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.

Speaking tonight on Infrastructure, “Discussions on Networked Publics,” NYC


TONIGHT! 6:30! Can you make it?

I’m speaking at the Network Architecture Lab as a part of “Discussions on Networked Publics,” a series of panels examining how technology and social changes are transforming the public realm, held at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s [GSAPP’s] Studio-X Soho Facility
180 Varick Street, Suite 1610
New York City.
(Just take the 1 to Houston.)

The fourth panel, on “infrastructure” will occur on May 4 at 6:30 pm.
The panelists are:
  • David Benjamin (GSAPP, Living Architecture Lab)
  • Frank Pasquale (School of Law, Seton Hall)
  • Molly Wright Steenson (Princeton University, Girlwonder blog)
  • Mason C. White (University of Toronto, Lateral Office)
  • Moderator: Kazys Varnelis, director of GSAPP’s Network Architecture Lab
“Discussions on Networked Publics” extends the analysis of contemporary culture in the book Networked Publics, published in 2008 by the MIT Press and edited by Netlab Director Kazys Varnelis. More on the book at http://networkedpublics.org. Copies of the book will be for sale at the event.
The event will be broadcast live worldwide via ustream.tv at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/discussions-on-network-publics
Viewers who can’t make it in person are encouraged to submit questions and comments live during the show to @Columbia_Netlab on Twitter. Video from the event will be archived on Vimeo and iTunes.

weeknote 11

Have to admit, I’m feeling a bit bland. I got back to Princeton on Wednesday, a day late due to issues with my flight. There are worse things than an extra day in Los Angeles, so jdf and I went to Sam: Johnson’s Bookshop (across from Mitsuwa and Santouka’s yummy ramen). Last Wednesday night, I returned to Princeton in enough time to hear part of Sam Jacob (principal of FAT) as a part of the student lecture series. I’ve caught up with my classmates here, sorted through the gossip, dusted off my desk and my apartment, and met with my advisor. Another computer crash (kernel panic) sent me to the Apple Store for repairs. I think my computer chooses to attack me when I most need it to be reliable. Sigh.

Tomorrow, I will give my advisor five pages of an eventual 15 page or so dissertation proposal. Writing isn’t the problme: I have tens of thousands of words. The problem is whittling it down. What needs to go in? I’m realizing that a dissertation proposal is not a dissertation, it’s not a chapter, it’s not an article– it’s an argument for my next two years, sure, but also, it’s a treatment– a means to sell everybody on the idea. So the problem right now is that I have 10 pages, not 5, and they’re not the right 10, and they don’t include the 25 pages I wrote last month. Here’s hoping I find the right ones.

In terms of running, I now run a mile nearly a minute and a half faster than I did six weeks ago, and at that, over four or five miles — this time on the Tow Path near my apartment. The speed increase was enough of a surprise that I doubted my Nike + sensor, but I know the route well, and I am indeed 10% faster than a month ago. (Note that someone drowned in the canal yesterday—that explains the ambulances and boats and police: do not cross tape)

Aside from writing, ahead of me this week: Dennis Crompton Mike Webb from Archigram will give a Media & Modernity talk at the Princeton School of Architecture tomorrow night. On Friday, the Center for Architecture, Urbanism and Infrastructure (where I am a fellow) will host Mobility and Accessibility: Twenty-First Century Infrastructure, both a public session and an invitation-only seminar on Friday and Saturday.

Next week: I’m giving a talk at the University of Chicago in the History of Science department on the 16th and the University of Wisconsin-Madison—my alma mater!—on the 19th. More about that later.

weeknote 10

Listening to Peterlicht and sipping a glass of grüner veltliner on my last Sunday in Venice. I smell like sunblock even after a shower. It’s my last Sunday in Venice after being here for six weeks. It’s been anomalous and unusual, but good. I’ve missed Princeton and will look forward to the start of springtime there, to immersing into my dissertation proposal and chapter.

There’s South by Southwest. I need to write about that separately, especially about the panel I moderated: “Maps, Books, Spimes, Paper: Post-Digital Media Design.” This was the 13th year I’ve attended SXSW, the 12th I’ve spent on the advisory board. It was huge and messy and very inspiring. I didn’t know that it would offer that to me this time around, but it did. More on that soon.

