(1. Artificial Intelligence, 2. Architectural Imagery)
[GS Grice, Second Draft, 13 May 2024]

For artists of all descriptions, Artificial Intelligence has arrived like a tsunami, with the power to alter the professional Architectural Imagery landscape of forever. Experts in the fields of visual arts, writing, broadcasting, netcasting, cinema, television, dancing, architecture, etc., etc., have already weighed in on the effects—present and future—and recommended response. Their opinions offer reason for rejoicing and despair.
[READ ON] [61]

First, the rejoicing: As AI1 affects AI2(see notes above), current thinking leans toward the positive effects. Here is a resource that offers instantaneous illustrations and videos, generated from imagery or text. It can find out enough about us to offer solutions that anticipate our preferences, all within seconds. It allows us to fine-tune its work by incorporating our instructions, selecting among alternative solutions, and sketching in new information. In theory, at least, this allows us to assume the position of a much more discerning artist, like an art director or editor, whose creative intent is executed by skilled hands other than our own. We are still in charge.

Then a bit of despair: There is the worrying prospect that human input—spontaneity, irony, subtext, mood, metaphor, flashes of brilliance, unique connections, unexpected genius, an epiphany that occurred while we were walking the dog—will only be diminished as we cede control to digital overlords. It will be so easy to allow this to happen. Then, there are the very real concerns regarding the ownership of the material that AI1 makes use of, without permission or attribution. These concerns are the subject of ongoing deliberation, too complex and protracted to discuss here. [201]

This is where the artist’s real creative genius enters the picture. We’ve all noticed that the path for AI1 has been gradually paved by earlier digital incursions, in particular: image manipulation, shorter and more aggressive messaging, encouragement of briefer attention spans, and the prevalence of distractions (“shiny objects”) that subtly erode our ability to focus. These well documented phenomena deserve a collective sigh.

Then there is our diminishing ability to be discerning—to appreciate subtle qualitative distinctions—which is not an AI1 (or even a digital) phenomenon, but a hidden carry-over from the Industrial revolution, when craftsmanship ceded ground to mass-production. A casting is as good as a carving, and you can create as many of them as you like. Efficiency and economy are paramount. [125]

As architectural illustrators, we are all too familiar with this approach. A client eager to sell a building-as-product requires a user-friendly representation, whether it’s a video, flat art, AR, VR, or something yet to be invented. Cost and delivery time are prime considerations. Anything requiring too much thought or audience participation (other than signing a check, guaranteeing a loan, or issuing a planning permit), is to be discouraged.

We can see this same attitude reflected in architectural illustrations, even as early as the 19th century (apologies to Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and others whose work is unrivalled even today). In more recent times, this type of work materializes as glossy-building-as-product illustrations with moody skies, happy but inattentive foreground figures, soft vegetation, a glint of reflected sunlight, and generic context to suit. Discernment here is unwarranted. This kind of imagery does the job.

But what do we mean by discernment, and what exactly is the job? [154]

Discernment, as Merriam-Webster online defines it, is “a wise way of judging things,” which necessarily involves insight, discrimination (as in drawing distinctions), perceptivity, rationality, concentration, and various other activities that digital communication tends to discourage. But isn’t it just a natural human tendency to avoid putting in “unnecessary” effort? Let’s just get it done. As an architect, you want a nice picture of your building (as agreed in your contract), not a whole design manifesto. You can easily fulfill this requirement with your modeling program and a bit of entourage to add scale and human interest. For added artistic finesse, you can send your model to an offshore rendering farm … or … plug it into an AI1 rendering program. The result will be precisely what you expect and possibly what you need. But unfortunately, not what you might hope for. There’s your building. There’s your contractual obligation. There’s everything that your files contain. But where are the little touches of inspiration and innuendo that transform the subject from prose into poetry? [171]

And that’s the really job. Stating the unstated: rooting out the essence of an architectural idea and expressing it. As architect–illustrator Hugh Ferriss put it: “to tell the truth about a building,” by which he meant more than just the forms and spaces, but also the mood, the personality, the less obvious attributes and, just as important, the intentions of the architect that might need to be coaxed from the final design product.

Architecture is a multi-layered art. It touches on so many disciplines—and the number increases daily—that no individual can ever master them all. Yet every architect, designer, or engineer possesses personal strengths, goals and aspirations that may not easily be quantified or digitally represented in every project, but that reside somewhere beneath the surface—an imagined but as yet unexpressed reality. An undiscerning observer or an unquestioning illustrator may not be bothered to search for such things. Architects themselves may overlook them, and Artificial Intelligence, to date—deficient as it is in insight, perceptivity, subtext, mood, metaphor, spontaneity, flashes of brilliance, unique connections, etc.—is poorly equipped to express realities that have only been imagined. [189]

ASAI Past President Jose Uribe has urged everyone to

join us in working collectively, so that we continue to advance the high standards of architectural illustration and, with this, the future of our profession. Together we can ensure the quality of future imagery, so it can connect, question and propose new environments, creating a better habitat for all of us to live in.” – AIP36

We might imagine that “together,” implies that both physically and artificially intelligent entities can enjoy a shared, collaborative future. [83] = [952]


  1. Leaving the issue of copyright to a future discussion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *