Architecture for the Commons
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Architecture for the Commons

Participatory Systems in the Age of Platforms

Jose Sanchez

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eBook - ePub

Architecture for the Commons

Participatory Systems in the Age of Platforms

Jose Sanchez

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About This Book

Architecture for the Commons dives into an analysis of how the tectonics of a building is fundamentally linked to the economic organizations that allow them to exist. By tracing the origins and promises of current technological practices in design, the book provides an alternative path, one that reconsiders the means of achieving complexity through combinatorial strategies. This move requires reconsidering serial production with crowdsourcing and user content in mind. The ideas presented will be explored through the design research developed within Plethora Project, a design practice that explores the use of video game interfaces as a mechanism for participation and user design.

The research work presented throughout the book seeks to align with a larger project that is currently taking place in many different fields: The Construction of the Commons. By developing both the ideological and physical infrastructure, the project of the Commons has become an antidote to current economic practices that perpetuate inequality. The mechanisms of the production and governance of the Commons are discussed, inviting the reader to get involved and participate in the discussion. The current political and economic landscape calls for a reformulation of our current economic practices and alternative value systems that challenge the current market monopolies.

This book will be of great interest not only to architects and designers studying the impact of digital technologies in the field of design but also to researchers studying novel techniques for social participation and cooperating of communities through digital networks. The book connects principles of architecture, economics and social sciences to provide alternatives to the current production trends.

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While the 1990s were a time for experimentation, delineating all the possible trajectories that architecture could take in the advent of computational technologies, the beginning of the 21st century has been marked by an actual realization of ideas that seemed inconceivable three decades ago. Architecture has experienced a time of incredible innovation. The advancements of the discipline are plentiful and in all areas of expertise. The computer has been adopted by the field to the point that it’s difficult to distinguish between digital and traditional practice. The discipline seems to be reinventing its possibilities at an incredibly accelerated rate.
Digital fabrication and robotic manufacturing has become a large field of research within the discipline, allowing for computer numeric control (CNC) manufacturing to profoundly alter the notion of seriality and customization in design. The blobs that occupied the virtual space seen through architects’ screens for many years have today been rationalized and fabricated. The development of software infrastructure that aids in the rationalization and construction of complex geometries has grown exponentially, opening a pathway for architects to become creators of the tools that they use. Parametric and BIM software have effectively been able to allow the accurate modeling of buildings, integrating systems and allow for associative geometries. Simulation has allowed the calculation of a building’s energy efficiency and sunlight penetration, anticipating the performance and perception of space prior to its construction. Data collection from completed buildings enabled the improvement of existing energy efficiency models and circulation diagrams that can anticipate the movement of people within a building. At a micro scale, material science has allowed for the creation of “digital materials” that can be engineered in its translucency and flexibility. Software tools can be used to model matter in its molecular composition and not just as a boundary representation of a solid. Composites allow for shells of minimal weight that use the directionality of fibers to calculate and resist large weight load. Today, the pursuit of efficiency turns toward automation and artificial intelligence as technologies that can fundamentally redefine labor practices.
The historic trajectory of innovation has allowed architects such as Patrik Schumacher to argue for a vector of progress in the gradual implementation of new geometric principles in architecture.1 For Schumacher, innovations in architectural geometry allow for new forms of order that in turn allow for framing and ordering social processes. What can be understood from Schumacher’s writings is a sense that architectural progress is associated with the formal and geometrical freedoms allowed by technological innovations.2
Architectural progress currently exists, as argued by Schumacher, as a self-sufficient autopoietic system, one that seems to operate autonomously from any correlation with the market, other disciplines or any social contingency. Schumacher argues that “Parametricism” or “Tectonism,” his proposed terminology for a 21st century hegemonical style, proposes architectural innovations on two fronts:
Parametricism’s radical ontological and methodological innovation translates into a massive leap in both dimensions of architectural progress considered here; i.e., it entails an unprecedented expansion of architecture’s compositional freedom and versatility and an unprecedented leap in architecture’s ordering capacity through the deployment of algorithms and associative logics.3
The compositional freedom that Schumacher describes follows a series of simple heuristics where malleable fluid forms interpolate between requirements, a formal organization structure that uses curves as a form of negotiation. The result of this “articulation” is the production of gradients that eliminate discreteness and autonomy between elements, resulting in the coalescence of larger wholes. Repetitive elements are to be avoided in favor of larger gestures that integrate layers of structural and performative requirements.
An autopoietic progress has been argued to be an emergent property of technology itself, defining an autonomous self-preserving pursuit of innovation.4 In a similar way, the introduction of the term autopoiesis in architecture attempts to define a disciplinary boundary and an internal code and value system with the purpose of its self production. Architectural progress can therefore be identified as an autonomous practice of architecture that seeks the advancement of a formal and conceptual repertoire of an architectural vocabulary.
Architectural progress becomes an end in itself, as it declares that the ultimate pursuit of the discipline is for the production of novelty, independent of its capacity to be effectively implemented in the world. Knowledge and creativity become a powerful commodity, as they encapsulate architecture’s value proposition, one of willingness to reinvent itself perpetually. The mechanism that is in charge of allowing innovation to permeate and reach society at large is that of “trickle down economics,” a theory that suggests that all innovation should happen in service of the most ambitious clients and that over time such innovation will make its way to the general public.
The narrative of “trickle-down economics” has become an alibi to pursue design commissions for the richest 1% of clients, obscuring the inability of the practice to contribute to a larger societal agenda. The scarcity of clients that can effectively engage with such definition of architectural progress naturally generates an aggressive competition between peers. The scarcity of commissions can be understood as resulting from the value system that the discipline has forged, one that is at odds with the market and the public. It is in this way that architecture has manufactured a structural improbability for success, celebrating elusive commissions that somehow manage to defy market logic. Architecture progress, in its current form, requires a form of subsidy, often fulfilled by philanthropy, free labor or wealthy clients with a unique understanding of the discipline.

