Perfect by design

By Sulla Montes



Conceptual drawing by Le Corbusier, hand drawn, c. 1920.


I firmly believe that there will come a time when the old-fashioned pencil sketches on tracing paper will be completely replaced with computer-aided architectural design (CAAD) files on a hard drive of a computer. Ever since this program was created in the 1960s the architectural world has been fundamentally changed in how it views the creation process, with a strong argument to be made that it is faster and more efficient now than before when we relied on straight edges and charcoal to get our ideas across. Resisting this technology is like pushing the invention of email and social media away and sticking with licking the back of stamps for envelopes to send a handwritten mail. You have embraced technology by carrying a chunk of metal inside your pockets. It’s time to let go of the drafting tables and purchase a fast-processing computer.

If you do reach this point, make sure you request one with the best graphics card in the market, because if you’re an architect or a product designer, you will need a tool that can keep up with the ever-changing needs of the industry. This inconvenience does not mean that the traditional way of design is easier though. I had to design a stool for a building class and it was much faster using a mouse than a pencil which I had to re-sharpen multiple times.

Resisting this technology is like pushing the invention of email and social media away and sticking with licking the back of stamps for envelopes to send a handwritten mail.

You will not find any university that bans CAAD tools – in fact, we are encouraged to take advantage of this technology. In architecture, it is important that measurements are precise for the prototypes that are made. Computers are arguably better than humans in solving complex mathematical problems and much faster at computing measurements, so accuracy will not be as much of an issue. You can also print as many prototypes as you need in a much lower cost and a faster time than traditional prototyping.

A building rarely has one window, and as an architect drafting a structural design, the task of reproducing fifteen identical windows is tedious and time-consuming. But with computers, all it takes is a simple copy and paste. The time spent redrawing the same thing over and over again is better utilised on improving design and safety, or finding flaws.



CAAD drawing by Zaha Hadid, c. 2015.


Our hands, when it comes to design, are ultimately replaceable, but perhaps CAAD tools will fully integrate the use of a drawing stylus to give you, the designer, more control over your piece. New software might react to pen pressure and angle and give the illusion of raw perfectly imperfect lines and curves. All is not changed forever, but one must understand, even when one draws on a touchscreen, the end-result is always just processed data of ones and zeros optimised by advanced algorithms. Your hand might think it’s doing all the work, but the truth is your design is technically not only yours anymore because it was done on a digital surface.

The aid of a computer in the realisation of ideas might cause some to fear that works will be void of emotions and will lack in true creativity, but design is more than just the physicality of the human hand. It’s about the story you tell through shapes, colours, edges, shadows and light, the feeling of being in the space that is created. A CAAD prototype of a skyscraper will not take away the structure’s ability to evoke feeling to anyone who lay eyes on it or enters. People will still feel how they do regardless of how the building came to fruition.

Your  hand might think it’s doing all the work, but the truth is your design is technically not only yours anymore because it was done on a digital surface.

Architects and designers like to challenge the laws of physics. Those who tried and succeeded are seen as visionaries. Jørn Utzon, for example, the architect of the Sydney Opera House (1973), dreamed of a flamboyant architectural marvel. The question posed to the Utzon most frequently was how was it going to stay up? And this would have remained unanswered without the help of CAAD tools. The Opera House’s structure was simulated. Special tiles were made just for it. Now, the Unesco Heritage site attracts millions of tourists yearly and it has become one of the most photographed buildings of all time, visitors to this day look at it with amazement and admiration. While they do so, it is imperative to keep in mind that computer software helped him design it.

The Burj Khalifa (2010) in Dubai, the tallest building in the world, was also made with CAAD. Architectural challenges shouldn’t stop us from building higher or designing better. A massive project like this, if done manually, will require more sheets of paper, hundreds of drawing materials and more importantly, a long list of risks that will need testing. With CAAD, these resources are minimised and managing the project becomes more reliable and efficient. Designs and measurements are stored in a computer, which makes it accessible anywhere in the world through the internet. An architect with a high level of expertise in one area, living on the other side of the world, might have valuable input that will forward the process. This also means that, unless the worldwide network system fails, information will never be lost.  

Despite all of this, computer-aided architectural design does reveal vulnerabilities. It is only good for reading and processing inputs that are expected and repetitive. They can’t design cherished wonders like the Eiffel Tower (1889) or the Pantheon (BCE125) all on their own. They lack what makes architects build such wonders – curiosity. Without a doubt, machines can design a building that is practical and stable, but they don’t (as of yet) have consciousness in their microprocessors. These tools will replace your hand if they haven’t already, but they still rely on the initial input of your creativity and the cradle of invention that is the brain.

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