Gordon Pask

“The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics”

Cybernetics emerged in early 1940, during World War II, after a long prehistory spanning in many fields, and influenced new paradigms in design, architecture and arts. Cybernetics, officially named in 1948 by the American mathematician Norbert Wiener is a term difficult to articulate in a single definition. Unlike traditional scientific approaches, they are highly interdisciplinary and deal with the transformation of information and feedback in self-regulatory systems, with application in many fields, such as biology, computer science, social sciences etc. During 60’s, cybernetics were influence by constructivism epistemologies and formed the so-called “second order cybernetics”, according to which systems are not consisted of fixed entities in specifiable relations to one another. A self-regulatory system accordant to the “second order” approach should act as a homeostat: a device capable of adapting itself to the environment through behaviors such as habituation and learning. Homeostat suggests a society evolving through transformative open-ended experimentation.

One of the second order cybernetians with great influence to architecture circles, due to his close collaboration with the architects Cedric Price and Nicholas Negroponte, was Gordon Pask. He was an English inventor, educational theorist, cybernetician and psychologist that worked with Price on the project of Fun Palace and was a constant visitor of Nicholas Negroponte Architecture and Machine Group at MIT.

An example that illustrates Pask’s approach to cybernetics, homeostatic mechanisms and machine learning is his artwork ‘Musicolor’, exhibited in “The cybernetic serendipity” in London. Pask designates the musician as a “converse participant” of the “learning mechanism” of “Musicolour”: he produces input via a microphone, and then the system reacted with a predetermined visual output that varied from performance to performance. The response of the system changes after a while of repetitive input and therefore forces the musician to change the performance. The learning process of both sides –the musician’s and the machine’s — depends on from the “Musicolour´s “ changing ways to react and “the observer´s frame of reference”.

Pask, Gordon: Musicolour, 1953–57, projection wheel controlled by a servomechanism (Pask: Comment 1971, p.81, fig.27).
Pask, Gordon: Musicolour, 1953–57, electrochemic system (Pask: Comment 1971, p.85, fig.31).

In the article “The architectural relevance of cybernetics” published in 1968, Pask summarizes his ideas on the relation between the two disciplines. According to Pask, cybernetics can have an important impact on architecture in two main ways: first, it can provide a conceptual framework and meta-language for a new theory of architecture and second it can be applied in programs/machines that learn by observing the designer.

In the first approach, Pask conceives architectural structures as homeostatic mechanisms. For him, architecture is, more than the art of building, the design of systems. The architect designs structures (forms) that are part of larger ecosystems of human society. They act as homeostatic components that regulate behaviors together with rituals and they should be dynamic, that is to say that design should incorporate rules for its evolution. This approach is aligned with Cedric Price aspiration for Fun Palace. In Pask’s cybernetic design paradigm, the architect specifies the goals of the system and determines which properties are relevant to the man environment dialogue.

Cybernetic diagram of the Fun Palace program by Gordon Pask. Cedric Price Archives, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal

Another use of cybernetics theory for architecture with even greater importance is, according to Pask, computer programs that use artificial intelligence to “learn from and about architects and by experimenting in the language of architects, (ie by exploring plan, material specifications, condensed versions of client’s comments etc)”. Programs as “intelligent extensions” are aligned with the area of research of Architecture Machine Group at MIT.


-Pask Gordon, The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics, article 1968 (available here: http://workgroups.clemson.edu/AAH0503_ANIMATED_ARCH/879Readings/GordonPask_Architectural%20Relevance%20of%20Cybernetics.pdf )

- Pickering Andrew, Cybernetics, University of Exeter, 2015

- Wright Steenson Molly, Architectures of Information:Christofer Alexander, Cedric Price and Nicholas Negroponte & MIT’s Architecture Machine Group, Phd Thesis, Princeton, April 2014