I finally succeeded at updating, redesigning and moving Girlwonder to WordPress from Movable Type. I’ve had the Girlwonder domain since 1997 and websites of my own since 1995), but I vacillate between a personal site and a site that I create about my work, my interests and my professional presence. Over the last 6 years, I’ve had several sites– the latest of which is Active Social Plastic— that I used for writing on architecture, urbanism, social networks, literature. The inspiration for Active Social Plastic came from how Enrique uses Aggregat 456, his outstanding blog, for essays. I wanted to experiment with keeping separate the personal content. It turned out that I updated both sites less frequently. But also, it seems that the right mode for me is a hybrid, a blending of personal and academic/professional. Moreover, people readily know Girlwonder. So: I’ve blended the two sites. I’ve redesigned, though not quite as much as I’d like — the color palette needs work. After 8 years on the platform, I’ve left Movable Type for WordPress because it’s easier for me to redesign and manage. I also have an About page for the first time in a long time and will include more professional information there as well — articles, CV and such.

My writing continues on my dissertation proposal. When I go back to Princeton on Tuesday, I will be focusing very heavily on it, with the hope of presenting it in the first half of April. There’s not much to say till I finish it.

I wrote a remix piece titled “Today We Operate on Objects” for #lgnlgn that derived a set of rules on objects out of “The Great Gizmo” by Reyner Banham and “But Today We Collect Ads” by Allison and Peter Smithson. Rather than writing an essay, I wanted to create a set of operations from the two pieces that could be applied to objects. My overall body of work keeps coming back to how we interact with objects, whether 19th century interfaces to the postal service, or history of social networks, or digital systems, or holistic systems.

LA has been good in terms of art. We saw the Learning from Las Vegas exhibition at MoCA — a subject I devoted time to my first semester at Princeton in the Learning from Levittown seminar (the lost studio). We’ve been to the Rachel Whiteread drawings exhibition at the Hammer — lovely to see her working process in action. I saw her drawings as layers that build up to a final, cast and sculptural work.

It’s also been good in terms of architecture. We saw the London Eight panel and opening at Sci-Arc, with Peter Cook, CJ Lim, marcosandmarjan, Pascal Bronner and several other architects associated with the Bartlett. I loved their work: drawing as architecture in its own right is a subject dear to my heart, but found the panel discussion annoying. There were entirely too many people on stage, and the moderation dulled down what might have been much more interesting. A few days later, I returned to Sci-Arc to see my friend Michael Kubo speak about architectural publishing practices. The following night, I joined Alissa Walker at the Unplanned exhibition at Superfront LA and 2D3D: Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, a show on architectural drawings at the Woodbury University’s Hollywood Gallery. I liked the work at Unplanned (kudos to my dear friend and former classmate McClain Clutter for his work), but it could have been as easily perused online or in a book (much of it, at least). Interesting that LA has two shows right now on architectural drawing.

Meeting people here who teach and write about architecture and design is heartening and frankly, fun. It also inspires me to write more here — part of the reason for the website move and redesign. I’m curious to see what the next weeks will bring.

upcoming changes to girlwonder

I’m tidying up a few things around my respective websites and wanted to sound a warning in case you read Girlwonder through a feed: it’s possible that the URLs for RSS will change. I’m switching blog platforms as well and even redesigning. On top of all of that, I’m going to roll the content of Active Social Plastic, my other site, into this one. I’ve discovered that half-maintaining two sites is less fun than working on one presence. So Girlwonder it is and will be.

Stay tuned! 

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.


weeknotes 07 to 09

I got behind on my weeknotes as I’ve been dealing with some personal business and caring for someone after a surgery, both during the hospital stay and beyond. (Everything went well.) As a result, my productivity isn’t quite as speedy as it’s been of late. I’m not sure it’s going to be all that great this week, given that I’m heading to South by Southwest tomorrow for my 13th time. I’ve been on the advisory board for SXSW Interactive for 12 years. It’s the only thing I do every single year (I don’t even celebrate the holidays with my family with this much regularity). I’ll write more about SXSW separately and instead recap my anomalous couple of weeks–weeks that have less to do with generative systems and more to do with running, yoga, and hospital art collections.

