weeknote 15


Oxford Corner House network analysis diagram by Cedric Price: a project management tool he adapted for his own purposes in his projects (1966).

These weeknotes haven’t exactly been weekly. I’ve been struggling with blogging when I’m thick in work. I’m heavy in a mix of chapter-paper-article on Cedric Price’s Oxford Corner House and find that it’s really hard to translate ideas outward into something short, immediate and public.

I’m a thesis writing advisor this year at Art Center in the graduate Media Design Program. One of my colleagues refers to blogging and writing about the design process as “being a public academic.” I’m looking forward to talking more to her about it, not to mention actually doing it so that I’m doing what my students are. I realize that it’s one thing to teach students about writing, blogging and presenting their work in written form, but it’s another for me to do so publicly — to let whatever audience comes by into your messy creative processes. Is it that I feel vulnerable? That’s less it — maybe it’s that all of a sudden, people are dropping by and the house is a mess and I haven’t showered and there’s not much to eat. It feels like it’s not organized enough to give someone an idea. What if we thought of writing as desk crits, something we do in design and architecture, and less as publishing?

Right now, I’m in the thick soupiness of writing about Cedric Price’s Oxford Corner House — the point where I feel like I hurl clay up on a table to make enough of it so that I can sculpt it away. At the same time, I’m writing a dissertation chapter, a paper for the ACSA “Responsive Architecture” session and an article for Design Observer’s Places journal. It’s all based on work I did in the archive and almost nothing has been written about the project, so I’m going through hundreds of documents and drawings, trying to come up with my own narrative for the project. It takes a lot of time to just create a narrative, let alone synthesize and contextualize it. I’m making headway.

For Tim Maly’s 50 Posts about Cyborgs project, I wrote “A Network of Constant Interactions and Communications,” the first of two pieces on cybernetics and the arts. This one is a brief bit on cybernetics as groundwork for another on cybernetics and architecture. I’ll write more about Cedric Price there, too.

The project I’m doing for Institute for the Future has begun. I’m greatly enjoying with Anthony Townsend and Jake Dunagan on it and applying some of my areas of research and expertise to a fascinating subject. We’ll be getting ready for a big kickoff next week.

There’s lots more: the upcoming Google Zeitgeist conference, where I’m doing the pneumatic tubes Ignite talk, a talk at Adaptive Path in 9 days on information and architecture, and a heap of deadlines. And there’s trying to be a more public academic, so I’ll write here more.

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.

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.

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.

Because you asked for it, well, two of you

I put my thesis on the internets. I'm going to be breaking it down into smaller bits on a blog I'll be launching soon to deal with this and all the other design, architecture, historical and geographical things I think about.

Theses are funny. They're a thing in their own right but so very flawed. They're not the book or article you would write. They're not the sum total of all the work you did. A thesis is the thing you do to get the three signatures on the front and go onto what you want to do next.

I'm aware of all the issues and problems with this and before it would become anything else, it would require substantial editing. (I have 100 pages of notes in my advisor's hand describing just that).

But if this doesn't daunt you, you're invited to read "The Architect, The Sketch and the Response: Construing and Constructing Cedric Price's Generator." And in a few days, you can read some digested snippets on the blog to be, elsewhere on the Internet. Stay tuned.

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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.)

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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.

The books on the desk, the thesis draft chapter

In lieu of giving you something to read that I’m working on, I’ll show you what I’m reading… the list now includes Alice in Wonderland, Nietzsche’s Gay Science, Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, Karl Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies, and a whole bunch of books on art and cybernetics from the 60s. These don’t include the 1200 images I have of material from the Generator project in the Cedric Price Archives at the CCA in Montreal.

Sometime tonight, I hand my advisor a draft of my thesis submission for final review. The problem here isn’t a lack of material or even a matter of me writing the pages. I’ve written much more than that– it’s deciding what to include in those 20 pages and hoping I get it right. It’s going to be late tonight, I have a feeling.

Time and braveness

Use time well.

Use time creatively.

Don’t trap time.

Don’t let time slip away.

Don’t be scared.

Be brave.

This quote from Cedric Price Opera is in the Jude Kelly section on page 87. I’m not sure whether she said it but rather hope Cedric Price instead did.

Kind words for me, as I write about Cedric’s GENERATOR project, the subject of my thesis…