chris wise engineer

Man vs Machine..flesh and blood is going to beat the damn monster

The Domesday Book and a digital 3D building model…are they by any chance related? Well, yes, if last week was anything to go by. Then I stood on a farm in Cornwall that is precisely, yet totally inaccurately shown in the Domesday Book as a “barren wasteland”. Its owner Mr Pengelly told me this with some pride, as he is the latest in a thousand year line of farmers there. Named after the Cornish “pen“, top, with “kelly“, copse, Farmer “Copse-at-the-Top-of-the-Land” is a man slow of speech but embodied with a great earthy awareness. He can tell you without a moment’s thought why his farm flourishes as it does, and how. Where the wholesome water flows, which soil is best for growing, when is the best week for planting wheat, how to move sheep around, why the farmhouse is where it is. What, Where, Which, When, How, but most important, Why? For although the Domesday Book is celebrated for its glimpse into Norman life, Pengelly’s farm is actually a fair bit more than the “What” of a barren wasteland, just as an English village is a little more “How” than a pub and a church.

Look for Mr Pengelly’s farm on Google Maps and its 800 acres have been reduced down to only a few lines and a name. Ask a computer programme to interpret such a map and you will get nothing more. A line may signify a stone wall, but the robot programme doesn’t understand Wall-ness….what is a wall for, how is it made, how is it maintained, why is it even stone, does it keep the sheep in? As Ben Macintyre of The Times wrote the other day: “To a robotic system, a tank and school bus are the same.” (this is taken from a recent MoD internal report). He happened to be writing not about farm walls, but robotic missiles exploding in Afghanistan operated by men sitting comfortably at their computers in Nevada, but the point is made. Macintyre’s example is about the reception and interpretation of computerised information, but as building designers we are more interested in the transmission of our ideas, and we often use a computer to do that for us.

If a computer can’t tell the difference between a bus and a tank, do we have any right to expect it, or us as its “operator”, to be able to communicate any more than an abbreviated Whatness. Imagine Macintyre’s process in reverse; make a CAD drawing of a map, and then go out and try to create the place you have drawn using only what’s on the map. 99.999% of all the social subtlety we find in the real world will be missing from your project. Here’s an example of over-reliance on computerised “facts”, for at a meeting with a name-brand “global professional services” firm recently, we were told that “There are people upstairs who can tell you the value of anything”. Yes, precision without accuracy. I think to myself, and to as many decimal places as you like. Of course we have other devices we can use….use your heart or your guts or your wits instead and you risk anarchy or enlightenment or every other human nuance and sometimes you get all of them together in a wonderful rich stew beyond any computer.

Which brings me to the point….that computer “operators” (like me sometimes I regret to add) are stripping the soul from architecture, eroding trust in architecture as a high Art. On my desk, I have a PR brochure from a big architectural practice full of visualisations of gigantic projects….each using a computer-generated geometry as its starting (and ending) point, and no doubt drawn up to precisely a fraction of a micro-millimetre. They are grotesque, and look like no place for humans. Most of them don’t even allow computerised humans to contaminate the pure geometry, just as certain architects like to have their buildings photographed without the distraction of people in them.

What ever happened to architecture built from understanding? Understanding of the landscape, the palette of materials, even the climate; where the best are able to position the building in harmony with the landscape whether natural or manmade; where the craftsman is embraced in that process with trust not Microsoft schedules; where that understanding inspires trust in architects and architecture.

I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I’ll risk something more than a sound-bite…..for I can’t help feeling this computerised replacement for the real world with all its layering, fonts, milestones, 3D models, renders, digital pictures, and spreadsheets, marks a loss of conscience; even a loss of the spirituality that brought us to where we are. Every day we reduce gales, crowds, families and the patina of ageing to spreadsheets and verified views. Feel the design through your pencil, in your waters, and in your bones before you resort to the seductive power of the robot computer, not afterwards, when it’s too late. “The robot is going to lose. Not by much. But when the final score is tallied, flesh and blood is going to beat the damn monster” (Adam Smith)

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