First, Cedars-Sinai Hospital. I certainly didn’t expect to be blown away by the art in a hospital, but there was a stunning collection of small-numbered prints and sculptures created in LA or by LA artists in the 1960s-80s. Claes Oldenburg prints from September 1968. Ed Ruscha sketches in the 1980s. One of my favorites in the ward on the 8th floor: a poster from the 1965 Art and Science exhibition at the Albany Institute of History and Art. The nurse was kind enough to show me how the pneumatic tube system functioned, something that made me nearly giddy, given my fascination with the subject.

I wrote an article on Cedric Price’s Generator for the next issue of Crit (the theme for which is “Architects without Architecture“). It got me thinking about Price–the subject of my master’s thesis — will fit into my dissertation on generative systems. Bryan Boyer asked me, in response to my list of qualities of generative systems, what didn’t qualify. The key is that they’re generated from some set of algorithms. Simple question, one I need to sort out.

Finally, running. Since I arrived in LA, I’ve been running several times a week. Although I’ve been running for a little over a year steadily, this is the greatest mileage I’ve accumulated. I ran the most disorganized 5K ever on Saturday and managed to come in 4th among women runners and 11th overall.Yesterday, I ran 6 miles, the furthest I’ve ever run. In fact, I don’t get winded and yesterday’s long run didn’t even make me sore. Maybe that’s because yoga causes me so much more pain: I went to three yoga classes in the course of a week. You’d think that Venice is made of yoga studios and marijuana dispensaries, with incidental restaurants, shops and Intelligentsia coffee. Anyway, maybe I’ve become one-of-those-people, but there are worse things. I’ve never been in such strong physical shape.

weeknote 06

Enough with the snow. I’m in Los Angeles, or more precisely, Venice (and I missed the third snowstorm in 10 days in New Jersey). I will be shifting my time to be here more than not in the next several months, an audition for whether I might fully move here later this year. I’ve been running on the beach boardwalk in the mornings, something I ordinarily do later in the day. In the afternoons, I write. I’m pondering adding yoga to the mix since I have enough energy for it during the day. The sunlight here is beautiful and my freckles are out for springtime.

My dissertation is focusing ever more on generative systems. I’m working on the dissertation proposal and this week, I’m writing about what constitutes a generative system. Rather than turning out formal prose, I’m just writing between 1000-2000 words, written quickly. It feels lighter this way and it captures my insights better.
I’ve been doing a close reading of Nicholas Negroponte’s The Architecture Machine (1970), J.C.R. Licklider’s “Man-Machine Symbiosis” (1960) and Warren McCulloch’s (ready? this is long) “Toward some circuitry of ethical robots or an observational science of the genesis of social evaluation in the mind-like behavior of artifacts” (1956). In this case, I’m using some of the methods I followed when I worked on a paper about Adolf Behne’s work in the 1920s and the notion of the apparatus… I suppose that this isn’t too different, since Negroponte is all about generative apparatuses.
So what is a generative system? Here’s a broad list of attributes I’ve gathered so far.
  • Intelligence
  • Contextual (context-sensitive, context-appropriate)
  • Adaptive and adaptable
  • Bridges dissimilarities
  • Evolutionary
  • Symbiotic
  • Unfolds over time
  • Has disposition and agency
  • Appetitive  (it absorbs from the environment around it — a word that comes from the McCulloch piece)
  • Capable of learning
  • Social
  • Communicates in (somewhat) natural language
  • Self-organizing
I need to group these and boil them down: these come from the work of a few figures in architecture and information theory, cybernetics and AI. The funny thing is, as much as I will apply these attributes to architecture, they apply to a certain attitude of systems in general. (I suspect that we should build systems today to strive for more of these attributes.) I’ll take the initial framework and bounce it against the work of the people in my case studies: Christopher Alexander, Cedric Price and Nicholas Negroponte. It’s nice that I’ll get to take on the most exciting aspects of my master’s thesis research on Cedric Price.
Next week, I’m aiming to start pouring content into the actual proposal with the plan to finish it at the beginning of March. There are other things that may compete with that, in reality, but I’m trying to keep enough structure and momentum going so that it carries me forward.

