Architects without architecture

Emerging models for a different kind of architecture due to different kinds of technology: transdisciplinary studios for 21st‐century challenges and ‘small pieces loosely-joined’ forms of urbanism

Dan Hill
Dan Hill
Dec 30, 2020 · 54 min read
Ed. In 2018, Mark Burry asked me to contribute to a special edition of Architectural Design journal that he was editing: AD: Urban Futures: Designing the Digitised City (Vol.90, Issue 3). I've written for AD before - on the tactical urbanism of pop-ups as a form of R&D in 2015; a 2050 version of 'the street as platform' in 2014 - and was delighted to be asked by Mark, someone I've known since my Australia days, and a pioneer in digital architecture (he's perhaps better-known globally, along with Jane Burry and others, for their multi-decade work completing the Sagrada Familia.) 

Architects without architecture

“Yoshiro had to admit it: what he taught his grandson had been all wrong. He remembered telling the boy, “You can’t go wrong with real estate. Get yourself some land in a prime location in the middle of Tokyo and you’re fixed for life — its value will never go down,” but now that all of Tokyo’s twenty-three wards, including prime locations, were designated an “exposure to multiple health hazards from prolonged habitation” area, neither its houses nor its land had any monetary value. This designation was supposed to mean that although when measured separately, neither drinking water, air, light, nor food was over the danger line, there was a high probability of multiple pernicious influences from lengthy exposure to the environment as a whole. Whereas individual factors can be measured specifically, human beings live in the general.”
Yoko Tawada, ‘The Last Children of Tokyo’ (2018)

Architects, like all of us, stand before unprecedented change, a remaking of the world. The challenges posed by our environment, our politics, and our technologies necessitate a complete and utter shift in priorities and practices.

When David Wallace-Wells starts his bestselling book The Uninhabitable Earth with the sentence, “It is worse, much worse, than you think”, he is not trading in hyperbole. Bruno Latour, in his essay Down To Earth, says “No human society, however wise, subtle, prudent, and cautious you may think it to be, has had to grapple with the reactions of the earth system to the actions of eight or nine billion humans … We understand nothing about the vacuity of contemporary politics if we do not appreciate the stunning extent to which the situation is unprecedented.”

Our challenges are not limited to the obvious manifestation of extreme weather and global heating. Latour directly links three interweaving patterns over the last 40 years: rampant deregulation across most Western economies, “a dizzying extension of inequalities”, and climate change denial in the face of a climate crisis. We have also witnessed other systemic changes, such as this widening inequality producing deep fractures in public health, unprecedented rates of urbanisation and migration, as well as social and political challenges due to pervasive social media technologies.

Perhaps uniquely positioned to make itself busy remaking the world around us, architecture shows little sign of pulling itself out of the abusive relationship with real estate implicitly suggested in Towada’s prose. Indeed, that umbilical link with the financialised and carbon-intensive real estate sector directly implicates architecture in all three of Latour’s troublesome patterns. Privatised or individualised approaches to building, housing, infrastructure, technology, and the public realm have contributed heavily to climate change, biodiversity degradation, and various social inequalities, and been facilitated by deregulation. But this impact appears to be as little recognised within the trade of architecture as the broader issues are by mainstream politicians.

A shift in architecture’s focus from public to private is clear, in line with Latour’s statement. It is unevenly distributed, shifting from place to place, but in the UK, for example, the pattern is clear enough. In the mid-1970s, approximately half of the architects in the country worked within the public sector. By 2017, that number was down 0.9%, a precipitous drop and a leaching of strategic design intelligence from government at all levels—again over those last 40 years, and related directly to another of Latour’s themes: deregulation and privatisation.

While it’s not as if the discipline of architecture lobbied for this, it has done little to seriously address it. Thus, the public image of architecture over this period has descended to being framed almost completely by ‘starchitects’, and by aspirational or home renovation TV shows. This is a form of wilful neglect (actually being tracked and studied.) As the demand for architects’ services in the UK dropped 40% between 2008 and 2011, the Chair of Building Futures proclaimed “the global debt binge (had lead to) a great period for architecture”. Yet somehow, as Rory Hyde relates, RIBA statistics also show that 94% of new homes built in the UK do not have an architect involved at all (the figures for North America and Australia are similar.) And perhaps not uncoincidentally, recent UCL research indicates 75% of all housing produced in England since 2007 is “mediocre” or “poor”, and “not meeting the basic requirements for civilised living”. That is appalling. If architecture is not even truly at the table when it comes to housing, where is it?

Recent shifts in technology, culture, and economy leaves the architecture profession in a far less influential and impactful position than it is used to having—or could have. But this is architecture’s problem to fix. No-one is going to do it for them.

“I have no power as an architect, none whatsoever. I can’t even go on to a building site and tell people what to do. Advocacy is the only power an architect ever has.”
—Norman Foster

By focusing on private projects, and predominantly on buildings, architecture has largely missed the opportunity to engage in the systemic challenges this age necessitates. It’s been many years since Aldo Van Eyck wrote that, “All systems should be familiarised, one with the other, in such a way that their combined impact and interaction can be appreciated as a single complex system.”

Yet a firmly-drawn line around the boundary of the building project fundamentally means that a systemic approach to ecosystems is impossible, and problematic. Timothy Morton puts it simply: a building with air conditioning does not ‘solve the problem’ of warming or polluted air, of course; it simply shifts the burden elsewhere, as everything is connected.

“(We are) living in a building designed to shunt dirty air somewhere else, where now we realise that ‘somewhere else’ just means ‘nowhere else’, because it’s on the same planet.”
—Timothy Morton

In this mode, architecture can think about ecosystems, but due its positioning — as a contracted service for hire, almost entirely within the context of buildings — it cannot act about ecosystems. These ecosystems are not solely those environmental systems that the word implies—noting that all systems are environmental and interdependent—but also those that we think of as digital systems, human systems, economic systems and so on. The practice is not so much defined by boundary objects as object boundaries .As a result, such ecosystems thrive or subside, thread or unravel, generally without much influence from architecture.

Systems without architects

Most obviously with the city, the primary systemic impact over the last few generations has arguably been made by forms of mobility technology, rather than buildings. With mobility, there is a clear spatial impact, lending the most obvious of reasons for architecture to engage, yet there have been numerous other aspects which architecture’s broader skill sets and sensibilities could aid with. The discipline’s ethical responsibility for the city ought to be more than reason enough. Yet save a few exceptions, the field of mobility has been left to transport planners, traffic engineers, the automotive industry and ill-equipped government staff, with utterly deleterious effects. Although architecture has frequently cast covetous glances at the car as an object, even as a technological object, it has missed its systemic impact on the city.

Yet mobility has been a mere warm-up for the transformation of the back-room business previously known as information technology into what we now call ‘Tech’. This latter is now the most financially valuable sector, perhaps the most significant cultural force (due to near-ubiquitous smartphones and social media platforms whose user-bases are bigger than most nations), and is presenting a relentlessly unfolding series of unprecedented social and political challenges. Whether the rate of innovation is truly what its hype suggests is questionable, yet we must explore the idea that we are well into what MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have called The Second Machine Age.

Yet architecture has had little to do with this form of technology either. It is largely of use to the Tech sector simply as a designer of showpiece corporate campuses. Just as with the earlier ‘Big Tech’ of cars, with architecture appearing to be more concerned with AutoCAD than the automobile, the discipline has rarely questioned the broader impact of tech. It is as if the point of tech was to move from making drawings of buildings on paper to making drawings of buildings in Revit; just in more detail, and more quickly.

It has form here. As Mario Carpo writes in Architecture in the Age of Printing, the technology of print emerging in the Middle Ages meant that “the architectural forms being built throughout Europe changed in a sudden and radical way—but without any corresponding change in either materials or construction procedures.”

So, with honourable exceptions, architecture has missed what tech fundamentally is, and how fundamentally it changes cities. This lack of awareness hugely limits architecture. It not only diminishes architecture’s value, but more importantly it means that cities are evolving rapidly without the benefit of architecture’s core ethical concern for our living environment, our settlements, and the way that public life is articulated (or not) through its built and spatial forms.

