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A lifetime subscription to a house, please

Journalist Ben Van Alboom's takeaways from 'Redefining Creativity' - 25.02

“With the help of AI, even your garden house will soon be an architectural gem”
Quite a few artists are working with technology and artificial intelligence these days. But few are as pragmatic as Gilles Retsin. “Well, yeah, he’s an architect”, one could argue. “While in reality, few professions are more sluggish when it comes to technology.”
Ben Van Alboom
The artistry of Belgian-born Londoner Gilles Retsin is not up for debate: his work is part of the permanent collection of Centre Pompidou in Paris, and he has also exhibited at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein and the Zaha Hadid Gallery in London, among others. His architectural practice is also beyond dispute: Retsin has taught at some of the world’s most prestigious architecture schools. But his flirtation with artificial intelligence (AI) and technology makes him a maverick who seems more intent on changing the world than on building a house. Although that is very much his intention.
“As an architect, you are taught to start from an overall design and then figure out how to build it,” says Retsin. “I work the other way round. I start from the different parts, without a particular building in mind. And then I use AI to bring the parts together and work out the difficulties. You can think of AI as an extension of my know-how as an architect.”
So exactly what percentage of your designs are determined by AI?
Retsin: “That’s a good question to which I do not have a good answer. For me, AI is part of an automation process — it is not a tool in itself. AI does not build houses by itself, and it is not about to take over the world from humans either. Quite the contrary. If you look at AI applications at Netflix and Amazon, which make recommendations based on your viewing and browsing habits, they are nothing more than slightly advanced forms of statistics. They are not very intelligent, but their impact is already huge. And I am now applying AI to design and construction.”
Successfully?
Retsin: “Yes. We can already generate architectural designs in an almost fully automated manner and assess them simultaneously. A customer could get in touch with me, tell me what he wants, and within a minute I could have a design ready for him. Moreover, we can start 3D printing that design within the next minute. But you know, that’s all pretty simple and straightforward. A more interesting question would be what else we can do with this technology.”
Do you have a good answer to that?
Retsin: (laughs) You could change the whole building process, for example. Instead of waiting for a developer to get a loan from a bank to buy a piece of land and build something on it so that you, in return, can take out a loan to buy a flat, why not develop a platform that starts the whole process automatically when enough people sign up for something? Or let’s even take it one step further: isn’t it time to shift the conversation from owning a house to the right to use one  forever?”
Què?
Retsin: “We have a strange relationship with buildings. We think owning a property is so important that a large part of our lives pivots around it. Some people pay off a mortgage loan for half of their lives. And the other half, they’re stuck with that one house in that one place. What if we could evolve towards a kind of subscription formula ensuring you can move into a house of, say, 100 square metres, anytime, anywhere. That way, everyone would be much freer.”
Car sharing with houses, then?
Retsin: “Precisely. I find stuff like that much more interesting to ponder over than the question of whether robots can build houses. We already know the answer to that: yes. If we want, we can already build a house in a couple of days’ time — a lot more efficient and a lot cheaper than what we’re still doing now. But once it all becomes so much faster and cheaper, how will that affect our relationship with buildings? That’s what fascinates me.”
That all sounds rather science fiction, though.
Retsin: “And yet the technology already exists. Not a moment too soon, by the way. The UN has forecast that 2.1 billion housing units will have to be built in the next 40 years. That is huge, and we need AI and robotics to help us achieve this. Unfortunately, architects are rarely the first ones to embrace new technologies, even though these technologies have always brought about architectural change. This time will be no different. So either architects start thinking about how they can work creatively with these new technologies, or they exclude themselves from the conversation. Because no one in Silicon Valley or Shenzhen — China’s Silicon Valley — is waiting for us to wake up.”
And that’s …
Retsin: “Quite problematic. Because then you are giving tech companies the keys to the city of the future. And that goes way beyond what Amazon and Uber are doing today. Tech companies will get to decide how we live and how public space is shaped. Those platforms and subscription models I mentioned earlier are already being researched today. But not a single politician seems to be aware of that, or they’re definitely not having a public debate about it. The same thing happened with Uber. We only started discussing it when it was already happening. And that is a shame. Because Uber’s concept is great. The problem is that it’s in the hands of one company in Silicon Valley, instead of in the hands of millions of taxi drivers.”
Right, but how do you plan to prevent Silicon Valley from taking control of the housing market as well?
Retsin: “In theory, anyone today could develop a housing platform like that in Bulgaria or India for no money. Silicon Valley, of course, raises hundreds of millions for such a platform, and it subsequently uses that money to secure a monopoly. Of course, this is a more complex issue than the taxi industry — this deals with our day-to-day lives — so I assume that this evolution will be slower. Or at least in Europe. Because in countries with a population explosion — more specifically in East Asia, Africa, and parts of South America — the demand for housing is also growing explosively. And various players in Silicon Valley are rising to the occasion. Google’s Sidewalk Labs, for example. Or Katerra. And that’s not a happy prospect.”
Why?
Retsin: “Katerra is the largest company of its kind, and you absolutely need to google its take on housing and living. It’s pretty scary. In fact, ironically, Katerra is kind of a communist prefab housing enterprise, but with venture capital. (laughs) But to answer the question of whether we can prevent them from controlling the housing market in the future. On the one hand, that seems like a futile undertaking, but on the other hand, there is now a growing political awareness that we need to impose rules on Silicon Valley. And I believe it is my responsibility to present alternative scenarios for how we want to live, build and organise our cities.”
You believe architects should be an integral part of those scenarios.
Retsin: “Not just architects, but also the cultural sector, which I feel very much a part of. We need a synergy between human creativity and AI. Because if you turn AI, robotics, and automation into a mere exercise in efficiency, you take away the beauty as well as the risks. The cultural sector — probably out of some kind of anti-capitalist reflex — has not been sufficiently technology-oriented until now. Which is a real shame, because tech debates often lacks creative, progressive voices.”
What you often see is that artists play with technology, but stop short of doing something ‘useful’ with it.
Retsin: “True. Though playing in itself can also be super interesting! When we program a machine to create things, it always tells us something about who we are as humans. But the sheer fact we primarily use machines to create ‘value’, is also an important lesson. As an artist, I want to have a say in determining that value. I want to add a cultural component to technology, and really weigh in on politics and society.”
But you’re also a sucker for efficiency, right?
Retsin: “Absolutely! I took part in a competition for a concert hall in Nuremberg together with another architect, Stephan Markus Albrecht. We were among the finalists with a design made entirely of wood — created with the help of AI. All the other finalists worked on their designs with teams of sometimes twenty to thirty people. We were a team of just two, working on two laptops. So yes, I definitely want to show that with AI, automation, and robots, we can make extremely inspiring designs that, at the same time, cost less money and are more eco-friendly.”
The funny thing is that many of your designs, such as the Diamonds house (see photo), look anything but efficient.
Retsin: “You get the impression that everything is a bit off, yes. And so it must be complex and expensive. But in reality, it is super efficient and also incredibly easy to build. It’s completely modular and it consists of just two elements: straight pieces of wood and L-shaped pieces of wood. To me, the Diamonds house is really a textbook example of what we can do with this mix of AI and human creativity: create something beautiful that you can put together as efficiently, sustainably, and cheaply as any boring design that an algorithm in Silicon Valley would come up with. Back in the day, you paid more for a Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid building. Obviously, because their designs were extraordinary. With AI, we can now make extraordinary things for less money. This means that today, not only museums can look great, but also the supermarket down the street. Or your garden house. The irony is that AI can give cultural value to every building, as opposed to the ordinary things we have been building in the last few decades without the help of AI.”