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Role of Computers in Architectural Design Process


Outline Intentions

The intention of my research is to investigate the role computers play as a visualization and representational tool in the architectural design process. The thesis proposes to ascertain an appropriate understanding of our experience of the emergent digital realms.This involves investigating the ‘need’ to visualize a building before it is created in practice and the degree to which CAD programs are used as a design tool as a means of testing and evaluating architectural processes. As part of examining the benefits computers has in the field of architecture I assessed the degree to which they have distanced the practitioners in architecture from hand drawings and physical model making and how virtual architecture could be detrimental to the disciplinary field – Involving the emergence of ‘paper’ architecture showing theoretical proposals using visualizations. Many architects believe that the traditional hand renderings and conceptual sketches have now become a lost art to the cost of architectural design.

The research examines how these digital technologies help architects to design and how visualizations’ act as a way of communication between client and designer. This involves researching into architectural graphics as a marketing tool and looking into the future of computational methods as a visual and development tool for building design.

The question will therefore be proposed of whether architects and designers have maintained the ‘hands on’ approach associated with the discipline, or whether this has been abandoned in favor of computer graphics as a visual tool. Are computers taking away from the traditional methods and if so what are their advantages to the discipline?


To assess the degree to which CAD software helps architectural design firms, I looked at two firms which rely heavily on CAD software as a design tool and one firm, which not only believe in a traditional approach, but use predominantly models and hand drawings for conceptual stages. This involved assessing critic’s views, personal judgment and analyzing the pathways they took in relation to initial brief and concepts to construction stages. The three case studies selected are intended to show the varied use of computing software and its adaption to various styles of office organization and philosophies. A description of the three firms working methods is analyzed and comparisons drawn against these case studies focusing on the diverse working methods. The study then formed the basis of a conclusion in which a summary of the results is documented.

Chapter 1:  Literature Review of Current Computation Trends

What should be the exact scope of the computer involvement within the architectural discourse? This question has been present since the beginning of the use of computer aided architecture software. It is notable that many of the designs we see in today’s architectural world could not have been achieved without use of computer visualizations and extensive 3D graphics, However the question of how much should computation techniques be used is always present. Will the age old two dimensional flattened image give way to the intelligent three dimensional digital models as a way of communication? As apparently simple as this question might be, the answers are considerably more complex.

An architect throughout the ages has communicated via a pen or pencil and a piece of paper. They have quick ability to identify their projects functioning and particularities with a simple doodle.  This method of working has not changed.  However according to Vesselin Gueorguiev (2008, p.6) ‘the architectural and design visualization industry is predicted to grow by 23% over the next 7 years'[2].  A new generation of structures and concepts is being created that recognizes the computer not only as a drafting and rendering tool, but also as a potentially powerful tool in the generation of designs themselves; in other words an intelligent drafting machine.  With the use of 3D modeling, renderings and visualizations, an architect has an excellent opportunity to play with your imaginations or thoughts, enabling the creation of pieces of architecture that could never have been rationalized with the use of pen and paper technique alone.

An increasing number of digital designs are now being published and praised by critics as meaningful and influential to the architectural field.  This emergence of ‘paper’ and theoretical architecture is rapidly expanding with many architects adopting a research approach to practice, led dominantly by computers as a means of experimenting in forms, aesthetics and expressing the investigations achieved.  Helen Castle for instance describes how ‘cities shapes might be grown in digital laboratories in order to aid evolved urban design (2009, p.4)'[3].  Evidence of this is shown in Figure 1 showing a digitally produced master-plan for a carbon-neutral resort and residential development on Zira Island in the Caspian Sea.

‘For a long time architecture was thought of as a solid reality and entity: buildings, objects, matter, place and a set of geometric relationships.  But recently, architects have begun to understand their products as liquid, animating their bodies, hyper-surfacing their walls, crossbreeding different locations, experimenting with new geometries.  And this is only the beginning’ (2005, p.22)[4].

