the new era of virtual architecture

“Something big is happening,” says Hamza Shaikh. “Architecture is entering a new era.” He argues that the ways in which buildings are imagined and communicated are being transformed by a combination of social media and the ever-evolving techniques of digital drawing, to which artificial intelligence is adding new capabilities. And indeed, if it’s not yet clear how this revolution might change nearby tower blocks, schools, or shopping malls, the energy and invention behind it is undeniable.

There is also, as Shaikh justifiably asserts, a social transformation. If, in the past, aspiring architects had to make their way in a profession that favored those with connections and money, now anyone anywhere can make a name for themselves, if they have the talent, determination and access to technology. . They do this not through the realization of finished buildings, but through compelling images of imaginary architecture. Not all use the latest techniques all the time, some work by hand, some (including Shaikh) with hybrids of manual and digital, but all use the Internet to spread their work and exchange ideas.

Shaikh, 27, is following the path of many young architects: after completing his training, he works at the London office of multinational studio Gensler, except he’s also an Instagram influencer, attracting nearly 30,000 followers to his Instagram posts. architecture. drawings and photographs of buildings. Alongside fantastical compositions of himself or his companions, he makes forays into history: the intricate tiles and bricks of the Mughal mosque in his ancestral village in Pakistan; the wood-paneled nest of knowledge that is Trinity College Dublin Library; an accomplished feather and wash cross section through an 18th century Parisian theatre.

Shaikh has created what he calls “global collectives” of like-minded people, a process accelerated during lockdown. “We were sitting at our desks in this digital storm,” he says, “wanting to connect more.” So they did. From this ferment a book has emerged, Turning heads: architecture in the age of social media, which will be published by RIBA Publishing. Driven by endless questions from students about how particular drawings were made, it is a guide to “drawing attention” to ideas “that could be revolutionary.”

It remains to be seen what happens when these visions meet the demands of plumbing and fire codes.

There is also an exhibition, Vanishing Points, opening this week at the Roca London Gallery. It combines contemporary drawings with those of great architects of the past. On loan from Drawing Matter, a private collection of 35,000 architectural drawings and models housed in Somerset, these exhibits will include a pencil sketch by Le Corbusier for an unbuilt Olympic stadium in Baghdad; the Post-it notes in which Zaha Hadid conveyed his ideas to his staff; and a 1798 drawing of a Roman basilica by French neoclassicalist Charles Percier.

Works by the living include a “fictional Tokyo skyline” by Veronika Ikonnikova, where traditional wooden houses are transposed to the tops of skyscrapers, and a digital collage by Zain Al-Sharaf recording the erasures of the Palestinian neighborhood of the family under Israeli law. ruler. memory palace, by Clement Luk Laurencio, is an abstract representation of times and places familiar to the artist. The moods of the works are dreamy, dystopian, playful and hopeful, some of them visions, some illustrations. The best ones display fascinating levels of craftsmanship. “That’s beautiful” might be his first reaction, followed by “What is it?”

Most are complicated and layered, with the exception of Saul Kim’s (107k Instagram followers) clever “architectural anomalies,” in which normal-looking buildings fold, lean, or morph from one shape to another. Some of these images use digital technology to its fullest, some are hand-drawn, and some are a combination of both. Porto-based Ana Aragão draws wobbly megastructures, from the Tower of Babel to modern Japan, in biro and colored pencils, dragging on large sheets of paper spread across the ground.

Shaikh himself runs the gamut of techniques: pencil, paint, Photoshop, digital collage. “Let’s make a drawing look as old as possible,” he says, “but on the cutting edge of technology.” He began to explore the possibilities of AI, which in response to a series of prompts, for example “art illustration, Wallace & Gromit machines, architectural drawing, 8k octane rendering, ultra detail and depth”, will generate an image that the world has never seen before. Repeated many times, the process generates a reserve of material to use in his designs. “There’s a lot of fear around AI,” he says, “but it doesn’t take away from creativity. It makes it easy.”

In a way, the work of Shaikh and his allies follows an old tradition of unconstructible fantasies, sometimes called “paper architecture,” going back at least to the cavernous imaginary prisons that Giambattista Piranesi drew a quarter of a millennium ago. A striking example of the genre is God’s Imperial Palaceon display at Vanishing Points a dense stack of towers and domes drawn in 1856 by one George Elliot (no relation to the novelist) of Bensham Asylum near Gateshead.

What is new is partly the ability of digital technologies to take material from any time or place. an ancient temple, a neon sign, a weather condition, a demonic machine, and turn it upside down, smash it, scale it up and down, rearrange it, and recombine it. Combined with the ability of social media to foster borderless communities of creators, these factors create a universe of abundant and effortless diversity, without hierarchies or hegemonies.

It remains to be seen what happens when this trove of ideas influences strong building design, when these visions meet the demands of plumbing, fire codes, sustainability, and budgets. Niall Hobhouse, the founder of Drawing Matter, says the historic exhibits are partly a “challenge” to the new ones, since at least some of them were created with an eye to changing the physical world.

For some, this problem may not matter much. Eric Wong, for example, an exhibitor at the show, was invited by Japanese animator and director Mamoru Hosoda to help design the dazzling set for his feature film. Belle. Wong has found a way to be an architect, in other words, that doesn’t involve construction. For others, the translation from the virtual to the material will be the most interesting thing they can do.

  • Turning heads: architecture in the age of social media, Edited by Hamza Shaikh, it is published by RIBA Publishing (£30). to support the guardian and Observer order your copy at Shipping charges may apply

  • Vanishing Points is at Roca London Gallery, London SW6, from February 9 to July 29; free admission

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