weeknote 15

Oxford Corner House network analysis diagram by Cedric Price: a project management tool he adapted for his own purposes in his projects (1966).

These weeknotes haven’t exactly been weekly. I’ve been struggling with blogging when I’m thick in work. I’m heavy in a mix of chapter-paper-article on Cedric Price’s Oxford Corner House and find that it’s really hard to translate ideas outward into something short, immediate and public.

I’m a thesis writing advisor this year at Art Center in the graduate Media Design Program. One of my colleagues refers to blogging and writing about the design process as “being a public academic.” I’m looking forward to talking more to her about it, not to mention actually doing it so that I’m doing what my students are. I realize that it’s one thing to teach students about writing, blogging and presenting their work in written form, but it’s another for me to do so publicly — to let whatever audience comes by into your messy creative processes. Is it that I feel vulnerable? That’s less it — maybe it’s that all of a sudden, people are dropping by and the house is a mess and I haven’t showered and there’s not much to eat. It feels like it’s not organized enough to give someone an idea. What if we thought of writing as desk crits, something we do in design and architecture, and less as publishing?

Right now, I’m in the thick soupiness of writing about Cedric Price’s Oxford Corner House — the point where I feel like I hurl clay up on a table to make enough of it so that I can sculpt it away. At the same time, I’m writing a dissertation chapter, a paper for the ACSA “Responsive Architecture” session and an article for Design Observer’s Places journal. It’s all based on work I did in the archive and almost nothing has been written about the project, so I’m going through hundreds of documents and drawings, trying to come up with my own narrative for the project. It takes a lot of time to just create a narrative, let alone synthesize and contextualize it. I’m making headway.

For Tim Maly’s 50 Posts about Cyborgs project, I wrote “A Network of Constant Interactions and Communications,” the first of two pieces on cybernetics and the arts. This one is a brief bit on cybernetics as groundwork for another on cybernetics and architecture. I’ll write more about Cedric Price there, too.

The project I’m doing for Institute for the Future has begun. I’m greatly enjoying with Anthony Townsend and Jake Dunagan on it and applying some of my areas of research and expertise to a fascinating subject. We’ll be getting ready for a big kickoff next week.

There’s lots more: the upcoming Google Zeitgeist conference, where I’m doing the pneumatic tubes Ignite talk, a talk at Adaptive Path in 9 days on information and architecture, and a heap of deadlines. And there’s trying to be a more public academic, so I’ll write here more.

A network of constant interactions and communications

[This post is a part of a month of Cyborgs, a project started by Quiet Babylon’s Tim Maly. It’s the first of two.]

To get to cyborgs, we need to start with cybernetics.

Norbert Wiener. Image source: Complex Fields blog.

Cybernetics is a network of constant interactions and communications. Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) coined the term in 1948 from the Greek word for steersman. The term describes feedback — communication and control in systems—where a system obtains information on its progress, assesses the feedback, corrects its course and receives further feedback on the success of the transmission.

The genesis of cybernetics took place in the belly of ballistics and radar development during World War II. It took science and social science, then art and architecture by storm in the 1950s and 60s. While it fell out of favor in the 1970s (one possible reason is Vietnam and anti-technology sentiment, noted Andrew Pickering in a conversation we had a few years ago), it’s making a resurgence today — even turning up as a contemporary topic of study.

No wonder cybernetics proved so very attractive to so many fields: it described all systems in general because all systems ultimately were cybernetic, whether they were organic, mechanical, social or aesthetic. “Any organism is held together in this action by the possession of means for the acquisition, use, retention and transmission of information,”[1] Wiener wrote, making information the raison d’être of any organism, whether a living being, built circuit or societal construct. Cybernetics’ implications extended to engineering, computer science, biology, philosophy, anthropology, art, architecture and even the organization of society—the direction of Wiener’s second book on cybernetics, The Human Use of Human Beings. One key reason for the spread was because of the Macy Conferences (1946–53), a core group that included Wiener, W. Ross Ashby and Heinz von Foerster, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, John von Neumann, and Buckminster Fuller, who gathered twice a year to explore the science of feedback in the social and biological sciences. The Macy Conference attendees sought to create models of the brain and of living organisms in logical systems, linguistic and information theory and with early computers.