It is undoubtedly evident that advanced rendering and 3D systems can help to envisage of what architecture might be, however the computer is not a human being and should not be treated as such.  Ultimately it is the architect who is controlling the ideas, programming and concepts and the computer merely facilitates instructions. Therefore the computer is just a way of copying, simulating or replacing manual methods of design, simply a tool to replace the pencil.  Kosta Terzidis concurs with the argument stating that ‘unlike humans, computers are not aware of their environment’ (2006, p.37)[5].  In this computer age, architects are constantly striving to generate and introduce a new way of thinking about design.  The problem is that often neither the designer is aware of the possibilities that conceptual schemes can produce nor the software packages are able to predict the moves or personality of individual designers.  The result therefore is that the computer is used more as a medium of expression rather than a structural foundation for architectural experimentation.  Has the emergence of digital realms as a result of computer formulated design led to architecture being produced as a mass media image rather than a piece of beautifully crafted, functional and creative architecture?

Architects such as Beatriz Colomina took the subject of media of architecture as an exhibition piece from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, therefore this fanciful image of architecture was not just brought to light by the digital age.  This notion of extremely visual 3D architecture has however been condemned by many critics, with many believing that the actual computer image is surpassing the reality of the building itself.  Branko Kolarevic points out the problem that;

‘There seems to be a sense among the generation of school leavers that because they have mastered a software they are sufficient as architects, and they almost immediately seem to be leaving to set up their own practice, which usually turns into a graphics company for websites’ (2005, p.70).[6]

The notion of using computers more as a marketing tool is very prominent in today’s culture.  This is especially important in times of economic recession where every niche a practice has will be exploited to offer a more attractive service to the client.  Images sell buildings.  As a result, many architecture graduates are employed solely to use their skills of computer renderings rather than their knowledge of design; in effect turning into ‘CAD monkeys’ and simply key based operators rather than architects.  The perception that computer graphics is enhancing buildings is viewed as a myth by many.  As [8] to simply draft the drawings required and preparing a project for construction and tender documentation.

For many designers, the computer is just an advanced tool running programs that enable them to produce sophisticated forms and to better control the realization of a design.  Critic Kosta Terzidis states that, ‘whatever capabilities a computer may have it lacks any level of criticality and its visual effects are nothing but mindless connections to be interrupted by a human designer’ (2006, p.48).[9]  I agree with this point as to fully determine a solution; an architect should be intrinsically linked with their proposal via physical models, sketches and general hands on approaches.  A computer does not have the ability to reflect and respond to an environment set by the user; in other words the computer output is simply a response to the designers input.  Due to the nature of complexity in many 3D programs, architects can become lost in their designs with a loss of control over the fundamental solution to the problem.

Balakrishnan Chandrasekaran from Ohio State University states ‘the very vagueness and ambiguity of sketches plays an important role in the early stages of design’ (2007, p.65),[10] see figure 2, which explains with the use of color to highlight the dominant architectural elements.

It is vitally important that we do not loose this affinity with sketching that our architectural discourse has been built on.  In this digital age the benefits computers can bring to the design process is profound however, we must not let computers control architecture.  Let humans control architecture and allow a combination of sketches, CAD or virtual models and computation control our future worlds.

However the terms, concepts and processes that seem inconceivable, unpredictable and impossible by a designer can be explored, implemented and tested into new design strategies and solutions within the digital world.  This experimentation has given rise to new design processes and concepts such as genetic algorithms, parametric design and isomorphic surfaces.  Branko Kolarevic (2005) makes the argument that;

‘Digitally driven processes, characterized by dynamic open-ended and unpredictable but consistent transformations of three dimensional structures, are giving rise to new architectonic possibilities (2005, p. 2).[11]

CAD programs assist in helping an idea to be physically realizable creating a new dynamic solution.  Computers simply assist in reinforcing our creativity and making us capable of doing things, which would be considered impossible by traditional means.  This rise of algorithmic design as a result of digital design may be particularly beneficial to that of urban master planning for the future of our cities.  Michael Batty for example talks about algorithms stating:

‘This new species has mutated the way man perceives architecture and his place within it.  It has allowed a different thought process to be applied to how we exist in this world, and how we build up the world around us, and how the world builds itself’ (2009, p. 47).[12]

From this quote it can be said that 3D visual programs can help us understand and analyze our cities and enable the designers to navigate them in new ways and pave a better way for the future.  However this notion of a ‘digital city’ is merely conceptual at this point with Planners being unaware of the possibilities of new interventions derived from 3D analysis.  Therefore the spatial development of a digital city at this point in time is still untried, considered unresolved and unaware if the digital mutations emerging from our computers actually work functionally.

