“We Can Transform the Profession by Rethinking How We Might Serve Society”: A Conversation With Ronald Rael

Understanding a discipline from multiple perspectives and intersections is essential for acquiring a deep understanding of it. In architecture, the diversity of approaches to its study enriches our perception by allowing us to appreciate its complexity from different angles. For students and professionals alike, exploring aspects such as history, sources of materials and products, construction processes, implementation of new technologies, and contemporary social challenges is crucial. These aspects intertwine and expand the conventional notion of “architecture,” transcending the mere creation of buildings or the definition of spaces.

Ronald Rael, an architect and the Eva Li Memorial Chair in Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, exemplifies this vision through his practice, which spans from research to connecting indigenous and traditional material practices with contemporary technologies and issues. As an activist and designer, Rael’s research interests explore additive fabrication, border-wall studies, and earth construction. Co-founder of Rael San Fratello, Emerging Objects, and Forust, his practice shows an approach to architecture that is highly relevant in contemporary times.

In the context of the activities for the 60th anniversary of the Mexican Faculty of Architecture, Design, and Communication (FaMADyC), La Salle University held an international congress. Among the speakers were Ryue Nishizawa, Ronald Rael, Productora, Manufactura, and more. In conversation with ArchDaily, Rael shared some reflections on the evolution of his work, the role of technology in the development of architecture, its social utility, and the role of materials in it.

Enrique Tovar (ArchDaily): Architecture is a multifaceted field, and our approaches determine which aspects resonate most with us. Considering your broad practice—which ranges from materials and technology to social studies—, what is the common thread running through your current work?

Ronald Rael: One thing that I think is a common thread through my work today is that I’m very interested in how the material is related not only to construction but also to its material culture. In other words, it’s connected much more broadly. So, a material is [not] simply a material, [but something] that has a much broader impact. It comes from somewhere, it’s traveled somewhere. It’s been processed somehow by certain people. I like to think about the broader culture that material possesses and [its] social and economic impact.

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So I think my focus now is related to a particular place, and that is in the form of the current borderlands between the United States and Mexico, and related very much to the material earth and how that material has existed in this area for a very long time. [Also], how we think we might use it to impact the way housing is constructed, people’s relationship to their housing, and if there can be a continued cultural practice that allows people to connect back to particular identities, as well as particular economies. So I believe that technology might be a way forward to do this. Still, I think that line is an investigation around the material of earth, and its broad consequences that are both specific to earth, but also metaphorical to the planet, if that makes sense.

ET (AD): Looking back a few decades, the definition of architecture today is much broader, extending beyond creating buildings or delimiting spaces. Nowadays, we are seeing more architects moving into different facets. Do you believe professional reinvention may be necessary in today’s world?

RR: I don’t think it’s necessary, but I think it’s possible. And architectural education is so broad. It’s such a wonderful education, that teaches students how to do everything from constructing buildings to imagining futures, to inventing materials, to working through computation. And so it’s almost like the profession isn’t capable, or doesn’t use all of the education that an architect possesses after they graduate. So I don’t think an architect must redefine themselves. I think it’s a very defined discipline. But I do think it’s possible for people who have architectural training to do more things in the world. And they’re very equipped to do anything from technology to construction, to thinking about social issues. So I think general design is very broad and has a lot of applications and so that, for me, [is] the beauty of architecture.

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We serve clients but I think one way that we can transform the profession is to rethink that and how we might serve society, beyond the clients.

ET (AD): It seems that technology, sustainability, and social utility have emerged as central themes in contemporary discourse. What areas do you think students, architects, and designers should prioritize in the current landscape?

RR: For students, I think a lot of [them] find it difficult to be architects because people who have practiced architecture historically have been very limited. And the topics, specifically, [as] it’s been a male-dominated profession, and it’s been a white male-dominated profession. So any student entering into that world can find a lot of challenges in finding their place within that world that’s already very well-established. Students must recognize the power of their becoming, like a pool. Where did they come from? What are the issues and challenges that they had? And how might that apply to them reimagining the landscape, reimagining the future of a profession where you’re changing the world.

