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Could a digitised human scale model for the built environment be a
critical tool for designing a human-centered future?

The course of the ages, from as far back as the Neolithic era through to the Iron Age,
the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution have provided us with historical
comparisons. Using the milestones of these eras, we can compare and identify the
present age as something as significant. It is as disruptive an epoch if not more as
those which in the past had shaped humanity’s future forever and delivered us into
the 21st century. The radical achievements over just the last 500 years have
transformed every facet of the human condition and ecology. The past century alone
has seen the discovery of the chemical structure of DNA, allowing us to alter the
genetic code of relatedness. An achievement with just as much impact was the
recent activation of standardised internet protocol and proliferation of information
sharing. This digital revolution democratised information for all, unlocking talent and
inviting synergies across fields.

The age of Enlightenment in the 18h century was disruptive and transformed
societies from the antiquarian to the ‘light’ of rational science which included the
archaeological. The exponential growth in science and technology ever since has
continuously brought new frontiers and new cultural movements. It has resulted in a
great challenge for this era in providing for a rapidly growing global population;
hence our plight to sustain humanity’s increasing needs has given rise to the Fourth
Industrial Revolution. It is driving unprecedented progress, stationing the 21st
Century in one of humanity’s great epochal milestones – and we are just at the
beginning. The major factors contributing to this such as: Big Data, along with 3D
information, nano, digital and cognitive technologies, have pushed boundaries and
propelled society forward.

These factors have created paradigm shifts in human behaviour which are
identifiable through the global innovation economy. Monitoring our impact on the
natural environment through Big data and long term statistical studies has paved the
way to a greener future. Changing perceptions and realities in the face of the
consequences of our actions on the environment and human ecology have become
clear – and so began the Sustainability Revolution. Developments and attitudes
toward production industries are becoming environmentally conscious, while
innovation in technology is preparing for a sustainable future to combat the results of
the growing global population.

The 21st century has also seen the ubiquity of technology become an ecological
element, which has transformed our experiences within our environments.
Embedding itself throughout the fabric of society and so, into the lives of the
population, the digital realm is now of second nature to most. Human behaviours and
systems have been dramatically altered through this artificial intelligence and now in
the form of an infrastructure of cogs (specialised software agents) introduced into our
immediate environments. Symbiotic seamless networks between humans and cogs
also extend our global reach, greatly enhancing our networking and problem solving
capabilities, thus accelerating change. As a result of these metaphysical interactions
with real world, a mixed reality of the virtual and physical has developed. This
introduces a new aspect to our human ecology, advancing a new state of being. As a
consequence of natural human behaviour being our urge to connect and network, we
embrace the digital and its immersive cognitive environments. This is the invention of
the modern age and also now its existential problem: we have not mediated a
balance between the co-existence of the digital realm and its devices with humans.
This impressive use of artificial intelligence has been endorsed by each and every
user, potentially without understanding the impact on daily life and relationships. IBM
describes how cogs engage with humans, by “using spoken dialogue, gesture, and
advanced visualisation and navigation techniques. They learn and leverage
sophisticated models of human characteristics, preferences and biases so they can
communicate naturally”.1 This occurs as a type of anthropomorphosis of the digital
realm and its devices, forming a hyper reality with users. Architect Daniel Liberskind
asks, “Humanity has changed, how can we change with it without changing what is
deeply human?” The deluge of perpetual change effects our ability to concisely
comprehend and assist in developing proactive outcomes considered urban

Our dependency upon networking devices, which we treat as prostheses and the
multiple avenues developed to momentarily detach ourselves from reality have
become so apparent that it made the 2019 cover of the Economist magazine. The
magazine titled: “The World in 2019” comprehensively outlined through illustration
the cognitive and physical distractions and major changes to humanity over the past
500 years. This list included current politics, genetic therapies, networking devices,
drugs and more. Most notably, the cover bastardises the Vitruvian Man – the
illustration depicts the most common and disruptive distractions and human
interventions applied onto his body and sensors.

Developed during the Renaissance in the fifteenth century by Leonardo Da Vinci,
this important human scale model was based on the work of engineer and architect
Vitruvius, during the 1st century BC. The model of a male figure in 16 poses within a
square and a circle conveyed balance, the divine, beauty and the cosmos, making it
the perfect host for juxtaposing the Economist’s selection of contemporary issues.
The model was a tool intended to find the means between the extremes and create a
balance between two realms. It provided an understanding of scale and proportion,
represented through the perfection of man, created in the likeness of God. It was the
tool for relating architecture to the human and providing a pathway to a higher being
through its transcendental constructions. These edifices still stand today and provide
a solid example of the power and influence of architecture on society. It is also a
reminder of just how reliant the built and human ecology are upon each other in
making sense of cultural shifts.

