A couple of weeks ago I gave a brief talk to the 150th anniversary of the Manchester Society of Architects — now called simply, Manchester Architects. The theme of my talk was around ‘The Living City’. This is shorthand for a collection of technology-driven developments in our cities that will fundamentally change how buildings and public spaces are designed, built and operated, and how we interact with them.
We are beginning to issue our constructions with their own DNA, through advances in Building Information Modelling (BIM). Today this means better planning and projects, but tomorrow it could mean buildings and spaces that can evolve to better serve the needs of their users.
Imagine a building that can understand the brief to which it was built, the materials of its own construction, and the constraints of its environment. Imagine it could adapt, autonomously, to better meet the needs of its tenants and the environment around it.
That is the promise.
Of course it will take more than BIM to deliver this vision. Buildings will need the ability to capture what is happening inside and outside of them, and processing power to comprehend it. But with smart buildings and cities we are already equipping our spaces with just this: senses and brains.
The only piece missing that would allow buildings to grow like organisms rather than dead structures is some form of limb, but the advent of 3D printing in construction and robot bricklayers, means that there is now a serious prospect that spaces could reshape themselves automatically in response to perceived need, rather than be reshaped manually against some formalised plan.
I see these structures growing like a garden — or a ‘concrete jungle’, if you prefer. Constantly adapting to our needs. My point to the architects was that this new ‘garden’ of structures will require tending. Not maintenance but management by people with a skill set that combines form and function. Who better than an architect for this role?
There’s a broader point though. Our cities (as a proxy for our race) are facing some serious challenges, both economic and ecological. And it appears that one of the best models for solutions to these problems might be life itself, in its endless ability to adapt to its environment.
We may not have created a true artificial intelligence yet, but our level of technological sophistication means that we can nonetheless aspire to build life-like structures.