A black box view of cybernetics has limitations, such as Wiener’s model: first-order cybernetics—the cybernetics of observed systems. The model becomes much more interesting with second-order cybernetics. It’s a sort of meta-cybernetics: the cybernetics of observing and participating with systems.[1] Consider a thermostat. On one hand, it is a system that monitors feedback in order to adjust the system to its desired setting. However, the thermostat does not exist in isolation: a human being sets it first.[2] First-order cybernetics assumes that a system is itself a discrete thing, unadulterated by interaction with it. Enter second-order cybernetics, which states any system can be changed by its observation. It studies that the way people construct models of systems, not just how the systems themselves function and learn from themselves. Since people are cybernetic models themselves, their observations are de facto second-order cybernetic.

Where do we see these things play out?

From Making Things Public : Atmospheres of Democracy, ZKM/Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, 2005

Stafford Beer, a British cybernetician, applied cybernetics to business strategy Operational Research, “the science of proper control within any assembly that is treated as an organic whole.”[2] In the early 1970s, he would work with the Allende government in Chile on in order to apply his concept as a mechanism for societal control.[3] It culminated in Project Cybersyn, with the Cybersyn Opsroom that you see here. (Eden Medina has a book coming out next year about Chile and Cybersyn, an expansion of her dissertation and her article, “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile.”

Gordon Pask developed musical cybernetic systems that count as early cyborg hybrids. His 1953 Musicolour machine accompanied musical performers. As the performer or group played, Musicolour responded with lights and movement to the music would change, creating a sort of hypnotic effect for those who played with it. But if the performer became too repetitive and did not engage the machine enough, Musicolour would grow bored and stop responding—the first cybernetic art system to do so. [4] Pask also noted that while people trained the machine, it trained them back, creating a feedback loop in which performers felt like the machine was an extension of their minds and bodies.[5]

Left, Gordon Pask. Right, the Musicolour Machine (1953).

In 1969, Pask wrote “The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics.” He predicted that computer-aided design tools would develop into “useful instruments;” the “machine for living in” would predict the behavior of its users and residents and engage its resident’s interest — not unlike an advanced Musicolour machine–and computers would control and change the qualities of material surfaces, using sensors to return information to the computer about the interaction.[6] He wrote:

Let us turn the design paradigm in upon itself; let us apply it to the interaction between the designer and the system he designs, rather than the interaction between the system and the people who inhabit it. The glove fits, almost perfectly in the case when the designer uses a computer as his assistant. In other words, the relation ‘controller/controlled entity’ is preserved when these omnibus words are replaced either by ‘designer/system being designed’ or by ‘systemic environment/inhabitants’ or by ‘urban plan/city’ … But notice the trick … the designer does much the same job as his system, but he operates at a higher level in the organizational hierarchy… Further, the design goal is nearly always underspecified and the ‘controller’ is no longer the authoritarian apparatus which this purely technical name brings to mind.[7]

Turning the design paradigm upon itself produces a new form of architecture. Internalizing the lessons of cybernetics externalizes the possibilities for architecture and for art to respond to the people that engage with it — as we will see with architect Cedric Price’s collaborations with Pask. (I’ve got so much to say about it, I’m in the midst of a dissertation on a number of his projects.) We’ll return to this topic in the next post here on cybernetics and cyborg architecture.

[1] Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine ([Cambridge, Mass.]: Technology Press, 1948), 24.

[2] Gordon Pask, An Approach to Cybernetics (London,: Hutchinson, 1961), 15.

[3] Eden Medina, “Democratic Socialism, Cybernetic Socialism: Making the Chilean Economy Public,” in Making Things Public : Atmospheres of Democracy, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; ZKM/Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, 2005).

[4] Gordon Pask, “A Comment, a Case History and a Plan,” in Cybernetics, Art, and Ideas, ed. Jasia Reichardt (Greenwich, Conn.,: New York Graphic Society, 1971), 77.

[5] Ibid., 85.

[6] Gordon Pask, “The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics,” Architectural Design 7, no. 6 (1969): 495.

[7] Ibid.: 496.

This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs, a project commemorating the use of the term.

as miniaturization becomes total…

Cedric Price, untitled & undated note. O.C.H. folio DR1995:0224:324:002, Cedric Price Archive, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

Found in Cedric Price’s Oxford Corner House (1965-66) archive: a mobile and miniaturized future. Also: cooking.

