the new age of virtual architecture

“Something big is happening,” says Hamza Shaikh. “Architecture is entering a new age.” 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, with artificial intelligence adding new capabilities. And indeed, if it is not yet clear how this revolution could change apartment blocks or schools or shopping centers near you, the energy and invention behind it cannot be denied.

There is also social transformation, as Shaikh legitimately claims. If, in the past, talented architects had to work their way up a career that favored those with connections and money, now anyone from anywhere can make a name for themselves, if they have the talent, determination and access to technology. They do this not by achieving finished buildings, but by strong images of imaginary architecture. They don’t all use the latest techniques all the time – some work by hand, others (including Shaikh) with manual and digital hybrids – but they all use the internet to spread their work and to exchange ideas.

Shaikh, 27, is following the paths of many young architects: after completing his training, he is working in the London office of the multinational practice Gensler – except that he is also an Instagram influencer, attracting almost 30,000 followers to his architectural jobs. drawings and photographs of buildings. Along with amazing compositions by himself or his colleagues, he makes raids on history: the intricate tiles and brickwork in the Mughal mosque in his ancestral village in Pakistan; the nest of wooden knowledge in the Trinity College Library, Dublin; a full-color pen-and-wash cross-section through 18th-century Parisian theatre.

They have what Shaikh calls “global collectives” of like-minded people, a process accelerated during the lockdown. “We were sitting there at our desks in this digital storm,” he says, “trying to connect more.” So they did. From this ferment there is a book, Attracting Attention: Architecture in the Age of Social Media, to be published by RIBA Publishing. Prompted by endless questions from students about how particular drawings were made, it is a guide to “draw attention” to “potentially revolutionary” ideas.

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

There is also an exhibition, Vanishing Points, opening this week at Roca Gallery London. This combines contemporary drawings with those of the great architects of the past. On Lent by Drawing Matter, a private collection of 35,000 drawings and architectural models based in Somerset, these exhibitions will include a rough pencil sketch by Le Corbusier for an unbuilt Olympic stadium in Baghdad; the Post-it notes on which Zaha Hadid gave her ideas to her team; and a 1798 drawing of a Roman basilica by French neoclassicist Charles Percier.

Live works include a “fictional Tokyo skyline” by Veronika Ikonnikova, where traditional wooden houses are moved to the top of the sky, and a digital collage by Zain Al-Sharaf that records the destruction of the family’s Palestinian neighborhood under Israel. rule. Memory Palace, by Clement Luk Laurencio, an abstract representation of times and places known to the artist. The moods of the various works are dreamy, dystopian, playful and hopeful, some in visions, some in illustrations. The best show mesmerizing levels of craft. Your first reaction might be “That’s nice”, followed by “What?”

Most are complex and layered, the exception being Saul Kim’s (107k Instagram followers) pretty “architectural anomalies,” in which buildings that appear to fold or tilt or move from one shape to another. Some of these images use entirely digital technology, some are hand drawn, some with a combination of both. Ana Aragão, based in Oporto, draws teetering megabytes, from the Tower of Babel to modern Japan, in Biro and colored pencil, by floating over large sheets of paper laid flat on the floor.

Shaikh himself runs the gamut of techniques – pencil, paint, Photoshop, digital collage. “Let’s look at drawing as old as possible,” he says, “but at the cutting edge of technology.” It has begun to explore the possibilities of AI, and in response to a series of prompts – such as “artistic rendering, Wallace & Gromit machines, architectural drawing, 8k octane rendering, ultrasound and depth” – will come up with an image that will the world has never seen before. Again and again, the process generates a store of material to use in his designs. “There’s a lot of fear of AI,” he says, “but it’s not about creativity. It makes it easier.”

In a way, the work of Shaikh and his allies follows an old tradition of unbuildable fantasies, sometimes called “paper architecture”, which dates back at least to the imaginary cave prisons drawn by Giambattista Piranesi a quarter of a millennium ago. It is a great example of the genre God’s Imperial Palacedisplayed in Vanishing Points a dense pile of spiers and cupolas drawn in 1856 by one George Elliot (no relation to the novelist) from Bensham Asylum near Gateshead.

What is partly new is the ability of digital technologies to take content from any time or place an ancient temple, a neon sign, an atmospheric condition, a demonic machine – and flip it, mash it, scale it up and down, rearrange and recombine it. Combined with social media’s ability to inspire endlessly created communities, these factors create a world of abundant diversity without effort, without hierarchies and hegemonies.

It remains to be seen what happens when this multitude of ideas influences the design of solid buildings, when these visions collide with the demands of plumbing, fire codes, sustainability and budgets. Niall Hobhouse, founder of Drawing Matter, says that the historical exhibitions are partly a “challenge” for the new ones, as at least some of them were created with the aim of changing the physical world.

For some people, this question may not matter much. Japanese animator and director Mamoru Hosoda invited Eric Wong, for example, a demonstrator in the show, to help design the stunning location for his feature film. Belle. Wong has found a way to be an architect, in other words, that doesn’t involve building. For others, the most interesting thing they could do is the translation from the virtual to the material.

  • Attracting Attention: Architecture in the Age of Social Media, edited by Hamza Shaikh, published by RIBA Publishing (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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

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