Open Source Architecture

by Selena Savic |

Appeared online: June 2, 2015


Carlo Ratti with Matthew Claudel
adjunct editors: Assaf Biderman, Michele Bonino, Ricky Burdett, Pierre-Alain Croset, Keller Easterling, Giuliano da Empoli, Joseph Grima, N. John Habraken, Alex Haw, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Alastair Parvin, Ethel Baraona Pohl, Tamar Shafrir
(Thames & Hudson, UK, 2015)

Towards a redefinition of the architect…
“The Brutalist Playground” is an upcoming exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) exploring Brutalist design for play. The exhibition promises to shift the focus from the value of brutalist residential buildings to the playgrounds found at their feet, offering a renewed understanding and critique of the architects’ original intentions. At the same time, one of its better London examples, the infamous Robin Hood Gardens estate is awaiting demolition, approved already in 2012. The Gardens are one of the more recent examples of large housing projects that will undergo redevelopment, or complete destruction, fulfilling the wishes of numerous actors in the debate over preservation or recall of Modernist and Brutalist complex housing projects. Driven by a demand for affordable housing and architectural ideals, numerous similar complexes were erected throughout Europe and United States. Critique was often blaming large disassociated corridors and disowned semi-private areas for facilitating criminal and generally irresponsible behaviour .
What is striking about these events is the amount of agency associated with architecture, the recognition of its influence on people’s lives by mere way of organising corridors and windows. Whether it was the high modernist idea of “social orchestration through comprehensively designed environment” in, or “architectural scripts for adaptive ecologies that evolve through a form of dialogue with inhabitants” envisioned by cyberneticians (p.104) the agency of architecture is beyond doubt.
The problems of concentrated social disadvantage cannot be reduced to a building type. Similarly, problems of housing shortage or access to building materials will not be entirely solved by exchange of information or collaborative design. Nevertheless, many stakeholders in these problems would benefit from an open and transparent design and decision making process, access to information and tools as well as alternative sources of funding. The role of the architect in such processes is less and less clear while the society undergoes (r)evolution. This is what Open Source Architecture brings forward.
Architects wanted to change society, but without much talking to people. They took money and orders from the richest 1% and constructed what these found useful or necessary. At other times, they took money and orders from city authorities and constructed large complex and often uncontrollable housing projects for the remaining 99% of people. They sometimes even asked these people what they want, but communication between professionals and participants was always reduced to the imagination of the former and hindered by the apathy of the later.
Open Source Architecture book is a collaborative effort to draft a strategy for future endeavours on the meandering line between collaboration, technology, networks, labour, design and big architectural ideas. The book itself works as a manifesto and encyclopedia at the same time. Its tone doesn’t hide the fascination with digital prototyping tools, bottom up networked collaboration, and citizen empowerment. Openly critical of 1960s participation projects and openly in favour of Linux, Creative Commons and Arduino, Open Source Architecture declares a state of change.
At the same time it is an encyclopedia of architectural ideas, briskly summarized and put into relationships. From Ledoux, Bentham and Fourier to Le Corbusier and to Gropius, over to Habraken, Alexander, and Parvin the list of examples makes a tangible case for an Open Source revolution.
The book follows a classical academic structure, building a context for its argument and presenting a ‘state of the art’ of collaborative design – all of which serve to demonstrate the necessity for new research. It then builds its own value system based on open-source culture and contemporary tendencies in digital fabrication, which all help define the job position for the much wanted Choral Architect.
The unusual writing strategy is blending the voice of many contributors. Although the cover page somewhat subverts this intention – identifying two authors and listing the rest as adjunct editors, the voices stay on the same wavelength. Nevertheless, the typical curiosity as to ‘who did what’ is open sourced too, in the detailed account on the nature and chronology of this collaboration in the last chapter of the book. If one knows the discourse of the individual contributors one can sometimes easily recognize their voices in the text.
The first three chapters cover a brief history of citizen participation in large construction plans and projects – from none to some and reverse. From an architecture that “has swelled beyond all limits” ( to the simple vernacular the architectural story that pre-dates Open Source Architecture is told in an intelligent way. Keeping the title in mind, one might begin to ask: are they suggesting that Open Source is a framework for making things together? What about code, what about things specific to software and hardware development that cannot be mirrored in participatory design projects? How does all this translate into architecture? Or, to put it the other way – what is it that architects hide from one another?
The following chapters begin to answer these questions, introducing Open Source as we know it in chapter entitled Learning from the Network, then talking about new collaborative possibilities for physical production in Open Source Gets Physical and finally settling on the idea of the Choral Architect in sixth chapter, Building Harmonies.
The book offers a solid account of the philosophy and history of the Open Source movement, through historical lens of Benjamin Franklin’s approach to patents, McLuhan’s observations on global village dissonance, Richard Stallman’s copyleft efforts and its more commercially acceptable alternative – Creative Commons. This discussion is key for understanding the paradigm authors are trying to associate with. It is not about technological determinism but about technological developments which help us work on problems together. The Internet will not fix the world but it will allow people to communicate about their joint efforts.
