Do architects dream of electric sheep?


I am a BIG fan of technology. For those of you around me on a regular basis, this should come as no surprise.

Fortunately, my friend (and former colleague) Jason Kunkel geeks out about technology just as much as I do, and was gracious enough to humor me with a very special guest blog post – the first ever for The Architect’s Companion!

Take it away, Jason!

I like science fiction; the whole gamut from B-movie ray-gun shoot em ups, to the intense stories that dive into the deep questions about spirituality, humanity, and our place in the universe (stick with me here, this is going somewhere).  A consistent theme that you see in sci-fi is trying to understand what reality is. I am WAY not smart enough to answer that question, but I find it fascinating to ask.


Yes, I probably watched this too

As a former architectural designer, and just a fan of good design in general, another question that pops in my head is what defines “architecture”. I don’t mean the practice of architecture, I mean when does a design become architecture? When it’s sketched on a napkin? When it’s through CDs? When it’s value engineered into oblivion? When it’s finally built? I don’t have an answer here. And I don’t think this is one of those questions that needs one answer, but I do like thinking and talking about it.

Back in architecture school (don’t ask how long ago… yes we did have computers… no they were not required) something we were taught, or at least something we were taught to think about as designers, was that we weren’t simply designing walls and floors and roofs; we were designing the experience of space. So for me, at least, the ability to interact with the space, walk through it, look up at how the light reflects off surfaces, that’s important to what architecture is.

But you can’t interact with the space of a 2D drawing. We’ve all been trained to push 2D in our minds to 3D, and to start to understand how someone might experience it, but it’s not the same thing as actually doing that. I recently got a great book called “Never Built New York” by Greg Goldin, and it got me thinking about this again. There are some amazing designs in there but, as the title suggests, none of these designs made it past the drawing board (or chipboard model). So are they architecture or are they just exciting and interesting designs, or maybe a very specific style of art?

But now, thanks to Virtual Reality, we can begin to interact with a 3D model. And we (I mean humanity here, not just the industry) have just begun to tap into the promise of VR. I don’t think that we are at a point where the simulation of VR is a replacement for the real thing, but you can easily see how things are moving in that direction. It’s only a matter of time until VR and the supporting technology is to such a high level of fidelity that our brains will now know that it is not “real”.


I would not recommend this yet

And here’s the sci-fi rub (thanks for sticking with me for this ride)! If the experience and response and memories that we get from a simulation are good enough to trick our brains, then we need to evaluate our arrogance and be careful at not being so fast to judge something “real” or “not real”. The brain is a very tricky organ. There are already some amazing tests being done that use VR to trick the brain for treatment of anxiety, phobias, PTSD, and other conditions. And in terms of complexity with processing power and what needs to be simulated, I’m just talking about building design here. We’ve all been tricked by 2D renderings before. It doesn’t take that great of a mental leap to think that the technology will be available soon that can trick us in the 3D realm as well.

Are we getting to a point where for a design to evolve from being simply a design to becoming actual architecture, it doesn’t even need to be constructed? I think the definition of “architecture” itself if a flowing and malleable one, but I wholeheartedly believe it’s one that is going to expand drastically over the next decade as it becomes easier and easier to take a design and construct it a virtual space that can be experienced by a user; even if it’s just 1’s and 0’s. And I am beyond excited that I am here to witness it.

When Jason is taking a break from managing his personal blog, you can find him doing awesome things over at the CADD Microsystems blog.

Thanks to Jason for taking the time to craft this post, and be sure to give his blog a follow!

Happy designing.

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