“as miniaturisation + particularly [?]
becomes total
pocket T.V. & telephone etc.
mail order
congregation will only be valid
+immediate [?]
if comparison unobtainable
in single or family (ie. know human grouping)
is provided

weeknote 14

(Fred points at one of the presentation boards for Japan Net. This is one of the nicest parts about being at the CCA: the discussions that happened when other people stopped by to see what I was looking at, or that happened over their material.)

My fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture ended last week. It was a stellar month. I realized every time I walked in the door, I wore a grin and my pace quickened as I headed down the hall to the Study Centre. I will very much miss the place and the people, both the scholars and the people at the CCA.

The overall goal of my trip was to look at the projects that Cedric Price did that had something to do with information flows and communication. In reality, that could mean all of his projects, but given the enormity of his archive, that wasn’t going to be the case. I mentioned previously that I looked at Generator (the subject of my master’s thesis) and Oxford Corner House (a proto cyber cafe info hive from 1966), but I also saw Magnet (a set of urban interventions to instigate different interactions throughout London, 1996), the Birmingham and Midland Headquarters (which reused parts of Oxford Corner House, 1968), Price’s own information storage system for his office (punchcards and a possible computer), Japan Net (series of info pods for Kawasaki, Japan), and McAppy (a construction site safety program, project management system and portable, prefabbed construction huts).

I did not set out with the goal of finding this, but I think Price was truly an information architect — that is, an architect whose main material and media was information. (I also believe he came across the early use of the term “information architecture” in 1968, in an article in Datamation.) Every project begins with this collection of data; the key activities have to do with the structuring of that data and information into categories — and then into physical communication and circulation in the form of a design for a building. He didn’t build many things and it leads me to believe that his practice had more to do with the sum total of all the data and information and drawings and texts and correspondence and charts.In any case, there’s a ton of material to work through that hasn’t really been analyzed or published about, with a few exceptions. I’d like for Price to be as well known to the technology/design community as Nicholas Negroponte and Christopher Alexander are.

In other news, I went to my 20 year high school reunion. It was as weird as I’d expected but also, great fun. Best of all, I reconnected with my high school best friend. It’s been a hard year for friendships and it felt wonderful to realize that Nicole is there and beautiful and doing well.

Tomorrow, I fly back to LA. I’m pondering doing a juice fast. I’m looking forward to going running and getting back to eating healthfully and sleeping well.

The future in the past and past futures

In June, I spent several days in Nicholas Negroponte’s personal archive from the Architecture Machine Group era up to the founding of the MIT Media Lab — working my way through hundreds of documents and taking some 1600 images. I also had the chance to interview him about the early years of his career. He was gracious, if not a little self-conscious to be discussing things he built and wrote as a 20-something.

Looking at the material in his archive, it struck me that I was viewing one possible future, one version of how things might have turned out. For all of the things that didn’t happen the way they imagined, the seeds for many things were sown some 30+ years ago. It’s not a matter of what Negroponte and his collaborators got wrong, it’s what they got right — and more importantly, the big questions that still have not been answered.

Seymour Papert, founder of the Epistemology and Learning Research Group in the Architecture Machine Group, co-founder with Marvin Minsky of the Artificial Intelligence Lab (and creator of the Logo programming language), spoke to MIT news in 2002 about these big questions behind AI:

“We started with a big ‘cosmic question’: Can we make a machine to rival human intelligence? Can we make a machine so we can understand intelligence in general? But AI [artificial intelligence] was a victim of its own worldly success. People discovered you could make computer programs so robots could assemble cars. Robots could do accounting! AI… wasn’t supposed to end up like that. AI was meant for Bigger Things.”

In looking at these big ideas of early AI, it’s clear that the big questions still haven’t been answered — things like, What is the nature of intelligence when machines are involved? How do machines really help us learn? What does it mean to have augmented architecture and augmented bodies?

With so many big questions left unanswered, it puts the hype around everything from augmented reality to the iPad into context. There’s hefty precedent in projects and writings by ArchMach, the MIT Arts and Media Technology group and the Media Lab and its affiliated researchers. The Spatial Data Management System (1979) provided a spatial way to move through information and capture a layer; the  Aspen Movie Map (1978-80), which allowed its users to drive virtually through a city (and which was used for military simulations as well): Alexis Madrigal offers recent insight into the project. Does the iPad really revolutionize everything or is it just another version of the 1979 “Books without Pages” (which you can read here)?  

