The January 1964 editorial “Computer Designed Architecture” in Mississippi Architect is fun to read in the same way that looking at pictures from old World’s Fairs (for instance, GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 fair or its Tomorrow-land exhibit in 1964). It’s always interesting to see what people of the past thought the future would look like. In the case of Harry Haas, editor of MA (and architect of the Livestock Building and the Coliseum at the MS State Fairgrounds, among other Modernist gems), the rise of computers got him thinking about how computers might re-shape the practice of architecture.
But his thoughts go in a different direction than I thought they would when I read the headline. I figured he would talk about how great it would be to have computers helping with the complicated engineering studies, how the architect would be free to be solely a designer, etc. Instead, he posits a scenario in which the computer pretty much takes over the role of architect, basing its designs purely on the input of principles of design and the specifics of the project. He ends by dismissing the thought and noting that the computer would probably have a nervous breakdown.
We know today that computers have taken over certain functions of architectural practice, or at least have become a major player, but overall, there is still a need for architects and engineers. As I’ve pondered why Haas’ vision of computers and architecture worked itself out in the way it did, I wonder if the fact that Harry Haas was a Modernist architect moved his thinking in the way it did? Modernists loved to talk about how “rational,” “functional” and “logical” their designs were, as opposed to that enforced symmetry of the classicists or the faux-history of the revivalists. How the program was everything and the form flowed from the function. So, I guess if I truly believed all that, I might get nervous about computers taking over design too, since computers do rationality and functionalism and logic a lot better than humans do.
If computers had been around earlier, I wonder if Theodore Link, W.S. Hull, H.N. Austin, or C. H. Lindsley would have ever worried about computers taking over design in the same way that later Modernists did?
We are hearing more and more about automation, computers, cybernetics, and the like. The latter term, we are told, refers to analogies between the functioning of automatic machines and the human nervous system (they are said to be comparable in many respects).
My seventh-grade daugher Nancy amazed me last spring by telling me that in school they were learning how numbers could be expressed to the “base two” instead of the usual “base ten.” Now that “base two” business is the sort of language in which you have to talk to computers, though of course Nancy didn’t realize it.
Construction work can now be scheduled by the so-called CPM (Critical Path Method), in which computers are asked to work out the proper sequences of ordering materials, scheduling their delivery to the job site, and their being put in place.
Is architectural design-by-computer ready to take over? Conceivably there could be entered in the machine’s memory cells: the principles of design, the building code, structural formulae, the topography of the site, the program of requirements, the client’s personal preferences, etc., etc., etc., and (lastly) the budget.
When the button had been mashed, and the machine had digested all of these requirements in the twinkling of an eye, said machine would undoubtedly and immediately suffer a nervous breakdown, as it would take just that long for it to realize that it couldn’t do what an architect is called upon to do on every project.
This article is reprinted from the January 1964 issue of the Mississippi Architect, with permission from the Mississippi Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. View the full January 1964 issue of Mississippi Architect in a digitized format, or for other articles in this ongoing series, including the pdf version of each full issue, click on the MSArcht tab at the top of this page.
Categories: Historic Preservation