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The Centrality of Technology in Architecture

Different architects, theorists, and critics held different views regarding the centrality of technology in architecture. This paper examines three facets of this centrality. It includes a discussion on the centrality of technology in architecture, followed by recent technologies used in architecture, and closes with a discussion on the necessity of innovation in architecture.

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Centrality of Technology in Architecture Practice Design and Innovation

The centrality of technology in architecture takes various forms. First, architecture is under the influence of broader technological changes in society and the prevailing philosophical theories. As such, technology dictates the direction of architecture in any society (Heynen, Crysler & Cairns 2012). This is the conclusion to arrive at after considering the views of Braman (1980). Architecture was already well developed as a field of study and as a trade before the sixties. However, the ideals of architecture, and the philosophical constructs that came about in the sixties, and thereafter, stood in stark contrast with those that existed earlier. Banham (1980, p. 89) sounded the alarm when he observed that a technological revolution was underway in the sixties, superseding the “first machine age” of the late nineteenth century that produced the automobile. The first automobiles were machines that only engineers, designers, and trained technicians could operate (Brookes 2003). However, early in the nineteenth century, the automobile transited to mass use. Banham (1980) felt that in the sixties, a new machine age was in the offing. To illustrate his point, he observed that there was an increase in the number of technological solutions for consumers available to homemakers for use in the confines of their homes. These solutions pervaded every sector of the society at the time. The change had a lot of momentum because the sixties marked the rise of consumerism and materialism in western countries (Holmes 2005).

Secondly, architecture is in a constant identity crisis brought about by advances in technology. Technology is not static. It keeps changing because of new demands for architectural products from the society. As such, the field of architecture finds itself in a constant battle for survival because of the need to remain relevant to the needs of the society driving the technological advancements, and to remain true to the traditions of architecture. This view, clarified by Braham (2007) led to the conclusion that if the discipline of architecture does not allow technology to influence its development, then technology would proceed without architects, and the benefits of architecture. On the other hand, if architects overindulge in the dictates of technology, then they risk losing the architectural tradition for a fleeting pursuit. Technology is indeed fleeting because it is not in itself a force, but is a confluence of several societal factors. This struggle for position and identity in a rapidly evolving world gives technology a central place in architecture because without it, architecture is irrelevant.

Thirdly, architecture is a manifestation of technology. The technical disposition of a society must find expression in its architectural display. Sykes (2012) developed a phenomenological model of the built environment where he compared technology to a prosthetic. In this sense, technology is the means through which man can interact with his environment. It is not a passive tool but a necessary one for a man to use to reach higher levels of sensory connection with his environment. Architecture therefore is one of the ways through which technology manifests its benefits to humanity. Without architecture, there will be a sense of incompleteness in regards to the benefits of technology to human beings. In the same way, without technology, architecture becomes a relic of human history, and not a part of the rich technological legacy of humanity.

Fourthly, architecture is part of the planet’s technological network. The relationship between the different elements that make up technology is a “technological network” (Sykes 2012, p. 371). In the postmodern era, technology manifests as a network consisting of various elements. An examination of the role of technology in architecture reveals that technology is a spatial concept (Kerzner 2009). Technological networks have several components based in different locations. A good example is the internet. It interconnects people based on a system of interconnected computers. This view takes on the assumption that technology exists as part of the relationship between human beings and non-human elements of space. Therefore, if it takes different elements located in different places to energize a technological network, then technology is a spatial concept. As such, technology forms a significant part of architectural thinking because architecture is a spatial concept too. The allocation of space for various functions is the most basic expression of architecture.

The role of technology in architectural design and innovation is a natural consequence of the centrality of technology in architecture. Technological changes usually follow changes in human behavior, and human behavior influences technological change. In other words, when people change, technology follows the change, and when people want change, they create it using technology. This means that architecture is under the influence of changes in technology. Technological changes bring about new possibilities in architectural design and in the choice of materials. It also influences the behavior of people. In these ways, technology exerts a strong influence on the aims, and objectives of architecture.

On the other hand, technology also plays an important role within the practice of architecture. Technology is responsible for changes in the methods used to practice architecture. Before the advent of the personal computer, architects used drawing boards as the canvas for creating their designs (Braham 2007). This was time consuming and laborious. This changed when personal computers became available to architects. Complex designs such as bridges and skyscrapers that were beyond the scope of architecture are now in existence because of the possibilities provided by technology. In conclusion, technology plays an influential role in the practice of architecture because it guides the purposes of architecture, and it provides the tools, methods, and opportunities for breaking new ground in architectural design and innovation.

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Use of Recent Technologies in Architectural Thinking

The relationship between architecture and technology relies on the extent to which architecture allows technology to pervade it. Architecture is not always on the forefront of absorbing new technologies in order to solve architectural problems. Architecture’s rich tradition at times becomes an impediment in the process of adopting new technologies for architectural uses (Royal Commission 1971). Most practitioners tend to interpret the need to retain fidelity in architectural practice to mean protection of the methods, assumptions, and processes used in architectural design and practice. There is a wide range of technologies which architecture needs to adopt in order to develop new solutions to emerging problems. To evaluate this question further, three technologies come to mind.