“It is architecture and design’s task to give form to a societal idea (like justice) through the creation of a setting for people to encounter that idea (like a courthouse). We see in our public buildings and spaces (our park benches and metro trains; a hot dog kiosk and a monument to the dead) what we are made of. Design can not avoid this assignment — it either embraces the task, or it unwittingly displays, or even conceals, society’s prejudices and weaknesses.”
Kieran Long, ArkDes

Yet we can see technology in Long’s quote, too, both in that technology drives what is possible within the built environment — cities are fundamentally shaped by the technologies of the flushing toilet mechanism, the elevator, and the automobile, or the metro trains that Long refers to — and that digital technology is displacing or ‘disrupting’ some activities that the built environment used to exclusively carry. Think about the directly physical and spatial impact of the likes of Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, WeWork, Lyft, Voi, Waze, Tesla, Didi Chuxing, AutoX and others, or the indirect impact of Google, Apple, Netflix, Facebook ...

Perhaps Tech is where our “society’s prejudices and weaknesses” are now being most vividly played out. Beyond its impact on various recent elections, the mental state of our children or the economy more broadly, lie more everyday examples. When austerity-driven British politicians look for an excuse to defund libraries in the UK, it is not architecture’s creative and technical capabilities in creating a meaningful public library building that is questioned; rather, it is the ‘free’ services of Google, Wikipedia and Facebook that are offered as the reason not to invest in the first place. That this is an ignorant and unethical position indicates precisely Long’s point about “prejudices and weaknesses”, but the outcome is a switcheroo: tech is used as an excuse to avoid a building. So architecture bringing its traditional knife—the building—to this gunfight is useless. Again, speeding up the design process will not help there; the building will still cost many tens of millions of pounds. Unless architecture convincingly speaks the language of internet and building integrated into a whole, and produce new settings that embody these new ideas, generating a more diverse set of tangible outcomes as a result, it will not make a dent in public or political opinion. (Understanding the tech of both internet and building in precisely this way is producing extraordinary libraries, from Brisbane to Helsinki).

In an archetypal mid-20th century planned town like Rinkeby, Sweden, public squares were built to carry public discourse, under a progressive 1960s social democratic model. Now, however, social media is driving utterly divisive forms of discourse into places like Rinkeby, too easily side-stepping these ‘social condenser’ spaces. It’s not that the squares are suddenly useless—in a sense, that Rinkeby’s riots happen in the squares indicates their potency. But it does mean that the architectural question must be re-imagined as ‘piazza-plus-platform’; that a systemic approach uses both the power of physical public spaces and digital platforms for public discourse, together.

Yet rather than build new practices, fluent in all these integrated aspects of everyday urban life, architecture has mistakenly tended to see tech simply as digital upgrade on the existing process—parametric tools simply accelerate the design process for more complex buildings, rather than producing mpre complex, diverse outcomes which can address other fundamental components of how society and cities now manifest themselves. Architecture sees tech as a tool to make buildings, or conversely—and mistakenly—something entirely separate to the physical and spatial realities of cities. The phrase “you only had one job” springs to mind, yet in architecture, that ‘job’ has been narrowly interpreted as making buildings, rather than taking a broader concern for settlements, and the numerous forms of spatial and environmental intelligence that might imply.

“The digital revolution is driving change in every part of our lives, except within the built environment. Now it’s time for architecture to catch up with technology.”—Ben Van Berkel, UN Studio

As a result, tech is beginning to create new forms of living environment whether architecture engages or not. Unlike the typically lazy rhetoric of smart cities, showing its roots in the older information technology business, tech is not simply some separated layer of connectivity floating above the ‘real’ physical world of architecture. Its dynamics are increasingly suffused within everything, to the extent that it makes no sense to think of it as something detached from urban reality. Tech surrounds us, increasingly like oxygen, rather than being some separate application one fires up when wants to do some digital.

There is no such thing as digital, in this sense. After all, a real taxi turns up when you call an Uber. If you use Airbnb or WeWork, you are in a real building. The form these services now take are utterly inconceivable without the internet, yet they change things—taxis, houses, offices—which have existed for decades, centuries even.

But if we simply stand back and let tech move through out cities, its impact will be highly variable indeed. Uber and Lyft are increasing congestion in cities with congestion problems, whilst destabilising employment conditions, with other data suggesting people walking, cycling and using public transport less. Airbnb is found to be increasing rents in cities, including those with housing affordability issues. These outcomes are the exact opposites of what most cities are trying to achieve. Yet those same technologies, allied to a different culture than venture capital-driven ‘Silicon Valley’ boosterism, could unlock a more positive form of networked urbanism, reversing those impacts.

These differently-networked patterns are surfacing in housing, mobility, energy, water, waste, social infrastructures, landscape, food, culture, politics, media, education, and other arenas of everyday life. There is constant invention moving through these systems, fuelled by tech, and whilst we can debate the sector’s over-valuation and self-importance, along with numerous other aspects of a culture framed narrowly around Silicon Valley, only a few architecture practices are equipped to design systemically and holistically, at least fluent in all these languages.

Such design practices require an ability to see beyond the pixels, to engage with the broader dynamics beyond. One can’t understand the transformational impact of electricity on our society by simply staring hard at a plug. As Richard Sennett says, “You can’t understand how wine is made simply by drinking lots of it.” So this understanding requires quite different design capabilities, transdisciplinary within the field of design, and simultaneously enhanced by multiple other disciplines, transdisciplinary beyond design.

We are yet to write a true practice guide — in effect, a new textbook, playbook, positioning, ethos, plan of work — that captures the true impact of tech on architecture, and what a new architecture that understood the essence and import of tech, in this broader sense, would be.

Ed. Current best bet may be the new BSc in Urban Technology at University of Michigan, run by my perennial colleague Bryan Boyer. Watch that space. See also the work of Sara Hendren, Shannon Mattern, Alissa Walker, Bianca Wylie, Anthony Townsend, and many others.

This would necessitate deep familiarity with quite different forms of city-making, as noted previously, enabled by a convergence of contemporary technologies such as on-demand and autonomous mobility and logistics systems, off-grid utility infrastructure, advanced manufacturing and building fabrication, robotics for maintenance and construction, biomaterials and circular material fingerprinting systems, feedback loops on buildings, spaces and infrastructures that enable ongoing adaptation and real-time operations, service layers for shared amenities and spaces, digital/physical interfaces and sensors, new hybrid forms of social infrastructure, and super-local and participative decision-making platforms and polities, all underpinned by open, legible and accessible digital services and real-time data, plotted on geographic information systems and diverse interfaces, and made manifest via civic physical touchpoints. These can be inventively woven with earlier technologies, such as bikes, timber buildings, newspapers, nature-based infrastructures

Easy! Yet the pieces of this kit are actually lying around us. The missing elements are the politics and policy that are attuned to framing shared outcomes as the ‘north stars’ to navigate by, and the integrated and iterative design processes that help get us there.

In all those cues above, we see the emphasis is actually upon the use of the city, the rights to the city, rather than ‘city-making’ per se. This is a profound shift for the profession, moving from an obsession with construction to an equal and opposite obsession with use, with purpose, with activity, with culture, with life—and then formats. If we were to design systemically using this array of kit and techniques, we see the possibility of a more holistic approach, which would be able to conceive simultaneously of the diverse manifestations, conditions and relationships between built fabric and infrastructures, vegetation and other forms of biodiversity, and robotics and digital services—alongside rights and codes, legal structures, policy directions, governance cultures, and thus the shaping of the activities that ‘the street’ (figuratively speaking) generates, whether public, private or shared.

As I‘ve noted before, in seeing all these moving pieces—built or ephemeral, fast and slow—together, zooming back and forth between the detail of interaction design and the big picture of strategic design, suggests, for instance, the possibility of using tech to humanise the city, of using tech to re-wild, or re-nature, the street. This is what I call tech in, city out.

These kinds of balancing acts, trade-offs and reinforcing constraints are only possible via transdisciplinary perspectives; just as a city is experienced and articulated as a whole, rather than a neat assemblage of disparate disciplines. The sheer look-at-me neediness of construction clouds this approach, with its focus on the singular production of new space, rarely reflecting that production of everyday urban space is far more complex, diverse and distributed process.

