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.