Humans have been trying to harness the power of computers to automatically generate building designs for decades. Like turning lead into gold, it seemed like a foolhardy endeavor that consumed many hopefuls. But after years of tepid results, a number of companies are finally cracking the alchemy of algorithmic space planning.
On a lush street lined with trees, bike lanes, and modest Dutch townhouses in the city of Alkmaar, 20 miles north of Amsterdam, a vacant, overgrown site is about to be turned into a housing development. The mastermind behind one of the proposed development schemes is The Living, a New York–based research group founded by David Benjamin and acquired by Autodesk in 2014. The prospective project developer, the Van Wijnen Groep, had seen how The Living employed generative algorithms to create Autodesk’s MaRS Office, in Toronto, and believed a similar process could generate housing development plans.
Working with the parameters of the Alkmaar site, The Living developed an algorithm that could—with the supervision and guidance of a designer—lay out, evaluate, and refine buildings. Meanwhile, the Van Wijnen Groep’s own designers created competing plans using their conventional processes and rules of thumb. In comparing the results, The Living’s project lead Lorenzo Villaggi says, the manually created designs “took an approach that was known to work based on past experience, but the algorithmic solutions moved beyond what you would typically think of.”