“Natural materials and new technology should be friends. If we can combine both we can bring nature to big cities. Without that kind of collaboration, we humans cannot survive.” — Kengo Kuma

Architecture without building

One clear pattern to tech’s impact on the city is in displacement, dislocation, disintermediation, and sometimes even dematerialisation. In other words, it tends to change the city rapidly, exerting fast-moving layers, without exercising the purposefully slow layer of building. Needless to say, this changes things. For the last few centuries, culminating in these last four decades, the general approach to solving urban problems or creating opportunity was through building, predicated on continued growth: new homes, new roads, new transport, new energy, water and waste infrastructure, new governance, and so on. This approach met needs, certainly at the beginning of the Great Acceleration, and created new demands in turn. Yet now we understand the true cost of that approach, in terms of energy, carbon, pollution, congestion, health, wellbeing, ecology, and inequality. Those days are either over, or have to be over.

Ed. See my subsequent Slowdown Paper 22. Revisiting the Slowdown, and the end of the Great Acceleration, which discusses Danny Dorling's work indicating why this slowdown is happening, and arguably why it should.

Architecture has been caught up in this, not only in repeatedly creating such inflexible outcomes, but also in its own limiting ‘presentation of self’, as a kind of single-use discipline.

“Architects are by training, aesthetics and psychological predisposition, narrowly committed to the design of big permanent single structures and their efforts are directed merely to focusing big permanent human values as unrepeatable works of art.”—Reyner Banham, Vehicles of Desire (1955)

Banham’s words may be from 1955, but it could be argued that architecture hasn’t shifted that much from this position. As a result, in the (over)-developed world we are left with cities full of layered histories of infrastructure, full of building. That is partly wonderful, and one of our finest achievements: as Latour says, “Europe is archipelago of sumptuous cities,” and there are similarly jewelled archipelagoes in virtually every continent.

Those sumptuous cities largely remain, thankfully and as many of them pre-date the last four or five decades, pre-Banham, many of them happen to be in good shape for a slower 21st century. So as we increasingly and acutely understand the costs of repeatedly looking to building our way out of trouble, we might also increasingly understand that we may not need all that building anymore. Or at least, it cannot be the only tool in the toolkit, the hammer seeking for the nail. Those sumptuous cities are largely a done deal, at least in terms of the two words that produce Pavlovian responses from the property industry: ‘new build’.

As a result, architecture needs to explore building as part of a range of approaches alongside un-building, not-building and re-building. How might we best re-use and adapt our existing fabric, rather than simply knocking down and rebuilding? How might we use non-built layers of urban life—activity, culture, code, policy—to transform buildings without touching their fabric much at all? How might we remove and edit built fabric to create space and life? When we must build, can we understand better what to build, and how to build it, with greater sophistication? How can we work lightly and subtly in the gaps in-between previous approaches to building? Can we design and construct in such a way that it can be endlessly adapted, re-used, reconstructed, with as little impact as possible? How can we, as professional designers, best enable people—non-professional designers—to adopt and adapt their own spaces and places, whilst producing strong outcomes in terms of materials, environment, public health, and social justice? How might we even develop such a participative practice for all biodiversity, a life-centred design, a more-than-human-centred approach? A different approach to space, place, building and infrastructure, developed using contemporary technologies and approaches, might unlock lighter, cleaner, more agile, productive, adaptive, participative structures, systems and organisations.

This would be an architecture and urbanism which captures the spirit of internet-based building: “small pieces, loosely joined”. Yet in an emphasis on participation and shared ownership — beyond the lightweight, ephemeral media of the internet’s first wave, and into fundamental building blocks of everyday life transformed by the internet now — this architecture must balance the creation of meaningful places, spaces, products and services at the scale of the individual with the wider responsibility of enabling public good at the scale of the many.

Importantly, this does not mean that buildings, even of the “permanent single structures” scale that Banham decried, are not part of the answer. Of course they are. In fact, they may be more important than ever, given that their value is in publicly standing for, and articulating, core beliefs and sensibilities over the long-term, moving at a slower pace with greater power, acting as solidly meaningful structures amidst the timelapse blur of faster-moving technologies and cultures that come and go.

Only a significant public library building like Helsinki’s Oodi can physically stand opposite the Finnish parliament, unerringly holding its gaze and standing for an open civic sensibility as a counterpoint to the bureaucratic articulation of power embodied by the parliament building.

Oodi, the city library in Helsinki, keeping the Finnish parliament building honest

Yet the concept of ‘a library’ is now far more complex and diverse than the building itself. It means numerous forms of touchpoint and experience, politics and policy, well beyond those produced by a standard architectural process. In this more advanced sense, the architectural design process could be seen as laying an envelope over the articulated social and cultural outcomes of a participative design process—just as Sara Hendren describes in the context of the Gallaudet campus designed around deaf people as ‘lead users’:

“Imagine the envelope being drawn up from the ground, sides and corners and rooftop to form a shape around a series of habits and patterns for living that deaf people have been doing forever — a housing for the extant subtleties of these ways of being.” — Sara Hendren

Designing in this way implies a renewed interest in a kind of ‘deep understanding’; what Hendren calls “the granular, intimate details that make up the patterns of culture and communication”, using practices derived not only from interaction and service design that construct tech, but from the deeper disciplines within them, such as ethnography, sociology and cultural studies, as well as increasingly advanced forms of psychology and botany. Architecture has much to learn from here. Equally, vice versa, those tech-infused disciplines could learn much from architecture.

Either way, the concept of ‘a library’—what my Arup team and I would call library-ness when working for the British Library or on new city library projects for Melbourne and Sheffield—is far richer as a result, knowing precisely the value of building, and being able to make a better case for that, as well as all the library-ness possibilities beyond the reach of simply building; the layers of culture and organisation, technology and policy that are also required to make ‘a library’ work.

21st century design practice needs the spatial intelligence that architecture specialises in, as well as its ethical footing and higher order strategic design skills — few disciplines have as much facility with both systemic thinking and the detailed design of touchpoints, framed by a broader sense of responsibility. But the quid pro quo is that architecture and urbanism finally getting its head around contemporary tech, as a primary material, facing the challenge of shaping cities without building. It can do this to arrest its own inexorable decline into mere builders, but more importantly, to meaningfully engage with the the 21st century city on its own terms.

Architecture is now only one of several relevant skills; others being, for example, interaction design, service design, software engineering, data science, industrial design, various artistic practices, urban sociology and anthropology, cultural and media studies, behavioural (and other) economics, neuroscience and psychology, political science, landscape, biology and botany, and many more. Each of these will have as much to contribute, if not more, to the way the city is shaped. This means a fundamentally different approach to practice; not the linear, fractured process common to construction, with different disciplines passing liability down the chain, but instead closer to what Apple calls ‘parallel production’, with all disciplines working concurrently in tight multidisciplinary design teams. This remains a long way from where architecture is. The RIBA Plan of Work is linear, and unhelpfully solipsistic, given the complexity that architecture is now part of, and could even thrive within.

For this reason, with my old Arup team we would add the ‘missing’ stages minus 1 and plus 8 in the RIBA Plan of Work

Architecture can be produced from its particular perspectives — spatial intelligence and strategic design, framed by ethical responsibility which architecture almost uniquely possesses — and buildings will still be part of its practice, clearly, but the discipline need no longer not be trapped within them. Opening up in this way enables architecture to more meaningfully address the pressing issues of our time — environment, health, inequality — and it can engage with the currents in which they are made manifest: cities and technology, politics and ecology. Or not.

Architects without architecture

Reframing Bernard Rudofsky’s famous formulation of vernacular architecture as ‘architecture without architects’, this positioning of architecture as a practice working beyond architecture as a building (solely), could be thought of as architects without architecture. This implies a focus on systems, on ecology, on everyday life, on technologies; not simply the technology of design and building, but the technologies of everyday life.

