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 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.

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.

#lgnlgn

Critical imaginaries

School has started and that means the guest speaker colloquium organized by the five people in my class has started. We're really excited about it. It's called "Critical Imaginaries" and focuses on visionary representations of architecture and space in differen media: music, film, literature, video games, image, theory. 40 people showed up for the first session with Brown University's Dietrich Neumann, a visiting professor here this semester (he talked about panoramas). It's just a 12 person course, so that's a great sign.

Next week, DJ Spooky, aka Paul Miller is coming. I'm thrilled and can't wait to meet him. We'll also go see Lebbeus Woods (amazing visionary architect, professor at Cooper Union) in his studio, visit MoMA's architecture archives and receive a tour from Chief Architecture Curator Barry Bergdoll. When we're in New York, we're planning to do a Big Game, Crossroads, with the wonderful Kevin Slavin of area/code. Ralitza Petit, whose dissertation at Harvard's Graduate School of Design addressed Everquest and its architectural space, will talk about architecture and video games.

We've also got Ed Dimendberg, Jonathan Crary, Sylvère Lotringer, Reinhold Martin and Ben Nicholson.

Unfortunately, here, I'm fighting off some kind of bug. I'm not entirely sick but feel like it's just about to happen. For some reason, I just couldn't sleep last night, finally getting up at 4 a.m. and staying up till 6. I'm working from home today but the water's been turned off in my building while they do repairs.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

Cedric Price books

Re: CP
Cedric Price - The Square Book (Architectural Monographs (Paper))
Cedric Price: Opera (Architectural Monographs (Paper))

Since June, my mind's been on Cedric Price (1934-2003). He was an eccentric British architect whose work combined theater, tools for social change, and a lack of interest in traditional concepts of form and beauty. Most of his work was never built. He is best known for the Fun Palace (1962-64), a proposal for a flexible leisure center, and the Potteries Thinkbelt (1965-66), a physical educational network on rails.

I'm working on a later project, Generator (1976-79) as the subject of my masters thesis. I'm using it as a hinge for exploring responsiveness in architecture, though I think that the impulse toward responsiveness goes back to the 16th century, if not earlier. Price is credited with creating the first "intelligent" building, or rather, site. The machine intelligence came not from Price but John Frazer, who proposed attaching sensors to Generator's structures; a series of computer programs would interrogate the sensors and if they weren't used frequently enough, would become bored and suggest new layouts on the site.

Very little has been written about Generator, just a few pages here and there and a few articles in 1979-80. As such, there's no real record about it, no webpage to link. So in November, I spent a week at the Canadian Centre for Architecture's Cedric Price Archive, looking at every drawing, reprographic, sketch, engineering drawing, memo and letter they had on Generator. I've also interviewed one of the figures involved, Polariser, and will talk to John Frazer at some point this month.

There aren't a lot of books on Price; the first monograph on him comes out at the end of the month (by Stanley Mathews, the only American to have completed a dissertation on him). Aside from that these are the books I refer to very frequently and ironically, do not yet own. (They're the source of numerous library fines.)

Read and post comments | Send to a friend