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A set of architectural concept and site diagrams

Drawing by Ron van der Veen

— HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey

During my long career I have seen waves of technology transform the craft of architecture—everything from the electric pencil sharpener to the Apple Macintosh and Rhino. Each time I’ve been confronted with an innovation, I’ve reluctantly jumped in. This is less about the excitement of embracing cutting-edge design tools and much more about the fear of obsolescence. And I am proud to say I have kept up all the way to BIM!

With that said, my most recent contribution to Side Yard was an article that identifies 15 signs that a person should probably retire from architecture, and I now realize I forgot one:

At 59, I have been paying really, REALLY close attention to my 401(k) plan, and it’s solely because of computational design. Parametric design might be the definitive technology that drives me into retirement.1

When I began this remarkable design journey in 1985, life was simple. An average code book was about half the size it is today. There were NO computers and a lot fewer lawyers! I loved to sketch out real ideas and hand draft with pencil on vellum. I thought of each working drawing as a well-crafted piece of graphic art. But now the young designers around me (who don’t even know what a 401(k) plan is!) are asking that I move over and allow the computer to design and intuit for me. Haven’t any of these techno-zealots ever seen 2001: A Space Odyssey?

To prepare for this article I wanted a conclusive definition for computational design, so I turned to Wikipedia (which my cyber cohorts probably think is so old fashioned): “parametric design is a process based on algorithmic thinking that enables the expression of parameters and rules that, together, define, encode, and clarify the relationship between design intent and design response.” In my career I could never imagine a definition of design that sounds so colorless and convoluted at the same time.

Is this really the future of designing buildings: impersonal cryptic phrases? Are we ready to relinquish our hold on creativity and art to a computer? Can a machine create more intensely humane spatial provocations than Wright, Corbu, Saarinen, Kahn, or even Tom Kundig? How does a Ronchamp happen through binary code?

This newfangled techno-geeky wizardry might be the very thing that ushers me out the door so I can watch four hours of Family Feud a day in my pajamas. But our young computational evangelists might want to think twice before they gleefully throw my retirement party and hand design over to HAL 9000 (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer). Yes, I see all the astonishingly contorted buildings going up around the world. BUT … are they progressing the human experience? Are they creating wonderful places in which to live, learn, and thrive? Do they connect to our souls or just our lust for ocular provocation? These ultramodern, gravity-defying buildings are extraordinary, but do they make for cities that work on a human level?

Yeah, I know. I sound like an old fart ready to retire. But there could be a very slight chance that my disquiet contains a grain of truth. And maybe, just maybe, we are relinquishing one of the most fundamental characteristics that define us as human beings to a “programmable electronic device designed to accept data, perform prescribed mathematical and logical operations at high speed, and display the results of these operations.”2

Good luck, next generation. I have to go; Family Feud starts in 15 minutes!

“I like you, Ron. That is why I don’t want your career to be over so soon.”3

1. I am using the terms parametric and computational design interchangeably, though according to the 26-year-old intern at my firm with extensive computational experience, this further exposes my ignorance about the subject.
3. What the computational intern at my firm said to me when I asked him for input on this article.