You really wish you could attend these conferences

You so wish you could attend these two conferences.

But you won’t be invited.

You’re more than 34 years too late.

There’s “The Invisible City,” the theme of the 1972 International Design Conference Aspen. It promised to

“address the implications of making the invisible city visible: of changing misuse into use and apathy into engagement. The conference will explore the programs, philosophies and materials that use the resource of our man-made environment for learning. The conference will address the architectural, planning, design, economic and political implications of these educational alternatives.”

Then, there’s the 1976 AIA (American Institute of Architects) Convention in Philadelphia. The conference brochure states, “We live in the invisible city. A place where public information is not public: a place that is not maintained because it is not creatively used.”

Both were chaired by Richard Saul Wurman, at that time an architect in Philadelphia who had grown increasingly interested in the mechanism and system of information and the process not only of designing information… but what now gets called “architecting” it.

More on the 1976 “Architecture of Information:”

“Wouldn’t a city — any city — be more useful and more fun if everybody knew what to do in it, and with it? As architects, we know it takes more than good-looking buildings to make a city habitable and usable. It takes information: information about what spaces do as well as how they look; information that helps people articulate their needs and respond to change.

“The resources of a city are its people, places and processes. It is our collective attitudes toward these resources that either encourage the destruction of the city through apathy and abandonment or reaffirm the necessity of the city to civilized progress and life itself by participation and use. Use as the place for learning; participation as the involvement of everybody in the role of teacher. People telling about what and why they’re doing what they’re doing where they’re doing it–the show and tell is the city itself.

Wouldn’t these be great conference sessions today?

Frank Gehry and Doreen Nelson offered “The School Room: Analogue of the City.” There’s a session called “Space Doctors: Understanding How People Use Public Spaces” led by Don Clifford Miles. Even understanding gets its own architecture: “The Architecture of Understanding” by Marley & Ronald Thomas.

Data visualization? Try this: “Visualization of complex ideas” led by Jonas Salk (yes, *that* Jonas Salk)! “How to spec an ‘interface,’ detail an ‘input’ and supervise a ‘programming process'” — in 1976. The father of computer graphics, William Fetter, offered a session on “Computer graphics and the urban perception,” while Ivan Chermayeff offered “Communication in architectural environments” and Michael and Susan Southworth explored “Communicating the city.”

It is, of course, the conference where Wurman popularized the term “architecture of information” in the keynote speech he gave.

Makes me want to reconvene or revisit some of these sessions. What if we asked people today to take these themes and give talks? Who would our Salk be? Could we invite some of these people to speak?

Misfits and architecture machines

A few days ago, I wrote about some basics of cybernetics, concluding with a snippet from Gordon Pask’s “The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics. “Let us turn the design paradigm in upon itself,” he wrote, “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.”[1]

This idea proved very attractive to two young architects: Christopher Alexander and Nicholas Negroponte. When architects started engaging with cybernetics, they saw new possibilities for how designers would work. Technology would surprise and challenge the designer, would break down design problems into smaller parts, would address issues of complexity.

Christopher Alexander applied cybernetics and AI (among other disciplines) to architecture in an attempt to address the growing complexity of design problems. He noted the difficulty of designing for intermeshing systems, even when the designed object itself (whether something as big as a village or as small as a teapot) seemed uncomplicated. “In spite of their superficial simplicity, even these problems have a background of needs and activities which is becoming too complex to grasp intuitively,” he wrote in Notes on the Synthesis of Form in 1964.[2] The design process he described in Notes required a computer to analyze complex sets of data to define “misfits”—design requirements—that the designer ameliorated by creating a form that solved the problem.

While Nicholas Negroponte is best known today as a technology guru and founder of the MIT Media Lab, I’m interested in his architectural background and the notion of “architecture machines”— evolving systems that worked in “symbiosis” with designer and resident that Negroponte thought would change the making of architecture. As director of the Architecture Machine Group at MIT, founded in 1968, he assembled a theory of how such systems would work in the 1970 book The Architecture Machine (dedicated “to the first machine that can appreciate the gesture” [3]) and the 1975 book Soft Architecture Machines, and a series of computer-aided design tools and programs throughout the 1970s.

An architecture machine, in Negroponte’s estimation, would turn the design process into a dialogue that would alter the traditional human-machine dynamic. He wrote, “The dialogue would be so intimate—even exclusive—that only mutual persuasion and compromise would bring about ideas, ideas unrealizable by either conversant alone. No doubt, in such a symbiosis it would not be solely the human designer who would decide when the machine is relevant.”[4] In order to achieve the design goals and close relationship with the user the machine would have to incorporate artificial intelligence, he wrote, “because any design procedure, set of rules, or truism is tenuous, if not subversive, when used out of context or regardless of context.”[5] Intelligence for Negroponte is thus not a passive quality but an active one, expressed through behavior, and improved over time.

However, building a successful architecture machine proved a much more difficult concept in practice because of the quality of interaction they achieved and their designer’s overall fascination with bells and whistles. The URBAN5 (1967) program was Negroponte’s first, major computer-aided design program that sought to use his ideas about conversation, dialogue and intelligence. In his own judgment, it failed because it could not adapt and its dialogue was too primitive. The shortcomings of URBAN5 led the Architecture Machine Group to develop “The Architecture Machine”—a time-sharing computer that in addition to typical peripherals, had a camera interface on wheels (GROPE), robot arm (SEEK), tablet-based sketching stations and “an assemblage of software.” Negroponte wrote, “The prognostications of hardware enumerated in wanton fantasy have been achieved and even superseded in the actual Architecture Machine of 1974. All too often we spend our time making better operating systems, fancier computer graphics, and more reliable hardware, yet begging the major issues of understanding either the making of architecture or the makings of intelligence.”[6] “The Architecture Machine” was perhaps a failure of its own success.

