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.

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?

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.


An history of wrong footing

“NB* The socially delightful usefulness of responsive architecture has only recently gathered an establishment smart gloss and in so doing has cheapened the tight nice original usage of the very word—responsive.” –Cedric Price, “AN HISTORY OF WRONG FOOTING—THE IMMEDIATE PAST,” undated.

Generator Folio DR1995:0280:65, 1/5, Cedric Price Archives, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

Cedric Price was weary of what responsive architecture seemed it might become–long before blobs and wireless sensor nets. That’s what a good soaking of cybernetics could do for old Cedric… and why Generator was such a fascinating project. Would that it could have been built… though I suppose it makes for a better story that it was not. Still…

I’m looking forward to posting my chapter in progress here next week, when it is complete. When I do, it will be one of the only descriptions of Generator available online and the only description of any length published since the early 80s. I wish there were something I could link to to tell you more about it in the meantime: you might look at the pictures in the catalogue for the 2002 MoMA exhibition Changing of the Avant-Garde or the images and project descriptions in Cedric Price Works II and Neil Spiller’s Cyber_Reader.

In the meantime, back to writing.

“Play is a form of order” and the dimension of the trace

For a year, I’ve had this on an electronic sticky on my Mac desktop:

With the trace <Spur>, a new dimension accrues to “immediate experience.” It is no longer tied to the expectation of “adventure”; the one who undergoes an experience can follow the trace that leads there.Whoever follows traces must not only pay attention; above all, he must have given heed already to a great many things.

–Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, page 801

Yesterday, I encountered this. Take note, those of you with interest in games and ludic behavior. It’s the beautiful, fragile vellum poster for the 1957 an Exhibit, organized at London’s ICA, the Institute for Contemporary Arts by Richard Hamilton, Victor Pasmore, and Lawrence Alloway. Printed with blocks of black and blood red, rendered translucent on the vellum, the copy unfolding and the poster becoming more transparent as its viewer unfolds it.

Preplanning decided on the rules of a game, to be call an Exhibit

The preplanning consisted of choosing and ordering the elements to be used. Preparations were not concerned with the finished appearance of an Exhibit but with assembling the materials to make it possible. Although general effects were anticipated, care was taken not to rehearse the form.

A number of ‘Perspex’ panels were obtained, in different degrees of transparency. A standard size in which ‘Perspex’ sheets are available is 4 ft: thus, one dimension was fixed. 2 ft. 8 ins. was selected as convenient for the width because three 2 ft 8 ins. sides equal two 4 ft. sides. In this way various possible vertical and horizontal groupings were predicte: but decisions about their arrangements and whereabouts were postponed. The other elements in an Exhibit were subject to a similar procedure.

Once the rules were settled, a high number of moves was possible.

an Exhibit as it stands, records one set of possible moves.

The individuation of the structure was not achieved until work started on the site. Only then did it take form, wit a series of empirical decisions. Some improvisatory gestures were made, only to be abandoned; others were preserved, and made the basis for further decisions. All the moves, the visible actions of the players, were made up as they went along.

This stage follows certain rules, within which free action is possible, and it recognizes a terminus—the deadline of the public opening. Thus an area in time and space is marked out. The gallery resembles a tennis court or a hopscotch grid, a playground within which special rules operate.

Play is a form of order, an order that contains both standards and free improvisation.

an Exhibit could be assembled elsewhere to record other moves, equally valid, while continuing to observe the rules.