SMArchS Colloquium – Deepak Aatresh on Computation in Architecture

Three weeks ago, engineer Deepak Aatresh lectured in our SMArchS colloquium class about mobilizing massive computation in the AEC industries.[1] His company, Aditazz, has developed digital software tools realize design objectives by processing quantized inputs. I’ve been meaning to post about this lecture for some time now but haven’t had the chance…because, well, of school. I am pleased I finally got around to doing it, however, because his proposition is a mixed bag of provocative, exciting, and unsettling.

Aatresh believes that computational methods used in the tech and communications sectors can revolutionize the AEC industry by abridging the design and construction processes, while reducing costs at all stages and increasing building performance. Throughout his talk, he invoked the metaphor of the semiconductor industry and its perpetual doubling of productivity to convey the kind of jumps in efficiency he envisions in AEC by virtue of computational methods. He described how all of the considerations an architect takes into account in the design process – from user-based, to programmatic, to environmental – can be reduced to quantized variables and weighed against others to yield viable architectural options: as inputs vary, form responds accordingly. Of course, this kind of computational method is not new – it exists in different forms in certain software programs that architects use already as tools during discrete phases of the research and design processes. Further, talk of computation revolutionizing architecture is also not new. Aatresh, however, advocated for computational methods to constitute the entire design process. This begs the question, what about the architect?

This question of agency surfaced after the lecture. What is the point of the architect if she is to become relegated to “turning the dials,” so to say, but cannot intimately and personally direct the design? Equipped with this technology and a list of considerations to account for, couldn’t any reasonable client assume this task, and direct the project as he wishes? If it is, or will be, possible to factor an abstract concept or form into computational processes, wouldn’t they, too, have to become quantized parameters, fixing the range of possible outcomes? And if not, will architecture’s expression become “computational” rationalism? There is something very essentially human about architecture, and the persistence of the discipline testifies to its value as such. This issue becomes involved with deep-seated questions in computational technology in general, namely, is it possible for a computer to mimic human capabilities?

Despite these qualms, Aatresh’s argument is worth considering. He argued that the expense and time involved in architecture currently precludes it from having an impact outside of small privileged spheres, and in addressing critical needs that deserve attention such as housing and infrastructure in dense areas or in the developing world. By this measure, any means that extends architecture’s reach is to be lauded. It we don’t agree with the principles of his method, it may still be worth following his intentions in democratizing design.

I am ignorant of critical opinion on the role of computation in design. Whether or not these kinds of ideas will take hold and overturn the architectural discipline, it seems that, as my classmate Carlos has said, “different agents in design can be … in constant negation.”[2] Can conceptual architectural thinking and comprehensive computation be harmoniously synthesized? It is worth being conscious of, and weighing the roles of, humans and computers as we move forward.

[1] I am thankful for my classmate Carlos Sandoval’s comprehensive response to Deepak Aatresh’s lecture on our SMArchS Colloquium class blog, which I read to refresh my memory before writing this post!

[2] Carlos Sandoval, “Agencies in Negotiation,” SMArchS Colloquium Fall 2014, http://4.221.scripts.mit.edu/fa14/?cat=28.

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