architectural intelligence book

I recently finished reading “Architectural Intelligence” by Molly Wright Steenson. It is an inquiry into the role of architecture in cybernetics and the information age - mainly told through the paths of four architects: Christopher Alexander, Richard Saul Wurman, Cedric Price and Nicholas Negroponte. Their work builds a lot of elasticity into the definition of the word “architect” - given that none of the above people saw their projects into built form, and that was almost never their primary concern. I like how the book weaves four different stories in a language that flows and is not convoluted, unlike many of these architects’ own writings. It also holistically discusses how fields and definitions like Information Architecture, Software Architecture, UX design where formed during the last 60 years of technological progress. Here are my thoughts about the four chapters:

Christopher Alexander

I appreciate the mathematical-ness of it all but it is too constraining, and in a way reminds me of how AI papers are trying to formalize notions like art/creativity right now (which I really, really disagree with). I generally dislike efforts that formalize art, culture and life using any sort of diagram or algorithm.

That said, I am glad someone went through this process of spending a lifetime coming up with different mathematical structures to describe how spaces and humans should best exist as parts of a system, but I am more glad it didn’t generate a set of rules that have to be followed. Maybe it proves that its always something else that makes humans happy in a space, rather than the rationale and problem-solving that preceded the space’s creation.

I am no architect, but so far my understanding is that the efforts of coming up with a set of directives on how people should live, are the ones who failed miserably (LeCorbusier’s high rises, as well as Soviet-type housing). In a way, it is something that Silicon Valley is very much trying to do currently - the self driving cars is an example. Yes it does make sense - it maximizes a certain efficiency ratio in some part of some code, I’m sure - but if humans don’t want to use them, what’s the point?

On the other hand, thinking of online spaces, I think we definitely live in a world with extreme formalism and homogeneity - all we do is scroll vertically and click on things. Are humans inhabiting online spaces in the same way they inhabit physical spaces?

Richard Saul Wurman

“you can only understand something relative to something you understand”

That quote is interesting, I’m not sure if I fully agree. Sounds very absolutist. I find it funny that this chapter opens discussing the appropriation of the architectural metaphor by Silicon Valley, while at the same time Wurman is the founder of TED, so very much a part of the heart of what Silicon Valley represents. Overall, I thought his work was engaging but it seems he was one of these people who bring everyone together and then they say “OK now discuss”, rather than someone who did a lot of work himself.

Cedric Price

He was my favorite one - I thought some of his sketches, and certainly the titles of the projects, were really witty and funny. We don’t have that anymore, everyone is so serious! Completely crazy way of thinking, and lending itself to so many parallel applications of thought.

I was thinking that Fun Palace and Oxford Corner House are basically the Internet? I loved the idea of information getting finer grained the higher up you are in the Corner House building. It makes a statement about verticality and the current state of vertical browsing - except in this case its even more nuanced, since height translates to precision (?complexity?). I wonder if Bret Victor got inspiration from Price when building Dynamicland.

Generator, and the notion of Boredom. Amazing concepts - so simple as well! It’s funny because I was thinking how great it would be to have something like the Generator for browsers and/or websites. I am pretty sure that it could be possible to do that with dat - have a self-mutating website that changes its elements randomly every now and then.

Nicholas Negroponte

I might be biased since I am a student at the Lab, but I really do like Nicholas’s work, despite the fact that it was always DARPA funded and DOD oriented. Interestingly, I think that Alan Kay has been making the same points throughout his career - that the US military was traditionally more receptive to funding “weirdness” than the NSF….

Anyway, I think that Aspen Movie Map and “Put that there” where brilliant and way ahead of their time. I am also a big believer in how he insisted to work with people from the AI labs, and I guess a bit sad about what the Lab is doing right now….Its funny, but Nicholas himself recently wrote an article at JODS recently about how our society is basically…not doing so well. I have listened to him speak and its extremely clear how gifted in communicating his ideas he has always been, which explains why he managed to present failures as “great, this project has still a lot of road ahead”. It’s still part of the Lab’s mentality (maybe? depends on your advisor I guess). I thought that the dedication of his first book “to the first machine which can appreciate the gesture” (paraphrasing) was brilliantly hilarious.

Overall

Well, a lot of thoughts, clearly…I think it is a great book for someone who wants to get an overview of four cyberneticians and how they contextualized architecture in the information age. Last point: we need to be doing more speculative projects, we need more weirdness, more imagination!