Jesus Has Left the Building: Architecture and Artificial Intelligence

“God is in the details” is reputed to have been uttered by architect Ludwig Mies […]

Duo Dickinson / 10.10.17

“God is in the details” is reputed to have been uttered by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe back when Mid-Century modern architecture made the idea of “expressive” details sexy to the world of architecture. Now the mention of God in architecture is a little “off” for most of my fellow architects. Like most in the over-educated 21st century “elite” demographic, my people are pretty secular, often beyond agnostic (yes, I am an architect).

The increasingly common public perception is that religious architecture can be appreciated as God-blind aesthetics, not manifesting soul-grabbing faith. In Spain the Sagrada Familia church is seen more as an architectural tourism site and a port through which to view the legacy of its long-dead architect, Antonio Gaudi. In the U.S. Grace Farms in New Canaan has, at its core, Grace Church—a New Age crucifix-free celebration of humanistic faith—also a tourist destination.

Grace Farms, New Canaan

Jesus may have left the building, but the mantras of the Pew Research Study do reflect that while we may be de-religion-izing, we are growing in the search for finding faith in something—almost 60% of us are finding a “sense of spiritual peace,” up from 50% in the last decade or so. While our priests and rabbis’ feet are becoming clay before our eyes, humans seek out the Sagrada Familias and the Grace Farms of the world. These places allude to the spiritual, in a faith-based tease, for the unconvinced. 

What is more human than a building? Buildings are made by and for humans—using every engineering trick in the book, costing money, involving professions, housing professions—buildings are direct projections of ego and control. The more idiosyncratic and personal they are, the more technology facilitates gitting’er’dun. The more sui generis our construction is, the more valid human vanity is proven to be.

The new architectural technologies available in the cyber age are called “Building Information Management” AKA “BIM”. This new generation of software is far, far beyond “Computer Aided Design”. The more miraculous, spontaneous and spiritually evocative these fully pre-meditated and thoroughly calculated buildings appear to be, the more BIM offers. Just like the buildings it helps create, BIM is an exquisitely human construction.

BIM is a Tower of Babel that works. Scores of architectural languages are combined:  structure, mechanical systems, surfaces and materials and their ongoing maintenance and cost can talk to each other in cyberspace. It’s an instant gratification of the design process that was once a fits-and-start drama. Now any layout can be infused with all the features and requirements of pretty much every construction technology used to build anything.

There are designers like me, who live with God as my worst critic and best friend every day, but, in truth there are fewer of us every day. Architects, like everybody else, are swimming against the blackhole of our collective reinvention via the explosion of artificial intelligence. What used to be a creative dance of innovation, involving many people, taking a lot of time and making many errors is morphing into BIM taking the building design process beyond the “genius sketch” as a “cut and paste” exercise. Defendability is assured in the BIM place as the database offers up the tried-and-true, time-tested systems in exquisite co-ordination and efficiency.

If belief in God in the Information Age has no established facts for the Age’s algorithm, then religion is treated as if it were astrology, a quaint human myth. When God is less important than the detail, architecture becomes just another way to accommodate and reflect human behavior, less about inspiring faith in what cannot be understood. This gets wierd if you base your practice, as I do, in making beauty.

Architectural tourism sees no difference between the High Line and Grace Farms. Both are unnecessary, delightful, three-dimensional art to visit, photograph and post on Facebook. In sinuous dance with their landscape—gritty urban or rolling hills—these places are filled with emotion and movement. But they are not churches.

Incarnation Chapel, CT – Designed by Duo Dickinson

The truth is, it’s the faith that makes a church—not the other way around. In my architectural practice, the vast majority of those needing their building to find a way to accommodate their faith, any faith, simply want most of the building to get out of the way. My take is that we are searching for connection. We are increasingly disconnected from other humans, let alone God, staring at phones, clicking on mouses and posting/liking/sharing in safe isolation.

I fear that will become the design process in architecture. Designing a building, the new software may ultimately allow the BIM version of, allowing us to “swipe right,” creating a place to sate our spiritual thirst. It’s so much easier to use a computer filled with old answers to new questions. The new world of artificial intelligence offers unending defendable simulations of the human spirit. The human-to-human design process in architectural design is fraught with uncertainties, failures and faith in the ultimate beauty of the experience.