ETH Zurich robots use new digital construction technique to build timber structures

"Post-digital architecture will be rough, provisional and crafted by robots"

In the post-digital age, architects will be designing in code and robots will be constructing our buildings, says Owen Hopkins.

We've now entered the post-digital age. Given you're reading these words on a digital screen, this obviously doesn't mean we've somehow moved beyond the digital. No, the post-digital describes the blurring of the digital and analogue worlds, when real experiences become interchangeable with virtual ones. We're seeing this in AR, health and activity trackers, iBeacons, geofences and the internet of things, to name just the few most obvious examples.

Apart from a few diversions into post-digital drawing, architecture however still exists outside this world. For the most part it remains stuck firmly in the digital age, utilising any number of cutting-edge digital tools, but mostly avoiding grappling with their cultural implications.

We see this manifested most clearly in architecture that aims towards the slick, fluid and seamless, which in its arbitrary formal gestures almost celebrates the fact it could only be designed on computer. While the images this architecture generates are intended to be seductively futuristic, they already seem old hat.

No longer will architectural designs always be mediated through the building construction industry

But if we set these simplistic visions aside, on the margins of the profession we are beginning to see a number of practices emerge who are paving the way towards a post-digital architecture. Although still in its early stages, their work already illustrates, that in contrast to the familiar futuristic trope of sinewy forms and amorphous blobs, a post-digital architecture will be rough, provisional and crafted, with radical implications not just for design and construction, but for architecture's fundamental relationship to time and place.

Walking around the Hackney studio of Mamou-Mani, one of the practices at the forefront of this transformation, already bears this out. In place of the typical banks of computers that one sees in most architectural practices, their studio is full of tools, machines, 3D printers, different materials and prototypes in varying degrees of completion. It's very much the workshop of a craftsperson.

However what we see coming out of the workshop are not architectural objects in themselves, or even building components, but – as in the case of the Polibot, a prototype cable construction robot – new tools that will take over the work of construction.

The most immediate implication of this shift is that, when using technologies like the Polibot, architects are now designing in code. This is fed directly to the builders of their projects – robots rather than humans.

No longer will architectural designs always be mediated through the building construction industry. No longer, moreover, will clients be tempted to remove the original architects of a project in favour of a supposedly cheaper and risk-free design and build contract. As any software developer will tell you, the surest way to delay a project is to add more coders.

The critical point is that all of this will be done by robots

Whether one sees robots or even 3D printers as replacements for human builders, or as tools for the architect that in effect eliminates the role of the builder, the consequence will be to reconnect the practice of architecture to the actual craft of building.

In a way this has an interesting affinity with the pre-modern role of the architect who would work in close collaboration with the a whole variety of crafts-people. While the digital essentially acts to hide labour – think of the huge steel roof of the Olympic swimming pool in London that was then covered in cladding panels to make it look effortless – or the way the infinite flatness of a screen conceals the work being done through it – the post-digital reveals and celebrates the act of making in the workshop and on the building site.

At the same time, the post-digital challenges the standard life-cycle of buildings that has held firm from antiquity through modernism and into the digital age.

Even today, construction, use, modification, demolition or decay operate as discrete moments in a building's life-span. Very rarely does one blur into another. Post-digital turns this on its head. If architects become crafts-people – designing and also constructing through robotic technologies – then buildings can be designed as they go along. And if construction is run by a computer programme it will be inherently reversible, with buildings able to be continually redesigned, rebuilt, reworked, augmented, demolished and reused.

None of this will be slick or seamless, of course. In fact, the seam will be celebrated as the point where joins are made and new connections forged, physically but also socially and culturally.

It's a crude analogy, but the closest existing example of how this might be manifested in a real building is something like Boxpark – a pop-up mall made from reused shipping containers, which mixes the global and the local. The key difference of the post-digital version is that, rather than being installed for a period of time and then removed, the individual units will be moved as required, creating new proximities and connections. When one unit needs to expand, another can be added; when new workspaces are required to supplement retail units, then these can be brought in; when a particular location isn't working for a business, its unit can be moved elsewhere in the complex, and so on.

The critical point is that all of this will be done by robots not so very different from today's Polibot prototype. Assembled and disassembled potentially almost at will, post-digital buildings will be inherently ad hoc in nature, existing in perpetual transition.

Post-digital buildings will be inherently ad hoc in nature, existing in perpetual transition

Some of these possibilities remain still some way off, and, as with any new technology, it only becomes transformative when a tipping point is reached and the amount of energy or benefit got out of it exceeds what is being put in. But the prototypes that Mamou-Mani and others are developing will soon be ready for deployment and in ways that can rapidly increase in scale.

In any technological revolution there is as much that stays the same as there is which changes. No-one travels by horse and carriage any more, but even autonomous cars still use roads. Nevertheless the potential of post-digital architecture is not limited simply to questions of design and construction.

An architecture that is inherently provisional and transient will reshape not just buildings themselves, or even how they are used, but the cultures and economies that exist through them. Bring on the robots.

Photo shows the digital construction department at ETH Zurich.