The Human Touch in a Digital World

By October 31, 20182018

One thing I love about going to a conference is the opportunity to explore a new city. St Louis is called the Gateway City, not because of its giant catenary arch on the banks of the Mississippi, but because it used to be where you started from, back in the day when people said things like “go west young man.” It was a good place to buy everything you needed to stock up your wagon train, and by 1900 it boasted the busiest railway station in the world with 42 platforms lined up under a single roof span. Union Station is now a conference venue and host to this year’s BiLT North America, where the future of BIM and digital construction was hotly debated.

I had just one day to tour the city, so after a quick stroll around the base of Eero Saarinen’s famous arch, I headed inland to check out Wainwright Building. Designed by Chicago architect, Louis Sullivan in 1890, this was a seminal building in the development of the modern skyscraper. I was struck by the contrast between the bold, rhythmic verticals of the facade and the wild, intricate detailing of the terracotta spandrel panels. It seems to be a conversation between traditional craft skills and technological innovation. Wainwright building stands at a turning point in the history of our industry. Loadbearing masonry and staircases had set limits to the height of buildings for centuries. Structural steel plus Otis elevators suddenly made a ten storey building seem perfectly reasonable. Sullivan chipped in, as architects do, by showing how this new potential could be given a coherent expression.

Today, the innovations are digital. Cloud services are everywhere, and the whole world is a database. Will A.I. and robotics finally bring construction into line with the efficiency levels that other industries have achieved? BiLT is a “by users, for users” conference. The speakers are mostly hardened BIM addicts like myself. We get together and talk about “BIM-wash”, unrealistic claims that inflate the expectation of clients. We hammer our heads against the thorny problem of data standards in a complex and diverse industry. We used to think that BIM was all about a “single source of truth”, a virtual building that coordinates the entire team, from concept design through to building maintenance. That idea is still valid, but the focus is shifting. We are starting to accept the fact that different roles require different tools. What matters most is being able to connect the data.

Imagine a technician maintaining passenger elevators. They might use a smartphone app to guide them through diagnostic routines and record actions taken. The elevator company can farm this data and use it to analyse patterns, predict needs. It could feed into software for stock control, staff training, product development. Meanwhile, building owners have virtual models of the facilities they operate across the world. Architects and engineers have models of projects they designed and processes by which decisions were made. How do we make useful connections between these different data structures and software packages?

There are busy little algorithms that seem to know what adverts to send us on Facebook or LinkedIn, based on our activity on apparently unrelated platforms and services. Imagine a web of connections between designers, manufacturers, installers and operators. What might your digital assistant announce if it was plugged into this network? “Good morning, I have compiled 17 floor plans that illustrate different approaches to the problem you are currently working on. Would you like to see them?” Or perhaps it would ask, “Did you know that Louis Sullivan designed a building in 1890 that shows remarkable similarities to your current sketch?” Microsoft Word has been making intelligent suggestions to me as I type this article, so why wouldn’t my design software do the same? It may come sooner than we think.

It’s always important to have some fun in the evenings during a three-day conference. Our visit to the City Museum in St Louis fitted that bill admirably. Look it up. I would describe it as a cross between an art exhibit and an adventure playground. Sculptor Bob Cassilly took a derelict shoe warehouse and populated it with salvaged architectural and industrial objects. These are combined into structures that you can climb through, slide down, clamber over, or just admire. In the middle of all this I found an exhibit of terracotta by Sullivan & Elmslie. What are we to make of architectural ornament in the modern era? Will 3D printing technology bring swirling leaves and Celtic strapwork back to prominence on building facades? The seminal essay “Ornament and Crime” by Adolf Loos laid out the case for simplicity as a background to modern life in 1910. Artists like Picasso and Matisse broke away from realism around the same time. For the most part Architects remain highly critical of “Historical Pastiche”. Ornamental detail made sense when it was closely tied to craft skills, when it was a collaboration between architect and artisan. But in a world of where algorithms and robots construct our cities, where will we find that elusive freshness and vitality?

The closing keynote brought Sabin Howard to the stage, a figurative sculptor in the classical tradition. His process begins with hand-drawn studies from life, and physical manipulation of wet clay. Then it proceeds more mechanically by way of digital scaling and industrial casting. Finally, there is a return to manual techniques to impart more expressive surface textures. There is an important analogy here. As construction becomes more mechanized and design more computational, where will we find that human touch? It would be possible to laser-scan the terracotta panels of the Wainwright Building and 3d print them at a variety of scales. But is that what we want to do with our digital superpowers?

I left St Louis deeply impressed by the spirit of a time when architects and craftsmen worked closely together under the direct inspiration of natural forms. But I was also thinking about the birth of the skyscraper and the bold simplicity of a huge catenary arch overlooking the Mississippi. At the back of my mind was a simple question. How will we maintain the human touch in a digital world?

By Andrew Milburn, Associate