Although it may not have been the intention of the Economist, the cover appears to
suggest that the contemporary contributions to society inflicted on the human may
require an evaluation of the human condition. It certainly provokes the question:
could rethinking the human scale model for the built environment be critical to
designing a human-centered future?

Evidence of the built environment employing types of human scale models
throughout its extensive duration is clear in almost all ancient civilisations and even
some modern. These provided rules to ensure buildings of importance would reflect
and shape the cultures they reside within, while imprinting back into architecture.
Vitruvius himself was inspired by the ancient Greco Roman classical order which
strove to create links between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Using the human
figure as a model, it was a transcendental response for architecture during the early
fifth century BC.

More recently, architect Le Corbusier formulated Le Modulor, a human scale model
which was developed using an ancient Greco-Roman technique, ‘The Golden Ratio’.
Although similarly based on the figure of a 6ft male, it was exempt of metaphysical
concepts. Ornament, which once represented beauty and the divine, surviving in
architecture nearly two thousand years, was completely removed. Transcendental
metaphysics may no longer be a basis for architectural discourse, although the fact
we are constantly dealing with the more tactile metaphysics of digital space should

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian draftsman, architect, printmaker and art theorist
of the 18th century, was the first to delve into virtual worlds. Piranesi’s famous
etchings of Roman Prisons were described by him as ‘capricious inventions’. Using
analogue techniques such as depth, gradient, perspective and inscriptions he
successfully drew his audience into his imaginary worlds. In doing this, Piranesi
introduced the first type of immersive virtual experience into the architectural
language. The concept of cerebral worlds was explored long ago but never properly
engaged with until the 20th century. Superstudio, an experimental architecture firm
founded in the late 1960s around the beginning of the digital age, addressed the
existential concerns of the effect of technology on the human condition and
environment using a virtual utopian world. In their film created in 1972 named
Supersurface - An Alternative Model for Life on Earth, they expressed a type of rule
system, a human scale model which considered human and environmental
connection. The film narrates the effect of the cognitive environment, primitive at the
time, as follows:

The new symbiosis of tools as extensions of senses, increasing the
potentiality of various phenomena, create new values of use, developing that
function of science which makes it appear as an innovating factor of
production prosthesis, thus new transpersonal defences are created, who’s
complex mechanisms tend often to fragment the behavioural models into rigid
The film also touched on other future forward architects who addressed similar
notions, such as Reyner Banham's Environmental Bubble, or the gigantic geodetic
structure covering Manhattan designed by Buckminster Fuller. There were also the
performative-architectural sculptures of Haus Racker-co, proposed to facilitate
mental change through bodily prosthetics and social interventions. These groups at
the earliest implementation of the Digital were already pioneering the
conceptualisation of a dynamic human scale model: one which considered the digital
and the virtual, which also foresaw the potential of distributed networks and its effect
on the human ecology. All of these models, ancient, modern and in between, aimed
at order and harmony with a human centric ideology, architects who mediated
between the world and the human condition.

Today, there are a number of architects who practice in this way, for example; The
Norman Foster Foundation encourages cross disciplinary and divergent thinking.
The foundation aims at the discourse around these and other existential concerns,
while shedding light upon unprecedented urban and environmental issues. Foster
says, “The issue of human development in cities is one of the greatest problems of
our time. The issue is we don’t really know how to work on that scale”.2 At this rate,
cities will depend on the use of digital tools and fabrication techniques – a future of
Digital Darwinism seems almost inevitable. American author, educator, media
theorist and cultural critic, Neil Postman, describes the possible digital phenomena
as a ‘Technopoly’; this is the Surrender of culture to technology, Postman warns “we
should not take technology as if it is the natural order of things or think of it as natural
we should not perceive it as inevitable.”

How do we create a balanced eco-system between humans, the digital, the virtual
realm, nature and the urban form? In order to begin to understand what we are
facing we must first consider not only how we interact with architecture now but how
it interacts with us and our new found individual and collective capabilities. We must
explore the actual boundaries of an architecture which extends itself metaphysically
and connects symbiotically to a network of built form, virtual environments, digital
and physical human interactions.

Cities are not only growing in volume but in their outreach with global distributed
networks of people, place and time. These actions expand, and in some
circumstances, contract the cities through digital space on a log on log off basis.
These new cognitive environments are contributing to the dynamism of life, place
and time, opening architecture up to transformation once again. Architecture has

been subject to the development of cultural shifts, from the transcendental
metaphysical, the phenomenological, the proto-humanists, the digital, and now it
could be Cybernetic, Parametrism, Morphological and Virtual or Hyper-real. The
advent of the digital has penetrated further than our devices and cognitive
environments; it has imprinted into architecture and become a useful generative tool
for solving complex problems. With this tool, as we once made the transcendental
evident, we will now make the virtual evident.

