Zaha Hadid Architects' Patrik Schumacher says AI cannot replace architects

The D'Leedon condominium in Farrer Road was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects with sustainability in mind. It has features to maximise natural light, harness solar energy and collect rainwater. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The instruction of architecture and design in educational institutions has changed dramatically along with advances in technology.

Architect Patrik Schumacher observes: "We are witnessing now that young architects and schools of architecture are shifting into engineering research and programming. This has been going on for over 10 years.

"However, I think that this is temporary, a phenomenon of the transition to the new paradigm of parametricism and tectonism," adds the principal of Zaha Hadid Architects, one of the world's most forward-thinking architectural firms right now.

Parametricism and its more technologically advanced iteration, tectonism, are terms coined by Mr Schumacher, 61, to refer to a field of architecture that is dependent on computer-based algorithmic design processes.

Recognising the advances in computer processing capacity early on, especially in animation, he understood the potential of using computers to process design parameters that could generate architectural forms.

These parameters include different programmatic requirements like circulation flows, or how people move through a building.

More recently, faster and more powerful computers allow for much more complex algorithms, which can include new design parameters like engineering structure and energy efficiency.

Computing power plays a big role in processing all this information and then generating design. With advances in artificial intelligence (AI), could architects and designers be replaced by computers?

Mr Schumacher thinks not. Even in light of these advances, he is quick to point out that the future of design is not just about technology, but how it must be used to create designs that improve life.

AI will enhance creativity, rationality and even automation in architecture and design. But automation "implies that more time will be available for genuine conceptual innovations, and for rethinking priorities and purposes".

"A further aspect (of automation) is that intuitive capacities locked up in experienced architects become unlocked and multiply. This also promises the insightful, explicit grasp and rationalisation of tacit intuitive capacities," he says.

As such, architects and designers will still be needed to intuit the needs of end-users. And this requires creative thinking. "The focus on design is the focus on user experiences and social functionality as the primary site of innovation. Innovation here must go ahead of and hand-in-hand with engineering and technology solutions," Mr Schumacher says.

AI in architecture is gaining traction in architecture and design schools. The Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) has a design and artificial intelligence department and Mr Schumacher notes that its research on AI in architecture and urbanism is original. "I am following (the) progress with keen attention," he adds.

He is also very enthusiastic about the potential of the metaverse - the online virtual realm. "We are already engaged with a number of ambitious metaverse projects. All firms, all institutions, including all universities, and all significant events will exist in the metaverse, at least partially."

Still, he does not believe that AI will replace architects or designers any time soon.

It will enhance creativity, rationality and even automation in architecture and design. But automation "implies that more time will be available for genuine conceptual innovations, and for rethinking priorities and purposes".

"A further aspect (of automation) is that intuitive capacities locked up in experienced architects become unlocked and multiply. This also promises the insightful, explicit grasp and rationalisation of tacit intuitive capacities," he says.

As such, architects and designers will still be needed to intuit the needs of end-users. And this requires creative thinking. "The focus on design is the focus on user experiences and social functionality as the primary site of innovation. Innovation here must go ahead of and hand-in-hand with engineering and technology solutions," Mr Schumacher says.

At universities such as SUTD, students will combine sustainability science with engineering and design skills. It also commits to growing already substantial course offerings on sustainability with an emphasis on interdisciplinary modules.

While Mr Schumacher believes academic disciplines will remain distinct, he notes "interdisciplinary research is where much innovation takes place".

With sustainability in mind, Zaha Hadid Architects has been collaborating with experts from various fields and in different countries to design and test structural building components that can be 3D printed or even made with more sustainable materials like plywood.

"I think 3D printing will become widespread, encompassing many different materials, including the creation of new materials via the printing process. These materials will be internally differentiated rather than homogeneous or uniform," he says.

Recycling old materials without compromise to design also requires collaboration.

For three train stations in Dnipro, Ukraine, Zaha Hadid Architects designed roof canopies made from recycled steel from local foundries. The designs espouse principles of regenerative architecture and also bear the unmistakable fluid design aesthetic of parametricism.

