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AI, architecture and the Venice Film Festival

Image: courtesy of The Venice Film Festival 2023/Biennale

The Venice Film Festival is in full swing with celebrities arriving on the Lido - a strip of land which forms part of the coastline of the lagoon on the Adriatic Sea. The festival takes place again this year amid ongoing concerns about over-tourism in Venice and how the city and its islands can also be protected against climate change.

Waves sweep into several inlets between this and a further island called Pellestrina, the lagoon having been dredged to allow container ships to reach the commercial port of Maghera and an alternative route for cruise ships to Venice. There has been overwhelming discontent in Venice around the effects of pollution and mass-tourism from the cruise ships that have now been pushed back from the city, but which still dock a little further away.

Tourism of course in Venice and the Lido has been well established through the centuries. The sandy beaches of the Lido, which made a growing tourist trade so attractive, were formed during the Napoleonic occupation in the 19th century as part of a plan to build breakwaters, to keep the coastal current at bay and trap the sand it carried. Poets such as Lord Byron, already a celebrity, rode his horses across the sand, and Shelley enthused through his writing about the location, making it irresistible to visitors.

Venice now faces serious questions about over-tourism and how sustainable measures can be put in place to tackle climate change. VeniSIA, which will be speaking at Future Cities Forum's discussion event at the Procuratie Vecchie this week Wednesday), is a 'sustainability innovation accelerator', based in Venice and devoted to the development of business ideas and technology solutions able to face climate change and other environmental challenges. It has published a White Paper proposing the need for Venice to act as a 'City Lab'. It states:

'VeniSIA has been exploring and proposing the concept of Venice as a 'city lab'. Venice is built on water, and is losing residents, by around 1,000 per year as a result of high rents and living costs. and as a by product of over-tourism.

'Venice with its metropolitan extension, including Mestre, Padua and Treviso, is part of a highly urbanised and industrialised area, endangered by serious pollution.

'Therefore Venice is - despite its small size - well positioned to work as a city lab for new business ideas and technology solutions, needed to address sustainable development goals (adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development).

'This city lab concept has international scalability. For example, by 2050 the major port cities of Mumbai, Amsterdam, Ho Chi Mihn City, Alexandria and New Orleans, could all be under water.'

Data collection will be vital to any future research carried out in the Venice area and lagoon. How this data is presented could change the nature of conservancy, food production and 'breaks' on tourism. The value of AI in the production of this research is an important question.

Much debate has already taken place on the positives and negatives around AI to the help or hindrance of human life and development of cities. It has also been a hot topic for the livelihoods of actors, stepping out this year onto the Venice Film Festival's red carpet, with some threatening to stay away over fears that AI could 'steal their images or voices' and make them redundant. Organisers of the festival have shrugged off concerns that the festival would be largely boycotted, and were quick to promote the attendance of actors such as Adam Driver and Jessica Chastain.

Not all superstars have been downbeat about AI.Tom Hanks has been promoting his AI-powered movie 'Here' and said according to Forbes, that he could imagine seeing an AI version of himself acting after his death, while Joe Russo, director of Avengers Endgame, imagines a future 'where people come home after a long day to ask their AI TV for a new movie starring themselves and Marilyn Monroe.'

The film festival takes place against a backdrop of art deco hotels - the most famous being the Hotel des Bains - and villas built by the rich, Gatsby-style. Fifty such villas were built between 1900 and 1920, with a riding school arriving in 1904. The Societa Civile dei Bagni di Lido had been created in 1872 to boost the Lido's tourism industry potential and The Hungaria Palace Hotel opened in 1907 to take advantage. It had 82 rooms with furnishings by Milan furniture maker Eugenio Quarti, whose carpenters decorated with ebony.

Architects in the early 1900s may well have experienced the 'boom and bust' associated with construction and development, but like the acting industry, the architecture profession is now also grappling with the effects of the emergency of AI and the rapid rate of increase in the technology. They - like the red carpet celebrities - also fear losing their jobs or practices due to 'data robots'. Younger practices fear breaking into the architectural profession only to find that the advance of AI puts them quickly out of business.

Andrew Witt, Associate Professor in Practice in Architecture at the GSD and Co-founder with Tobias Nolte of Certain Measures, a Boston/Berlin-based design and technology studio, has been speaking to Harvard's University Graduate School of Design. He explains:

'The march of digital automation is likely to cloud the picture for new practices further. The striking products of AI are only one example of how technology may restructure, democratize, and upend architectural practice and labour. Beyond manual jobs most susceptible to automation, scholars have warned that the so-called knowledge professions, including architecture, must adapt or reinvent themselves. While the most dire disruptions hinted at by newer AI technologies—massive workforce redundancy or the wholesale replacement of architects by automated tools—will likely be avoided, architects must confront these developments free of any sentimental or antiquated image of what their discipline should be.

'The future health of the discipline demands deeper experimentation with alternative models of practice that embrace the opportunities of a changing cultural, technological, and economic landscape without nostalgia. To pioneer new work, young offices must be more resourceful about developing transdisciplinary approaches grounded in architecture but claiming a broader design mandate. An integrated practice that fuses design, data, and technology more holistically is not only better aligned with seismic technological and economic shifts than classical models of practice, but it is also, arguably, better placed in the contemporary cultural conversation.

'Data has become a common lingua franca among disparate disciplines and industries, and as such constitutes an indispensable mode of analysis, insight, and action around complex multidimensional problems. As vexing ecological, social, and economic issues call for systemic transformation, data can provide a common framework for understanding and action. Architects intuitively feel the need to respond to these challenges today, yet rudimentary data literacy—including topics like data sourcing, acquisition, and cleaning; data visualization; and elementary statistics—is virtually absent from architectural practice and training. If architects want to expand their impact in tackling systemic challenges and win allies as informed system designers, leveraging data is an essential tool.'

Future Cities Forum looks forward to gathering research on combatting over-tourism and harnessing the power of AI in the built environment for a more sustainable future, at its discussion event this week to be held at the Procuratie Vecchie, San Marco., through our hosts The Human Safety Net and Generali.

Image below: The Procuratie Vecchie, San Marco, where Future Cities Forum is holding its event this Wednesday - image courtesy of David Chipperfield Architects.


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