In conclusion this chapter has emphasized that;’all that is digital need not be a Trojan horse of marketisation and all theoreticians and designers that have embraced computer based design and manufacturing need not be neo-capitalistic zealots’; Anthony Vidler (2008, p.111).[13]

The emergence of computer simulation programs can open up new possibilities of design and push architectural skills in a direction previously not possible via pen and paper.  It is enlightening to know that new CAD programs have implemented change in the design discourse in terms of freedom of experimentation.  The seemingly impossible is now very much realizable thanks to the computer.  However the worry by many critics is that architecture becomes more about novelty as a result.  It has become apparent that the image produced on screen can often be misleading and act as a misrepresentation of the actual materiality.

To summarize Digital technologies act as almost organic rather than prosthetic and provide an extension to the hands of the maker, freeing up time for other important work to be done.  Problem solving is an action which we perceive in multiple modalities and so various methods should be encouraged to benefit the future of architecture.  However when and to what degree we should use ‘CAD’ as a form developer, visual agent and general helper to the design process?

The next chapters will use case studies to examine how three well known architect firms use CAD in their practices.  It will highlight the various positions and attitude towards the use of CAD software and determine the stages at which computer visualization software is used in the design process as a development tool.

Chapter 2:  Caruso St. John Architects:  The attraction of tradition

Since their inception in 1990 established by Adam Caruso and Peter St John, Caruso St. John architects have strove to maintain traditional qualities of architecture such as ornament and decoration, texture and color.  Caruso and St. John have learned from figures like the Smithson’, Robert Venturi and Adolf Loos that architecture is good when it is enmeshed in the patterns of everyday reality and not ‘virtual reality’.  Over the last 20 years, the partnership has very much avoided the high tech, shiny newness associated with the modern world of architecture.  The trend of globalization and constant expansion is a route which this firm has not taken.  This non-heroic stance has involved rejecting new methods of technology engaging solely on the past as a generator for the future of the city.  As David Leatherbarrow states, ‘originality is only genuine when it is unsought’ (2009)[14].  This rationality and belief in the architect’s hand, calling upon memory and feelings is what makes Caruso St John’s work remarkable in a modern way.  It should become apparent in the following case study that computer digital aids can be used sparingly and effectively to produce emotional, human led architecture.

It is unrealistic and utterly frivolous to reject computer aided software completely and Caruso St John is no exception to this.  It is however more about the way in which they embrace the computer as an architectural design tool and at precise working stages that is of particular interest.  The computer does not rule their practice, rather the architect controls the decisions via skills intrinsically and traditionally linked with the architect.  Adam Caruso in a conversation with Paul Vermeulen states,

‘Foreign Office Architects say that new overlaid programmes and, more bizarrely, new ways of working with computers will allow you to have new spatial urban possibilities, and that architecture, rather than being resistant to the forces of global capitalism, should respond, should represent it.  I still believe that architecture should be resistant’ (2002, p. 88).[15]

It is clear that Caruso St John follow a framework of refraining from the extensive use of technology in a rhetorical way.  In their approach to a project, the firm use a lot of large models to visualize the projects internally, however they tend not to do many presentation drawings using CAD renderings.  Rather they take photos of models (evident in Figure 3), use sketches and perform verbal presentations with their clients.

