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Prelude to an Architect-Machine Dialogue

Published onApr 23, 2021
Prelude to an Architect-Machine Dialogue

Something essential to man’s creativity, even in science, may disappear when the defiantly metaphoric language of poetry gives way completely to the denatured language of the computer.

Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine

You are in a foreign country, do not know the language, and are in desperate need of help. At first your hand movements and facial expressions carry most of your meaning to the silent observer. Your behavior uses a language of gestures and strange utterances to communicate your purpose. The puzzled listener searches for bits of content he can understand and link to his own language. You react to his reactions, and a language of pantomime begins to unfold. This new language has evolved from the mutual effort to communicate. Returning to the same person a second time, let us say with a new need, the roots of a dialogue already exist. This second conversation might be gibberish to a third party brought into the exchange at this time.

A designer-to-machine introduction should have a similar linguistic evolution. Each should track the other’s design maneuvers, evoking a rhetoric that cannot be anticipated. “What was mere noise and disorder or distraction before, becomes pattern and sense; information has been metabolized out of noise” (Brodey and Lindgren, 1967). The event is circular inasmuch as the designer-machine unity provokes a dialogue and the dialogue promotes a stronger designer-machine unity. This progressively intimate association of the two dissimilar species is the symbiosis. It evolves through mutual training, in this case, through the dialogue.

Such man-machine dialogue has no historical precedent. The present antagonistic mismatch between man and machine, however, has generated a great deal of preoccupation for it. In less than a decade the term “man-machine communication” has passed from concept to cliché to platitude. Nevertheless, the theory is important and straightforward: in order to have a cooperative interaction between a designer of a certain expertise and a machine of some scholarship, the two must be congenial and must share the labor of establishing a common language. A designer, when addressing a machine, must not be forced to resort to machine-oriented codes. And in spite of computational efficiency, a paradigm for fruitful conversations must be machines that can speak and respond to a natural language.

With direct, fluid, and natural man-machine discourse, two former barriers between architects and computing machines would be removed. First, the designers, using computer-aided design hardware, would not have to be specialists. With natural communication, the “this is what I want to do” and “can you do it” gap could be bridged. The design task would no longer be described to a “knobs and dials” person to be executed in his secret vernacular. Instead, with simple negotiations, the job would be formulated and executed in the designer’s own idiom. As a result, a vibrant stream of ideas could be directly channeled from the designer to the machine and back.

The second obstruction overcome by such close communion is the potential for reevaluating the procedures themselves. In a direct dialogue the designer can exercise his proverbial capriciousness. At first a designer may have only a meager understanding of his specific problem and thus require machine tolerance and compatibility in his search for the consistency among criteria and form and method, between intent and purpose. The progression from visceral to intellectual can be articulated in subsequent provisional statements of detail and moment-to-moment reevaluations of the methods themselves.

This photograph first appeared in Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man. (Photograph courtesy of Peter Moeschlin)

But, the tête-à-tête must be even more direct and fluid; it is gestures, smiles, and frowns that turn a conversation into a dialogue. “Most Americans are only dimly aware of this silent language even though they use it everyday. They are not conscious of the elaborate patterning of behavior which prescribes our handling of time, our spatial relationships, our attitudes towards work, play, and learning” (Hall, 1959). In an intimate human-to-human dialogue, hand-waving often carries as much meaning as text. Manner carries cultural information: the Arabs use their noses, the Japanese nod their heads. Customarily, in man-machine communication studies, such silent languages are ignored and frequently are referred to as “noise.” But such silent languages are not noise; a dialogue is composed of “whole body involvement—with hands, eyes, mouth, facial expressions—using many channels simultaneously, but rhythmized into a harmoniously simple exchange” (Brodey and Lindgren, 1968).

Imagine a machine that can follow your design methodology and at the same time discern and assimilate your conversational idiosyncrasies. This same machine, after observing your behavior, could build a predictive model of your conversational performance. Such a machine could then reinforce the dialogue by using the predictive model to respond to you in a manner that is in rhythm with your personal behavior and conversational idiosyncrasies.

The sequence of photographs is taken from the 16mm film, Three Experiments in Architecture Machines, first shown at the Environmental Design Research Association Conference, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, June 1969. The prints are cropped from every fourth frame of a four-second scene. In these few seconds the user of this terminal has said more to the machine in hand-movement language than in any string of text, but it is all unheard. This particular person has never used a machine before; he does not know what a language is without gestures.


What this means is that the dialogue we are proposing would be so personal that you would not be able to use someone else’s machine, and he would not understand yours. In fact, neither machine would be able to talk directly to the other. The dialogue would be so intimate—even exclusive—that only mutual persuasion and compromise would bring about ideas, ideas unrealizable by either conversant alone. No doubt, in such a symbiosis it would not be solely the human designer who would decide when the machine is relevant.

The overlaying of a specific design character upon a generalized machine is not fanciful; subsequent chapters will illustrate some primitive attempts. An anonymous machine, after identifying a speaker, can transform itself into an exclusive apparatus that indeed would reflect previous encounters with that speaker. The extent of the metamorphosis depends on the degree of acquaintance. At the onset of the partnership, the machine gathers gross features; later it avails itself of subtleties. The design dialogue is one of mutual development.

One might argue that we are proposing the creation of a design machine that is an extension of, and in the image of, a designer who, as he stands, has already enough error and fault.

The three photographs were taken by George De-Vincent and first appeared in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Spectrum, September 1967. The illustrations describe a succession of interfaces from hard to soft, from inanimate to animate. In most machines the interface where the flesh hits the steel (as Warren Brodey would say) is no more subtle and no more advanced than that of an old typewriter. (Photographs courtesy of the Environmental Ecology Laboratory, Boston, Massachusetts)


However, we have indicated that the maturation would be a reciprocal ripening of ideas and ways. At first, jobs where the man is particularly inept would stimulate a nontrivial need for cooperation. Subsequently each interlocutor would avoid situations notably clumsy for his constitution, while prying into issues that were originally outside the scope of concern (or the concern of his profession). Eventually, a separation of the parts could not happen: “The entire ‘symbiotic’ system is an artificial intelligence that cannot be partitioned” (Pask, 1964).

In the prelude to an architect-machine dialogue the solidarity of the alliance will rely on the ease of communication, the ability to ventilate one’s concerns in a natural vernacular, and the presence of modes of communication responsive to the discipline at hand. A wine taster would expect his partner to have taste buds and an understanding of vintages. An architect would expect his associate to have at least a graphic ability capable of manipulating and displaying a host of environmental data and, in particular, physical form.

Writing machine made by M. F. Weisendanger. This device was actually built in 1946. When the mechanism worked, the amateur mechanician added, “People would be astonished to see a man of our time sacrifice so much leisure and so many hours to such a useless piece of work.”

The device was built after studying the complete papers describing the Jaquet-Droz Writer, built in 1774. (Photograph courtesy of Editions du Griffon, Neuchâtel, Switzerland)

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