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ET (AD): With innovative technologies, we’re seeing significant shifts in design geometry as traditional limitations fade. This opens up a realm of experimentation that could be a game-changer. How do you see these new geometric possibilities evolving, and what role will experimentation play?

RR: I really believe in that old Marshall McLuhan saying that “the medium is the message.” So, if you’re drawing with a T-square, you’re likely to design something influenced by that tool. If you’re drawing with a computer, utilizing the incredible tools available today—robots and, in the last year and a half or two years, AI—image production has become extremely influential.

I’m teaching a studio right now, for example, that explores AI workflows for image production. So, I think in the very near future—I don’t think it exists now and I don’t know how long it will take—AI will move from image production to become a highly robust tool in design. We will think through plans; we will think through planning; we will think through structure with the assistance of artificial intelligence. And I think there’s a lot of movement to ignore it or to prohibit it. But I think students and architects will do that at their demise, because it’s so powerful and influential. So how can we utilize that tool, ensuring we maintain control, to shape the world in the important ways I mentioned earlier, considering architecture as a social endeavor, and employing these tools accordingly?

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I think in the very near future AI will move from image production to become a highly robust tool in design. We will think through plans; we will think through planning; we will think through structure with the assistance of artificial intelligence.

ET (AD): On the manufacturing side, do you foresee a change in the trend of material production? Will it move closer to a slow architecture or will mass production remain the baseline?

RR: I don’t believe we’re going to move away from steel and concrete anytime soon, despite the evident environmental harm caused by concrete, particularly due to the significant amount of carbon dioxide released during production. Concrete remains the most widely used material on the planet. While it used to be earth—a carbon-zero material—, our construction demands have evolved with taller buildings and growing populations. However, I do believe we can draw from the past and traditional craft technologies to incorporate them into modern architectural and construction practices. Over the past 150 years, there’s been a disregard for these craft practices, leading to the loss of many traditional techniques in wood, stone, earth, and textiles. I think there are opportunities now, not only to reintroduce these practices but also to reinvent them using modern technologies.

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ET (AD): Although technology works the same for everyone, our access to it and the way we use it will vary, bearing in mind that, depending on location, each region may have a different way of approaching and expressing itself through technology. Could this identity element influence additive rematerialization?

RR: If people from different cultures start using robots, will the outcome vary? Or will it remain the same? I don’t have the answer to that question. However, I believe that AI technologies, for instance, are inherently biased, much like the architectural profession has been biased. These technologies learn from texts and images, and the images available on the planet to date carry inherent biases, influencing the directions and outcomes they produce. In other words, if I use an AI image-making program and someone from India does the same, our results might differ. Additionally, if I use it in English versus Chinese, the outcomes will likely vary significantly. We might even achieve better results in English due to the biases ingrained in the AI’s learning process. These biases are what I’m referring to. Therefore, I think the architectural profession globally needs to acknowledge and consider how to navigate these biases. Otherwise, these tools won’t provide deep understanding; they’ll merely guide the profession without critical insight.

In my opinion, earth is the most advanced material on the planet. Because humans across the planet have been developing it for 10,000 years.

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ET (AD): To conclude, some global challenges on the horizon could be daunting. What do you think is the potential of architecture and technology for the coming decades?

RR: You know, I see additive manufacturing on the rise, and 99% of additive manufacturing is using concrete. And it seems odd to me that if we think about additive manufacturing being one of the most advanced forms of construction, we use a material that has been detrimental to the planet in the last several hundred years. So I think something that would have the potential for changing architecture is to think about how the materials we use are actually reparative or restorative; that they’re not damaging. Can we find materials that heal rather than destroy, or that contribute rather than take away? I think that’s the direction earth, [as a material], is headed [in].

We’ve only been developing robots for a very short amount of time, relative to our existence on this planet. But we’ve been developing that material in different climates and different regions for different purposes, from floors to walls, to ceilings to roofs for 10,000 years. So, I think the way forward is actually taking a break for a second, slowing down, looking back, and remembering what was good and bringing it forward. We need to do it in a way where it responds to our 21st-century way of life, though; we can’t be romantic and say we’re going to live like we did 10,000 years ago. How can we respond to today? That’s important.

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