[iDC] Public Sphere Polka

Usman Haque lists at haque.co.uk
Sun Jul 9 15:32:30 EDT 2006

At 09:27 +0100 09.07.06, Trebor Scholz <trebor at thing.net> wrote:
>How does all this change the way we navigate the city? How does it
>relate to architecture? Perhaps some locative scholars, architects,
>activists, and artists have to join this round of conversations now?

As an ostensible architect perhaps this is my cue to join in...

It seems quite strange to me that architects these days don't appear 
to be participating in the kinds of imaginings of the future that 
they used to (e.g. Archigram, etc.). Some might say this is a good 
thing of course; but isn't it funny that, although Tony Dunne (of 
Hertzian Tales) has spoken frequently about how the architectural 
process of speculation was a great influence on the way he thought 
about designing objects back in the early 90s, now it is architects 
(myself included) who refer to him because of his designs for 
"hertzian space"?

In fact, although we are almost at a time when we can build whatever 
we can imagine -- device, building or experience -- suddenly 
architects appear to have a kind of "writer's block" and, in the 
mainstream anyway, seem destined to fall back on the usual 
form-producing role that they feel so comfortable with. This was 
quite well illustrated at Game Set and Match conference earlier this 
year. Ostensibly at the forefront of crossovers between architecture 
and technology, too many of the discussions revolved around either 
designing blobs or designing things that move blobs. Discussions 
about the social relevance of technology in the architectural world, 
or what impacts current movements concerning the *production* of 
technology might have on the profession of architecture were minimal.

There were a few discussions of "open source" but they tended to 
espouse the usual top-down approach that institutions (of which 
architecture is one of the most powerful) usually have.

I confess I had a bit of a clash with Ole Bouman, from Archis, whose 
work I usually admire, when he fell into the common trap of assuming 
that "open source" is just another means of consumption by claiming 
that architecture has always been open source in that it has always 
built on what comes before... Conference convener Oosterhuis had a 
similar approach, claiming that his work was open source because the 
coding of the design was freely available if anyone asked. These 
approaches to 'openness' merely allow architects to pat themselves on 
the back, congratulate themselves that they're au-fait with current 
affairs, but keep constructing their usual sculptures for 
inhabitation by others, which disregard the productive capacity of... 
uh... non-architects.

So I think architects are generally somewhat opting out of these 
kinds of discussions, or are complacent with their position with 
respect to technology.

Again an illustration from GSM: architect Marcos Novak was discussing 
a trip to Constant's studio a few years back (Constant = New Babylon 
dude) and relating how he showed some of his computer renderings to 
Constant, but Constant seemed only interested with the way the 
on-screen cursor responded to hand movements of the computer's mouse. 
I took this to mean that Constant was concentrating on the only part 
of the work that had any relevance to human engagement. Oosterhuis 
and Novak took this to mean that avant-garde architecture had so far 
transcended the revolutionary "masters" that even the masters could 
no longer understand it! Frankly, I think Constant got it right and 
it's about time we returned to some of the territory he covered, 
because it's certainly not fully explored.

I use GSM as an example, simply because I had such high expectations 
of it, since there are very few architecture+technology events these 
days (feel free to correct me!). I'm pretty confident the 
"Architecture and Situated Technologies symposium" will be a nice 
antidote! Less and less of the built world is produced by 
architects... However I do think that architects are able to bring 
something to the table, and that is an ability to think 
meta-systemically (ok, so this is both a bug and a feature).

Space (in the public/private sense) has tended to be a battleground 
for institutions rather than individuals; and the fact that 
architects are less involved with such discussions is not necessarily 
a good thing, because it just means that technologists become that 
much more important (as evidenced by the way that mobile technology 
manufacturers tend increasingly to be designing the way that you and 
I related to each other in space).

It feels almost like the cold war (when two opposing parties 
regulated each other) is over... and the worst is yet to come: the 
technologentsia is winning the battle for our spaces, and this is a 
thing that should be resisted. Ubiquitous computing, and the 
complexities of increasingly invisible technologies simply mean that 
we are being removed from any spatial decision-making processes we 
once particpated in (that may be too nostalgic...).

My own particular interest is to refer back to cybernetics, 
particularly of the second-order variety -- this is the cybernetics 
in which the observer is not distinct from a system, but is actually 
a participant in a system. Unfortunately the word "cybernetics" has 
taken on a skewed meaning in the last couple of decades, being 
confused with artifical intelligence (which is in contrast a 
top-down positivist approach), cyberspace and cyborgs. I think that, 
now that we are more comfortable with postmodern (e.g. 'death of the 
author') explanations in which a consumer can be a producer, 
cybernetics, in particular Gordon Pask's Conversation Theory, might 
allow us to challenge the traditional architectural model of 
production and consumption that places firm distinctions between 
designer, client, owner, and mere occupant. It may help us consider 
instead architectural systems in which an architectural participant 
takes prime role in the production of the space s/he inhabits, a 
bottom-up approach which would result in a more productive 
relationship to our spaces and to each other.

This way of thinking about architectural systems is not necessarily 
technological: it is not about making your online shopping experience 
more efficient, or your apartment funky and interactive. Nor is it 
about making another nice piece of hi-tech lobby art that responds to 
people flows through the space (which is just as representational, 
metaphor-encumbered and unchallenging as a polite watercolour 
landscape). It is about designing tools that people themselves may 
use to construct (in the widest sense) their environments and thus to 
build their own sense of agency. It is about developing ways to make 
people themselves more engaged with, and ultimately responsible for, 
the spaces that they inhabit. It is about investing the production of 
architecture with the poetries of its inhabitants.

Hmmmm..... I think I was supposed to introduce myself first. So, 
apologies for the length and I hope that suffices as a way of saying 
I am Usman. and. I. am. a. recovering. architect......



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