“It is also essential that we remember that it is the everyday situations that are important and that shape the major part of our lives and our cities.” — Ralph Erskine, 1986

So, looking ahead to the next 40 years, how can architecture avoid this ongoing diminution of its significance? How can it address the major themes of these decades, as it has singularly failed to do with mobility, tech, inequality and the climate crisis? How might architecture be relevant again, in an age defined by three major interwoven patterns of human (and other) activity: the city, the internet, and the environment.

Rather than speculate, we might focus on some weak signals, niche examples or emerging practices and patterns within and around the discipline, which can be sketches of possible futures. Here, I’m not looking to collate exemplary architectural practices in the traditional mode nor listing the numerous interesting ‘build tech’ startups flaring into life. Nor am I suggesting that these are all perfect, all-conquering successes. Rather, I’m listing no more than a few practices—and approaches—which describe a different approach to architecture and its concerns, often moving beyond building. In these examples, buildings may still emerge—they almost always will—yet they are no longer the only thing to emerge from these practices. They are no longer even the motive force, necessarily at least.

Each of the following suggests a diverse array of trajectories for architecture, then; not to be set in stone, but each might be used as prompts for imagination. What if there was more of this?

Design patterns reframing architecture

Technology is radically shaping the city around us, just as it always has.

In a previous issue of AD (July 2015), I sketched out a possible future district, set in 2050, which used a sequence of fictional vignettes to describe how technology might form a different kind of urban environment — and indeed, what might never change about cities. It was not an attempt at prediction. If, as Stewart Brand said, “All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong”, and districts involve buildings multiplied, then such predictions for districts can only be very wrong.

Despite this, narrative speculation can still be useful for suggesting possible trajectories and tentative first steps. Some variation on each of the technologies described in the narrative already exists today, so by exaggerating and dramatising their impact, such cartoonish narratives can reveal the fundamental dynamics and value systems around us.

“It seems quiet. The only prominent noise is that of a few nanocellulose tyres on the street; every now and then, a soft, somehow distanced ‘swish’, as if they are throwing their voice. Drones buzzing around overhead are also quiet in the main, their ultra-light bodies bobbing and weaving in the gentle breeze. (The odd lashed-together home-brew drone, flown out of the settlement over to the east, sputters along with an unpredictable snarl. It ferries small parcels from east to west over this crossroads every hour or so. A boy looks up and wonders if he could take it down)…”—Excerpt from ‘The Street as Platform 2050’

What do we mean by digitally-driven design patterns? Where previous technologies like the car, the elevator, and the siege engine defined urban form with crude, broad brushstrokes, contemporary technologies like autonomous systems, internet of things, machine intelligence, on-demand generation and super-local storage, and shareable spaces and services promise to transform urban fabric to a quite different pattern: distributed, lightweight, adaptable, responsive, cooperative, participative, organic.

Ed. Echoes of Octavia Butler. From The Parable of the Sower (1993): “All successful life is Adaptable, Opportunistic, Tenacious, Interconnected, and Fecund.” A thought to be developed.

Such approaches may enable much of the cruft left by 20th century technologies to be excised from the 21st century city, allowing life, human and otherwise, to spring forth once again.

As with those earlier technologies, however, whether this promise is realised depends on forms of ownership and politics, rather than the material qualities of the technologies themselves. So given that technology, just as design, both reveals and articulates our cultural and political value systems, are more holistic approaches required to contextualise digitally-driven city design? Could a new breed of multidisciplinary design practice emerge, working with data as a form of material in the design process, yet contextualising it with various hybrids of service design, research, planning, and architecture? How might such a practice interleave varying layers of technologies, just as Stewart Brand’s formulation of pace layers in How Buildings Learn (borrowed from Frank Duffy) indicates architecture always has, yet with a more diverse range of inputs and outputs. What are the patterns that these highly participative practice models enable, using different technologies, and what strategic environment, what dark matter of governance, data, and steering, must we design as a counterpoint?

Consider the following set as seven possible trajectories to be woven together, stretched over your context, flexed and tested, as you see fit: Local code; Inside Job; Total Design team; Block as Platform; Participatory City; Incomplete City, New Public Practice.

Local code

Nicholas de Monchaux’s book Local Code (2016), soon made manifest in a startup called Local Software, included parametric modelling and visualisation techniques to indicate how distributed green infrastructures might achieve similar performance levels as the heavy, single-use infrastructure projects of the near-past, yet at less cost, with greater agility and resilience, and producing multiple forms of value.

Parametric models of super-local environmental adaptations, ‘Local Code’, Nicholas De Monchaux (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016)

In short, Local Code’s models suggest that re-planting thousands of small sites, in unlikely ‘junkspace’ locations identified via GIS, could have largely the same absorptive effect as an engineering-heavy sewage system. Working these basic levers — trees plus data, essentially — enable entirely different forms of organisation of the city. It works in the gaps left by the grid, a form of ‘non-grid’ pattern, perhaps.

This “small pieces, loosely joined” approach, to borrow David Weinberger’s early 2000s-era descriptive internet design pattern, has a precedent from well before parametric modelling. Aldo Van Eyck’s strategy for rebuilding postwar Amsterdam, via what Lefaivre and Tzonis (1999) called a “starry sky” of over seven hundred playgrounds, are not centrally organised into agglomerated patterns, but exploit the near-random distributions of ruins and bomb sites, tracing a polynodal non-grid city.

Yet because the dynamics of ‘Local Code’ are entirely digital in essence, they enable a scale and diversity of outcomes that super-scales Van Eyck’s formula. Although Van Eyck might have recognised the outcome, this would be impossible pre-internet, if planned by hand, just as it would be effectively impossible to conceive of services like Uber or Airbnb pre-internet, despite us knowing what taxis and apartments are.

Van Eyck’s playgrounds fell into disrepair under the different regimes governing Amsterdam over the subsequent decades and de Monchaux’s proposal for a large network of small sites appears less likely to be commissioned than the monolithic sewer upgrade. The network approach may be cheaper, participative, resilient, and productive, but seems harder to procure than a well-understood brief for an expensive, complicated but not complex major infrastructure project.

This indicates that data is not the end of a process, but a beginning. This is not universally understood. Indeed, the world of city modelling is currently agog to the idea of the ‘digital twin’, a responsive city model fed by arrays of feeds, as if district design and operations can simply be a set of algorithms chewing on real-time data. The business magazine Forbes states that digital twins are “powerful masterminds to drive innovation and performance.”

However, those organisations actually responsible for cities over the long-term, such as municipal governments, are beginning to realise that whilst data can certainly be a fundamental component of any steering mechanism, such approaches must be usefully complicated by an engagement with reality, not simply a model of reality.

This requires a more strategic approach, and a balance of data-driven principles with participation and human intervention, and may usefully counterpoint these digital twins with political organisation, architectural intelligence, and place-based complexity.

Barcelona municipality’s work, particularly under then-Chief Digital Technology and Innovation Officer Francesca Bria, with platforms like Decidim, and with Amsterdam for DECODE, enabling both citizen participation and ownership and control of their own data, suggests a more sophisticated view, balancing often simplistic sensor data with complex human interactions, including political objectives. As Timothy Morton points out, the word ‘data’ essentially means ’what is given’. In other words, data is not the self-evident truth of an object or situation. It is something we are given to work with, that we must interpret, more akin to a process than a fact.

This, again, is a form of local code, making clear that digital means something only in context, quite the opposite of the the lazy (and greedy) assumption that code structures floats free and can simply be copy-pasted everywhere. (This, of course, is why Uber—for all its obvious success—has struggled repeatedly in cities with good public transport, and walkable urbanism. Only California is really like California.)

Barcelona and Amsterdam’s hybrid approaches, with the ‘grid’ of data-driven consistency and standardisation balanced with a ‘non-grid’ of flexibility and unpredictability, also has an earlier parallel. In Barcelona’s built form after the 1860 Idefons Cerdà plan, Cerdà’s rigid block structure literally supports the flamboyant invention of Antoni Gaudí’s architecture, all on the same street corner. As Michael Sorkin wrote in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan (2009), “All cities can be described as a dialogue between homogeneity and exception and each strikes a particular balance that is at the core of its character.”