Open Source Architecture also draws on recent developments in networked rapid prototyping tools. Fab Lab concept conceived in the MIT basement and then spread around the world is one of many models that shift the balance in control over means and tools for production. Laser cutters, 3D printers, CNC milling machines everywhere on Earth (where there is a power supply) are able to reproduce designs that are openly shared and adapted by the community. On top of that, physical computing that is able to pick up information from the environment and make these designs responsive to our needs and requests.
Exemplified through two notable projects: Open Architecture Network and WikiHouse Open Source Architecture is an attitude or ethics of architectural practice which relies on a choir rather than a solo performance. The architect should work as a ‘middle man’ rather than a driver of social change. Picking up on Wikipedia, they propose an ‘editorial’ role for the Choral Architect’s plural figure . Similar to a curator, Choral Architect is charged with this orchestration and is not primarily concerned with the act of building. Architect is not anonymous but plural and compositional .
As we have seen, numerous metaphors run through the chapters of the book, from the straight forward Open Source movement applied to architectural practice, to more subtle comparisons with cooking or gardening. How useful is it truly to compare architecture to cooking? After all most people can afford a pot and some tomatoes, but how many of them can buy land? How many can get building permissions? When sharing text and executing it, all that one needs is a computer. When sharing a Wikihouse design, one needs not only the material and tools to cut it, but also a lot to install it. Similarly, numerous open source projects are heavily funded by the Silicone Valley – they actively contribute to the development of open source software. A voice discussing land and infrastructure ownership is generally very quiet in the book. What needs to be open sourced is the city from the inside – its laws and regulations, the markets operating land prices etc.
This brings us to another infrastructural question concerning connectivity and networks. We are inclined to praise the role of social networks in support of underground anti-government organisations. Nevertheless, there is much more to these services than instantaneous connectivity, especially when one has to share data with multinational corporation who sell them to advertisers. In the Western world, as de Certeau observed 30 years ago, political convictions have evaporated and, “one is a socialist because one used to be one, no longer going to demonstrations, attending meetings, sending in one‘s dues, in short, without paying.“ . These observations of disbelief are contemporary and we can notice a similar phenomenon today in so-called Twitter and Facebook revolutions. People are feeling politically active while clicking comfortably behind their screens. In his book “Tweets and the streets” Paolo Gerbaudo concluded that people are actually more likely to engage and mobilise when the network is no longer available .
The relationship between social media sites and the countries where revolutions still happen is much more complicated. It mixes in matters of international law and diplomacy – where owners of infrastructure are often advocating against traffic censoring in the Arab world but for strict traffic control within their economic framework (deep packet inspection, SOPA etc). Facebook and Twitter were useful tools to allow quick spreading of news and alerts – to the people on spot as well as the interested outsiders who could follow the events in real time. They should be interpreted in terms of cultural and phenomenological role as means of mobilisation. But often too much weight is given to these channels, which did not really the spark of the revolution – massive dissatisfaction and different political factors did.
Nevertheless, social media choreography of assembly (to borrow a term from Alberto Melucci) is a noteworthy physical manifestation of network traffic. Similarly immaterial are repeatable formulas for generic skyscrapers that replicate Shenzhen or Dubai anywhere in the world . And while the discussion in Open Source Architecture book celebrates sharing buildings DNA and the ease of distributing spatial formulas, Easterling (who is one of the adjunct editors) is, in her own writing, quite critical of proliferation of reproducible spatial products. What is the difference between spatial products and open-sourced building designs? The distinction could have been made clearer in the book but it is rather evident. It is about the ‘undeclared’ forces that are driving the building process in the case of the former, and an articulated collaboration which is based on shared knowledge but also tools and means of production.
Buildings have been always build by people who inhabit them and this is still the case for the majority of buildings on Earth. The work of ‘starchitects’ amounts to a “claustrofobically thin crust of global production” . What is it that we can do now that we couldn’t do before? After all, Open Source Architecture is just the vernacular with an Internet connection (Ratti & Claudel, 2015, p. 96). As opposed to “participatory design” which turns out “an almost one-way street of endless questionnaires and begrudging stakeholder responses” open source is built on “magnetic energy of people coming together” which is “viral, powerful, unconstrained force” “beyond the limits of top-down initiatives”
The book opens up the perspective on Open Source movement, it broadens its meaning. “Open source is more than soliciting feedback and a thriving collaboration is more than inviting many people to join the design process.” Collaboration and not technical skills are what defines openness.
As with software and politics, solutions for large scale housing and city development cannot be conceived in the head of one architect. There are currently not many architects who understand the implications and potential of open-sourcing design products; even less people are currently living in Open-Source houses. Nevertheless, the strategy of the Wikipedia article functions partially as a “design fiction” – it inspires and convinces about a reality which is almost there. The book is even more convincing.


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