In a recent post, I argued that there was still some life left in both architecture and theory. The only questions I still have are: Will what look like the buildings in the future actually be the buildings of the future? And will theory become absorbed into the masses of data swirling all around us?
A recent interview with Peter Guthrie confirmed what most of us already know: architectural renderings are “indistinguishable from photos.” Guthrie didn’t have to just make that claim—the images published with the interview made it evident that you could not know from looking at them whether they were examples of documentation of or speculation about a future result. It is not so much that we can simulate just about every texture and shadow these days, it is that people who create renderings are knowledgeable about photography and sophisticated enough to create what Guthrie calls the “atmospherics”—images that make such constructions believable.
On the other hand, photography is becoming more and more interested in "atmospherics," as well as in constructing alternate realities. While Iwan Baan might still be in the mode of documentation, his work comes from a wider concern about how we inhabit our environment. Some of his most celebrated images are of those buildings under construction and expropriated by squatters (Torre David, Venezuela). Or of Manhattan turned into a ghost landscape after Sandy. The photographer Andreas Gursky manipulates what look like photorealistic renderings on the computer to create huge images that are more real than real, making us see fundamental aspects of our reality. Gregory Crewdson simply takes over whole parts of small towns or suburban neighborhoods and spends days setting up a fictional situation to create one image full of depth and mystery. He then further manipulates the image after he shoots that scene.
You can’t live in these images. But I wonder whether some day you might be able to. Given the growth in technology, might it be that far-fetched to imagine that some day you will be able to just program whether you want to wake up in Versailles or Villa Savoie and have a projected—even haptic—reality unfold around you? Might buildings become programs on concrete or steel or carbon skeletons?
Before we get to that future scenario, I wonder whether such simulations are not altering what we traditionally think of as architecture—the planning and plotting of buildings—into something more like the scenario-planning so central to the lives of most corporations (and some governments). Is it not a way to find different resolutions, or social and physical relations, possible when we used to think they were so complex that only the well-trained architect could imagine their delicate balance and orchestration? If that is so, might the skills to create such scenarios not exist in other realms? Or how should architectural training adapt to acknowledge this new (un)reality?
Finally, if thinking about architecture is mostly grounded in speculation about how the designed and ultimately built environment creates a more or less permanent framework for social and physical relations, whether by providing “firmness, commodity, and delight,” or any other means, do we need a theory that accounts for a fundamentally evanescent set of relationships to a continually-shifting social scene? A world that is infinitely able to be manipulated, a world of possibilities and possible interpretations rather than built facts? Might we find such a theory in an analysis of the nature of data and its relation to our perception? Might the assemblage of information and the continually-shifting proposition for recombination lie at the heart of future architecture? Or will something remain—and if it does, will it just be a ghost in the machine?
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.