The Guggenheim Virtual Museum by Asymptote Architects, which created a virtual
cultural precinct, is the perfect example for what architecture can be if not bound to
its physical constraints and tethered to reality. The GVM was understood as building
upon and adding to the existing “first-reality” Guggenheim venues in Bilbao, Berlin,
Venice and New York. As Hani Rashid of Asymptote architects explains:
The question today is not so much what forms or architecture will these
transformations influence, but rather what aspects of our thinking and our
comprehension of how to navigate reality and space are shifting and
changing. By extension, we may ask what do such changes demand of the
experiences we have (and desire to have) within the spatial realms? To
remain relevant beyond merely building a house for art (or people), the spatial
and tectonic results of what we create as architects needs to address this
new, ever-shifting collective cultural realm.

With the introduction of the digital into architecture, spline geometry emerged which
introduced new possibilities to designing function and form. The erection of Frank
Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum or Greg Lynn’s exploration of spline geometry in the
late 1990s dramatically expanded the discourse of architecture. The physical
constraints which existed before this revolution were fading and the interceding of
this method into all fields of design and engineering has changed these disciplines
forever. The downside of the digital tool in architecture is that, rather than it being a
tool for solving complex problems, it has become for some architects the driving
force of their ethos. The new ornament in architecture is technology, sometimes so
much so that it is hard to identify the architecture beneath.

If the Cosmos was the canon of the ancient Greco roman culture, what is the canon
of our time? Is it the race to be the first and ability to be the most technological and
scientifically advanced? It is easy to interpret as such when studying the edifices of
Zaha Hadid Architects, coiners of the term Parametrisism in describing this era of
architecture. Although Patrick Schumacher, director of ZHA said “we are addressing

every aspect of the domain” while referring to the human centered aspects of
architecture, it does not always appear that way. It was evident when the firm’s win
of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was passed on to architect Kengo Kuma. Although ZHA
profess that they are doing everything possible to address human needs in
architecture it was not the opinion of the Japanese people who were going to pay for
and use it. Kumar’s design, however, was profoundly affiliated with the natural world
and vernacular of Japans’ spiritual province in which it was to be built.
Lei Zheng, architect at ZHA provides an insider’s perspective, stating that
“Parametricism has no sympathy to local culture until the local culture becomes part
of the parametric system. It is a product of the global economy and negotiates
specific boundary parameters resulting in new opportunities, gentrification and

This ideology of this reverse contextual relationship appears to have never truly
worked, for example Le Corbusier believed that Le Modulor could cross cultures and
continents as a standardised model, although his attempt in India disproved his
theory. Chandigarh, a public building which not only denies its cultural context but
also its climate, serves as precedent that architecture needs to be considerate of its
cultural and environmental context, in contradistinction to the process of
Parametricism. A rigid standardised model will not suffice; perhaps a digitised,
flexible version has much more potential for successful standardisation, aiding in the
design process.
As a tool, the Digital provides a fast, reactive and precise outcome; as a designer, it
fails completely. Many who use digital tools barely understand the discourse and the
erection of unconsidered, non-contextually sensitive homogeneous and
heterogeneous spaces are emerging. It is a concern that the computer is being used
for ideas rather than as a critical instrument and facilitator of computational design.
Peter Eisenman, a known user of the early digital tools in architecture states that,
“Architecture is not on a fashion parade – it is a participant in a society and should
be considered in its urban context as well as for its architectural significance.”5 The
edifices of the Roman Empire were a significant display of Rome’s power and

political prowess to citizens and outsiders. Our architecture does not only connect to
us; it should also connect us to the world and represent its people.
It is also difficult to control aesthetic values in digitally generated architecture
because it uses a complexity of data that only the machine can follow and
understand completely. It can perform an artificial logic of iterations at rapid speeds
and optimise form and function without our input. In the classical orders, harmony
resided in a balance where nothing could be added, altered, or taken away;
whereas, present technology and the digital allow for infinite variables, and it is that
variability that we prize the most. The practice of design humanises technology,
therefore in selecting a variable outcome produced by a computer, the design
process has not been performed.
The seismic impact of the industrial revolution is forcing change upon us once again.
The formation of digital Darwinism has the potential to leave our human-centered
desires to fend for themselves. This disruption in our human, urban and
environmental ecologies by digital technology presents new and variable
possibilities. The possibility to address tactile and metaphysical elements in
architecture, through the use of cybernetics is a contemporary privilege. If architects
do not engage in the critiques of the modern era, architecture itself could become as
subverted as the post and lentil structure left behind by the disengagement of the

As a significant contributor to the way we experience space and time, the Digital
place in our human ecology has not been determined by us, it has progressively
integrated and established itself. Architecture has the potential to evolve its physical
space, to place digital technology and be wired into our mixed reality, to be a
participant and accommodate so much more of our needs than those of shelter and
location. Time and time again, the transfiguration of architecture transitioned the
human ecology into new eras. Over form, the architecture of the programs and
systems we explore and design will indivisibly transition our cybernetic ontology into
what looks to be a formidable future ahead.