An artist's rendering of Dnipro Metro Stations in Ukraine, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, showing the steel roof canopy over the station entrance made from recycled steel from local foundries. PHOTO: RENDERING BY ATCHAIN

The firm has in fact been designing with sustainability in mind for a while now. In Singapore, condominium D'Leedon in Farrer Road, completed in 2014, was designed to maximise natural light, harness solar energy, collect rainwater and employ energy-efficient light fittings.

The condominium buildings also take up only 22 per cent of the total site, freeing up land for planting and recreational uses.

In Beijing, it designed Leeza Soho with an energy management system that monitors real-time environmental control and energy efficiency.

Completed in 2019, the 45-storey mixed-used building also has water collection, low flow rate fixtures, grey water flushing and an insulating green roof as well as a photovoltaic array to harvest solar energy.

Low volatile organic compound materials have also been installed to minimise interior pollutants while high efficiency filters remove particles via an air handling system.

The architects even created more than 2,600 bicycle parking lots and separate showers and lockers for the building's occupants.

Leeza Soho is, of course, a high-end development and buildings with these specifications are an exception rather than the norm.

"The acceptance and indeed eagerness to work with sustainable materials is very high within the architectural profession. The same applies to all other strategies of sustainability. Clients are also eager. However, they have to bear the economic costs," notes Mr Schumacher.

To this end, SUTD's DesignZ will have its work cut out for it. The new sustainability-focused design centre aims to establish partnerships with the public and private sectors - who will bear the costs - by advocating concepts like circularity, where notions of recycling, reuse and repair are designed into products at the onset.

On initiatives like DesignZ, Mr Schumacher says: "Partnerships with innovative government agencies and businesses are very important for universities to avoid ivory tower sterility and utopian misallocation of research funds."

And the best sustainability solutions may already exist.

"Recently completed reinforced concrete buildings - in contrast to the older concrete buildings - have a lifespan that is much longer than most use cases. Therefore reuse of structures should be expected. To tear down such structures should be avoided. If reuse is difficult, recycling must be considered."

Still, as Mr Schumacher concedes, "sustainability is a major constraint and thus a design driver that must be engaged early on".

Having also taught at architectural schools around the world, he adds: "It's important to introduce sustainability constraints on a sufficiently abstract level and not too narrowly via supposedly inviolable technological strictures."

"Designers are inherently open-ended in their search because the design problems are inherently open-ended, like life itself."


About Patrik Schumacher

PHOTO: COURTESY OF ZAHA HADID ARCHITECTS

Mr Patrik Schumacher is principal of Zaha Hadid Architects. He joined the firm in 1988 and helped to make it the 500-strong global architecture and design brand it is today.

Born in Germany, he studied philosophy, mathematics and architecture in Bonn and Stuttgart and London, and received his diploma in architecture in 1990. In 1996, he founded the Design Research Laboratory at the Architectural Association in London, where he continues to teach. In 1999, he completed his PhD at the Institute for Cultural Science, Klagenfurt University, and lectures worldwide.

He has been a Zaha Hadid Architects partner since 2003 and a co-author on all projects. In 2010, he won the Royal Institute of British Architects' Stirling Prize for excellence in architecture together with the firm's founder Zaha Hadid. He is also an academician of the Berlin Academy of Arts.

Over the last 20 years, he has contributed more than 100 articles to architectural journals and anthologies. In 2008, he coined the term "parametricism" and has since published a series of manifestos promoting it as the new epochal style for the 21st century.

In 2010 and 2012 he published his two-volume book, The Autopoiesis Of Architecture. His research focuses on designing and simulating real and virtual environments.

Register to attend the virtual Design Innovation Forum by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) in partnership with The Straits Times. Registration is free.

Register for the forum

When:

March 15, 3pm to 5pm

Speakers:

• Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment

• Professor Chong Tow Chong, SUTD president

• Mr Patrik Schumacher, principal of Zaha Hadid Architects

• Mr Topher White, founder and chief executive of Rainforest Connection

Moderator:

• Professor Tai Lee Siang, SUTD's head of the architecture and sustainable design pillar and centre director of DesignZ

To find out more, go here

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