The Cairo Sketches: Too good to be true wonders of AI

IE interviews the architect who still cannot fathom how his surreal AI art gathered so much attention.
Baba Tamim
The Cairo Sketches.
The Cairo Sketches.

Hasan Ragab/Instagram 

“Hope someone builds these wonders exactly as you created them,” wrote an Instagram user recently, praising an architecture model generated by Artificial Intelligence (AI).

She is not the only one. Thousands of people thronged the post when the architect artist posted AI-generated patterns exploring Egyptian architectural facades.

The post, which reached more than eight million social media users, has given the artist hope that new physical projects will follow from his technology-generated artworks one day.

However, the images/art pieces titled “The Cairo Sketches” soon landed the creator in a raging debate online as many felt they were too good to be AI.

“A friend of mine sent me a snapshot from a Facebook post claiming that it's a real building,” Hasan Ragab, 35, an Egyptian-born U.S -based Architect and Computational designer, told Interesting Engineering (IE).

Ragab still cannot fathom how his surreal artistic post gathered so much attention, forcing even a popular news wire to do fact-checking, shunning speculations.

The Cairo Sketches: Too good to be true wonders of AI
Series: The Cairo Sketches - Hasan Ragab

“The image relayed on social networks is not the photograph of an old building in Cairo but a work of art generated by artificial intelligence.” wrote the AFP’s fact-checkers.

The AI art piece attracted all and sundry, not just the media, he said.

“It went beyond Egypt: people in Iran claimed that it's a Persian tomb, others claimed it's a Spanish building, based on their religious or ideological beliefs,” Ragab laughed.

Ragab said that such confusion cannot easily be resolved and may perhaps be due to how people relate to art.

“I really enjoy exploring my own culture in my own way. How can this be used to mislead other people," he asked.

“I am just glad to be reminded how art works, and for that, I will have to accept any downsides that come with it.”

Ragab, who studied architecture in Egypt, has 12 years of experience in the field and has executed projects in Egypt, Qatar, UAE, and Italy. He now works in the U.S., providing computational design solutions for a large architectural project in downtown LA, as well as developing his designs.

His work includes computational design for architecture, experimentation with design, and digital fabrication.

The Cairo Sketches: Too good to be true wonders of AI
Series: Feather architecture- Hasan Ragab

IE's interest in getting in touch with an artist like Ragab was spurred by severeal recent discussions and controversies surrounding the use of AI for artistic purposes.

Here are the excerpts from a wide-ranging interview with the creator of "The Cairo Sketches," which has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Interesting Engineering: How has AI helped you grow as a professional?

Hasan Ragab: It has opened many doors for me. I've always been on the architect or the designer side of things, and I did some textile design at one point. But I've always wanted to expand because I felt like I'm more of a conceptual artist. I didn't have the time, being an architect and designer, to focus on learning the essential skills which will allow me to visualize and explore my ideas in depth. The AI tool simply bestows unlimited freedom. And it basically does two things for me: first, it pushes my creativity and boundaries. And the second and most important is that it enables you to express yourself, allowing you to show or render your ideas quickly, abstractly, and creatively, regardless of the technical skills you might lack. These two reasons allow me to develop many ideas quickly, enabling me to multitask between projects. It's something that I really enjoy.

IE: Can you tell us what impact AI has on architectural philosophy?

HR: There are many constraints in architecture because it ultimately involves producing something in actual space. As a result, architects and designers are continually concerned about how their products will perform in the real world. They are limited in a variety of ways by considerations such as physics, budgets, and functionality. Only a handful of architects and designers are able to transfer their aesthetic ideals or notions about how art should affect these types of things into practical applications. Designers are simply employing their standard software paradigm, but with AI tools such as Mid Journey, things are different.

It is extremely beneficial to architects and designers. It is advantageous to have a tool that allows you to focus solely on your ideas and work on them quickly. Any abstract concept that would normally take weeks or months to grasp can be simplified to hours. In any other aspect, AI tools are unrestricted. These technologies, I believe, are advancing architectural philosophy in general.

IE: How do you develop your art designs? What is the creative process like?

The Cairo Sketches: Too good to be true wonders of AI
Series: Nouveau, AI generated image for art made of rebar- Hasan Ragab

HR: Before adopting AI techniques, my design would essentially involve communication with a 3D [modeling tool], such as Rhinoceros Grasshopper [Grasshopper is a visual programming language and environment that runs within the Rhinoceros 3D computer-aided design application]. Using these tools is essential as it hosts my ideas from conceptualization to producing fabrication drawings. I enjoy working with these software [tools] so much, as I have always felt there is feedback. Like I am discovering the design through the software as it reveals things to me from angles I have never seen. Like a smart conversation with an emphatic colleague!

