Sunny Li

Algorithmic Paradigm Shift:

The Role of the Architect in the Age of Digital Technology

In the past three decades, technological and methodological shifts have transformed design processes and challenged the formal possibilities of architecture. Mario Carpo has identified a ‘second digital turn’ characterised by the transition from the age of standardisation and mass production to an era of customization and mass individualization. The paradigm shift has facilitated the exploration of geometries and forms previously unimaginable due to the limitations of traditional design and construction methods (Carpo, 2017). Additionally, the introduction of computational design tools and parametric modelling has enabled architects to iterate and optimise their work with enhanced reasoning and efficiency based on multiple parameters, from structural performance to environmental impact (Kolarevic, 2003). However, while technological advancement has expanded the formal possibilities of architecture and fostered more integrated, multidisciplinary approaches to design, its broader implications, and the transformation of the architect’s role within the greater dynamic have yet to be scrutinised.

This thesis seeks to inquire into the nature of the role of the architect in the digital age, as well as the question of authorship and agency in both conventional and digital design. Rather than focusing on the buildings themselves as the ‘product’ of architecture, and the architect only as the maker of the product, the research emphasises the process of design practice. An architect’s design process reflects the role of the architect in a project, and also within the greater dynamic of society and technological change.

By contrasting two contemporaneous design processes of Walmer Yard and D’Leedon residential complex, the study critically analyses two unique design processes in which digital technologies are utilised in contemporary architectural practice. The two design processes embodied what Kostas Terzidis (2004) outlined as the two modes that digital technologies are utilised today: as an efficient device for representation and documentation at the service of human creativity, and as a generative and analytic mechanism for the exploration and refinement of formal concepts beyond existing perception. While the difference may be partly attributed to the contrast in the intentions of the two projects, the outcome of the comparison echoes the notion of ‘dialectic dualities’ as articulated by Dana Cuff (1991).   Albertian model that has underpinned the self-definition of the modern architect, faces challenge not because of the pervasive influence of digital parametric tools that may entail a dissolution of agency, as articulated by several scholars, but the tension that has long been present within the self-conception of the architect.
The canonical narrative of modern architecture, as presented in works of Sigfried Giedion, Kenneth Frampton, Reyner Banham, Leonardo Benevolo, and Le Corbusier, has created a lasting impression of modern architecture’s dependence on technological precedents. Our generation of digital-native architects has therefore anticipated a future that follows this trajectory, and this is where the uncertainty lies when we attempt to evaluate the role of the architect at present. While historically architecture has embraced technological advancements, information and digital technologies despite being an integral part of our lives and having assisted the architect in numerous tasks, seem to necessitate little architectural response.

Based on this account, it appears that the architect needs to confront not only the potential decline in collective social ideals as predicted by the sociopolitical scientists Esser and Hirsch (1994), but also the processes that may displace architecture. Yet, the information society was not the result of the invention of computers and digital technologies. It was the transformation to a society based on the effective creation, distribution and manipulation of information since the late 1800s that made the invention of the computer necessary (Beniger, 1986). Thus, to uncover the role of the architect within this greater dynamic, it is crucial to recognize that the relationship between technology and society is complex and reciprocal, with each influencing the other in a continuous feedback loop. Our assurance in today’s new technology is emblematic of the conditions of modernisation and industrialisation with all their ramifications. While digital parametricism favours the emergence of the ‘strongest’ and the ‘fittest’ solutions as a result of an emphasis on ideologies of rationalism and efficiency, these solutions may not always be the ones we need.

The case of Walmer Yard illustrates that some of the most advanced features of digital technology claims to offer, such as ‘extended reality’, could be achieved through the inherent qualities of architecture. Consider the illusion reminiscent of a submarine’s confines as you ascend through the stairwell and the thresholds that recall simultaneously the interiors of John Soane’s museum and the material palette of the Minka House. Would the ‘fittest’ solution always be able to foster the intangible experiences that these physical places permit? The role of the architect may not be to embrace the language of industry, but to critically reflect, while operating apart from it.


Beniger, J.R., 1986. The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 391-425.
Carpo, M., 2017. The Second Digital Turn: Design Beyond Intelligence. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Cuff, D., 1991. Architecture: The Story of Practice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Cuff, D., 2017. Historical License: Architectural History in the Architectural Profession. In: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians , Vol. 76. University of California Press on behalf of the Society of Architectural Historians, p. 5-9. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: May 3, 2023].
Esser, J. & Hirsch, J., 1994. The Crisis of Fordism and the Dimensions of a ‘Post-Fordist’ Regional and Urban Structure In: Post Fordism: A Reader. Cambridge: Blackwells, p. 76-93.
Frampton, K., 2020. In: Modern Architecture: A Critical History. 5th ed. s.l.:Thames & Hudson Ltd, p. 8.
Jasanoff, S., 2004. States of Knowledge: The Co-production of Science and the Social Order. New York: Routledge.
Kolarevic, B., 2003. Architecture in the Digital Age: Design and Manufacturing. Taylor & Francis.
Le Corbusier, 1986. Towards a New Architecture. New York: Dover Publications.
Terzidis, K., 2004. Algorithmic design: A paradigm shift in architecture? Proceedings of the 22nd International Conference on Education and Research in Computer Aided Architectural Design in Europe (eCAADe), p. 201–207. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 03 05 2023].