La Pedrera, Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona (L, with Eixample grid, Barcelona (R)

So the interplay between the two patterns comprises the spirit of that particular city: Gaudi is able to fluidly improvise within the tight framework set by Cerdà; Cerdà’s grid benefits from the non-grid of Gaudi’s idiosyncrasy. Zoom out a notch and we can see a further interplay, between the tight grid of the Eixample and the looser forms of the Ciutat Vella.

By analogy, then, one outcome of these new digitally-enabled urban organisational patterns and models is that they could be highly participative, more in tune with informal urban development than with traditional planning-led approaches, just as a data visualisation of Uber movement may have something in common with the non-grid movement of unregulated matatu buses in Nairobi. The lightness, agility and speed of fast-moving technology pace layers prescribes malleable adaptation over rigid fixity, true ownership over mere engagement, “small pieces, loosely joined” — yet alloyed to a data-enabled glue that can enable outcomes at scale.

This ability to work with informal and participative open city patterns may counter-intuitively also require a more strategic approach, with firmer ongoing steering and stewardship, enabling the creation of meaningful places, spaces, products and services at the scale of the individual with the wider responsibility of enabling public good at the scale of the many. This aims for counterpoints of participation with steering, data-driven principles with human intervention, the potential output of the digital twins with political organisation and architectural intelligence.

Ed. Again, the outcome of sharp, considered digitally-driven processes like De Monchaux’s could be akin to what Michael Sorkin describes as ‘greenfill streets’ in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, and which I describe as the highly participative, super-green One-minute City we've been prototyping in Sweden. Tech in, city out.

The Inside Job

SPACE10 is a self-described “Research and Design Lab” founded and funded by IKEA. Their range of projects includes a redesigned IKEA meatball, augmented reality app for furniture, to autonomous vehicles prototypes, modular housing prototypes, solar-powered neighbourhood models, hydroponic farming infrastructure, online AI experiments, collaborations between digital fabrication and traditional Japanese joinery, an open-sourced urban farming pavilion kit, and so on. The scale shifts from the size of the micro-algae or meatball to that of housing and city districts.

SPACE10 have around 25 people in-house, on-staff, from designers to psychologists, yet the diversity of projects means that means collaboration is intrinsically necessary to do something complex. Hence a network-based approach, acquisitive about expertise, with each project team curated for each particular project.

Their approach to water, leading to the meatball and subsequent food projects, is instructive: starting with a focus on sustainable water systems, and first producing an internal-to-IKEA prototype for a water-conserving shower unit (hammer only sees nails), they started looking at the potential water servings. Noting that a hamburger takes 2000 litres to produce, they said “So instead of coming up with Protestantism cold-shower solutions, where we have to suffer to do the right thing, let’s actually look at our food-production system, instead of looking at faucets. Then we just closed down the project, and said, ‘We need to look at food instead.’”

This ‘pivot’ indicates how the practice can move fluidly to address the question from multiple angles, not tied to a particular realisation. This is well beyond the ‘hammer only sees nails’ fix that architecture has got into, with its focus on a building being the answer to all questions (a stance that Cedric Price critiqued decades ago, and which Liza Fior recently challenged in Architects after Architecture when she says “the answer to a brief is not necessarily a building.”)

If the question is water, the answer can be shower, or meatball, or both—or something else entirely.

Equally, SPACE10’s SolarVille includes thinking through the impact — positive and negative — of Blockchain-based digital networks to handle energy flows through the model neighbourhood, just as their Urban Village includes a detailed sketch of the digital interfaces and infrastructures that support the neighbourhood, as much as the timber buildings and urban gardens.

SPACE10’s ability to drop ideas directly inside IKEA places them close to the corporate R&D lab function common to tech, and other design-led product-based sectors (and perhaps this indicates some of IKEA’s moves in this direction, too.) Traditionally, architecture has no such equivalent, in terms of strategic design, and collectively, a minuscule R&D budget as a result.

By way of comparison, Amazon’s innovation function, Lab126, has 3000 employees, and the firm spends $22.6 billion on research annually. Google’s annual R&D budget is $16.2 billion, roughly the same as Sweden’s. Equally, these firm’s design functions are huge, employing architects amongst numerous other design disciplines, at a scale beyond any other sector. The breadth of resources at google.design, as high quality as that design advocacy work is, barely represents the scale and import of design within the firm. The kerfuffle over Jonathan Ive leaving Apple indicates the influence that design can have when positioned strategically as an ‘inside job’, particularly within an industry that retains control of the means of production—unlike much architecture.

Outside of SPACE10, IKEA have other design research running concurrently on these themes. Their ‘Better Living’ co-housing prototypes are produced by in-house research teams working with Cobe architects in Copenhagen and Ikano Bostad property developers.

Working with IKEA’s core research — the annual ‘Life at Home’ ethnographic surveys, which indicates an emerging cultural predisposition for thinking of “the whole neighborhood as the home” — the ideas developed include new methods for city planning and building design, as well as new technologies for home furnishing for small spaces and shared living practices. As their customers begin to extend their mental model of ‘home’ to include the block, the street, the square, and the neighbourhood, this in turn means IKEA’s traditional positioning as ‘home-makers’ can also shift to these broader dimensions, these shared spaces, these different practices—effectively flipping the house inside out. Hence the prototypes with Cobe.

This form of thinking and acting requires precisely the zoom function—from the scale of a door handle to the city block—common to strategic design, and particularly the influence of architecture within it.

Few architecture firms have access to the research IKEA has. But that should be architecture’s problem to solve, by figuring out how to also position its design intelligence within organisations, rather than almost exclusively continuing with the consultant/contract-based practice model. SPACE10, as with internal design research teams at tech companies and other forms of ‘inside job’ have this privileged access to insights and research, with which to conjure and invent. This positioning provides an ability to connect the ideas they then develop back into a productive environment.

Of course, working as a design research team (or lab, or studio) within organisations is not always easy either. There’s a book to write about that. Yet the ‘inside job’ certainly provides a richer loam with which to grow ideas, as compared to the otherwise lossy process of design under the consultant model.

The Total Design Team

Speaking of the consultant model, London-based Arup Digital Studio was formed to develop Ove Arup’s idea of ‘total design’: a multidisciplinary strategic design function informed directly by deep understanding of technology and its contexts of use. (Disclaimer: the author founded Arup Digital Studio, building and leading the practice from 2015 to 2018. There’s a write-up of that here.)

In 1968, Ove Arup wrote:

“This total design must nowadays be the work of many people, each contributing his particular knowledge … Without this the technological potential will not be realised and without this, artistic unity cannot be created.”—Ove Arup

Hence in 2015, the Studio emerged as a multidisciplinary team that attempts to address the core questions latent within an opportunity from multiple perspectives, and then invent or uncover new approaches to them. Their starting point is the relationship between people, place and technology, and so the studio team includes interaction designers, service designers and ethnographers, as well as architects. Their projects for spaces, services and strategies focus on the experiential layer that they describe as ‘bigger than a cellphone, smaller than a building’. In practice, this means design research and design strategy projects that address both cellphones and buildings, as well as city strategy.

In terms of design disciplines, the Studio fuses architecture with a contemporary service design practice as a form of strategic design.

Various early works by Arup Digital Studio

Arup Digital Studio’s work for Gemeente Amsterdam provided the municipality with strategies for everything from ‘disappearing parking structures’ to editable street scapes, as well as overall strategies for designing, deploying and managing networked technologies, and their internal organisational capabilities. For Google, a wayfinding and user experience strategy for their global campuses addressed a core functional and cultural layer of the organisation, as well as the data structures, work processes and organisational forms required to deliver it. Similar work for the University of Melbourne addressed not simply the wayfinding layer, but also food strategy, noting how fundamental food is for the overall performance of the university (as with Space10’s meatball insight previously.) For RMIT University and City of Melbourne, the work explored what an innovation district could be, and in particular developing an iterative design strategy for retrofitting streets systemically, in effect using robots to re-humanise the street, using tech to re-nature it. For Punkt, the team worked with Studio Folder on the concept design for a new ’not-smartphone’ cellphone interface, exploring relationships between tech, person, and environment in numerous ways. Across several different clients — the British Library, City of Melbourne and Sheffield City Council — the team explored what a library can be in the 21st century, never solely addressing the formal architecture of the building, but positioning the way that buildings might be alongside other design disciplines, with libraries as more diverse places as a result.