My last night in Boston, I had dinner with my friend and mentor, Shelley Evenson. “I look at the past because it’s the future,” I said, in our conversation about ArchMach. “Exactly!” she responded. And that’s just it. The big questions of the past haven’t been solved, let alone adequately addressed. In order to look at possible futures, we need to delve into the past. It’s where the important issues were first formulated. These pasts as also futures.

Two quotes, to close, that I found yesterday. The first from George Kubler in 1962:

“Everything made now is either a replica or a variant of something made a little time ago and so on back without break to the first morning of human time.” George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, 1962

and this 1968 one, found in Cedric Price’s archive of his Magnet project, carefully written by hand in 1995.











–Sir Geoffrey Vickers, “Value Systems & Social Process,” 1968 (in Cedric Price’s materials for his Magnet project, 1995)

It makes me wonder, are we just replicating the past? And in so doing, are we systematically late — if not systematically wrong?

weeknote 13: greetings from montreal

Greetings from the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal! I’m here on a Collections Research Grant to use the Cedric Price Archive. There are about 30 scholars in residence right now from the US, Canada, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium and points beyond, some younger, some more advanced, some traditionally academic, others less traditional like Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG. That doesn’t even include the curators, archivists, librarians and other people who work here — they’re lovely as well. When you walk through the Study Centre, you never know what’s going to be on the tables… Susanna, from Venice, found a drawing of Peter Eisenman’s House VIII, not published. Zubin, from Montreal, is trying to make sense of the narratives in John Hejduk’s Masque drawings. Geoff found Oilstrike, a game sponsored by BP from 1970 — the irony. Samantha Hardingham, the one person in the world who publishes extensively and intensively on Cedric Price, was here this week as a part of her long research project in which she is looking at every single project he did. In any case, it’s a wonderfully convivial experience and a total delight to be here.

While I’m here, I’m looking at several Cedric Price projects that deal with information and technology, most of which have not been published about to any great extent. These include some crazy projects: a 1966 proto cybercafe for Tottenham Court Road in the Oxford Corner House; a 1967 design charette called Atom for a new town around a nuclear reactor that would have a “town brain” and a “life conditioning” unit that would educate its citizens; the British and Midlands Headquarters that incorporated the information flows and planetariums from the Oxford Corner House project — and Cedric Price’s own plans for an information storage and retrieval system to be used in his own office. It extends the work I did on my master’s thesis, which examined Price’s Generator project– a 1976-79 plan for an intelligent set of cubes on a landscape that would get bored if not moved and recombined.

On Monday, I presented to the scholars here on the Oxford Corner House project, a talk titled “Storage of Information Becomes Activity” — a note scribbled on a drawing from a different project, but that seems to indicate so much of what Price is doing with his kit of parts buildings, the mobility and the information screens and the learning and the computers. I’m coming to the conclusion that Price really did see architecture as information architecture in a very literal sense: a structuring of information, an organizing of it into activities, and then an organizing of architectural objects and tools to accommodate the movement through these informational exchanges.

The archive is a treasure trove and it’s a delight to look at more projects than just Generator, for which I was here in 2006. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, like the image above of the Inter-Action Centre, one of the few things that Price built (built 1977, demolished 2001) — or the letter that not only requested information on hovercrafts, but a demonstration. Some of it is amazingly futuristic, like the information flows and technologies suggested for the Oxford Corner House. I’ll publish bits of it here as I crunch through the material.

Finally, Montreal is one of my favorite cities. I’ve been here three times, twice in 2006 in late fall (brr!) and once for Design Engaged in 2008. This time, I’ve had a chance to relax into it– though I’ve been too socially busy to relax. It’s beautiful in summer, one reason why I decided to do the fellowship in July, not October. Where I’m staying on the other side of Mount Royal, there are huge maple trees and rolling hills. It all draws to a close in just under a week, when I go to Minneapolis for my 20 year high school reunion. (Shaking head.) That’s going to be its own archive.

Speaking tonight at Ignite LA

It’s time to bring the gospel of pneumatic tubes to Los Angeles! I’m speaking tonight at Ignite LA in Santa Monica at the V Lounge, 2020 Wilshire Blvd. Doors open at 7:30, things get underway after 8. I’m told it’s sold out but if you want to go, maybe it’s worth a shot? (If you know me, email me because I have an extra ticket).

