Architecture and the latest promises of technology

Over the past few years, I'm hearing more and more these sorts of statements surrounding architecture, urban design, and technology. Here are my thoughts.

Technological solutions will play a key role in sustainable urban transformations.

Advancements in technology can certainly be harnessed for the common good and a sustainable future. However, I’m hesitant to put too much faith in technical solutions to widespread structural problems originating from habits of culture and economic inequality. We need to recognize the risk of new technologies furthering forms of “carbon lock-in,” just as the post-WWII proliferation of a novel mobility technology – ubiquitous private ownership of the automobile – ensured the wasteful, inefficient, and impersonal suburban landscape. We are excited by the electric self-driving car, but it furthers the problems of larger concrete highways, traffic jams of single riders, and deleterious public health. Myriad other examples of new technologies transforming everyday life in this century include the internet and e-commerce, mobile communication, social media networks, artificial intelligence, online education, remote work, and genetic modification, to name a few. To match the excitement and promise of technological solutions, we should study the co-evolution of behavior, governance, and urban geography with technologies as they become mainstream. Technical responses to challenges might be scientifically ground-breaking, but wholly unnecessary given already attainable and practical political and social reforms (e.g. colonize Mars or reduce private car ownership?). With all the excitement around self-driving cars, AI, and the “Internet of Things,” I’m concerned about technological “irreversibility.” As investments continue in these technologies and we base our future urban infrastructures and buildings around them, it will become harder to reverse course and restructure socially and materially if necessary.

The future may or may not be knowable to us as architects and urban designers. Regardless, it is a world ‘we’ should rescue.

Predicting the future is a common thread in academic architectural circles, even if the task is admittedly impractical. However, I’ve noticed a particular interest in the possibility of “imagining” the future of society. This presented pedagogical heuristic isolates the scholarly inquiry to the parameters of scale and typology of changing human behavior, rather than architectural form. The latter is too big of a bite off the apple and repeats the same graphic-dependent paper architecture of the modernist era. Asking students and young designers to observe and describe changing modes of urban everyday life is an excellent way to train future architects to create spaces for human activity, rather than simulacra.

The recurring phrase of “recovering the future,” implies an effort to get back something that has been stolen or lost. In the context of environmental degradation, I’ve heard expressions like this (such as “our actions today are stealing from our great-grandchildren” or similar), but not as concise and pointed. By using “recover,” the conceptualization of the future planet is made tangible. Architects heavily influence the material realities of constructed space, which have widespread, cascading impacts for the potential of climate change mitigation strategies. When paired with the notion of “speculating” on what the future might hold, then “recover,” at best, comes across as generous and selfless; however, it can also feel presumptuous, risking the perpetuation of the architect-white knight complex. If presented with the re-framing of the role of architect as communicator and facilitator, the latter is clearly unintentional.

Current trends worth analyzing further are the digitalization of everyday life, autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence.

Although these technologies have been theorized for decades – both by technologists and science fiction writers – there is a sense now in 2023 that real momentum and financial interests are catching on, with noticeable lag in a unified regulatory and public health response. Predicted in the imagined worlds of Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, or Isaac Asimov, headlines today routinely feature well-financed corporations developing the first drafts of digitized everyday life. For them, it’s the Wild West, as policies and regulations struggle to understand and put the brakes on potentially harmful changes in human behavior. Theorists in Science, Technology and Society (STS) Studies are well-equipped to contextualize and respond to the impacts of these new technologies on our welfare. I don’t believe architects and urban designers should feel helpless and pressured to adopt assumptions around these technologies and how they become integrated in the spaces we design. Where does this sense of inevitability come from? Might there be an unequal distribution of power, backed by vested interests, in public discourse and social institutions that permeates into private lives and psychologies? Architects are part of the times they live in, but they can also play a leading role in questioning “whether” these invasive technologies deserve our attention and deference, not just “how.” We need to question how technological applications create irreversible socio-behavioral “lock-in” phenomena, and it’s in cities, with all their intensity and connectivity, that we can most readily witness them.

Design is not just an art. It is also a way of communicating.

The role of an architect in a dense urban context is only partly comprised of formal design; the realization of a project is also the challenge of organizational management and knowledge sharing amongst various project stake¬holders. This is not a controversial observation, but worth remembering to conceptually re-frame the value an architect brings to a diverse project team. As globalization and professional specialization has expanded in recent decades, the market-oriented managerial class has siphoned away the architect’s responsibility to facilitate and contextualize complex development projects through a humanistic perspective. Has this been problematic? What has been missed by this shift in responsibility? Is there an evidence-based research inquiry that hypothesizes the material effects of dynamic stakeholder engagement in hyper-specialized design workflows? When does an architect convey their value to a project? How can designers effectively compartmentalize their skills in the complex project setting, with all its competing “cooks in the kitchen” and variable intensity?

Urban spatial forms reflect the dominant transportation technology of the era in which the relevant city significantly developed.

Modes of transportation have enduring and widespread indirect effects on urban spatial form. This is a critical starting point for imagining urban life of the future. How we move about impacts urban extents, the street grid, building orientation, access to public transportation, utility infrastructure, and other systems cities depend on. Prevailing transportation technologies must incentivize the characteristics of desirable urban form, such as density, mixed land use, multi-modal connectivity, and walkability. For example, why would we expect a rapidly developing ex-urban area built around the supremacy of the private automobile (electric, self-driving, or other¬wise) to result in more social connectivity, less impervious surfaces, and efficient district-wide heating and cooling? We can only leverage so much from the efficiency of “smart” technologies in our everyday lives if we still hold the operating assumption of endless economic growth and a culture of consumption.