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.

weeknote 01

Been curious about this Weeknotes habit that various people are doing on their sites. Given that it’s the start of a year, I figure it’s time to write about what I’ve been up to. I wrote this blog post on Saturday afternoon on a plane between San Francisco and Newark, after a very, very early morning flight from LAX to San Francisco. I had spent nearly three weeks in Los Angeles for Christmas and New Year — a wonderful and quiet visit.
This week’s stupid waste of time was a catastrophic hard drive failure. My computer was running Electric Sheep (my friend Spot’s generative screen saver) on Sunday night. The computer froze and when I tried to wake it, it flashed a question mark and a file folder: the drive wouldn’t mount. Just a few days earlier, I had purchased a portable hard drive in order to move music and photos off of it but stupidly, I didn’t back up my documents and my desktop. It all could have been much worse: I have backups at home in Princeton.
I’m going to need the backups because I’m finishing my submission for my generals packet. PhD programs all have qualifying or general examinations at the end of the second or beginning of the third year. The architecture PhD program at Princeton follows a different format than most: we submit six papers we’ve written from our first two years of coursework, all of which we have expanded, rewritten and edited, culminating in an oral defense before a committee of four or five professors. It’s a formidable task. The rewriting, while interesting, is a never-ending slog–way too much of my own voice in my head–on subjects I’ve hashed over for years. The defense is, of course, scary, but when it goes well, it’s one of the rare times that you get the critique and close feedback of five brilliant people on 200 pages of your work. It also tends to deal heavily with the proposed dissertation topic.
My papers deal with a wide variety of topics. My packet will include papers on:
  • Artificial intelligence and architecture: the introduction of the computer to the field of architecture, 1960-75 (also my proposed dissertation topic)
  • The Hôtel des Postes in Paris, 1884
  • The Poste Pneumatique: the Parisian pneumatic tube network, 1866-1900
  • Levittown, PA and its mass-produced landscape (1950s)
  • Apparatuses in architecture: a close reading of two 1920s works by Adolf Behne, a German architecture and art critic
  • Contingent communication: how communication jumps from network modes, using Pakistan’s 2007 coup as a case study.
On the flight, I’ve been working on the talk I’m giving at the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium on Tuesday. I’ll be talking about how computers got introduced to cities — it’s part of my broader research. I’m grappling with my desire to share everything I know and the limitations of a 20 minute talk. I’ll have a lot of cutting and rehearsing to do. It’ll all be easier to put together when I get my hard drive back.

The series of tubes is out of control

Yesterday, I woke up to a bunch of comment notifications on a post I’d written about pneumatic tubes and the postal service in France on Active Social Plastic, my other blog. My first thought was, “Uh oh. Spam.” (There’s an inferiority complex for you.) It turned out that Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing had linked to my post. It was heartening and inspired me to update more of the paper I’m writing right now about the birth of the pneumatic post in Paris.

If only academic writing were as easy as a blog post, or for that matter, a paper proposal for a conference. The pneumatic tubes paper seems to be about everything and nothing. On one hand, it’s good that this is the case: it’s likely a dissertation topic or subject for a book. On the other hand, what part should be the focus? Is it the specific interfaces for the network? Is it the fact that it was supposed to be auxiliary and yet reflected a massive expenditure and outlay? Is it about economies of scale and the introduction of other products and services in the communication economy, like parcel post and banking? To what extent is it about the failures and promises of telegraph? Should I write it as an argument or as a narrative? How should I undergird it other architectural historical arguments or theories, like Sigfried Giedion on the importance of iron in 19th century as the subconscious formation of architecture? And what about Walter Benjamin? What about the concept of the image?

I’m writing the tubes paper for a class on Walter Benjamin, “Image, Interior, Archive,” taught by Brigid Doherty. The class took on the Arcades Project and a number of Benjamin’s other writings. Brigid is an outstanding professor, razor sharp and intense. I started keeping near transcripts of what she said in class in order to revisit it later: she delivers so much information when she speaks. This is not unintimidating. Add to it the fact that she, along with Tom Levin and Michael Jennings in the German department at Princeton, are among the foremost translators, scholars and interpreters of Benjamin. The three of them just published the Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, a new translation of that essay and other published and unpublished works. It’s even the second class I’ve taken on Benjamin and the Arcades — I took the first one my first year of graduate school with Henry Sussman (who’s like the Howard Rheingold of comparative literature and media). I could probably take five more classes on it and never get to the heart of it, it’s so intense a work. Anyway.

Today, I need to find the thread of this paper. I write 2000 words, only to throw away 1000. My sources are in French, which slows me down. There’s always more I could research and look for but I somehow need 20 or so pages on one thing. This part is the hardest part.