It’s easy to leave a week jam-packed with cutting-edge research feeling optimistic about the various futures that the architectural discipline holds before us. But maybe that optimism has less to do with the power of any one standout or breakthrough (though there were many) and more about what it means to come together—in person, finally!—to dialogue about those futures as a collaborative and collective body.
“Hybrids & Haecceities,” the 41st annual conference for the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA), convened at the University of Pennsylvania in late October, the first in-person event for the non-profit, volunteer-led organization since the onset of the pandemic. Originally set to host the event in 2020 following “Ubiquity and Autonomy” at the University of Texas at Austin in 2019, the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at Penn muscled through two years of delays which culminated in a particularly “lifegiving” iteration, in the words of ACADIA President Jenny E. Sabin (Associate Dean for Design at Cornell AAP and Principal at Jenny Sabin Studio), describing how it felt to be back together again.
With a delayed deadline did not necessarily come more time; the planning committee instead continued to work and survey the world around as it continued to evolve in front of their eyes. “How are people’s mindsets going to change from two years ago? Are people less social? Are people less interested in traveling?” inquired Hina Jamelle, Weitzman co-chair, on the anxieties that plagued the planning process. Fellow co-chair Dorit Aviv noted that the question of travel and the severe challenges that COVID-19 wrought weren’t the only notable differences since 2020: “Other things have happened in the past two years other than just the pandemic,” referring explicitly to the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing cultural discussions around race and equity that have occurred since 2020. In light of those conversations, ACADIA as an organization has been more committed to issues of equity, inclusion, and bias. Sabin told AN, “ACADIA has been deeply committed to diversifying our access, increasing our audience, increasing access, developing a much more critical discourse around computation and bringing in voices outside our community.” Fittingly, this year’s conference was the most gender-diverse yet, boasting 50 percent female attendees (up from 29 percent as recently as 2019). A generous sponsorship from Autodesk also funded the possibility of live-streaming all the conference proceedings to over 600 students worldwide for free.
On the content of the conference itself, paper and project presentation sessions alongside award ceremonies, keynote addresses, and panel discussions followed the individual workshops which kicked off the week. A massive variety of individual research—66 papers and 29 projects, among other presentations—was shared, though a number of themes emerged across the work.
Extradisciplinary: Collaboration and the Nonhuman
Present throughout was the focus on the extra-disciplinary: on collaboration with other disciplines which are not traditionally linked with the architecture and construction industries; on architecture beyond humanism; and, ultimately, beyond novel research and into industry adoption. This was seen in the opening project session which featured calcium carbonate tiles for oyster habitation (“Oyster Tiling: Augmented Ecological Topology,” Alex Schofield, Megan Considine, Steven Rumrill), 3D-printed cellulose matrices that structurally support new tree growth before dissolving (“Nurse Pod: A Critical Examination of the Role of Decay in Architecture,” Marc Swackhamer, Blair Satterfield, Brian Buma, Hadley Rhodes, Matthew Hayes, Logan Ebert), and bacteria-growing structures which pair machine vision with human interaction to determine feeding, and ultimately, growing patterns (“Degrees of Life: Human-Bacteria Interaction in Architectural Space” by Daniela Mitterberger, Tiziano Derme, and Barbara Imhof). The ecological philosopher Timothy Morton has written extensively about how a focus on the extra- and non-human is beneficial, even necessary, in the era of climate crisis. Calling for “solidarity with non-human people,” the subtitle to Morton’s 2017 book Humankind, the ethical, political, and even aesthetic implications of thinking beyond modernist humanism are required if we are to reverse our ecological course. ACADIA in 2022 was ripe with examples of researchers questioning this leading edge via architectural technology.
Perhaps less philosophical, there was also a much-more grounded attempt at research geared toward AEC industry adoption. Sabin told AN, “The space for the work for a long time has been the gallery, the museum, or in our labs. We’re starting to see a lot more examples of active research translating into practice by our community.” While fabrication and material research has often, in the past, remained novel and exploratory, papers such as “Controlled Buckling: Ultra-Thin Folded Paper Formwork” by Joseph Choma, Loret-Fritschi, and Fabio Scotto, “Deep Relief: Integrating Convolutional Neural Networks & Industrial Robotic Hot Wire Fabrication of Ruled Surfaces” by Andrew Saunders, Riley Studebaker, and Claire Moriarty, and “Tangential Timber: Non-linear Wood Masonry” by Katie MacDonald, Kyle Schumann, and Abigail Hassell all explore radically pragmatic yet aesthetically beautiful fabrications which can make small, incremental, and (potentially) easily-adaptable shifts to existing or familiar construction components and systems.