They avoid at all costs the shiny visualizations associated with computer visual programs. Even with the negative feelings towards computer led architecture, the firm use CAD software quite early as a design tool and as Adam Caruso in an Architect’s Journal article states, ‘we don’t think it changes the form of our architecture.  Our production drawings are much like what they were when we were hand drawing’ (2006).[16]  Inevitably the partnership still use the hand as a design tool in which the architect creates spaces to which they are emotionally linked, while a tangible connection is made in relation to the computer at the appropriate stage of the design.

Rowan Moore an architectural critic states the point that ‘where other architects give primacy to technology, or the image of modernity… or abstract form making, the consistency of Caruso St John’s work is in the attitudes behind it’ (2002).[17]  Caruso St John has no predetermined attitudes towards modern or traditional design methods but choose to select the appropriate at a particular moment in time.  The firm has carefully embraced CAD as a design tool within the office without it superseding their principles and beliefs where a pen and paper should sit comfortably beside a computer running CAD software.

CAD drawings, graphics and photos were translated into machine milling instructions, allowing positives to be cut from resin board and hard latex moulds then made to form the façade of the building.  Without the ability to produce a 3D computer model this would never have been achieved.  Caruso St John’s approach is not simply about knowing how to apply CAD techniques, but when to apply them to achieve the best response.  Models and sketch drawings will always lead the way within this office, however CAD software is consistently used to aid with ideas, facilitate construction drawings and to rationalize themes and ideas.  It’s all about moving between the two worlds of the real and the virtual to achieve a homogenous whole.

Caruso St John often remark on how little computer technology has affected the development of architectural form and in their essay Frameworks the duo state they are ‘doubtful whether completely new forms can exist’ (1996, p.41)[18].  For them, it is cheating to muck around with algorithms and mapping programs to generate forms.  Adam Caruso in Tyranny of the New states his distaste for computers used in this way condemning how the forms:

‘lack the complexities and ambiguities that are held within the tradition of architectural form, these shapes quickly lose their shiny novelty and achieve a condition of not new, but also not old or ordinary enough to become a part of the urban background’ (1998, p.25)[19].

Effectively the belief is that computer generated forms have no place in our current urban context and lack any particular sense of place.  In Contemporary Architecture and the Digital Design Process Andrew Kane remarks that ‘there is an increased belief amongst experienced clients that digital representation of design proposals is essential to close the gap between their understanding of the conceptual ideas and the realized finished form (2005 p.vii)'[20].  This is not the case in Caruso St John’s practice.  A multitude of models and a close communicative relationship with their clients ensures complete understanding of the project on both without the need for extensive use of computer generated form.  Through a physical and verbal understanding of design elements, a computer can have no advantage over a close relationship developed with a client.

To summarize, it must be noted that this affiliation with traditional values and qualities is an admirable approach in the face of modernity in a high tech world.  The formulation of design within Caruso St John’s office involves a multitude of mediums with CAD software being one of those.  However, their use of it doesn’t restrict the design formalities but merely assists them in engaging with the project more intrinsically.  Computers are used frequently within the office like every other architect’s business; however they do not use its powers as a form, plan or aesthetic generator.  Caruso St John avoid the extensive use of the computer image generation path and the ‘stardom’ associated with this archetype in favor of being linked with the physicality, a model or a pen and paper can bring, rather than the autonomous production of a drawing filtered via a software program with no sense of personal touch.  To conclude it can be stated that Caruso St John have avoided the nostalgia of digital realms of visualization but have embraced the use of CAD software programs as a communicative tool with contractors, as an aid in production design and as an aid in visualizing their initial sketch idea in its contextual environment.

The next chapter is the second case study of a practice with a different approach to the use of CAD in their everyday work.

Chapter 3:  Zaha Hadid:  Towards a new realm

This chapter will use the practice of Zaha Hadid to examine how they use CAD in their working methods and allow an examination of the effect it has had on their design philosophies and the work they produce.

