the new era of virtual architecture

“Something big is happening,” says Hamza Shaikh. “Architecture is entering a new era.” The ways in which buildings are imagined and communicated, he says, are being transformed by a combination of social media and the ever-evolving techniques of digital drawing, to which artificial intelligence is adding new possibilities. And indeed, if it’s not yet clear how condominiums or schools or malls near you might be changed by this revolution, the energy and ingenuity behind it is undeniable.

There is also, as Shaikh rightly claims, a social transformation. If in the past aspiring architects had to work their way up a profession that favored people 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 realizing realized buildings, but by captivating images of imaginary architecture. Not all of them always use the most advanced techniques – some work by hand, some (including Shaikh) with hybrids of manual and digital – but they all use the internet to distribute their work and exchange ideas.

Shaikh, 27, follows the trajectory of many young architects: after completing his training, he works in the London office of the multinational practice Gensler – in addition to being an Instagram influencer, drawing nearly 30,000 followers to his posts from architects drawings and photographs of buildings. In addition to fantastic compositions by himself or his colleagues, he makes forays into history: the intricate tiles and stonework in the Mughal mosque of his ancestral village in Pakistan; the wood-lined nest of knowledge that is Trinity College Dublin’s library; a perfect pen-and-wash cross-section through an 18th-century Parisian theatre.

Shaikh has built what he calls “global collectives” of like-minded people, a process that accelerated during the lockdown. “We just sat there at our desks in this digital storm,” he says, “wanting to connect more.” So they did. From this ferment has come a book, Attracting Attention: Architecture in the Age of Social Media, published by RIBA Publishing. Responding to endless questions from students about how certain drawings were created, 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 requirements of plumbing and fire codes

There is also an exhibit, Vanishing Points, opened this week at the Roca London Gallery. This 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 include a rough chalk sketch by Le Corbusier for an unbuilt Olympic stadium in Baghdad; the Post-it notes on which Zaha Hadid pitched her ideas to her staff; and a 1798 drawing of a Roman basilica by French neoclassicist Charles Percier.

The works of the living include a “fictitious skyline of Tokyo” by Veronika Ikonnikova, where traditional wooden houses are transposed to the tops of skyscrapers, and a digital collage by Zain Al-Sharaf that captures the erasures of the family’s Palestinian neighborhood under Israeli rule. Memory Palace, by Clement Luk Laurencio, is an abstract representation of times and places known to the artist. The moods of the works are alternately dreamy, dystopian, playful and hopeful, some visions, some illustrations. The best show mesmerizing levels of craft. “That’s nice” might be your first reaction, followed by, “What is it?”

Most of them are intricate and layered, with the exception of Saul Kim’s (107,000 Instagram followers) deft “architectural anomalies”, where normal-looking buildings fold or tilt or change from one shape to another. Some of these images make full use of digital technology, some are hand drawn, some are a combination of both. Ana Aragão, based in Porto, draws shaky megastructures, from the Tower of Babel to modern Japan, in Biro and colored pencil, by crawling over large sheets of paper lying flat on the floor.

Shaikh himself masters the range of techniques – pencil, paint, Photoshop, digital collage. “Let’s make a drawing look as old as possible,” he says, “but at the forefront of technology.” He has begun to explore the possibilities of AI, which in response to a series of prompts – for example “artistic illustration, Wallace & Gromit machines, architectural drawings, 8k octane render, ultra detail and depth” – will produce an image that world has never seen before. This process, repeated many times, generates a supply of material to be used in his designs. “There’s a lot of fear around AI,” he says, “but that doesn’t detract from creativity. It facilitates it.”

In a way, the work of Shaikh and his allies follows an old tradition of unbuildable fantasies, also known as ‘paper architecture’, which goes back at least to the cavernous imaginary prisons drawn by Giambattista Piranesi a quarter of a millennium ago. An amazing example of the genre is The Imperial Palace of Godfeatured in Vanishing Points a dense stack of spires and domes drawn in 1856 by one George Elliot (no relation to the novelist) of Bensham Asylum near Gateshead.

Part of what is new is the ability of digital technologies to extract material from any time and 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 combine it again. Combined with social media’s ability to foster borderless communities of creators, these factors make for a universe of abundant and effortless diversity, without hierarchies and hegemonies.

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

For some, this problem may not matter much. For example, Eric Wong, an exhibitor in the show, was invited by Japanese animator and director Mamoru Hosoda to help shape the dazzling backdrop for his feature film. Belle. Wong has found a way to be an architect, in other words, without construction. For others, the translation from the virtual to the material will be the most interesting thing they can do.

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

  • Vanishing Points is on view at the Roca London Gallery, London SW6, from February 9 to July 29; open access

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