What were your goals when starting your practice, The Living, back in 2006?
David Benjamin: In a way, the first ideas of the practice are related to the name. I was interested in creating a version of interactive or responsive architecture, and that has connected over time to an interest in examining architecture through biology and actual living organisms. Those research topics are really related to ideas about expanding the definition of architecture. Maybe buildings are not just static inert objects, but can be dynamic systems. Maybe they are not just dug into one site, but are actually connecting many different places. When I came to architecture school [at Columbia University in New York], I was very interested in the combination of art and science that architecture has traditionally represented, but I was also aware of and interested in a changing world that might suggest more blurring of disciplines and new possibilities for architecture. Going into practice, although we were starting small and our prototypes were very small, we were interested in thinking big and connecting to the world. It was natural to be doing experiments that, although they fell toward the limits of what we typically think of as architecture, had at least a hypothesis about how it could impact bigger collections of buildings in cities.
How is your firm structured? Who works at The Living?
Our core team is about 10 people. Most are trained as architects but also have an interest in other types of research including computation and biology. We have one team member who is a computer scientist—that’s an important and unique role for us to have. But we are organized and operate in such a way that we have great collaborators on almost all of our projects who are outside of our core team, such as biologists or material scientists—even artists and musicians.
Research is such a driver for your practice. How do you prioritize it?
We’re probably more known for research methods and threads than for any specific formal approach to a project. And that’s interesting, that maybe in some version of the future, architects will be known more for their research approach, or their concepts about materials and sustainability, than for a formal signature. We’ve been lucky to find a way to do self-initiated research projects, write papers, present at conferences, and make prototypes that have a life of their own. But we also do research while working for clients, using creativity to respond to their needs and those projects’ specific requirements. Operating between those worlds creates a nice feedback loop. So, rather than see that as a tension, we are able to see each as lending insights to the other.
Tell me about the relationship that you have with Autodesk, which acquired The Living in 2014. That’s a unique setup for a firm. How did it come about?
It was a hypothesis about collaboration of the future, on both of our parts: a hypothesis from Autodesk that an experimental design studio could be part of an R&D department in a big company, and a hypothesis from The Living that this connection could allow us to do more of what we were already doing in a high-powered way. Autodesk has a connection to a broader ecosystem of research on a variety of interesting topics with super-high-powered researchers. The Living works on commissions and applied research for outside clients like any firm, but to be connected to this bigger community of research in a big company that is thinking about the cities and design processes of the future in ways that are similar to us—and in some ways that are different than us—is valuable. Our mission is to create interesting designs in the built world, and Autodesk’s mission is to make software tools for people to design and build things. At first glance it seems pretty different, but we share a lot in our thinking about new materials, new workflows, and new ways to balance creativity with processes of computation.
One of the areas you’ve been exploring for years is generative design: using computer algorithms to create thousands of possible solutions to a design problem. How have you been furthering this research?
It is connected to some of my work teaching at Columbia, and some of our early prototypes, including our work for Airbus, where we used generative design to design airplane parts. But I was excited to apply generative design on a larger scale in our recently completed MaRS office space for Autodesk in Toronto, because I’ve always believed that generative design is best at solving multidimensional problems that are difficult for a human with linear thinking to solve with intuition. Autodesk knows the value—they have a variety of researchers in this exact building working on generative design. I was also interested in exploring how to take some of the qualitative aspects of architecture like human experience and preference, and to see if we could put those into a computational workflow—to combine them with the quantitative aspects.
How is the industry reacting to generative design? Aren’t architects concerned that it heralds an age of “letting the computer design for us”?
I’ve been surprised by the number of potential clients who have responded super positively. People who are designing everything from office spaces to factory layouts to urban design saw the way we applied a generative design approach for an office space and were able to read their own problem into it, and say, “Hey, that’s pretty much what we do when we’re trying to lay out a neighborhood and balance global concerns and those that will benefit an individual housing unit.” We’ve also had a number of architecture firms say, “We’re doing parts of this as well, but what you’re showing seems to be offering a comprehensiveness that we’re interested in. Could we talk more?” We’ve had a lot more positive response than negative—even more than I expected. But I myself am suspicious of any trend of people saying, “The computer gave us this result, and it must be right since it’s based on data.” A misuse of this technology could allow us to just hit the repeat button and crank out unthoughtful architectural responses in a lot of different conditions. But I think that’s actually unlikely. The more people understand the technology, the more they will see that it may require us to rethink the way we design, but it doesn’t replace the designer. It’s still very important to be able to define the goals of the project, to think through the geometric system, and to interpret the 10,000 results later on in the process. The computer can tell you what the mathematically best designs are, but it can’t tell you a single best design if you have more than one objective. There are a lot of important inputs for human values, judgment, and creativity. In a strange way, the process of generative design might lead us in the direction that design with biology leads us, which is design at a slightly higher level. You design systems rather than jumping immediately to final forms. It’s a new process, and an exciting one, to design in a more open-ended way that can lead to unexpected and valuable outcomes.
You’ve also been exploring machine learning in recent projects—the same types of algorithms that serve up targeted ads—but with applications for architecture.
Yes, we used it first for the Embodied Computation Lab at Princeton to detect knots in wood. But after working with it, we realized that there’s something really interesting and important—and even a little bit dangerous or cautionary—about using machine learning and all of this data to make decisions. We explored that in a project called Twin Mirror for the 2017 Seoul Biennale (see page 120), where we tried to create an installation that would reveal some of the bias that sometimes goes on in the use of these technologies. We use new technologies, and are interested in how things like machine learning or generative design can open up new possibilities for design and for architecture. But we want to explore both the possibilities and the drawbacks. Let’s use the computer to detect patterns that a human can’t discover, but also be aware of how it derived that answer, and what we need to double-check before accepting that recommendation.
Yours is a very different practice model than a lot of others in the industry. Are there lessons that other, more traditional, practices can learn from firms like yours?
I do think that already, a variety of firms are interested in both the approach and projects of an experimental firm like mine. Some of it may be generational. The generation that’s graduating from architecture school now is thinking about the magnitude of some of our sociopolitical and environmental world problems, and of the technologies available, and about where we are now in relation to the outdated idea of an architect being a lone genius who just sketches a brilliant solution in his or her notebook. There’s a possibility that our disciplines as we’ve defined them for many years—both in academia and out in practice—might be slightly outdated, and are under a pressure to be more interdisciplinary. I’d like to think that our firm is part of that dialogue.
You said that when you started your firm you were looking for a new definition of architecture. Have you found it?
I’m still operating more through questions than answers. But there are a number of hypotheses that interest me now—like expanding the definition of sustainability, and thinking of buildings and cities in terms of their impact. Not just as static fixed objects that are only relevant on the day that construction is completed and the photographs are taken, but that have a life both before and after that that architects can’t completely control, but can influence. I’m not sure I’m after a single new definition. I’m not alone in these interests: in terms of using a biological approach, or using computation in an exploratory way. I’m not trying to be someone who is off on their own far-out exploration. I think these trends are of interest to a variety of people inside and outside of architecture, who are coming together and starting to suggest approaches to buildings and cities that are slightly different.
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