Zaha Hadid has defined a radically new approach to architecture by creating buildings with imaginative geometry to evoke the hectic nature of modern life.  She transcends the realm of paper architecture to the built form creating archetypes never envisaged before.  Her work is known widely for the dramatic images produced of seemingly impossible pieces of architecture yet many of these complex images have been realized and built contrary to many beliefs. All of this would not have been impossible without the advent of computer-aided software to allow architects almost infinite freedom to create any shape they wanted.  In particular the use of computer aided manufacturing (CAM) has become increasingly popular in Hadid’s practice.  The ability to manufacture a physical model from a 3D computer model has allowed the firm to fabricate scale models using CAM technology and therefore allow an appreciation and review of what could be realized at full scale on site.  Subsequently full scale components are then created from the computer model.  It is through this extensive use of computers, that has enabled Zaha Hadid to minimize the need to dumb down her architectural wonders and requires contractors to build her works of complexity.  Her decision to virtually leave the drawing board in the 1980’s in favor of graphic paintings to express her visions was a bold statement.  One of her paintings displayed in Figure 5 demonstrates the complexity of her ideas.

The emergence of computer visualizations simply begged Hadid to embrace it to express her bold, flowing spaces.

The critic Aaron Betsky remarks how ‘she does not invent forms of construction or technology; she shows us a world in new ways by representing it in a radical manner’ (2009, p6).[22]

The influence of the computer in Hadid’s working method is clearly visible in the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, where the architects started the project at conceptual stages by deforming a hypothetical grid and depressing it at points using a 3D visualization program.  This push and pull of elements using CAD software is evident in Figure 6.  However often what happens in practice is that the more experienced architect such as Hadid will delegate the computer generative work to a younger colleague to visualize.

As Aaron Betsky remarks;

‘she sketches and does all the precise lines that indicate her design objectives, her co-workers render the work at a larger scale and fill in the spaces between her gestures… she now produces paintings that are only white lines on black paper, ghosts of a future city’ (2009, p.11).[23]

It is notable therefore that the perceived ‘heroes’ of the architectural world such as Hadid still will connect with their spaces and concepts via a pen and paper before ever conceiving any manifestations on a computer.  The question that keeps coming back to us therefore is whether all architecture still stems from the simplicity of the hand?

Patrik Schumacher a partner in the office proclaims of the ‘primacy of the computer’, arguing that it is ‘the technologies that rely on its power that are allowing us to create what we consider to be truly modern structures’ (2009, p.14).[26]  As her paintings and sketches disappear into computer renderings and forms, their imaginative qualities begin to disappear too as a flattened, sterile computer visual image can never be a substitute for the emotion a hand drawing can bring.  The digitally produced image can often be a misrepresentation of the actual building product

The use of computer visualization programs in Hadid’s office however has enabled the emergence of reweaving reality.  Joseph Giovannini states that, ‘In Hadid’s laboratory, the mediums of design were not tethered to representation but instead encouraged ways of seeing released from convention’.(2006, p.23)[27]  Computers allowed Hadid’s office to break away from conventional architectural expression in favor of shifting simulations of representation.  The pedestrian bridge at Zaragoza, Spain is based on a computer procedure called ‘lofting’, a term used in the computer program Rhino.  It involves the continuous morphing of one architectural section into another as the initial shape transforms through the ends of its trajectory.  Figure 8 demonstrates this morphing shape achieved via this CAD process.  Something never possible via traditional means.

As Aaron Betsky states, ‘The latest software allows her to take the existing landscape and unfold it, to pan, swoop, swerve, cut, slow down and speed up’ (2009, p.12).[28]  The software allows her to intertwine elements and shift forms too complicated to model quickly via conventional methods.  Therefore I would argue that the use of computational tools actually allows for speed of manipulation and not creation itself.

