Buildings, Information, and Machines

Publication Date
September 17, 2020

Revit is quickly becoming the default mode of production for architects. Though it is on a trajectory to usurp CAD, there has been little attention given to the nature of this transformational shift: productivity amongst architectural workers is at an all time high, due to an unprecedented level of technology mediating the production process. While, ostensibly, these technological components have been seamlessly integrated, a question remains: how has this historic transformation altered the material experience of architectural production and labor?

Most contemporary discourse surrounding architecture and technology, particularly in the production process, ranges from the metaphysical (how does our interaction with specific media affect our work?) to the epistemological (is a different type of knowledge leveraged between manual and digital production?). What is missing in this conversation, however, is in the ontological: how does this profound technological shift affect the very being of its participants?

Economist and historian Karl Marx was confronting similar questions during an equally disruptive moment in history, when every industry was being revolutionized through new productive technologies. Observing the transformation of self-sufficient agrarian production to simple-manufacture represented by artisanal guilds, Marx was concerned about the next evolution of work: the factory system. Noting the positive impacts of new technology on the production by artisans of complex but individualized commodities, Marx was fearful of the massive sociological shifts occurring in the factory system:

“In handicrafts and manufacture, the worker makes use of a tool; in the factory, the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labor proceed from him, here it is the movements of the machine that he must follow. In manufacture the workers are the parts of a living mechanism. In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism which is independent of the workers, who are incorporated into it as its living appendages.” 1

Though architects are not embedded in such large systems of production, and are not responsible for the production of physical things (but rather the instruments by which these things are made [‘Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Louise Pelletier, Architectural Representation and the Perspective Hinge (Cambridge (Mass.) ; London: The Mit Press, 2000). p 7.]), the transition from CAD to BIM has brought with it equally profound questions regarding the nature, or quality, of those doing the producing.

With the introduction of CAD, architects found themselves making use of the software; with Revit, the software is making use of the architect. Rather than users drafting drawings, Revit, or the machine, produces drawings through the intermediary of a 3-dimensional model. Though Revit models appear on screen as physical buildings, most of the work is less digital construction and more information management. 2 Even assuming the end goal of full-automation is desirable, there is no doubt that the current reality of this process further alienates the user from the product, i.e. the architect from the drawing.

Writing on this “digital turn” in The Alphabet and the Algorithm, architectural historian Mario Carpo, a staunch advocate for relentless technological progress, deduces that the shift to BIM has only one primary condition, that of reducing individual authorship:

“Likewise [BIM] is already challenging the modern notion of the architect’s full authorial control and intellectual ownership of the end product.”3

While this abdication of authorship can certainly lead to increased productivity,4 the ontological effect of this separation of architects from their historical context should not be dismissed. As more technology is introduced into the production process, architects are finding themselves further from the material reality of their labor. In fact, historically, drawings have been the one physical component of the building process that architects have produced; to discover a machine as the primary author of this product is the predominant mechanism through which architects are alienated from their labor.

Marx begins his historical analysis of machinery with a quote from John Stuart Mills: “‘It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.’”5 This is certainly true of Revit; even with productivity gains, architects have seen no reduction in the amount of hours worked; in fact the opposite has occurred.6 Though the origins of this paradox are in larger systems of capital, a secondary reason is the assistance necessitated by the machinery of Revit. In the future, as the architectural production process approaches full automation through computation or AI, perhaps architects will be able to return much of their attention to the physical construction process of buildings, for example. Today, however, we are stuck in an uncomfortable in-between state: the principal burden of drawing has been alleviated, but significant intervention is still required for adequate results.

Until machinery can reliably produce architectural drawings with little manual intervention, offices should initiate critical engagement with other material means, not just in terms of their personal making, but also through their broader role in the building process. For example, this contextual shift might manifest itself in a closer relationship to the building industry through more Design-Build practices since, in theory, there will be increased bandwidth due to the reduction of drawing labor. An alternative approach might find architecture aligning itself more closely with its capital origins, i.e. the Developer or Client.

At the very least, this moment is a critical opportunity to examine the nature of our relationship with our methods of production; if not, we might soon find ourselves deferential to far more powerful computational forces, reluctantly agreeing with Marx that: “To be a productive worker is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.”7

  1. Karl Marx and Ben Fowkes, Capital : A Critique of Political Economy. / Vol. 1. (Harmondsworth: Penguin In Association With New Left Review, 1990). p 548.
  2. In fact, Revit provides default “material” and “component” libraries, only requiring the user to initially choose and “assemble” these given pieces, with the occasional need to edit them.
  3. Mario Carpo, The Alphabet and the Algorithm (Cambridge, Ma: Mit Press, 2011). p 117.
  4. The notion that Revit wildly increases productivity is debatable; anyone who is familiar with the countless bugs, glitches, and tutorials required to run the software can attest to this. It might also be appropriate to question the aspiration of continually increasing productivity, and hence production, in an age of limited natural resources.
  5. Marx, p. 492
  6. This phenomenon is not unique to architecture. See Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber, who tragically passed away recently.
  7. Marx, p. 644
Publication Date
September 17, 2020
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