I’ll be doing an updated version of the now-famous “It Really is a Series of Tubes” on the history of the pneumatic tube — in 5 minutes with 20 slides. It’s manic and crazy and a ton of fun. Hope to see you there!

Randomness, order, art and copyright

“I decided to register the copyright for Gaussian-Quadratic with the Library of Congress. At first they refused since a machine had generated the work. I epxlained that a human being had written the program that incorporated randomness and order. They again refused to regsiter the work, stating that randomness was not acceptable. I finally explained that although the numbers generated by the program appeared ‘random’ to humans, the algorithm generating them was perfectly mathematical and not random at all. The copyright was finally accepted, thereby giving Gaussian-Quadratic of being perhaps the first registered piece of copyrighted art produced with a digital computer.”

–A. Michael Noll, describing his decision to register his 1965 Gaussian-Quadratic with the Library of Congress. A. Michael Noll, “The beginnings of computer art in the United States: A memoir.” Computers and Graphics 19:4 (1995), 41.

Gaussian-Quadratic, 1965

pinball 1973 (a lesson)

From one of my favorite Haruki Murakami books, not published in the US.

Where there’s an entrance, there’s got to be an exit. Most things work that way. Public mailboxes, vacuum cleaners, zoos, plastic condiment squeeze bottles. Of course, there are things that don’t. For example, mousetraps.

* * *

I once set a mousetrap under my apartment sink. I used peppermint gum for bait. After scouring the entire apartment, that was the only thing approaching food I could find. I found it in the pocket of my winter coat, along with a movie ticket stub.

By the third morning, a tiny mouse had flirted with fate. Still very young, the mouse was the color of those cashmere sweaters you see piled up in London duty-free shops. It was maybe fifteen or sixteen in human years. A tender age. A bitten-off piece of gum lay under its paws.

I had no idea what to do with the thing now that I’d caught it. Hind leg still pinned under the spring wire, the mouse died on the fourth morning. Seeing it lying there taught me a lesson. Everything needs an entrance and exit. That’s about the size of it.

weeknote 12

Finally another weeknote…

First, I finished my dissertation proposal. If you’re interested in reading it, you can find it here. They are tricky beasts, proposals are — they are arguments for something you have yet to write and research. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, every time I’d sit down to write the proposal, I’d start trying to write the whole dissertation in miniature. Finally, though, it came together (as noted, thanks to Ms. Vertesi’s help).

I presented and defended the proposal before my committee– Christine Boyer, Ed Eigen, and Axel Kilian — and another professor I’ve worked closely with over the last several years, Spyros Papapetros. Also in the room: 10 or so students from my PhD program, two from art history, and another professor in the architecture school, Miles Ritter, who shares my love for technology. The critique was really solid. I know what the holes are in the proposal and was happy that the committee and other audience members found them all.

Critique is an excellent thing. It’s scary, yes, but it’s an honor to have good people engage with your work in an intense manner. I learn so much from the dialogue about it, whether in a defense (such as with my general exams or as in Thursday’s presentation of the proposal), or in conversations with the people in and around my PhD program. It’s also been important to learn how not to be defensive in a critical situation.

Some of the questions and suggested approaches that came out of it: looking closely at the rhetoric that Nicholas Negroponte, Cedric Price & Christopher Alexander used; considering a number of figures around MIT & the Media Lab; looking at the influence of Noam Chomsky and linguistics; probing the difference between computation and the computer and how that affects architectural practice.

Wow. I guess I’ve been busy. Also in the last week or so, I:

  • Spoke at the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University on a panel discussion about Infrastructure — it was part of the Networked Publics lecture series
  • Wrote a piece for the catalogue of the  HABITAR exhibition Laboral in Spain on the 1970 Software exhibition, 1840s telegraphy and the annihilation of space and time through distributed intelligence
  • Worked with a friend who graduated from Ivrea on the copy for her company’s product concepts
  • Spoke in the lecture series at the University of Chicago in the History of Science department, thanks to a kind invitation from department chair Adrian Johns. (My subject: Poste Pneumatique.) Okay, so that was three weeks ago. Afterwards I was in LA for a few days to visit my boyfriend.

What’s ahead? My brother gets married on Grand Cayman Island next weekend: a week from today, I will be scuba diving with sting rays. (How I love diving! And I never really go.) Thereafter, a visit to San Francisco for the first time in a painfully long time to attend the Institute for the Future Tech Horizons conference, plus a few days in LA.