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  • Stephen Crafti

A Shifting Landscape

With some architecture firms already utilising AI for day-to-day tasks, many in the industry are questioning how the technology will impact the future of design — and if machines can really compete with human creativity. By Stephen Crafti.
Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School Music House in Melbourne, by the architects McBride Charles Ryan (MCR), was designed to evoke soundwaves, an inspired concept cited as an example of how human creativity still outpaces AI’s capabilities. Photography by John Gollings.

Many working in the creative industries fear the rise of AI. Architects are among those contemplating the future, which could see designs generated simply by entering appropriate data into a computer, with the resulting schemes then sent off to clients. While many see the benefits, as AI makes it possible to eliminate more routine tasks, others see the creative spirit, and the way projects are detailed and crafted, as still requiring the human brain. 

“At this point, it’s difficult to predict what types of jobs in our industry will be replaced by AI, certainly the financial side and things such as creating risk matrices in the safety areas,” says the architect Rob McBride, director of Melbourne-based architecture firm McBride Charles Ryan (MCR), who works closely with Debbie Ryan, an owner of the practice. For the duo and their team — known for their strong conceptual buildings including apartments, schools and bespoke homes — AI presents new possibilities at the basic level of architecture. “Ideas or concepts can be initially tested, but we’ve been working with 3-D modelling for years,” says McBride. He says AI could be used to help tease out a client’s brief by drawing on different architectural styles, for example, when a client is “loving an Edwardian-style house but preferring a more contemporary option. AI can certainly fuse these disparate preferences together and maybe add a strand for a case-study house [such as] a postwar 1950s house in America.”

However, McBride and his team believe it is still essential to go back to the client, the specific site and the immediate surrounds to create a design that is best aligned to the brief and budget. “The human mind is quite mysterious,” he says. “There are so many factors that feed into a design that presently go beyond AI.” MCR’s award-winning music school for Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School in Melbourne is one such example, with a design that is loosely evocative of musical soundwaves. 

MHNDU’s site-sensitive building Traces in Sydney’s Surry Hills. Photography by Martin Mischkulnig.

The architect Kevin Ng, principal of the Sydney-based studio MHNDU — known for its finely crafted houses, apartments and townhouses — is certainly aware of AI and the way it’s currently used in architecture. “There are numerous videos on the internet on how to use it, with the initial steps of simply plugging in data,” he says. “But I think, at this stage, it’s certainly not at the point of capturing the architect’s vision and the manner [in which] a building is crafted, be it a bespoke house or an apartment building.” 

However, Ng thinks that, going forward, some of the tasks performed by architects will be done by AI, which may pick up some of the legwork involved with a project. “We might now have a team of, say, five working on plans for a 700-unit apartment building,” he says, “but perhaps in a few years AI may mean that only two architects will be required for the floorplans, with the others spending more time on the creative aspects of a design, including testing materials and ideas.” 

While some architects aren’t yet familiar with AI, Mark O’Dwyer, a founding director of H2O Architects in Melbourne, sees the importance of understanding its potential — for good and bad. As both an architect and an expert witness at the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal, O’Dwyer, who initially studied physics, is concerned about the technology’s impact on intellectual copyright. “It’s a machine that’s ‘hoovering the internet’, grabbing all the data without acknowledging the authors of the information — [creating] an assemblage of parts that doesn’t come with any royalties for the creators,” he says. 

H20 Architects’ redevelopment of the Yarra Ranges Council Civic Centre in Victoria drew on a human-centric sensibility including Indigenous links to the site. Photography by Trevor Mein.

O’Dwyer’s practice does work with AI to a limited extent, for tasks such as preparing standard documents and assisting with the protocols needed to tender a project. “But even with this limited use, we see it as only a first draft and it needs to be carefully reviewed,” says O’Dwyer, who predicts that AI will gain momentum over the next few years. “My instincts are that architects who focus on purely commercial work, who are maximising yield [the number of units in an apartment tower], will be the most affected by AI. Architects who simply design mass-produced housing, like photocopies of each other, may find their services are impacted.”

H20’s recently completed Yarra Ranges Council Civic Centre, located in the outer Melbourne suburb of Lilydale, is an example of a project less likely to be affected. The design was crafted to “absorb” the Indigenous aspects appertaining to its site while also responding to the local area and its position as a gateway to an important food bowl in the region. Such a thoughtful approach isn’t yet within the realm of generative technology. “It’s the large commercial practices that might feel the impact of AI the most, rather than the bespoke firms where every project is different,” O’Dwyer says. 

the Jackalope Pavilion in Melbourne, designed by March Studio for the “Rain Room” installation, used a complex web of steel poles. Photography by Peter Bennetts.

March Studio, an award-winning practice in North Melbourne, also produces work that can’t be easily replicated. Its work on Jackalope Pavilion in St Kilda — home of the “Rain Room” installation by London-based art collective Random International — featured thousands of steel poles interwoven to form a highly sophisticated web. “The poles, used for commercial scaffolding, were all off-the-shelf, but used in an entirely different way,” says the architect Julian Canterbury of March Studio, who describes himself as a “tech nerd” (he once worked for the technical arm of the architect Frank Gehry’s practice). 

Canterbury first started exploring AI towards the end of 2022, before ChatGPT emerged. He came across Midjourney, a generative AI platform that showed how a church designed by the eminent architect Le Corbusier could take on a new twist when the words “industrial religious in the style of Le Corbusier” were typed in. “It created something completely new but also familiar,” says Canterbury, who sees the greater impact of AI infiltrating the architecture world in a few years. 

At present, he says its main use is in assisting with prosaic tasks such as working out the best way to locate an apartment block on a site — with constraints that create an ideal footprint — complete with setbacks. “March doesn’t use AI for design, but we have used it when we had to produce a statement on a project we were tendering for, saving us a considerable amount of time,” Canterbury says.

March Studio’s Compound House in Melbourne. March’s Julian Canterbury says AI is currently more of a time-saving assistant than a design resource. Photography by Peter Bennetts.

March’s award-winning Compound House in Brighton, no less artistic or complicated than the “Rain Room” project, is seen as difficult to achieve with AI’s present capability. And there are other aspects of operating a studio that still need the human touch. “At the end of the day, there still has to be someone to run the practice and take responsibility for what’s built,” Canterbury adds. “But, as you know, this can always change.” 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our twelfth edition, Page 120 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “A Shifting Landscape”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  


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