These projects take advantage of the open door to a more transformative approach offered by clients with a tech brief in their hand. Technology enables this different tenor of conversation, due in part to the rhetoric around ‘disruption’. Although the Studio’s work would often produce many ostensibly non-digital or physical interventions, a holistic approach to research builds on product designer Naoto Fukasawa’s idea of “design dissolving in behaviour”; for the Studio, technology is dissolved in experience. It is not separate, but approached holistically, alongside material, spatial, social, political, and organisational issues. This is summarised in short-hand as a ‘people, then buildings’ approach.

Ed. As well as my earlier post describing the team, Arup Digital Studio team members have recently been sharing aspects of these practices, whether insights drawn or open questions. Have a read.
Various early works by Arup Digital Studio

Another example can be found in UNStudio’s work for ‘Brainport Smart District’ in Helmond, Netherlands, which also coherently develops the digital interface layer alongside other aspects of a district masterplan. In particular, a section of the district, 100 Houses, is an experiment into super-local data ownership, exploring how residents can have full control of their data, and benefit accordingly. “The current digital business model is extremely lucrative for tech giants, but is far less advantageous for the majority of local companies, organisations and individuals,” said a UNStudio representative.

Although the practice is fractal, or nested at least—total design can work at the scale of a street—perhaps the district best unlock the potential of a total design approach. The sheer ‘everythingness’ of SPACE10's Urban Village proposal is new practice made manifest, as is UNStudio’s approach to the district scale — or, for all its issues, Sidewalk Labs in Toronto.

Arup Digital Studio’s district design principles similarly tend towards distributed, adaptive and participative approaches, in places as diverse as Sheffield city centre in the UK or the new city of Xiang’An in China. Given the hybrid of service design, research, planning, and architecture, they can interleave varying layers of technologies (after Frank Duffy’s formulation of pace layers), far more than architecture alone. This unlocks a balancing act of fast and slow, centralised and distributed, grid and non-grid, public and private. Data is present and active across all those spaces and services.

SPACE10, Arup Digital Studio and UNStudio, and others like them—say, aspects of Gehl, 3XN/GXN, Woods Bagot, Hassell, BIG Engineering, and others—are all suggesting the value in the multidisciplinary ‘total design’ team, working with networks of practitioners who can plug in as required, yet with enough in-house breadth of expertise to be able to frame the question appropriately to begin with.

Precedents for this are more common in practices outside of architecture. Perhaps in other design firms, like Pentagram, and certainly many digital agencies. But perhaps the multidisciplinary Design Research Unit (1942–72) is a better historical precedent for a practice that combined architecture (including the young Richard and Su Rogers), graphics, and industrial design, and ended up shaping the fabric of everyday British life, from pubs, town centres and railways to the Festival of Britain. Informally divided internally, in the gendered language of the time, into “flat boys” (for graphic work) and “round boys” (for architecture and product design), DRU was able to move freely across numerous formats.

Images of Design Research Unit work, via A Practice for Everyday Life

SPACE10 and Arup Digital Studio suggest the value of the transdisciplinary ‘total design’ team, working with networks of practitioners who can ‘plug in’ as required. They have just enough in-house breadth of expertise to be able to frame the question appropriately to begin with — yet not so much that they can address everything themselves. Architects like EFFEKT or Cobe join SPACE10/IKEA if a project is at neighbourhood scale, scientists collaborate if the project is micro-algae, graphic and interaction design firms like Studio Folder are plugged-in to Arup’s team if the project is the Punkt cellphone interface, and so on.

That external ‘plug’ need an effective ‘socket’, however, and working with an external architecture practice benefits from an architect in-house, as there is at both SPACE10 and Arup Digital Studio: to brief, understand the dynamics of practice, discuss details, to know the limits and potential within the field.

The corollary of this is that each practice needs enough of ‘the other’ in order to avoid the hammer only seeing the nails. As John Maeda puts it, balancing designer and software developers, you need “people on your team who come from the ‘other land’ to create balance in the force.”

Both SPACE10 and Arup Digital Studio offer a different way forward for architecture. Each is capable of thriving amidst the array of technologies and practices available today and tomorrow, even though a holistic approach to projects often dissolves technology in broader outcomes. And whilst not every project attempts to directly stare down grand societal challenges, each team can take the strategic positioning necessary to systemically address such meaningful challenges, whether climate, health, migration, inequality, or other technology-led ‘disruption’.

So, to varying degrees, SPACE10 and Arup Digital Studio present a challenge to architecture. The generalisable patterns in their work include a heavily modified, hybridised architectural practice, exemplifying spatial intelligence, naturally, but immersed within a broader toolkit deployed from a more strategic positioning, capable of addressing the ambitious and diverse array of missions we patently need to pursue.

‘Total design’ practices such as these may or may not include architecture as traditionally understood, moving beyond buildings depending on the opportunity at hand, but they will produce new architects, devising new forms of 21st century architecture.

(See also Dark Matter Labs, Superflux, Tellart, Fjord, and Dash Marshall for variations in this model, each of whom is pushing at the boundaries of spatial design practice in different ways.)

The Block as Platform

Inspired in part by a cooperative housing agenda which is in vogue for the first time in decades — particularly high-profile examples of Berlin baugruppe and their Dutch equivalent and various schemes in Switzerland Austria and Denmark — the Nightingale Housing project, from Victoria, Australia, demonstrates the potential value in strategically placing architecture at the core of a “replicable platform” rather than sitting on the periphery.

Breathe Architects led the initial development, moving from concept to first realisation, and then working with a network of local architects, as well as the Robin Boyd Foundation, to enabling a scaling of the model.

The Nightingale model itself can be licensed by other architects, working to a shared set of principles and conditions, with carefully thought-through support structures. Over its first few years, Nightingale has been met with unprecedented demand within Melbourne, pushing through significant change in local planning culture via a series of building-scale developments, and now with a ‘Nightingale Village’ of 210 units at planning stage.

“The Nightingale model is a set of systems and processes for housing provision … It aims to deliver sustainable, affordable, liveable homes that connect its residents with the community and has been developed for use by architects and others to deliver triple bottom line apartments at cost.” (From Nightingale Housing FAQ, retrieved 12 August 2019)

Smartly, Nightingale closes a gap in terms of interaction, the crucial interface layer common to successful, service designed tech offerings but largely absent within the built environment world. Breathe saw that the problem was not architecture, nor construction, as such, but in the aligning of the disparate fragmented interests usually involved in property development, planning and housing.

For the architects involved, the platform approach suggests a complete repositioning, from one contractor-for-hire amongst many, responding to briefs set by a property developer client, to being at the centre of the project, and orchestrating design strategically, co-designing with residents.

The shared rooftop of a Breathe building

Digital infrastructure is not overtly to the fore at Nightingale, but of course present throughout many of its solutions — again, digital does not exist, at least as a separate entity. This is actually closer to a true understanding of the dynamics of technology, by placing architecture at the core of a platform strategy, capable of unlocking value from multiple angles, and over time. The network-based approach means that project directly contributes learning to each other, and the value of the platform grows accordingly with each project — again, suggesting a relationship to the core digital design principle of Metcalfe’s Law.

Well before the tech industry, these approaches to architect-led property development can be see in the hybrid model of Span Developments (1956–1966), which positioned design excellence at the heart of a highly successful enterprise building numerous developments across the south of England, which remain highly sought-after decades later. There are even local echoes of Robin Boyd’s Small Homes Service of a similar vintage to Span. Although very different in output, these smaller practices perhaps share something of the ethos of contemporary software companies like Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals), who have stayed small, running multidisciplinary teams (intriguingly, often largely remotely) yet produce software at scale.

Span Housing, Blackheath, London (The Modern House)

Nightingale’s contemporary iteration reinvents a software licensing-like approach: a generalised model of specific techniques and conditions, that can be adopted and adapted per project. The network learns from each development, and value accrues to the platform of designers, as well as the network of people living and working in Nightingale projects. (See also the Dutch Superlofts and Open Building, as well as 00’s Wikihouse, for variations on this model of architects building generative platforms, rather than simply one-offs.)