Specificity and the Importance of Tiny Things
Small, incremental, and easily adaptable shifts can result in massive improvements. As Choma mentioned in the panel discussion following his presentation, most buildings are constructed of simple columns and slabs; even relatively minor adjustments and efficiencies can create a dramatic butterfly effect (of more efficient material-usage, reduced carbon, improved aesthetics, etc.) when applied at scale across an industry. While both the construction and architecture industries are constrained by the cheap and quick incentive structure of capitalism that favors the known quantity, subversions to the known can potentially bring about positive forward progress (even if the system remains flawed).
Within the terms of the theme of the conference, these changes can be understood as haecceities, or the specific qualities which make something that particular thing. Robert Stuart-Smith, one of the conference co-chairs from Weitzman, spoke in the opening panel about the shift that has occurred in computational design away from variability and toward the specific. According to Stuart-Smith, we have embarked upon the fourth industrial revolution, and the era of mass customization is finally upon us, if different than originally promised; while the bespoke was historically an “elitist domain,” specific, custom solutions aren’t necessarily any more laborious or expensive than mass produced ones today.
What tied this all together wasn’t actually a presentation on a particular project or area of research, but a “tiny manifesto” by Julianna Cano in the “Field Notes” session, a relatively new format for theory, odds and ends, and general miscellany. Cano, a recent graduate from Penn and a designer at Snøhetta, argued for a smaller, more detailed focus; that “we must avoid falling back into exceptionalism” and “build a world where microcosms thrive.” This line of thinking stands directly against something like Bjarke Ingels’ widely-ridiculed “Masterplanet,” a colossal (and colonial) effort of hubris which treats climate change and the planet as a simple game only in need of a genius design solution. Cano instead suggested we think “ontologically big but physically small: a birdloft, not a zoo.” Taken within the context of a group of researchers, whose work encompasses decades (if not centuries) of highly specific, seemingly small tasks—3D-printing a brick, robotically-bending a metal plate, or forming a column out of paper—are not insignificant or meaningless because they have a narrow focus. In fact, quite the opposite. Imperfect, unresolved, even utterly failed efforts are still worthwhile. As Antoine Picon eloquently noted in his closing keynote, “we live in all the ruins and failed perfect worlds and architectures of past times. We live in an unfulfilled dream.”
AI, Ethics, and Inclusion
Artificial intelligence has been a building topic of research within the architectural discipline for at least the last five years, finally crescendoing this year during the Summer of Midjourney. ACADIA fittingly dedicated a veritable mini-conference on the subject on the final day of the proceedings. Multiple paper presentations described various applications of AI processes applied to design proposals—from discrete, self-assembling autonomous robots, Deep Relief’s Gabo-trained ruled surfaces, or purposely-misclassified objects which deter the surveillance state. Artists/software developer Chigozie Nri of Stability AI and Joel Simon of ArtBreeder gave a deeper understanding of how text-to-image (TTI) tools have developed to their current state, how they see them as particularly suited for artists and creative work, and what could come next. Antoine Picon and a closing panel featuring Picon, Sabin, Jamelle, Andrew Kudless, and Ferda Kolatan discussed the deeper implications of Midjourney and how AI might not only be implemented within architectural work but redefine the role of the architect in and of itself. Sabin pointed out that, as Nri and Simon presented, these TTI tools are both incredibly powerful but also incredibly accessible; most of the tools that have developed (Midjourney, Dall-E, Stable Diffusion, etc.) were the product of OpenAI’s groundbreaking open-source release of Contrastive Language-Image Pretraining (CLIP), which has allowed amateur programmers and developers outside the traditional centralized corporate research labs the ability to develop robust tools. For Simon, the promise of this open-source revolution is that “the next big thing… can come from relative outsiders.” Kudless built off this benefit as it pertains to architectural education, noting that with the proliferation of more (and more complex) softwares, it’s actually really hard for students to simply produce architecture today. What Kudless has already found promising with TTI tools with his students is that they can be used right away. Design ideas can be quickly tested, iterated, tweaked, scrapped without much time or labor, like a napkin sketch but with far more resolution.
