There’s nothing so seductive as a CAD image of your dream project, computer-generated visualisations of how we want the world to be. Trouble is, they’re divorced from reality

The digital 3D building model and the Domesday Book … are they by any chance related? Well, yes, for they both have little to do with reality. For example, last week I stood on a farm in Cornwall that was precisely - yet totally inaccurately - described in the Domesday Book as a “barren wasteland”. Its owner, Mr Pengelly, told me this with his chest out, as he is the latest in a thousand-year line of farmers there. Named after the Cornish “pen” (top) with “kelly”(copse), Mr “Copse-at-the-Top-of-the-Land” is a man embodied with a great earthy understanding. He can tell you without a moment’s thought why his farm flourishes as it does. Where the wholesome water flows, which soil is best for growing, when is the best week for planting wheat, how to move sheep around, why the farmhouse is where it is. What, where, which, when, how, but most importantly: why? For although the Domesday Book is a glimpse into Norman life, Pengelly’s farm is a fair bit more than the “what” of a barren wasteland, just as a contemporary masterplan is a little more “why” than a planning grid.

On Google Maps, Mr Pengelly’s 800 acres have been reduced to only a few lines and a name. Ask a computer to interpret such a map and you will get nothing more. Yes, it may tell you that a line signifies a stone wall, but the robot programme doesn’t understand “wall-ness” - what the wall is for, how it is made, how it is maintained, why it is stone, whether it keeps the sheep in. As Ben Macintyre wrote in The Times the other day: “To a robotic system, a tank and school bus are the same.” (This is taken from a recent MoD internal report). He happened to be writing not about farm walls but robotic missiles exploding at a point on the map in Afghanistan, operated by men sitting comfortably at their computers in Nevada, but the point is made. His example is about the reception and interpretation of computerised information, but, as building designers, we are more interested in the reverse; in transmission. We often use a computer for that too. If a computer can’t tell a bus from a tank, why, as computer “operators”, should we expect to be able to transmit any more than an abbreviated “what”? Try it … make a CAD drawing in as much detail as you like, then go out and try to create the place using only what you’ve drawn. The subtlety of the real world will be missing. Just as at a meeting with a giant “global professional services” firm, where we were told that: “There are people upstairs who can tell you the value of anything.”  

On Google Maps, Mr Pengelly’s 800 acres have been reduced to only a few lines and a name. Ask a computer to interpret such a map and you will get nothing more

On my desk, I have a PR brochure from a big commercial architect full of visualisations of gigantic projects, styled using computer-generated geometry. They are mostly grotesque, not even allowing computerised people to contaminate the pure geometry. Whatever happened to the architecture of understanding? Understanding of landscape, of materials, of people’s needs, of the climate; where craftsmen are employed for their skill, not their ability to operate Microsoft schedules; where that understanding inspires mutual trust. Which brings me to my point: that “operators” seduced by computers are stripping the soul from architecture, putting machine ahead of man. It is a short step from there to machine instead of man.

I can’t help feeling this computerised replacement for the real world with all its layering, fonts, milestones, 3D models, renders, digital pictures and spreadsheets, marks a loss of conscience; a loss of confidence; even a loss of the spirituality that brought us to where we are. Every day we reduce gales, crowds, families and the evolution of our cities to spreadsheets, targets, deliverables and verified views. The challenge is to feel the design through your feet, through your pencil, in your waters, and in your bones before submission to the seductive power of the robot computer. Not afterwards, when it’s built and it’s too late. As Adam Smith wrote: “The robot is going to lose. Not by much. But when the final score is tallied, flesh and blood is going to beat the damn monster.”

Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering