Blueprints for a dream: the new age of virtual architecture

“Something big is happening,” says Hamza Shaikh. “Architecture is entering a new age.” The ways in which buildings are imagined and communicated are, he argues, being transformed by a combination of social media and the ever-evolving techniques of digital drawing, to which artificial intelligence is adding new capabilities. And indeed, if it is not yet clear how blocks of flats or schools or shopping centres near you might be changed by this revolution, the energy and invention behind it are undeniable.

There is also, as Shaikh justifiably claims, a social transformation. If, in the past, aspiring architects had to claw their way up a profession that favoured those with connections and money, now anyone from anywhere can make a name for themselves, if they have the talent, determination and access to technology. They do this not by realising completed buildings, but through compelling images of imaginary architecture. They don’t all use the most advanced techniques all the time – some work by hand, some (Shaikh included) with hybrids of manual and digital – but all use the internet to spread their work and exchange ideas.

Shaikh, 27, is following the trajectory of many young architects: after the completion of his training he is working in the London office of the multinational practice Gensler – except that he is also an Instagram influencer, attracting nearly 30,000 followers to his posts of architectural drawings and photographs of buildings. Alongside fantastical compositions by himself or his peers, he makes forays into history: the intricate tiles and brickwork in the Mughal mosque of his ancestral village in Pakistan; the timber-lined nest of knowledge that is the Library of Trinity College Dublin; a consummate pen-and-wash cross-section through an 18th-century Parisian theatre.

Shaikh has built up what he calls “worldwide collectives” of like-minded people, a process accelerated during lockdown. “We were just sat there at our desks in this digital storm,” he says, “wanting to connect more.” So they did. From this ferment has come a book, Drawing Attention: Architecture in the Age of Social Media, to be published by RIBA Publishing. Prompted by endless questions from students as to how particular drawings were made, it is a guide to “drawing attention” to ideas “that may be revolutionary”.

It remains to be seen what happens when these visions encounter the demands of plumbing and fire codes

There is also an exhibition, Vanishing Points, opening this week at the Roca London Gallery. This combines contemporary drawings with those of great architects in the past. Lent by Drawing Matter, a private collection of 35,000 architectural drawings and models housed in Somerset, these exhibits will include a rough crayon sketch by Le Corbusier for an unbuilt Olympic stadium in Baghdad; the Post-it notes on which Zaha Hadid delivered her ideas to her staff; and a 1798 drawing of a Roman basilica by the French neoclassicist Charles Percier.

The works by the living include a “fictional skyline of Tokyo” by Veronika Ikonnikova, where traditional wooden houses have been transposed to the tops of skyscrapers, and a digital collage by Zain Al-Sharaf that records the erasures of the family’s Palestinian neighbourhood under Israeli rule. Memory Palace, by Clement Luk Laurencio, is an abstract representation of times and places familiar to the artist. The moods of the works are variously dreamy, dystopian, playful and hopeful, some of them visions, some illustrations. The best show mesmerising levels of craft. “That’s beautiful” might be your first reaction, followed by, “What is it?”

Most are complicated and layered, an exception being the deft “architecture anomalies” of Saul Kim (107k Instagram followers), wherein normal-looking buildings fold or tilt or morph from one shape to another. Some of these images use digital technology to the full, some are hand-drawn, some a combination of both. Ana Aragão, based in Oporto, draws teetering megastructures, from the Tower of Babel to modern Japan, in Biro and coloured pencil, by crawling over large sheets of paper laid flat on the floor.

Shaikh himself runs the gamut of techniques – pencil, paint, Photoshop, digital collage. “Let’s make a drawing look as old as it can,” he says, “but at the forefront of technology.” He has started exploring the possibilities of AI, which in response to a series of prompts – for example “artistic illustration, Wallace & Gromit machines, architectural drawing, 8k octane render, ultra detail and depth” – will come up with an image that the world has never seen before. Repeated many times, the process generates a store of material to use in his designs. “There’s a lot of fear around AI,” he says, “but it doesn’t take away from creativity. It facilitates it.”

In a way, the work of Shaikh and his allies follows an old tradition of unbuildable fantasies, sometimes called “paper architecture”, which goes back at least to the cavernous imaginary prisons that Giambattista Piranesi drew a quarter-millennium ago. An astonishing example of the genre is The Imperial Palace of God, on show in Vanishing Points a dense pile of spires and cupolas drawn in 1856 by one George Elliot (no relation to the novelist) from Bensham Asylum near Gateshead.

What’s new is partly the ability of digital technologies to take material from any time or place an ancient temple, a neon sign, an atmospheric condition, a demonic machine – and flip it, mash it, scale it up and down, rearrange and re-combine it. Combined with social media’s ability to encourage frontierless communities of creators, these factors bring about a universe of abundant and effortless diversity, without hierarchies and hegemonies.

It remains to be seen what happens when this trove of ideas influences the design of solid buildings, when these visions encounter the demands of plumbing, fire codes, sustainability and budgets. Niall Hobhouse, the founder of Drawing Matter, says that the historic exhibits are partly a “challenge” to the new ones, as at least some of them were created with a view to changing the physical world.

For some, this issue may not matter much. Eric Wong, for example, an exhibitor in the show, was invited by the Japanese animator and director Mamoru Hosoda to help design the dazzling setting for his feature film Belle. Wong has found a way to be an architect, in other words, that doesn’t involve construction. For others, the translation from the virtual to the material will be the most interesting thing they could do.

  • Drawing Attention: Architecture in the Age of Social Media, edited by Hamza Shaikh, is published by RIBA Publishing (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

  • Vanishing Points is at the Roca London Gallery, London SW6, from 9 February to 29 July; admission free