AI and digital fabrication are revolutionising architecture, blending tradition with innovation, writes Andy Shaw

Andy Shaw

Andy Shaw

115 years ago, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art was completed. A century later, it was voted by the British public in a RIBA survey as their favorite building in the country. It was a magnificent fusion of practicality and exquisite use of ornament and craftsmanship as decorative elements. Tragically, it burnt down six years ago, but its spirit could live on as the blossoming technologies of AI and digital fabrication usher in a new generation of ornamentation in architecture.

The same year the Mack was completed, Adolf Loos wrote Ornament and Crime, marking a key moment in the birth of modernism. This cultural shift, coupled with the industrialisation of construction technology, drove the move to modernism as the dominant force in architecture, leading to the abandonment of expressive, decorative elements in buildings.

Yet, I believe that it was at this point that the architecture profession lost the public. In Barcelona, the crowds flock to see the Sagrada Familia, while architects go on a pilgrimage to see Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion.

Nearly every architect practicing today has been taught the tenets of modernism as architectural fundamentals, with their own teachers having been educated within the culture of modernist principles.

I believe a change is starting, driven by a rupture along the new cultural and technological fault lines.

Artificial intelligence is enabling the design of more expressive buildings, which fuse a myriad of cultural references to create a new vernacular that transcends traditional architecture’s approach to decoration.

The jump-step from explorative imagery on a screen to real-world buildings at a feasible cost is enabled by advancements in digital fabrication technology. This includes 3D printing, AI robotics, and digital CNC milling. Patterned elements have been common in buildings over recent years, but this will soon be replaced by buildings with more surface depth and variation, reminiscent of the hand-crafted buildings of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods.

It is now technically and commercially feasible to create façades with unique pieces, featuring depth, texture, and variation. This marks a significant shift from the flat, repetitive commercial buildings driven by the construction industry changes that heralded modernism.

One of the most significant advantages of these technologies is their ability to tailor ornamentation to local and site-specific requirements. AI-driven design tools can generate customised decorative elements that cater to specific needs and cultural contexts. This adaptation aligns with the growing demand for unique and meaningful spaces, moving away from the uniformity often associated with modernist design.

The public’s preference for more decorative architecture is evident in numerous surveys and studies. People often associate ornamentation with beauty, warmth, and cultural richness. Buildings featuring decorative elements tend to evoke stronger emotional responses and create a sense of place and identity. In urban environments, these aesthetically pleasing structures contribute to residents’ overall well-being and foster a deeper connection to their surroundings.

Architecture without decoration and expressive details is like music without treble. Modernism drained the life and soul out of buildings, to the detriment of our built environment. Modernism particularly took hold in the UK, USA, and Europe. In contrast, expressive contemporary buildings with intricate surfaces are more common in Asia and the Middle East.

Emerging AI-driven technologies will enable a richer, more detailed expression of decorative architecture, with three-dimensional depth and scale akin to famous hand-crafted buildings by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Art Nouveau generation.

However, these digital tools and the current culture will provide a new twist and contemporary expression with less repetition, rather than merely revisiting the past. This will lead to a local digital vernacular, reversing the trend of modern buildings in major cities all looking the same.

>> Also read: Is the lack of ornament in architecture a barrier to diversity?