Remarks by Avery Johnson on “Panel Discussion: The Impact of Computer Graphics on Architecture”


Avery Johnson’s brief conference presentation on the role of the architect in modern society.

I’d like to say what I think the architect’s role is. I’m a little bit appalled to hear discussions which tend to make one think that all an architect does is put lines on paper, or on a scope face. I think the architect’s role—the role that he is being paid for—is to pre-experience the building, the structure, the urban area, that he is working on. He pre-experiences it for the customer in all possible ways, manipulates it so that the experience changes and so that one has the capacity to understand it.

The important question is what is experience? It is not simply looking, passively, at lines. I don’t care if they are in two dimensions or three. Experience comes from an active sensori-motor involvement, a participation in the environment in which you find yourself.

We have all seen displays in which, for example, figures were rotated and appeared to be three-dimensional. I want to say very  clearly that our capacity to detect the apparent three-dimensionality is learned. We have learned it very well. We only learned it, at a young age, through having been with three-dimensional objects, manipulated them with our hands, moving around them, moving our heads.

The experience of being present in an environment with an object depends heavily on our ability to interact with it, in the sense that we change the environment by changing the way we look at it, the way we poke at it, or the way it pokes back at us. For example, I could take any one of you into your own home, where objects are familiar to you, and have you stand facing the wall with your hands behind you. The only thing I would tell you to do is to hold your hand perfectly still—flat, closed, I don’t care—but don’t move. I will bring objects over to you and I will place them on your hand or even move them over your hand. You would be very hard put to identify even one of those objects that are ostensibly familiar to you. But if I allow you even a little bit of grasp of that object, to let you participate in the act of sensing, then you immediately know what it is.

Now, in computer graphics how can one provide this same kind of sensori-motor involvement. I would like to see the movement of a graphical display tied in with your head movements and eye movements. The ways in which you would look at something would be the same as if you were there with a real object. But I mean a whole lot more than that. In the future, there will be ways to communicate with computers that will produce a real sense of presence in the architectural environment that you are designing. You will be able to experience it before anything has been built. 

You will need all of the other sensory and motor parameters as well. You are going to want to know about the acoustical environment–what it sounds like to walk through the room. You’re going to want to know how people really move through that space, how they are going to use it. The computer is very good at generating those kinds of displays, be they acoustic, or sensory, or kinesthetic, or whatever. 

We also want to be able to talk to computers in natural language. By natural language I don’t mean necessarily the English language. We need to have a means of expressing ambiguous statements. The computer will play around with the ambiguity and then ask us what we mean. We’ll say, “No, no, no, not that. It’s more like this.” You can’t get the computer to understand an explicit statement you make the first time around unless you’re awfully well schooled in making those explicit statements. But you can tell a man what to do and he’ll say he doesn’t understand you and then you say it again and pretty soon you learn how to talk to him. Eventually you will even learn short-hand ways of talking to him. But you have to start out with an interactive language which can handle ambiguity. 

I don’t want to be hard on people who are doing the kind of graphical presentations which I can only observe passively. I just want to suggest that there are other means of creating a “real” presence in the environment we are designing. We must allow the computer to interact with us on as many physiological parameters as possible.