But with excitement also comes a word of caution. Sabin explicitly referenced a recent New York Times profile on Emad Mostaque, founder and chief executive of Stability AI, that pierced the myth of liberatory open-source software, saying,
If this all sounds eerily familiar, it’s because Mr. Mostaque’s pitch echoes the utopian dreams of an earlier generation of tech founders, like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter. Those men also raced to put powerful new technology into the hands of billions of people, barely pausing to consider what harm might result.
Sabin contended that architects and designers must remain critical of these tools, of the downfalls of the libertarian open-source modus operandi of Silicon Valley, the bias inherent in training data and generative AI algorithms, and the potential for deepfakes and misinformation, political or otherwise. “There is a certain level of naivete in putting these tools out here without seriously considering the consequences,” not mincing words around the pitfalls of technopositivism. Kudless later, in discussing how to use the tools, argued that the answer can’t be a retreat from the tools: “I don’t see disengagement as the solution either,” echoing Sabin’s call for criticality and (self-)awareness of bias.
While the awareness of the dangers and critical outlook of these AI tools is a positive step for a community devoted to technological advancement, which could be forgiven for blind optimism, resolution on the path forward is still, well, unresolved. But resolution is not necessarily the task of a single weekend in Philadelphia by a group of architectural technologists—especially when the technology in question itself is evolving at a lightning pace.
Also notably absent, despite conversations about the future role of the architect and their work—a refrain from Picon and others was that the architect of the future may be more of a “curator” than “creator”—was much mention of the contemporary state of architectural labor in practice. SHoP Architects, conventionally considered one of the world’s leading architectural firms in digital practice and a previous contributor at ACADIA, was absent after a year that saw them retain a union-busting attorney to snuff out a vote to form the first architectural workers’ union in the U.S. in almost 80 years. Conversely, Brooklyn’s Bernheimer Architecture staff successfully formed a union with voluntary recognition and support from ownership and management. While this may seem an aside amongst a focus on technology, and to some extent it is—what would a paper focused on architectural labor and unionization have to do explicitly with technology?—philosophical and speculative discussions of the integration of theory and practice are the very domain of ACADIA. A vision for the future of the architect—whether curator or creator—must also include a conversation about the discipline’s history of overwork and underpay that have been not only exploitative and abusive, but also exclusionary, gatekeeping access and success in the field to a (rich, white, male) few.
Deeper than this is an honest conversation about the state of the capitalist world we inhabit; the ecological crisis we face is a direct effect of unlimited growth and prioritizing the profits of corporations—oil and gas corporations, in particular—over the longevity of the planet and its inhabitants. The focus on the nonhuman is a strong step in the direction of challenging the preconceptions that have led us to this point, but an earnest interrogation about our eventual goals of industry adoption, for instance, must also follow. Tweaks to columns and slabs which reduce carbon and can be applied at scale are massively important, but what if that scale-application is simply for more high-rise luxury residential towers and Class-A office space which turn a profit whether they are filled or vacant? Is that the sustainable future we are devoting so much time, energy, and research for?
Regardless, as Cano directs us, this is not the scope of any one piece of research, project, conference, organization, or even entire discipline. Architects must continue our earnest, optimistic investigations with a critical lens, a collaborative spirit, and solidarity with those outside our disciplinary boundaries.
“Hybrids & Haecceities” was planned and led by the ACADIA team (Sabin; Kathy Velikov, Vice President, et al.) and the Co-Chairs at the University of Pennsylvania (Dorit Aviv; Robert Stuart-Smith; Hina Jamelle; Masoud Akbarzadeh). Saunders chaired the workshops, Kolatan and Nate Hume chaired exhibitions and media, respectively. Madison Green, Paul Germaine McCoy, and Peik Shelton designed a particularly beautiful and appropriate graphic identity for the event. The University of Colorado Denver College of Architecture and Planning will host ACADIA 2023 under the theme “Habits of the Anthropocene.”
Davis Richardson is an architect at REX and teaches at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture.