Between self-driving cars, computer-generated pop music and algorithms to predict every want and need (not to mention those creepy path-finding robots learning to navigate even the most unforgiving terrain with an untiring and murderous prance), the advent of thinking machines sometimes seems poised to depart the realm of science fiction and become everyday reality. And as even actors, animators and digital artists question their roles in the coming new normal, architects check the foundation.  

“THE REAL QUESTION IS CAN A COMPUTER  create Picasso?” says Damien Blumetti, principal and founder of Damien Blumetti Architect in Sarasota. Artificial intelligence (AI) has already infiltrated the home, he says, and in almost the most science fiction way possible—as a friendly support system that helps regulate the home, responding to the resident on command and predicting their preferences. Smart is a synonym for intelligent, and all the things that make the modern smart home a smart home—adaptive lighting, responsive air conditioning, automatic locks—add up to something of a primitive artificial intelligence. “And that’s something that we take for granted,” Blumetti says.

Newer designs, including one he worked on in Casey Key, take the adaptive approach even further, outfitting the home with windows that change tint according to time of day, time of year and sun exposure. In the future, this could expand to AI-controlled facades that morph entirely to respond to climatic conditions. But can AI design a house? “Absolutely not,” Blumetti says. “There’s a misconception that, because we use computers, the computer is doing the work and that’s absolutely not the case.” The modern computer makes up a powerful tool in the architect’s toolkit—allowing quick calculations, massive data collation and impressive imaging software—but, for some, it’s not even a primary tool yet.

For Sarasota architect Guy Peterson, the process will always begin with “the power of the pencil”—a Black Warrior pencil, to be exact—and yellow tracing paper. “Call me old fashioned,” he says, “but I believe in handmade architecture.” And hand-drawn designs are what Peterson presents to every client, for every project he’s ever done. Part of it, he admits, is for the client. If he brings in a computer rendering, it may look slick, but the clients have no idea if Peterson ever really touched it, or if he handed it off to staff or a contractor. “But when I come in with hand drawings that I’ve spent weeks developing and annotating,” he says, “they know that the architect they hired did the work for them, that I’ve invested my time.” At the same time, it’s also just the way the art works for Peterson. “It’s intuitive, it’s tangible—something about the sound of the pencil going across the paper,” he says. “If you don’t like it, you wad it up and throw it away. Then you do another and just explore ideas.” 

It’s that artistic exploration that both Peterson and Blumetti have yet to find within the cold mechanics of even the most advanced computer. Architectural inspiration, like any other art, comes to the practitioner in myriad and mysterious ways, says Blumetti, and currently resides outside the bounds of any architectural software he’s come across. The closest thing he can imagine would be some sort of program that picks random features and styles and mashes them together in the quest for something “unique,” but results in something piecemeal. Blumetti calls this “Frankenstein” architecture; Peterson calls it a “Mr. Potato Head.” Neither is impressed. “I just don’t think that’s how the emotion in architecture is created,” says Peterson. “Architecture is emotional and it’s about space. It’s about raising people’s spirits and creating beautiful experiences, and I don’t think a computer thinks that way.”