weeknote 05

It’s the second snowstorm in a week and right now, it’s the strange moment where I can feel the pressure change and sense the rest of the front that’s about to hit. They’ve closed Princeton today–in fact, they’ve closed most of the East Coast, from the sound of it, which also means that Enrique’s dissertation proposal won’t happen till next week and the Richard Sennet-Eyal Weizman-Teddy Cruz lecture will be rescheduled for tomorrow. During Saturday’s snowstorm, I baked bread, made coq au vin for hours in the slow cooker, started sewing a dress, and dyed my hair. Today will be geared more toward work and toward my own dissertation proposal.

First, I passed my general exam! It was a two-hour, closed-door critique of my work by Beatriz Colomina (head of the PhD program), Christine Boyer (my advisor), Ed EigenSpyros Papapetros and Brigid Doherty. It was very positive. I found it fascinating to see how the commitee drew links and connections through the body of work I had presented. It was apparent to them that I had a method and a clear set of interests (though the method is not as clear to me as it is to them–I inhabit it). They actually said that they enjoyed the papers — that’s the word they used. The committee thought my work needed to be theorized better and that media theory seemed to be useful (I have a meeting with the fabulous Tom Levin tomorrow to discuss). They thought my research paper — the one that will undergirds my dissertation — was the weakest, but I knew that: I had gone through 11 drafts of it and it was out of control. But that indicates to me that I have found the right topic for a doctoral dissertation. Overall, I got useful feedback that I can apply to both the larger scale of my work and the smaller scale.
The whole process of the general exam, from selecting papers to revising and expanding, to editing and presenting, really boosted my confidence — something I did not expect. It made me realize that I have a genuine body of work rich with research questions. It gave me a chance to see the common threads passing through the work: the things that tease me intellectually and won’t let me go. I now have all of these ideas of things I look forward to working on in a career, not just a dissertation.
I’m also ready to get back to writing, not just for my own work but out in the world. Maybe it’s time to start writing a column somewhere? We’ll see.
I’m grappling with two different directions on my dissertation proposal. On one hand, I can write about the introduction of the computer to architecture. There are three themes: methodology, representation, and generation. But really, it’s the generative systems that I think are really interesting. I have an idea about how architectural computing becomes computing architecture, how it on one hand ends up as ubiquitous computing, and on the other, as spatial metaphors for computing. There are reasons to do both: one is a straightforward dissertation; the other really ties together my big questions but might be harder to convince an architectural committee. I’m helped by the fact that much of these things happened within MIT’s architecture school, where the Architecture Machine Group existed and the Media Lab still resides (even if they don’t cross over at all with the history/theory/criticism part of the school). Talking with my advisor, Christine Boyer, will help: she listens well, she was at MIT in the period that I’m researching, and she’s done a good job of steering me the right way.
I keep coming back to haptic and physical engagement with space. Nicholas Negroponte & Richard Bolt’s 1977 Spatial Data Management System is really interesting in that it gave rise to the desktop metaphor, but what really intrigues me is the importance of “motor-memory reinforcement” — the notion that by physically putting something somewhere, or by going somewhere, it reinforces memory. They give the example of Simonides, the Greek poet famous for his ability to memorize long oratory. Negroponte explained in 1986, “His secret was to tie each successive part of a to-be-remembered poem or speech to a specific locale within the mental floor plan of either an actual or imagined temple. For each successive subsection of the talk to be given, the orator would mentally walk from place to place within the temple, rehearsing the appropriate material before some specific piece of statuary.” (Stewart Brand, The Media Lab, 1987, 138). This points out what eBook readers get wrong: the physical, haptic engagement of reading. It also points out a key question of what “future of reading” projects miss out on: the physics of authorship.
There’s so much possibility in that idea! It’s not about creating a metaphor, or a bookshelf on a device — that’s done and usually, done poorly (the iPad is no exception). It’s also not a gestural mode of interaction with a device — but what would happen if we created things that help us learn by our own movements? I’m going to work more on that in the coming days and share my thoughts about it.
I’m going to light some candles, invoke some hygge, and watch the snow fall… and write. I’ll let you know where this puts me next week.