Today, computer-aided design systems proceed as we ask them to. They don’t jump in and do things for us, they don’t create new layouts, they don’t have conversations with us. Expert systems often fall short: they guess wrong, they get in the way. But have we thrown out baby with bathwater? In the surprises and the challenges of our systems, perhaps we would come up with things we never would have imagined.

[1] Gordon Pask, “The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics,” Architectural Design 7, no. 6 (1969): 496.
[2] Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Cambridge,: Harvard University Press, 1964), 3.
[3] Nicholas Negroponte, The Architecture Machine (Cambridge, Mass.,: M.I.T. Press, 1970), 11-12.
[4] Ibid., 11-12.
[5] Ibid., 1.
[6] Negroponte, Soft Architecture Machines, (Cambridge, Mass.,: M.I.T. Press, 1975), 157-71.

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

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

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.

Dissertation proposal! Artificial Intelligence, Architectural Intelligence: The Computer in Architecture, 1960–80

UPDATE: My dissertation proposal.

I’ve completed my dissertation proposal! My dissertation is tentatively titled “Artificial Intelligence, Architectural Intelligence: The Computer in Architecture, 1960–80.” At noon, I defend it. Wish me luck! Here is the abstract:

With the advent of the information age, architects in the 1960s and 70s found themselves contending with more complex design problems than they had in the past. In response to these changes, the architectural profession began to turn to computers and computer- related sciences including cybernetics and artificial intelligence (AI), and to ways to solve and represent problems using the computer. The computational shift promoted design process over formal object, moved the architect out of a central role in the design process, and generated architectural solutions beyond the capabilities of machine or architect alone. This dissertation will examine three architects, Christopher Alexander (b. 1936), Nicholas Negroponte (b. 1943) and Cedric Price (1934–2003) and the influence of, and their collaborations with, key figures in cybernetics and artificial intelligence. The period from 1960 to 1980 is significant because it marks the introduction of computing paradigms to architecture and the beginning of the mainstream of computers in architectural practice. Throughout, this dissertation will develop the notion of generative systems in architecture; that is, systems that incorporate models of intelligence, interact with and respond to both designer and end user, and adapt and evolve over time.

Writing a dissertation proposal has more to do with writing a brief, a pitch, or a grant application, and less to do with writing the actual dissertation. That was the hard part: I kept sitting down and attempting to write the whole thing. It was thanks to the help of my friend Janet Vertesi one afternoon in Venice, with two plates of truffle french fries and a glass of rosé, that I finally got my head around the fact that I needed to write the argument for the project, not the project itself.

Defense the proposal marks the final hoop before finally starting the dissertation and my work for the next two years. I’m delighted to begin.

today, we operate on objects

“What, then, is the ‘object?’

Every object is the nodal point, the boundary point in the relationship between person and person. Whoever really grasps the object and designs, does so [grasps and designs] not only for the individual man and his desires, but rather grasps and designs the most important thing of all: the relationship between people.”
–Max Taut and Adolf Behne, Bauten und Pläne, Neue Werkkunst (Berlin: Hübsch, 1927), 21. (Translation: Molly Wright Steenson, image originally published in Scuffletown).

Today, we collect objects. Today, we make objects as a way to think through ideas. Today, we operate on objects.

Sometimes, those objects are gizmos. Sometimes, we subject those objects to strategies, oblique or otherwise. I started from “Today We Collect Ads” by Alison and Peter Smithson, 1956, and “The Great Gizmo,” by Reyner Banham, 1965. I then abstracted, subtracted, redacted and reacted.

The following is a set of operations derived from the Smithsons and Banham texts.  I’ve included thoughts from e.e. cummings, Walter Benjamin, Adolf Behne, and the reverberations from a South by Southwest panel I moderated with panelists James BridleBen TerrettMike Migurski, and Chris Heathcote.

Operating upon objects

Discover the object. Through the act of discovery, it becomes a found object; a raw object; its unearthing an artistic statement in its roughness and rawness. The object becomes an untrenching. The object becomes art.

Leave the object be. In so doing, the folk art potential of the object increases. Or it can be a myth. Either way, the object stays the same.

Tell the object, as one tells a story. Telling the object attaches texture to it. “It does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report. It sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again. Thus traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.” –Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” 91-2.

Depart from the object: jump off the object. Create a different object from this point of departure. The act transforms the object.

Devise and fix an object. Make it into a cheap, reliable, and contingent object, adapted to the need at hand.

Apply cunning to an object. Make it small and self-contained so that it meets desires then and there.

Amplify the social utility of the object over its other characteristics. It will outweigh all of its physical limitations, its heft outweighing its ubiquity.

Put the cunning objects to work. Observe what is left behind: An archeology of “massive infrastructural deposits:” the Pompeiian imprint of the Rust Belt; a “landscape with figures and gadgets.” (Banham)

Operate the object. It will perform.

Domesticate the object. It will live in the home.

Retrieve an object from the past. Apply it in the future.

Extend or compress the object in time.

Reformat the object.

Layer the object.

Collect objects and subject the collection to any other operations listed here.

Organize the collection of objects.Uncollect the collection of objects.

Change the scale of the object. “electrons deify one razorblade/ into a mountain range
–e.e. cummings

Remove the object from its context.

Remove the object from its infrastructure.

Apply a different infrastructure to the object.

Distribute the object.

Soften the object. Cover the object. Keep the object warm. Chill the object.

Ornament the object. Strip it clean.

Judge the object.

Subject the object.


It really is a series of tubes

Just call me Fallopia. In early March, I gave an Ignite talk at eTech about pneumatic tubes– a five-minute talk where the slides advance every 15 seconds. It’s shot its way around the Internet, but I haven’t yet posted it here before. Enjoy!