There is a new craze in town. Recently, designers have been typing prompts into a diffusion-based artificial intelligence (AI) platform and waiting for images of never-before-seen buildings, logos, products, and more to materialize within seconds. Platforms like Midjourney are built on data sets of billions of existing images scraped from the web. In this vast library, you will find pictures of buildings, birds, balloons, and beaks, so if a building in the shape of a bird with a beak made of balloons is something you are looking for, type it in and Midjourney will deliver. But beware—it’s addictive. In less than a month of using AI, I have created 11,515 images.
Midjourney (or DALL-E 2, Disco Diffusion, Imagen—there are many versions and more coming) is a text-to-image AI. In lay terms, it’s a web-based platform accessed through Discord (think: chat room) in which you type “/imagine” followed by a prompt, which is a description of what you would like the AI to create. Your imagination is the limit. For example: “/imagine a small house made of dinosaur fossils.” Hit return and the AI analyzes your prompt, searches through its database to find images to pair with your text, and then constructs four completely original images from a random pattern of dots. You have the option to upscale (add resolution) and vary any or all of the four images or run through a new iteration of your prompt. The AI fills in anything you left out of the prompt with elements related to the objects and parameters that would typically be associated with the content you provide. So, if you forget to include “doors” and “windows,” the AI will, in all likelihood, add them for you. On the other hand, if you want to exercise a little more control or replace doors with beehives, then add more detail to the prompt—color, material, entourage, mood, view, lighting, image aspect ratio, or even style—and run it again. Do this over and over (I have found the more upscaling and variation, the better) until you achieve a result that wows you. Or, if that particular thread is not doing it for you, type a few more words, and off you go with your next cocreation.
These images are designs coauthored (if you want to call it that) with AI, so I haven’t done the heavy lifting. We have designed houses on a lake, skyscrapers in Manhattan, hotel lobbies for a future when 3D printing and robotic fabrication are ubiquitous, housing blocks in the shape of letters, cities made of ingots, and even the background for the poster for our school’s fall 2022 lecture series. With this AI, there is room for conventional design, avant-garde speculative projects, and utopian (or dystopian) world-building. It’s hard to find the limits of its design capability.
I have no doubt that this will be a complete game changer, not only for architecture but for every creative discipline. AI is already deeply embedded in our lives (targeted marketing, self-driving cars, facial recognition), so it was only a matter of time before it found its way into architecture. Soon it will be in every office, every school, and every smartphone, and will play some role in the design process. The threshold of entry is minimal. For the first time, we have a high-level design technology that both experts and nonexperts have immediate and equal access to. It might seem that such ready access will contribute to the devaluing of expertise that affects many professions, including architecture, but I don’t think so. AI is surprisingly good at composition and cross-referencing a complex web of architectural histories, styles, and contexts— things that even experts in our field often lose sight of. And when a vast majority (some say 75 percent) of buildings are not designed by architects, then not having design-capable AI in the hands of others would be far worse: The proof is everywhere.
Of course, not everyone agrees. The images being posted to social media have received a fair dose of criticism. While the number of users is quickly reaching gold-rush proportions, there are plenty of skeptics. The most common refrain is some variant of “It’s just an image; when will it draw sections?” It takes a lot of work to go from a two-dimensional image to a fully three-dimensional building, but that is what architects do. Maybe it’s the photo-realistic quality of the images or the perceived existential threat to our livelihood, but these are sketches, and what is more stereotypical than an architect drawing on napkins at the first client meeting? So what if our napkin sketch is now a highly detailed, realistic representation of a completely formed building proposal? It’s still just a sketch.
Like Midjourney, architects navigate our way through various resolutions. We go from a concept to a schematic set of drawings, which we then develop until finally we complete a set of construction documents. Those who are concerned that AI doesn’t (yet) give us plans, or sections, or a 3D model might be insecure about the enduring role of architects or just looking for a reason to ignore it, but this is not the first time the practice of architecture has been wholly transformed, nor will it be the last. We are still experts, and our expertise holds value, even in the face of AI. We should not hope for an AI to solve everything or be scared of it; we should be excited for the opportunities and creative tangents it will provide along the way.
Technology has the capacity to transform the work of architects, and as a community we should approach its offerings with openness, persistence, optimism, and yes, skepticism. We must be clear-eyed about the pitfalls and ethical issues surrounding AI as we move forward. There will be new questions around labor, energy, authorship, copyright, representation, and appropriation—all of which will need to be addressed. But if we move forward with the purpose of furthering the ability of architects to contribute to contemporary material and cultural discourses, then AI has the potential to expand our influence and help us be effective agents for change. We must participate in the development and use of AI to ensure that it meets the needs of the profession and those whom we serve, or we stand to lose even more ground to those who would place profits over progress.
Kory Bieg is the program director for architecture at The University of Texas at Austin and principal of OTA+.