I see working with AI in a similar way but solely focusing on the abstract concept. Only that AI is way smarter and way faster.

And the AI will simply come up with something incredibly intriguing by combining my thoughts in really inventive ways. So, I'm still working on managing, for example, mixing a lot of ideas that are outside the realm or the domain of the construction of architecture, and then syncing them with architecture, something that probably I would haven't been able to do without using AI tools.

So, for the time being, I'm using AI as a conceptual tool. I am exploring ideas and philosophy. My next step would be to try to implement how I can use those inspirations to build something physical, most likely in furniture design. It's still a work in progress.

The Cairo Sketches: Too good to be true wonders of AI
Cathrine dining table - Hasan Ragab

IE: Have AI skills helped you in designing real architecture? What is the possibility?

HR: The designers or architects can only use AI tools to sketch their ideas. This helps them to see really quickly what they're imagining instead of modeling or sketching a lot of sketches and exploring the idea. It's just a pretty quick sketching tool. But AI is only good with general abstract ideas, and it's not great with details. It's a significant limitation for designers as they always need to zoom in on their work to be able to make it real.

For now, everybody in the industry is trying to explore the idea. The process of actually building something takes time, and these tools have just been around for some time. I intend to explore the tech to utilize AI conversations to help me conceptualize a product.

IE: Are engineers or architects utilizing AI to generate engineering solutions?

HR: You may be able to come up with novel ways to construct using AI, such as [teaching] drones to construct a building. It is not something that is currently taking place in practice; rather, it is something that is being researched in universities, perhaps in Europe, such as Germany or Switzerland.

There is a lot of research being done that uses AI tools to help not only model buildings but also construct them. However, I may not have much knowledge about it. I don't think there's anyone filling this position in the U.S. market right now.

IE: Has anybody approached you to design your AI art pieces into a reality?

The Cairo Sketches: Too good to be true wonders of AI
AI generated image for infinite spiral paper bridge - Hasan Ragab

HR: So far, I haven't had any offers to complete any of the artwork I posted online into an actual structure. But after viewing my work on social media, a number of architects and web developers have called me to [work on] projects for them. I've received proposals for the architectural design of specific projects utilizing the application of AI and then translating that into the conventional combination, the same model where we can actually construct the product. Additionally, I've been approached with some intriguing offers to assist some people with their Metaverse initiatives. I have, therefore, received numerous offers.

And yes, in between new projects. I've already signed a non-disclosure agreement and am bound by the terms of an international movie deal, the specifics of which I cannot yet disclose. But all I can say is that I'll be working as a conceptual artist and creating ideas for the project's architecture.

IE: Tell us about your favorite art piece. And what inspired you to make it?

HR: My favorite artwork is "The City Is A Tram." This is kind of like a dream to me. In my opinion, Alexandria's tram serves as both an exhibit and one of the city's most distinctive visual identities. I try to integrate it with the structure. I was incredibly motivated by my observation of how difficult it is to teach AI to create non-Western architecture. For example, I can make structures from Germany, Spain, or the United States in a flash. To generate locations from Egypt, though, is incredibly difficult for me.

In that sense, this kind of started out as a challenge for me to see if I could push the boundaries and create something, but as time went on, I started to connect with it personally. I was very happy, and I think that this was possibly the best thing I had ever done in my entire life.

Another aspect of this composition that makes me immensely delighted is when people around the globe message me, especially people around the world with Egyptian ancestry, who say, "Oh, we understand the emotion, we get the vibe."

The Cairo Sketches: Too good to be true wonders of AI
Series: The City is a Tram, AI generated imaged of Alexandria, Egypt - Hasan Ragab

Many people criticize the usage of AI in art for so many reasons. Some say it's soulless, and others say it's stealing from other artists. I believe some of these remarks might have some foundation in how this powerful tool can be exploited, just like any new technology. Nevertheless, to have a well-informed judgment, these tools need to be explored, understood, and debated in an unbiased way.

Meanwhile, a lot of people value what I do. That genuinely means everything to me. I get ecstatic beyond measure. Because, in my perspective and based on my experience, connecting with people is what art is all about.

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