A shared future

11 July 2018

The concept of open-source architecture (OSA) may challenge the starchitects and big design firms, but the benefits of hive-minding concepts, and subjecting work to free external and objective testing have persuaded influencers to set up OSA departments. JS Rafaeli garners opinions from industry experts about this major trend.

In the 20th century, architecture was shot through with visions of utopia. From Le Courbusier’s graceful concrete swoops to the elephantine provocations of the brutalists, there was an underlying impulse that if one could just get the environment where people lived right, then the perfect individuals might want to reside there.

A similar utopian thrum animated the early pioneers of that newer ‘built environment’ where we increasingly live and work – cyberspace.

Influenced by writer William Gibson, the original generation of hackers, cyber and cypherpunks promised new forms of digital democracy. Data would be freely shared, and would set us free. In a world where anyone, anywhere, could access any idea, restrictive power structures would simply fall away.

But what happens when these two impulses collide? Architectural and digital theory are prone to jargon, and, as if on cue, a new buzzword emerges to describe the synthesis of free data and physical construction – open-source architecture (OSA). The vision of a future in which architectural designs, drawings, 3D renderings and documentation are all freely available for integration into new projects is instantly compelling – not to mention potentially destabilising to traditional notions of the role of architect. But what is perhaps most curious about OSA is the very breadth of meanings it carries for different practitioners.

For Ben van Berkel, UNStudio’s co-founder and principal architect, the movement is centred on new forms of collaboration made necessary by a changing world.

“After the negative effects of the 2008 financial crisis started to lift, there was an evident paradigm shift within the architectural profession,” he begins. “Our all-pervasive connectivity and the sharing economy presented a new way for architects to reconsider their role and their output. I therefore introduced research platforms, initially tasked with sharing knowledge within the studio and beyond, to initiate collaborations with related experts and to share our knowledge in a more open way online.”

These concerns have proved sufficiently vital for Van Berkel to establish an entire new practice, specifically dedicated to exploration.

UNSense launched this year and is a start-up focused on implementing technology into the built environment.

“In traditional architectural practice, there are no resources to develop new technologies; there is little room for prototyping and testing,” Van Berkel explains. “For this, we need people who can work on the threshold between the built environment and technological innovation. Data analysts, algorithmists, neuroscientists, policymakers, students, municipalities, sociologists, economists, data architects, business case modellers, financial specialists and architects all provide insights and expertise that help us create innovative concepts that go deeper into the usability and modality of a city and its buildings.”

Sharing design knowledge

Alastair Parvin, co-founder of WikiHouse, has a far more specific – and arguably more radical – vision of exactly what ‘open source’ means.

“Architects can tend to be a little fast and loose with terms for the sake of rhetorical enjoyment,” he acknowledges with a laugh. “But, actually, open source has a very exact legal definition. It was established through the software world as a form of licensing for intellectual property (IP) that would otherwise be proprietary. It allows one to actively invite others to take, use and version forms of IP, creating a new form of knowledge commons. Ironically, in pure open source, no collaboration is needed at all. You don’t need to talk to anybody – you just copy the code straight into your own project and use it how you wish.”

This raises immediate questions around the very nature of intellectual ownership and originality in architecture and design. Parvin takes these issues head on. “Architects are generally a bit hesitant or unclear about the actual definition of IP in architecture – about what it is they actually sell,” he explains. “Crucially, nobody owns the brick. One could say that open source would simply mean publishing drawings but, actually, architects have been doing that for a long time – and it’s really not that useful because every project has specific needs.

“For us, the moment of epiphany was the emergence of digital fabrication – the ability to share and transmit design knowledge as code. This was the missing piece that unlocked genuine open source into the built environment. You can now share code files that contain thousands of hours’ worth of knowledge. We’re outsourcing the tools themselves, rather than the outcome of the tools, and can begin to think about building a coding language for space – of making space codeable. Really, open source is a small part of a much bigger story of digitisation, and we’re now only just scratching the surface.”

User-focused buildings

Another form of open-source design relates not only to the ability of practitioners to share information, but also in how structures might actually begin to gather and share data on how they are used. As architecture collides with technology, buildings become more like habitable computers – forms of intelligent infrastructure learning from our behaviour – and our cities begin speaking back to us.

One leading innovator in the smartcity space is Professor Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT, US. He is currently in the early stages of a significant OSA project in Turin, converting the Italian city’s Caserma Lamarmora barracks into a major new creative campus.

Ratti’s goals for the project are “To build on the idea of space-building as put forward by John Habraken: achieving participatory design by separating an initial ‘structure’ and a subsequent ‘infill’. A ‘plug-and-play’ system, where architects deliver the hardware – structure – and then sit back to let users inhabit it. The site development of Caserma Lamarmora encourages bottom-up growth, without imposing any fixed notions of how the space should be used. Uses will ultimately be determined by future occupants.”

Is OSA really radical?

Allowing users to continuously adapt the design of buildings is a form of open sourcing that calls the very assumption that the architecture of a building can ever be ‘finished’ into question. But, when citizens participate so heavily in the design of their buildings, what becomes of the actual architect?

When asked whether he has encountered resistance to these ideas from the architectural community, Ratti replies, “Of course. I think that OSA helps promote a paradigm shift from the ego-fuelled visions of architecture of the 20th century. It shows how architects and designers could focus on an orchestrating role, what we could define as a ‘choral’ architect, coordinating several voices and harmonising them into a better ensemble.”This reflection is echoed by Parvin. “OSA might be anathema to a culture that fetishises the idea of originality in architecture,” he says. “Though that entire conception of originality is itself extremely questionable; if you ever find yourself in a truly original building, my advice is to get out as fast as possible, because the thing’s probably about to collapse.

“It actually shouldn’t be a mark of particular radicalism for architects to be talking about open source. Most of architecture, throughout history, is open source anyway – a vernacular knowledge developed and passed down through generations. One thinks of barn raisings or the construction of favelas today, but these are specifically designed and built by the people who use them.”

“And let’s face it,” Parvin concludes, “the ‘starchitects’ will still probably be alright. Some people will always still want striking, iconic, original architecture, and be willing to pay for it. As our population approaches nine billion, the idea that we’re somehow going to run out of design problems that need solving is fairly laughable.”

Whether OSA succeeds in ushering in a new age of design democracy is yet to be seen. To return to society’s earlier attempts at utopia, the buildings of the brutalists often go unloved, and the failure of free data and social networks to provide true liberty has recently become all too apparent.

But other sectors have certainly been revolutionised by modes of distributed production: broadcast by Youtube; hospitality by Airbnb; and the service industries by Uber, Deliveroo and others. There is no reason to believe that the built environment should be any different. The internet of things is already transforming our relationship with the objects we use; so, why not with the places we live? The future may be unwritten, but it will likely be increasingly designed by those who inhabit it.

Wikihouse is an open-source project tasked with reshaping how homes are made.
On its website, Wikihouse says tech will be the “bricks and mortar of the digital age”.
Ratti wants users to dictate how the Caserma Lamarmora’s space is used.
The Italian barracks will elaborate on Habraken’s idea of space-building.

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