Ephemeralization fails

The pursuit of innovation and architectural progress has historically been linked to optimistic narratives. In 1938, architect, theorist and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller in his book Nine Chains to the Moon introduced the term “ephemeralization” to describe how technological advancements trend toward allowing designers to do “more with less.”5 Fuller sees designers as having the capacity to radically change the expectations of the market via disruptive innovations. As he framed it:
There is not a chapter in any book of economics anywhere about doing more with less. Economists traditionally try to maximize what you have, but the idea that you could go from wire to wireless or from visible structuring to invisible alloy structuring did not occur to them at all. It was outside their point of view—beyond their range of vision.6
Fuller calculates the ratio between the weight or mass of materials and their capacity for action (such as structural performance), establishing a metric of progress and a trajectory toward ever more ephemeral or lighter building blocks for society and culture. For Fuller, when examined as a global trend, ephemeralization proposed a narrative where design and technology lead toward prosperity. This ultimately allows for the finite resources available on our planet to be optimized for access by the rest of the population. Doing more with less was equated with more for the many.
As argued by Peter Joseph,7 the concept of ephemeralization can be closely linked with Jeremy Rifkin’s claim for how capitalism reduces the cost of products and services toward zero. Rifkin’s concept of zero marginal cost8 is the process in which the initial costs of industrialization and innovation are distributed through the products or value produced by any system. This results in making every copy of a product cheaper than the previous copy, i.e., a descending curve trending toward zero. Examples like computer technology are used by Rifkin to demonstrate an economic trajectory where the initial investment could be considered negligible in relation to the value produced over time. For Rifkin, the trajectory toward zero marginal costs defines the road map toward the eclipse of capitalism, allowing for a new economic system to emerge in its place.
FIGURES 1.1 AND 1.2 Buckminster Fuller holding up tensegrity sphere. Tensegrity demonstrates his principle of ephemeralization, where structural stability is achieved with fewer materials.
Source: Images Courtesy by The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller
While the narrative of ephemeralization through optimization and technological innovation can on paper be seen as a contributor toward prosperity, the beginning of the 21st century has exhibited an acute growth of economic inequality, as argued and demonstrated by the research of Thomas Piketty.9 The development of inequality would therefore suggest that innovation and the capacity of doing more with less disproportionally benefits a few over others. Piketty states that the rate of return in capital (as in wealth) is larger than the rate growth of the economy (as in labor). This creates a trend where over time, inequality increases. Trickle-down economics, therefore, aiming to provide with innovation at the very top of the pyramid, disproportionately benefits those who already play with an economic advantage. Ephemeralization fails not through its capacity to do more with less but through its capacity to distribute its innovations on economic efficiency to the population.
As has been argued by Pier Vittorio Aureli, increases in performance and efficiency in production can be coupled with a perpetual necessity for creativity. For Aureli, these are central features of our current capitalist system, one that has managed to manufacture scarcity. Aureli argues that capitalist culture has always tried to obtain more with less. Aureli presents technology as a mechanism by which capitalists are able to fulfil the very notion of industry, writing that “to be industrious means being able to obtain the best results with fewer means.”10 Aureli goes further by pointing out that creativity, as the most generic faculty of human life, is sought by capital to be exploited as its main labor power. He states:
[I]n an economic crisis, what capital’s austerity measures demand is that people do more with less: more work for less money, more creativity with less social security. In this context, the principle of “less is more” runs the risk of becoming a cynical celebration of the ethos of austerity and budget cuts to social programmes.11
From Aureli’s perspective, it appears that Fuller’s ephemeralization is bound to play into the hands of capitalist production, offering cost-reducing opportunities for wealth accumulation. Aureli’s position fails to acknowledge that not all production is equal; more with less can result in an extractive practice if imposed by a hierarchical actor but can also result in an emancipatory strategy from grassroots organizations. Self-production, as we will explore...

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