First architecture needs to increase its use of nanotechnology solutions to architectural problems. Recently, researchers have developed a new material called graphene from graphite (Dodgson & Gann 2010). Graphene has many new desirable qualities such as the versatility of paper, the strength of diamonds, and the electrical properties of graphite (Dodgson & Gann 2010). As such, this material is making a big impact in electronics and computer design technologies. However, there are very few attempts in architectural circles to take advantage of the development of graphene as a potential solution to architectural problems. This example illustrates the slow speed of uptake of new technologies by architects.

In the medical sciences, a variety of ideas exist on how to use nanotechnology to answer medical problems. Nanobots can help perform delicate surgery such as neurosurgery, and in the process reduce the risk associated with surgical procedures (Sykes 2012). Nanobots can also be very useful in the treatment of cancer. Nanotechnology will also provide chemical engineers and other scientists with the opportunity to handle chemicals at the nano level. Similarly, device manufacturers for various applications intend to construct equipment calibrated in the nano scale for use in the development of nanobots, and other nanotechnologies (Dodgson & Gann 2010).

Nanotechnology needs a place in architectural thinking and practice. Two potential approaches in this field include guiding the development of nano materials to answer architectural problems, and involvement of architects in the construction of nano structures, based on architectural principles. In the first case, architects are always on the lookout for the emergence of new materials for use in architectural applications. However, lack of guidance from architecture professionals slows down this process. If practitioners in architecture played a role in the development of nanotechnology, then it is possible that more materials of relevance to architecture would be available. Second, nanotechnologies are not necessarily versed in the principles of architecture. They however need structures to store their nanotechnologies at the nano level. Architects can play this role very well, because of their understanding of the use of spaces and the development of functional structures. The logical conclusion to this discussion is that there may be needed to develop a new field of architectural technology called nano architecture, based on existing architectural principles.

The second area of technology where the input of architects is overdue is in the area of renewable energy. Renewable energy is the sustainable solution to the existing problems the world is grappling with caused by global warming. The development of energy solutions is the preserve of energy engineers. With respect to this fact, architects can play a unique role in the development and implementation of renewable energy solutions (Holmes 2005). As the principle designers of spaces and as the chief allotters of space, architects have a very significant role to play in renewable energy development. Architecture must develop a strong presence in renewable energy and sustainable design to ensure that all structures and space allotments take into account the need for energy efficiency.

Usually, architects provide the functional design of spaces. Thereafter, engineers use this design to develop the required energy utilization parameters. If the architects do not include renewable energy principles in the building design, there is little that engineers can do to improve the design. The engineers simply assume that the design is adequate for the intended function. They therefore compute the required energy needs and fit in equipment that can cater for these needs. It is clear that there is a need for architecture to find more ways of working with other technologists to develop the required solutions.

The third technology that architecture needs to utilize more is Global Information Systems such as GPS, for planning (Holmes 2005). Architectural realism requires that architectural works should solve real problems using implementable ideas. Therefore, architectural design relying on GPS systems can make it possible for designers to base their concepts on actual locations on earth. Similarly, GPS systems can help to position structures on scale models of the working surface as provided by global imaging systems. This application bears even more significance in urban design. After urban planners provide their overall plans, architects can use those plans to develop realistic city models. Demographic predictions indicate that the number of people living in urban areas will increase over time (Walker, Walker & Schmitz 2003). This means that many countries will have to construct cities from scratch. GPS technology would be very valuable to architects in this regard. Finally, the use of GPS technology to monitor construction projects is also a possible application of technology in architecture. As buildings rise, GPS systems can help to determine whether they have the desired alignment, and whether the project is moving according to the planned rate.

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Need for Innovation in Architecture

Dealing with the question of innovation in architecture requires clarity of what innovation means in architecture. In as much as it was desirable to use a single definition, the most comprehensive way of dealing with the question regarding the nature of innovation is by examining the elements of innovation postulated by different scholars. Dodgson and Gann (2010, p. 5) defined innovation as, “ideas, successfully applied”. This definition recognized that there is a novel element to innovation, but the qualifier for an innovative item is whether its application is successful. On the other hand, Brookes (2003, p. 6) defined innovation as the “application or exploitation of an idea”. This definition relegated ideation to the invention phase of the idea. For the purposes of this question, innovation will constitute both the ideation and the implementation phase of an idea. This choice reflects the understanding that architecture is largely ideation. In fact, the most important product from architectural efforts is an idea, based on spatial design.

