[iDC] architecture and situated technologies

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Mon Jul 10 09:26:09 EDT 2006

On 9-Jul-06, at 3:32 PM, Usman Haque wrote:
> 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.)...

Upon reading this I immediately thought of several architects who do 
seem to be imagining the future adventurously, of whom one is 
Oosterhuis, so your subsequent report on the (perceived) failings of 
his recent GSM conference (which I did not attend) was especially 
interesting to me. I found myself wondering, well, if the architects at 
that forward-looking event were not discussing "the social relevance of 
technology in the architectural world'' to your satisfaction, then what 
would have satisfied you? I admit to being both surprised and pleased 
to have then seen you extend your critique by saying that they...

>  keep constructing their usual sculptures for inhabitation by others, 
> which disregard the productive capacity of... uh... non-architects.

Now those are a pair of revolutionary concepts – that people should 
live in the houses they build and that people who build houses for 
themselves needn't be – and possibly shouldn't be – architects. This 
clearly correlates to the overthrow of the broadcast model in media by 
the p2p web, and it's no less subversive of authority. Hence the 
unsurprising resistance of established architects – no matter how 
futuristic – to such a radical ethos. The question I have though, is: 
what technologies can enable this? Especially, what digital 

> 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.

OK, yes, but this is less about technology and more about empowerment 
and collaboration, though admittedly part of the p2p zeitgeist.

> 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.

This is the key: what tools? Can we look to rapid prototyped houses 
like those being designed/proposed by someone (name escapes me). Are we 
talking about the company in Calgary (again, blanking on the name) that 
lets you design your house online from a wide selection of elements and 
then they ship you the parts, a cross between prefab, lego and simcity? 
Or about responsive emotive materials (i.e. Oosterhuis' Hyperbody?) Or 
other stuff entirely? I'm very intrigued by the possibilities but if 
you're going to promote do-it-yourself space design in the physical 
world you have to deal with hard realities like materials, costs, 
durability, the elements, bylaws, lived use, walls falling down – 
things that simply don't have the same urgency in virtual space. So the 
question is whether the comparison with p2p media is apt given the 
constraints of actualizing that fluidity in the material world. What is 
the material-world architectural equivalent of an mp3 - or of this 
listserv? I have a feeling there are some really interesting answers 
available but I'm not sure what they are.

I do think that you are fundamentally right in suggesting that the 
architectural response to the web in the material world has largely 
been an incremental one. We have barely begun to see the 'porting' of 
online values, aesthetics, architectures, etc. into offline space. As 
netizens begin to reconfigure the physical world to reflect their 
networked lives, the chasms between these very different modes of 
social/spatial organization will surely become far more apparent than 
they have been to date, though what form they will take is anybody's 


bluesology • printopolis • digitopia
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