Aaron Betsky, long the essayist of Architect magazine, remains on top of his game at gaming the future of architecture. It has been far too long since I got to bastinado Betsky. In his latest piece, he describes using artificial intelligence, and specifically the AI platform Midjourney, to reimagine the island of Capri. But of course the famous resort does not need to be or want to be reimagined.
Even officials of the municipality of Capri urged Betsky and his workshop attendees not to do research on “how can Capri develop in a more sustainable and diverse manner.” That is Betsky’s summary of his goal. The city preferred that Betsky be “tasked” – again in Betsky’s words – with
producing what has been the engine for Capri’s development over the centuries: images that attract, evoke, and set a model for a kind of small-scale urbanism that integrates public space and agriculture into its winding streets.
That must have irked Betsky, whose métier is quite the reverse. What I really enjoyed was how his workshop’s “participants immersed themselves in life on Capri in May and then discovered Midjourney.” Ah! May in Capri! Wish I’d been asked to go, but no invitation was forthcoming. Rats!
As the dean of the school of architecture at Virginia Tech, Betsky wants the next generation of architects to create an even weirder kind of architecture than what current and previous generations have been creating for many decades. Here he insists that his Capri workshoppers’ products evoked a more fantastical version of a place that is already fantastic:
What happens when you ask a computer to make a fantasy retreat even more fantastical? You get a series of postcards of a sun-drenched Mediterranean island, complete with images of piazzas that don’t exist, cracks in the vine-draped walls along the winding streets that grow into inhabitable spaces, and underground caves and houses for the workers who allow the fantasy to operate. At least, that was what a group of architectural designers produced this summer during a speculative design workshop to imagine a future form of habitation on the island of Capri.
Sounds lovely. But to judge by the images that illustrate Betsky’s article linked to above, that’s not what the workshoppers produced. Atop this post is what seemingly was Betsky’s preferred image from among those produced, which evokes the form of the Capri we all (wish we did) know and love, or at least its natural features. This choice was disingenuous. As for the manmade features – which really make Capri what we know and love – those are largely omitted from the Midjourney excursions into Betsky’s preferred topsy-turvy version of reality. The ones he did not choose to run may be even more revelatory of his warped vision of reality. Abetted, of course, by modernism’s preference for computer-“enhanced” architecture rather than traditional hand-drawing of designs.
I prefer Betsky’s description of what Midjourney produces from his last article in Architect about the platform, written before he visited Capri. This description may be found by clicking on the link to that article in his latest article for Architect. Here it is:
The images produced by Midjourney … have a degree of realism, a range of painterly effects, and a way of plugging into the history and traditions of architecture that cloaks their novel mode of production with disarming familiarity. The images also often beat those arguing for hand-drawing and modeling techniques at their own game. The work looks more hand-made, more realistic and more crafted, more knowing in its references, and grander in its ambitions than the collection of swoops and swerves we have come to understand as the marks of computer technology.
Nice, huh? Midjourney seems to be pushing back against Betsky himself. For what he really likes about Midjourney, and which he sees as at its best in Italian architect Cesare Battelli’s work using Midjourney (just below), is its ephemerality. This basically equates to the opposite of the whole idea of architecture, which has to do with solidity (“commodity, firmness and delight,” as Vitruvius described it). Here is one example of Betsky’s preferences, but this earlier article too is worth reading in its entirely for the amusement factor.
The best of them, like the series that ensued from Battelli prompting the software to render the “Tower of Babel under construction,” show a world in which scaffolding and the fragments of finished forms wrap around each other to produce buildings that change from solid objects to ephemera as they rise up into the sky. The scenes Battelli produces almost always consist of such unfinished structures, all loosely connected and spreading out across the virtual page in a sepia-tinted continuum.
This, whether in its quoted form or its image, is apparently what Betsky thinks not just Capri but the world should look like. Unfortunately, what we have around the globe is the fully realized version of Battelli’s and Betsky’s dystopia.
The reality, at least in Capri, again, does not need or want to be improved upon (let alone diminished by modernist intervention). This reality is pictured below. If you plow through screen after screen of Capri images on Google, you will see that no architect been allowed to reimagine Capri, or to plop a modernist pile of poop upon its winding and paradisical streetscapes. But is Capri truly free of the infernal modernism?
I fear that behind every streetfront is a hidden example of Betsky’s ridiculous dream reality. No doubt Google, by omitting modernism from its own Capri algorithm, is merely following the diktat of the Capri government! And who could blame the city for that? I sincerely hope I’m wrong. Reality, at least the one we see, can hardly be improved upon.
Capri, and Amalfi more in general, are about celebrating the and honoring their pasts. Their people will not allow this, because their urban fabric today and tomorrow must honor the context and culture of their past…. again, by demand of the very people that live there. It’s almost fun to see him pick this battlefield. It only proves the weakness of this new “woke sculpture as architecture” position. Thank you… you are proving our point!
While some see idiosyncratic styles as the connective language that connects a building to it community’s people, I think that style is only the reflective vehicle that is translating the inner soul of a design. To me, Vitruvius’s “venustas” is what allows people to relate to, and love a building through the history and culture it builds into its DNA. Architect’s like Plecnick, Ledoux, Eyre, and even Lutyens (and many many more) convince me of that.
I miss you David, I look forward to continuing this discussion over a cocktail, or two!
Dave, this reply is to the first half of your comment. I didn’t see the second half till just now: No doubt you are correct, but as you know I still don’t buy into the idea that any useful thinking about this can be done without bringing style into the discussion.
To second half of your comment, I reply that this is beautifully stated and I have no disagreement with it. As you know, the only problem I have with “Architectural Delight” is that, at times, I perceive that it is trying to avoid the role style plays in the discourse. As I come to understand your idea more and more, the more and more I think I agree with it totally. (However, this comment reply process does not allow me to go back and see what I am replying to. Smart!
I will be in Boston for the annual meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 2, so I will see you then, but we should have a drink in Providence or Barrington if we really want to do more than slap each other’s backs! I very much miss you too, and miss our sensible dialogue on these issues. But that is difficult to pursue in a gala setting.
I will not be attending the Bulfinch event merely because I am tired of doing the train to Boston thing with my penguin in a suitcase, then finding a place to change before the event, which I usually have arranged with Sally, who usually has a hotel room she can lend me for the switcheroo. And then changing back after the event, and getting the train back to La Prov. Maybe next year I’ll feel up to it again.