The Participatory City

Nightingale’s approach to participation is deeper than is usually considered in architecture, here enabling co-ownership. Here, the engagement is not thin veneer of consultation we see at the lower levels of Sherry Armstein’s ‘Ladder of participation’ (1969), with its bedfellows ‘placation’ and ‘manipulation’, but the higher order levels of partnership, delegation and citizen control.

The Participatory City foundation, working within London boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, one of the UK’s most economically deprived, if culturally rich, areas, further describes a genuinely participative approach to city-making and -using, rarely touching the traditional tools of architecture whilst having real, physical, social and spatial impact nonetheless. (Disclaimer: I’m a member of the Board of Trustees of the foundation.)

Their ‘Every One Every Day’ project involves “local citizens transforming their neighbourhoods through their everyday lives.” It’s visibly situated in the streets, occupying and renovating shopfronts and warehouses, and building activities around residents’ needs and desires. Digital tools are used throughout their activity, of course, but the overall principles of genuine participation and user-centred redesign of complex processes — co-designing with residents, around their own interests and ideas, and arranging insurance, health and safety, space provision, training etc. — is again closer in spirit to true platform dynamics and service designed approaches.

As with the original conception of the World Wide Web, Every One Every Day, and the programmes it runs like Tomorrow Today Streets, provide open platforms for people to pursue their own interests within a community. As Armstein’s ladder makes perfectly clear, this is fundamentally different to than being reduced to selecting from a notional ‘pop-up menu’ of prescribed choices, as with the traditional cultures of consultation that have dominated most participation models around architecture and urban planning.

Their engagement with the place is over at least five years, and attempts to create over 250 projects with local residents. The Foundation creates a structure that can unlock deep, long-term and ongoing relationships with a place, and the people there. This is quite the opposite of the traditional ‘fire-and-forget’ approach to architecture, based on a short, tightly-budgeted engagement resulting in a set of drawings, and at some point, a building, which the architects and developers tend to have moved on from before it is even out of the ground. By being present in a place — recalling the maxim that “80% of success is showing up” — deeper relationships can be constructed, enables meaningful relationships to be constructed, building trust — particularly crucial in complex, and often neglected, places like Barking and Dagenham. This enables a richer range of solutions to emerge, based in large part on peoples’ ability to develop ideas themselves, with designers in stewardship mode. By shifting the point of origin, the diversity of ideas reflects the diversity of the place.

This long-term engagement with a project is echoed in Mark Burry’s design and research for the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, which has been a continuing design project since 1979. Similarly, the Melbourne architect Paul Pholeros spent decades working with remote indigenous communities in Australia, with his organisation Health Habitat. The focused engagement over long duration enabled a scale of impact that traditional architecture practice could never have achieved, given how the discipline’s business model forces firms to flit butterfly-like from project to project and place to place. Health Habitat have surveyed, repaired and improved over 7500 homes since 1999.

As with the ‘inside job’ and ‘block as platform’ models earlier, these projects indicate the value in being able to stay in place — again, common to the longer-term engagement with a project or platform that designers in tech tend to have.

(See also: digital tools for participation, such as the prototype augmented reality platforms developed for UN HABITAT by Ericsson, using Minecraft, based on shared strategic design work with Arup and Ericsson R&D, or our earlier Brickstarter prototypes, which also listed the numerous participation and crowdsourcing platforms in this area.)

The Incomplete City

Other emerging practice points for deeper levels of participation include the Incomplete City studio, run at UCL Bartlett School of Architecture in 2016–17 by Joseph Grima, Marco Ferrari and the author, and then again at Taubman College of Architecture, University of Michigan in 2019, by Bryan Boyer and the author.

This studio model is a distinct attempt to focus on relational aspects of urban infrastructure, particularly unlocked by new forms of tech — a kind of ‘non-grid’ approach to urbanism — and to explore ways of designing for and negotiating faster-moving layers of change beyond the building, but within the context of architecture education.

Incomplete City Studio

Moving beyond Banham’s critique of “big permanent single structures”, students were effectively ‘banned’ from designing building structures, and instead asked to explore the layer of change that Arup Digital Studio preferred to dwell within: the array of components, experiences and relationships that are “bigger than a cellphone, smaller than a building.”

Few of these new technologies, and their approaches, directly concern buildings as such, yet each impacts powerfully on the city. So a key question concerns how to train architects to articulate these more fluid and relational elements.

So the Incomplete City studio developed as an exploratory teaching method practicing design for everyday urban infrastructures rather than buildings per se, and how different forms of urbanism might be unlocked by new technologies, yet without making technology the point. In the context of architectural education, it concentrates on participation and collaboration in particular, emphasising these elements of practice, particularly by exerting the faster-moving layers of change in the city, beyond the building.

Incompleteness is a core condition of digital technologies, predicated as they are on iterative, updateable platforms, with fast-moving software layers enabling entirely different applications running on hardware moving at a slower pace. Some part of the enormous success of tech is based on its inherent ability to produce ongoing insights from usage, framing an ongoing process of design. Often, everything feels as if it is in beta (not without cost, of course) with a design function constantly engaged, constantly learning.

Yet incompleteness is a core condition of cities, too. Buildings and spaces are also a form of hardware that slips and slides, evolving with use, with ‘applications’ changing at a faster pace. Unfortunately, the commercial practice of architecture tends to pretend that this is not the case, with the core model remaining payment for a ‘completed job’ and then moving on, rather seeing the work as an ongoing process. Education prepares students for this accordingly. The Incomplete City studio model is an attempt to thoroughly subvert that process, enabling students to explore the organic generation of a city, over a series of days, from a tiny settlement to a city of many thousands, each design decision drawn by hand and deliberated upon. Tellingly, the primary sensation when running the studio to completion is that the students don’t want to stop any more than the city does.

Saskia Sassen has noted that the essence of city-ness is complexity, incompleteness, and the possibility of making. These three conditions drive distinctly urban change — what Sassen describes as the city speaking. This studio model is a way of enabling students to listen to the city’s voice, to begin to understand how to host this conversation.

Interestingly, in the context of a studio, the Incomplete City approach is a further example of how a tech-inspired culture can be played out in ways that are highly physical, interpersonal and intimate. The entire process is predicated on understanding robotics, AI and internet-of-things, yet is played out only with the props of paper, scissors, tape and photocopiers. It also develops an understanding of how those contemporary technologies could articulate a certain kind of urbanism — dense, cooperative, organic, iterative, collaborative, diverse, sustainable, playful. The students find it fascinating that mimicking these ongoing, engaged processes of co-design appears to produce compelling cities, without any of the traditional formal processes of urban planning.

No more than a starting point, the studio nonetheless suggested a repositioning of architecture as arbiter of a heavily participative design practice, focused on enabling ongoing, iterative decision-making at the super-local level.

Ed. These studios have been written-up at length, so I won’t describe them further here. Here is the original write-up of the Bartlett studio, and here is Bryan Boyer’s excellent write up of the Michigan edition.

“A real city is complex and incomplete. A city that is an Office Park is not a city. It is closed and elementary. What is not clear to me is whether a city like Songdo, a sort of high-tech city in South Korea (the most famous intelligent city we have so far), is actually a city or a tech space. And there are hundreds of such cities being built, often with far more tech aspects than the old cities. These new versions may gain some complex technologies, but are most likely closed cities, and the firm that sold them their big tech systems are running those systems centrally. That troubles me. I believe we need to bring in technology. I am not against that at all, but everything is a curve, and if you bring in too much technology to handle every- thing, you de-urbanise the city.” — Saskia Sassen, ‘The Incomplete City Strikes Back’

Ed. I had similar thoughts on New Songdo City, for what it's worth.

The new public practice

Finally, all of these approaches —local code, inside job, total design, block as platform, participatory city, incomplete city— can only align to produce wider value at the scale of the city if there is an active and engaged municipal strategic design function acting as arbiter, steward, collaborator and client.