The differing needs of human beings, alongside their evolving needs underpin the need for innovation in architecture. In any locality, buildings and the design of spaces reflect the variety of needs human beings have (Brookes 2003). It is almost impossible to find two people with exactly the same architectural needs asking for the same solution. People who commission architectural projects usually infuse their personality into the project. They seek to use the buildings as an expression of themselves. The only way architects can meet these needs is by using innovative principles to answer the same fundamental needs in ways that meet the needs of the sponsors.

Secondly, the needs of human beings change over time, and in response, the solutions they need for their problems change. Architectural works have a distinct time element in them. That is why scholars use names like Victorian, Gothic, or Islamic to refer to distinct architectural styles associated with certain periods (Sykes 2012). In recent times, names like postmodern architecture refer to contemporary styles, while futuristic designs try to predict the future of architectural solutions. The main point here is that the need for innovation comes from the evolving needs of human beings across different periods (Meredeth & Mantel 2011). Further, it means that the same problem from the same person will require a different solution after some time. The only way architecture can meet these demands is by innovation.

The three ways in which innovation in architecture is necessary is in architectural thinking, architectural processes, and architectural products. Architectural thinking refers to the theoretical notions and approaches in architecture. Architecture is a very well developed discipline in the areas of the philosophies that govern its practice. This is the result of the rich architectural heritage spanning centuries. However, rigidity is a potential problem in all areas of scholastic endeavor governed by a long history (Braham 2007). If the thinkers in the field of architecture fail to be innovative in their philosophical methods, then there is a real danger of academic stagnation, which is the precursor to the extinction of the practice. The need to become more innovative in architectural thinking comes from the fact that there is a lot of change in the way people view technology, and in the nature of problems, they want architects to solve. There is increasing specialization leading to a stricter definition of what constitutes architecture. Furthermore, there is a wider interdisciplinary overlap between fields such as engineering and architecture. In fact, the name architecture no longer means the same thing it meant one century ago (Brookes 2003). Anyone involved in systems development can claim an architect’s title. The thinking in the field of architecture should find ways of absorbing all these issues to retain relevance and to maintain disciplinary fidelity.

Secondly, process innovation in architecture is necessary in order to improve the practice of architecture (Porter 1980). Traditionally, architects were solitary professionals who maintained a strict client list. In the business world today, almost all professions are moving towards a collaborative practice (Walker, Walker & Schmitz 2003). In some cases, clients want real time access to the project developments (Young 2009). The possibilities availed by the internet make it possible for this to happen. The process of handling clients and developing architectural solutions needs to show cognizance to the changes in the working environment (Corson, Heath & Bryant 2000). Apart from this, many technologies are available for the management of information relevant to an architect’s practice.

Finally, product innovation is becoming more important for architecture. With the demands imposed on all disciplines to be more relevant to prevailing needs, architects must keep on innovating in order to present proper solutions for problems bedeviling the world. One of the most serious issues facing the world today is global warming. Architects need to become more aggressive in providing eco-designs for mass consumption (Porter 1980). Eco-design currently sounds futuristic and elitist. The only way to ensure that building design can contribute towards alleviation of global warming is when architects can develop eco-designs accessible to the mass market. On another note, the evolving field of nanotechnology needs the input of architects in order to produce effective nano structures needed to support these technologies. The basic expertise of an architect would be very valuable for meeting these specialized needs. Apart from the development of architectural design for construction, architects can also produce designs for use in virtual environments. People spend more time in virtual spaces. Architects, with their understanding of the use of spaces, can play a big role in providing people with a realistic virtual experience.

Reference List

Banham, R 1980, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, MIT Publishing, Massachusetts.

Braham, W 2007, Rethinking Architectural Technology: A Reader in Architectural Theory, Taylor & Francis, New York, NY.

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Brookes, A 2003, Innovation in Architecture: A Path to the Future, Taylor & Francis, New York, NY.

Corson, D, Heath, RL & Bryant, J 2000, Human Communication Theory and Research: Concepts, Context, and Challenges, 2nd edn, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, Mahwah, NJ.

Dodgson, M & Gann, D 2010, Innovation: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Heynen, H, Crysler, CG & Cairns, S 2012, The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory, SAGE, New York, NY.

Holmes, D 2005, Communication Theory: Media, Technology, and Society, SAGE, London, UK.

Kerzner, H 2009, Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling and Controlling, 10th edn, John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, NJ.

Meredeth, JR & Mantel, SJ 2011, Project Management: A Managerial Approach, 8th edn, John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, NJ.

Porter, ME 1980, Competitive Advantage: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY.

Royal Commission 1971, ‘Report of Royal Commission into the Failure of the West Gate Bridge’, Commission of Inquiry Report, Government of Victoria, Government Printer, Melbourne.

Sykes, AK 2012, Constructing a New Agenda: Architechtural Theory 1993-2009, Princeton Architectural Press, Princeton.

Walker, DM, Walker, TD & Schmitz, JT 2003, Doing Business Internationally: The Guide to Cross-Cultural Success, McGraw-Hill Professional, New York, NY.

Young, ST 2009, Essentials of Operations Management, Sage Publications Inc, London.

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