Productive? Sure. Makes you glad you’re alive? Never. No comparison.

 

What sort of world do you want to live in? One that is reductionist? One where productivity and efficiency are the highest values?

 

Remember when Maya Angelou said 'I've learned that people will forget what you saidpeople will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’?

 

People will never forget how you and your architecture made them feel.

 

So, make them feel.

 

Here’s e.e. cummings on feeling:


since feeling is first

who pays any attention 

to the syntax of things

will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool

while Spring is in the world


Will some commissions be lost to AI? Sure. But others will be gained by architects who work with AI.

 

Architects embarrass themselves posting AI-generated images of stupid architecture, blinded by their own likes, their human efforts were so much better.

 

Nonetheless I wake up every day believing in students, fellow architects, even the AIA who supports AI in architectural education.

 

“AI apocalypse”? Please.

 

Architects are makers; builders; doers. We are at play in the world and with the world.


We build stuff – if we were passive, we would see ourselves as victims.


But we (still) have agency.

 

AI won’t replace people – it will upskill people. Augment and buoy-up people.

 

In his book Architecture by Team, CRS’s William Caudill wrote: “The so called ‘great man’ approach must give way to the great team approach. From now on the great architects will be on great interdisciplinary teams.”


That was written in 1971. Buried on page 288 is the title of Chapter 109:


“Let the team – designers, manufacturers and builders – be the architect.”

So let the team be the architect, and the architect be the facilitative leader. And act soon, for we may not have another 40 years to see this out.


I am optimistic about upcoming generation of architects. None (so far) stand out and that is part of their appeal.


Gone (thank goodness) is the ‘great man’ approach. It is no longer about name recognition nor the cult of personality.

 

Will legacy firms that are slow to change suffer? Sure. New nimble and flexible architects and firms? Not so much.

 

I am often asked, with the rise of AI, what I recommend architects do?

 

Adjust to changes, see yourself becoming more perceptive, and more responsive to the changes. Remain curious and keep alive your sense of wonder.

 

Things are changing. You need to adjust.


Planes and boats don’t go from where they are – point A to point B in one straight line. They get to their destination by making a million tiny adjustments along their route. No one continues straight to one’s goal.

 

This is a better message than ‘AI is coming for you:’ Adjust. Adjust. Adjust. And adapt.

 

Each of us has unique talents and abilities to offer the world, so let’s tap into those and develop them and abandon comparing ourselves to others - including AI.

 

Architects have other problems – compensation, unwillingness to change, other people eating their lunch, burnout, migration, affordable housing, the climate crisis.

 

In 2022 for the first time, architecture firm billables were > 50% for existing building adaptive reuse and renovation projects.

 

AI can’t touch them – yet.

 

There are some very good AI tools for renovation projects – but for now, they must be known, limited, defined entities. For now.

 

Don’t underestimate AI. But also, don’t underestimate human agency, ingenuity, adaptability, creativity and insight.

 

In other words, don’t underestimate the architect.

 

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