Practicing Information Technology
Gropius envisioned the architect as a generalist, integrative design leader in an increasingly technological society of evolving complexity and specialization. The early 20th century architects who embraced man and machine offered a vision for 20th century architecture.
While the vision for collaboration and unity existed, however, the mechanisms (i.e. inter-organizational relations and technology) did not. Consequently, 20th century architecture often resulted in conflict for owners, contractors, and architects.
Changing Practice in the Computer Era
Twentieth century technology in architecture can be bisected into two primary eras. The first is the era of manufacturing (1900-1950); the second is the era of information 1950-2000).
In the latter era, the computer slowly emerged and provided data-processed information, seen as intelligence and knowledge. Early architectural computing theoreticians envisioned the rationalization of the design process. In fact, the term "automated design" preceded "computer-aided-design" (CAD).
However, limited data processing capability, unintuitive user interfaces, and the inability to quantify the complex intuitive attributes of the designer have limited the migration of the computer into the early phases of conceptual design.
The late 1970s brought a revival of historicism, often resulting in a reaction against Modern Movement design principles and technology in design. Thus, in the 70s and 80s, the focus of architectural computing shifted away from the theoretical, rationalized design process.
Instead, computing technology had migrated by the 1990s to the practical and technical aspects of architecture such as accounting, word processing, engineering calculations, and automated drafting.
Then, in the 90s, with the personal computer's exponentially expanding memory and process capability and the emergence of the World Wide Web, revolutionary transformations of the work process and business paradigms began to occur in many industries.
So too did the traditional practice of architecture begin to change. The linear design-bid-build process transformed in the dynamic "digital marketplace." Project extranets and inter-organizational management strategies influenced project leadership and the value chain of architecture.
Construction in Historical Perspective
Before about 1500 in Europe, the architect was the "master builder," with little distinction between designer and craftsman. Then, during the Renaissance, the architect began to withdraw from the construction process.
This separation of the architect from the job site and craftsman was facilitated by the development of an earlier technology — drawings.
This withdrawal was led by architectural theoreticians, most notably Leone Battista Alberti, whose treatise claimed that architecture had nothing to do with building. The dissolution of the architect as master builder ultimately resulted in the modern-era chasm between designer and craftsman.
Another shift in project delivery created an inter-organizational barrier in the process of architecture when the industrial era introduced the "general contractor," around 1850 in England. Now the builder was denigrated to a 'low-bid' commodity.
Thus, the 20th century architect typically communicated along formal contract links. Conflicts increased, and all parties —owner, architect, and contractor — were laden with increasing liabilities in the complex process of architecture.
Throughout these changes, owners have persisted in demanding buildings on budget and on schedule. This is reflected in the American Institute of Architects 1997 modification of the "Owner-Architect Agreement."
AIA Document B141 requires the architect to modify contract documents, at the architect's expense, if bids exceed the owner's budget. So, at the new millennium, we again see disruption in the process of architecture.
The Changing Practice of Architecture
Information technology (IT) has had a widespread influence. It has freed the architect to create heretofore unaccomplished curvaceous form, and new service areas are emerging in the "information-age" frontier marketplace.
Much less obvious is the generation of new project delivery models and long-term practice implications for the profession of architecture. IT may have a greater impact on the areas of information management, communications, project delivery, and inter-organizational processes than in the physical artifact.
Project delivery is shifting from the traditional design-bid-build model to a collaborative design-build model where, often, the architect is not the project leader.
We now see a diminution of the architect as fiduciary-agent for the owner, and certain unknown risks are inherent in the emerging impact of technology in architecture.
The Future of the Profession
Will the architect of the 21st century lead or be led? Failure to analyze the value chain of the process of architecture and appropriately respond to technology disruption could result in loss of professional status.
In the new millennium's disruptive "cyber-renaissance" context, architects have an opportunity to redesign the profession. They may now be required to adopt information technology as the fundamental operative mode in architecture.
I'm not suggesting automating or mechanizing the builder-craftsman or the intuitive-designer out of the equation of architecture. Through history, architecture has required collaboration of creative genius and builder craftsmen.
Furthermore, for most of the architect's history, the collaborative concept was embodied in a team of workshop artisans lead by their fellow guild member, the workshop-trained architect/ master builder.
Accordingly, we should look to IT not as a way to exclude anyone, but as an integrative tool to bring equilibrium to the project process. At its greatest potential, IT serves as an inclusive communication tool for all project participants.
In the context of new design-build collaborations, it is important to acknowledge the inherited, informal knowledge embedded in the craftsman industry.
If the architect is to be an integrative process leader, the builder and craftsman should be elevated in the design-value chain, and not be exposed to further denigration by the Renaissance-born designer vs. construction mentality.
Bilateral knowledge exchange, enhanced with emerging information technology, is occurring between owners, architects, engineers, builders, craftsman, and machines, resulting in "cybernetic architecture."
Technology is affecting the practice of architecture, resulting in increasing specialization and compressed time frames. It may require reevaluation of the role of the architect as project-leader "integrative-generalist" or "design-specialist."
Larry R. Barrow, Ddes, AIA, NCARB, is a visiting professor at Mississippi State University. This article was drawn from his doctoral dissertation "Cybernetic Architecture — Process and Form — The Impact of Information Technology," Harvard Design School, 2000.