Zaha Hadid has an extraordinary ability to transform perceptions and dream like paintings and drawings into representations.  The firm quite clearly relies on computer software to create fully integrated, large scale buildings and manage the process from conceptual stage to practical completion however, whether or not she can pull off many of these virtual worlds as realized functional buildings remains to be seen.  Zaha Hadid has an enormous catalogue of conceptual designs but surprisingly a small number of developed projects. Therefore this tendency towards graphic representation in the conceptual stage via computer has yet to be truly tested at construction stage.  This pastiche of virtual worlds created in Hadid’s studios is very much intriguing to the architectural world however pursuing the elusive commissions remains another matter.  In Hadid’s office, the computer acts as an enabler to model on screen, pushing and pulling objects similar to a hands on approach and as Joseph Giovannini states, ‘like all tools she has used, the computer helps Hadid become more Hadid’ (2006, p.32).[29]

To summarize this chapter has shown that to create complex forms and shapes such as that of the work of Zaha Hadid, CAD modeling used in conjunction with CAM offers extraordinary benefits and acts as a communication tool to reassure clients and contractors that the design is possible.  It has emerged that computer software is more of a business tool, with the birth of a concept and design still stemming from the hands of the maker via a sketch or painting.  The problem identified is that the final computer images do not accurately reflect the finished product as the shiny, reflective and vibrant colors and textures viewed on the computer screen does not follow through in the finished building.

The next chapter is the third case study of a practice with another different approach to the use of CAD in their everyday work, where working methods, beliefs and outcomes in relation to computers will be assessed.

Chapter 4:  Greg Lynn:  Architectural animation and the paperless office

The majority of architectural practices produce paper drawings, then use design visualization software to assess the form and produce a full repertoire of working drawings, however Greg Lynn’s paperless practice located in California brings computers into the design mix from the start.  He is considered one of the most influential figures in computer generated architecture and has been named in Times magazine ‘100 innovators of the next century’.  Considering he is the pioneer of computer designed architecture using biomorphic shapes and the creator of ‘blob’ architecture, the architectural critics of CAD software can undoubtedly be impressed with his merging of science, calculus, art, photography, film, organisms and architecture all into one futuristic idea.  He envisages ideas of science fiction as Mark Rappolt states:

‘Greg’s work has become a form of porn – pored over, leered at, and more or less successfully emulated – that’s resolutely hardcore in its use of the new digital technologies and pioneering exploration of new (architectural) positions in the latest special effects’ (2008, p.6).[30]

His use of computers and other advanced digital technologies as a design tool has paved the way for the future of the architectural discourse.  Undoubtedly graphic content in architecture has opened up the discourse to popular media; however Greg’s use of visualization software goes beyond the mere formulated, repetitive and regular approaches to expand the possibilities of the building world.  For example in the design for Cabrini Green Urban Design Competition in 1993, Greg used adjustable triangles, a computer spreadsheet for dimensions, a ruler and a parallel bar.  Existing buildings in the Cabrini Green neighborhood were measured and drawn along a linear bar and then their shape and size averaged from one to another.  A technique subsequently adopted and used in new computer programs Alias and Maya 5 years later as blend shape tools.  The harmonious scales are shown in figure 9.

This project was also one of the last achieved in his office by hand initially on a drawing board and simply extruded by the computer.  Everything is now done digitally.

His approach to projects involves the use of computers from the initial brief and one method adopted is testing the boundary of animation software called editing ‘spline’ functions.  As Greg Lynn points out, ‘the very first projects designed using animation software did operate through happy accidents:  the port authority competition and citron house, specifically’ (2008, p.280).[31]  Basically trial and error methods were used using basic CAD packages until a satisfactory outcome emerged from the screen.  In the port authority triple bridge gateway competition (1995) animation tools and spline’s were used as a design medium for the first time by any architect and was more a computer analysis outcome than a design project.  The project was produced in less than a week using dynamics and the pseudo-quantitative indexing of statistical data.  The outcome is shown in Figure 10.

This then became a primary technique for Greg’s future projects using ‘blebs'[34]  It must be stated that in Greg’s office computer design software is never simply used as a representative medium but more as an architectural tool to expand the possibilities and boundaries of architecture.  For example prototypes of concepts are built at Lynn’s office during the design phases using his own computer controlled 3D cutter known as Computer Numerical Control.  The intent as a result is to really focus on how these amorphical forms are created to achieve the maximum potential of a computer, as well as actual build-ability using CAM.  Full scale models are built of sections of buildings to allow a person to physically walk through and engage with a product not yet reality.

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