Latour’s analysis suggests that aggressive deregulation is entwined with rising inequality and climate change denial. As a result, in order to address the latter, we must reverse the former. Fundamentally, it means rebuilding, or building anew, institutional design capability of the highest calibre. This ensures regulation, policy and the design and delivery of the infrastructure of everyday life, crafted with societal outcomes in mind.

This ‘great rebuilding’ is beginning to emerge, particularly at the municipal government level — the arena of government where things are delivered — with numerous ‘policy lab’ or ‘urban innovation team’ precedents now, from Barcelona’s BCN Digital City function to Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, NYC’s Planning Labs, and Sweden’s Viable Cities or Canada’s Legitimacities networks.

Public Practice is a not-for-profit company created in 2017 by the Greater London Authority and six founding partners from across the public, third and private sectors. Its raison d’être is that fundamental shift in architecture’s focus from public to private over the last four decades, at least in the UK. Public Practice exists to reverse the 49%-down-to-0.7% drop in public sector architecture and planning capability in the UK mentioned earlier, using a bespoke placement model, enabling private sector built environment professionals to be deployed into the public sector. In doing so, it attempts to transform the status of public service design work, building strategic design intelligence back into the core of government.

Research by Public Practice

Like Participatory City’s ‘Every One Every Day’, Public Practice has instinctively attacked unnecessary process within bureaucracy, focusing on making easing the application process, reducing harmful friction and ‘failure demand’ generally. By constructing a model for self-funding, they could avoid passing on to fees to applicants, particularly those least likely to be able to pay them. A more diverse intake is one result of this approach: over 60% of Associates are women and over 20% are from BAME background (in stark contrast to professional architecture practice.) At time of writing, they have placed 54 associates, with backgrounds in architecture, landscape, sustainable urbanism and economic development, in 24 different authorities.

For founder Finn Williams, Public Practice is partly an attempt to solve architecture’s positioning problem:

“As an architect in practice, you often find yourself designing the right answer to the wrong brief. I realised important decisions were happening much further upstream, in the realms of policy, way before an architect would even get involved.”

Crucially, however, this strategic design repositioning — addressing the brief, upstream — is placed within the core public sector, directly addressing the question of ownership and politics. If programmes like this can be extended to incorporate the broader multidisciplinary design practices previously mentioned, this capability could design, deliver and brief for multiple public services — housing, mobility, energy, waste, streets, health, education, culture, communications, environment — ensuring that these collectively build public value, increase health, stimulate culture, knit social fabric, and regenerate ecosystems.

Such a capability would directly address the problem of firmly-drawn and narrow boundaries that solely commercially-oriented architecture—working to a pre-defined brief drawn up to narrow intentions within a waterfall method—simply cannot address, instead offering a systemic approach to systems, by offering up the brief—the question—as part of the design. It would indeed enable architecture to not just think about ecosystems, but act about ecosystems.

Complexity and contradiction in data

Digital models need to be given a point — what is data good for? How do we work with it? — and a counterpoint, in terms of engaging with the complexity and contradiction of real places. Data can sketch these non-grid patterns, but as these are digitally-tuned physical outcomes, they require social, cultural and political engagement in particular places, with all their layered histories, vagaries and wonderful inefficiencies.

With the institutional rebuilding that Public Practice enables, it is possible to frame and nurture the open participative platforms and practices of Every One Every Day and Nightingale, truly making city-making a shared venture with shared outcomes, engaging with complexity on its own terms. Further, these highly engaged practices can be balanced with the sophisticated data platforms described in Local Code, codified and publicly-owned in civic platforms like Decidim and DECODE. Point and counterpoint.

It is in the interplay of these approaches — linear and non-linear; rigid and malleable; open and steered; grid and non-grid; physical and digital — that a more sophisticated approach to city-making and city-designing can be located, codified and developed. 21st century city-making is emerging between these various counterpoints, a complex web of interactions driven by data about people and their ecosystems, but more fundamentally driven by people and their ecosystems themselves.

See also

The point here is not to make a list of good, interesting contemporary architectural practices. There are many of those, producing exemplary work of the highest quality, and plenty of wonderful curation describing and extolling their virtues. Rather, the point here was to explore a few alternatives to traditional architecture and urbanism practice, at least those involving a some deeper fusions of architecture and technology, and often moving beyond traditional building as a result.

In addition to the above, there are numerous other practices working along different forms of practice: the speculative design of Superflux or related multidisciplinary design of Tellart; the curatorial projects of Space Caviar, Space Popular, ArkDes Thinktank or recent teams at the V&A; the exploratory strategic design practices of Dark Matter Labs or Dash Marshall; the product and platform building of Superlofts, Wikihouse, and Open Building; the exploratory software of Local Code; Rau’s and Rotor DC’s remake/remodel reusables; the research-led visualisations of Forensic Architecture and Studio Folder; design-led policy labs at UK Cabinet Office and Vinnova in Sweden, and so on.

Yet these are still heavily outnumbered by architecture practices almost wilfully pursuing 20th century logics. In part, this is due to architecture and design education continuing to churn out architects who wear those ‘clothes’. Reyner Banham, 60 years ago, saw that technology would sooner or later come to the fore:

“The architect who proposes to run with technology knows now that he will be in fast company, and that, in order to keep up, he may have to (discard) the professional garments by which he is recognized as an architect.”—Reyner Banham (1960)

A handful of architecture and design schools may be about to address this problem. At UCL Bartlett School of Architecture, strategic design features in the new Master of Public Administration ‘Innovation, Public Policy and Public Value’ degree course. Design Academy Eindhoven, under Joseph Grima’s direction, is considering strategic design as a core research area. Rhode Island School of Design has created a Center for Complexity, under Helsinki Design Lab-alumnus Justin Cook, directly addressing strategic design practice.

Ed. After this piece was written a new BSc in Urban Technology at University of Michigan is taking shape, devised by Bryan Boyer. It will be particularly good. Watch that space.

These are small steps, but they are also further ‘weak signals’ of an emerging pipeline of near-transdisciplinary architecture and design practitioners, who are informed and inspired by tech but not bullied by it, who draw from architecture’s historical riches but are not necessarily in thrall to them, and who are motivated by facing up to the challenges of today and tomorrow, rather than yesterday’s carelessly destructive agendas.

We cannot allow architecture to continue fiddling while cities like Rome burn, due to a myopic practice turning its back on the challenges posed by technology. For now, it is not Rome burning but the Arctic, Australia, California, Argentina.

Yet each of the examples here sketches alternative trajectories for architecture. Each draws freely from a diverse palette of technologies and practices, and this fluidity enables a more diverse set of approaches to challenges of climate, health, migration, inequality.

These various models — the inside job, the total design team, the block as platform, the participatory and incomplete cities, the new public practice— can of course be combined and remixed as required for local conditions, synthesised with other approaches from other related disciplines and perspectives.

Yet, to varying degrees, each is a challenge to architecture, concerning aspects of spatial intelligence, but deployed within a broader toolkit, and with a more ambitious set of missions. Although all these examples are led by architects, or include architects in their realisation, few are ‘deploying architecture’ as traditionally understood. Depending on the opportunity at hand, the natural pull within each to is to move beyond simply making new buildings—and certainly to avoid being hired to make one-off buildings. This will produce new architects, devising new forms of 21st century architecture.

In this sense, a 21st century architecture can, in Latour’s words, “offer an example of what it means to rediscover inhabitable ground” by bringing form to new ideas in new ways, and in turn shaping what ideas take root and flourish.

“It was clearly necessary to think of the future along the curved lines of our round earth.”
Yoko Tawada, ‘The Last Children of Tokyo’ (2018)

But what was the question?

Essays and journal entries concerning technology and the city

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Dan Hill

Written by

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, Swedish govt’s innovation agency. Visiting prof UCL Bartlett IIPP + Design Academy Eindhoven

But what was the question?

Essays and journal entries concerning technology and the city. Title lifted from Cedric Price’s “Technology is the answer. But what was the question?”

Dan Hill

Written by

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, Swedish govt’s innovation agency. Visiting prof UCL Bartlett IIPP + Design Academy Eindhoven

But what was the question?

Essays and journal entries concerning technology and the city. Title lifted from Cedric Price’s “Technology is the answer. But what was the question?”

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