Computers can do a lot of things, but they can’t replace imagination and intuition.

For modernist framed buildings – with structural concepts derived from that of Le Corbusier’s Domino House – computers are essential to refine the design. The modernists believed in science – they cared about the principles of the physics behind their buildings and wanted to integrate them into their designs. Structural forms and modes of behaviour were understood qualitatively before any calculations were done and this informed the design concept.  

But with the decline in modernism and the current fashion for parametric design, or ‘shapeism’, there are risks to relying too heavily on computers. Future Systems' BLOB (Binary Large OBject) entry in 1985 for an office building on the Grand Buildings site of Trafalgar Square perhaps started the fashion for shapeism. Even though the design of that project was actually rooted in the principles of physics, after its publication some designers proposed shapes, not only without considering those principles but also, apparently, without even knowing such principles existed!

And some engineers have been willing accomplices in this shift. Geometry-generating software linked to analysis programmes has enabled us to leap blindly from a random shape to a structural analysis. We think we know what's going on with the configuration but we don’t know necessarily how sensitive it is.

This is the real danger. It’s not the computer itself that’s the problem but what we use it for. As engineers we optimise technical solutions for stability, strength and other factors. But we do so only within the context of the original starting point and it’s this that possibly can be flawed in terms of the physics.

If engineers start without a set of physical principles described in a credible diagram then we risk being profligate with materials. Worse, if the complex analytical model blinds us to the reality, we perhaps run the risk of the design being unsafe.

Compare recent Olympic structures, for example. The 2008 Olympic Stadium and the 2012 Aquatic Centre needed computers to develop their forms but the forms didn’t have their origins in any structural principles. Consequently they needed a lot of resources for their realisation. On the other hand, although both the 2012 Olympic Stadium and the Velodrome needed computers for their refinement, their forms were based on inherently resource-efficient diagrams.

In these cases perhaps the right balance was achieved between ‘commodity’ and ‘delight’; but overly complex computer-generated projects with forms and topologies not based on the principles of physics can fail to do this. For example, the thorough and clever engineering of CCTV in Beijing is impressive but does the image justify the amount of resource?

As ever, Ove Arup said it best when he said:  “ ... there are many solutions, good, bad or indifferent. The art is, by a synthesis of ends and means, to arrive at a good solution. This is a creative activity, involving imagination, intuition and deliberate choice.”

You don’t get that from computers.