Cedric Price famously scolded to a bickering husband and wife when designing their new house, saying “You don’t need a new house, you need a divorce!” Which goes to show that a new building isn’t always the answer. It also serves as a point of departure for architects to consider non-building solutions as a medium, as an agent of change. Before we delve in further, this essay wishes to bring the reader into seeing to what extent does architectural media play a role within the contemporary society. What its future possibilities are. Also touching on what we previously imagined to be fictional and what may well be the future of architectural media.
Architectural media varies in medium and form and includes, but is not limited to, drawings, models, diagrams, films, text/writings, websites and installations to name a few. With some mediums lending itself more towards the cultural production of architecture such as drawings, imagery and models. Now, let us dissect the definition of “architectural media”. The word “Media”, which is Latin, is the plural of “Medium”, with its nouns meaning “vehicle”, “method”, and “avenue”. From that, Kostantinos Papamichael (1999) defines architectural media as “anything used in architectural practice, not only with respect to documents, but the equipment used for their production as well.” Here, she further states that if we were to distill it down, it can be abstracted as “essential media”, which are images and messages. “Images come in the form of pictures, drawings, paintings, scale models, plots, etc. While messages can contain three information elements: text, sound and gestures.” In effect, these ‘mediums’ function as transmitting elements for the dissemination of architecture to a wider audience. The digital sphere has further added and expanded upon the already existing forms of architectural media. Changing how we interact, organize and respond to the environment, as individuals and as communities.
An example worth discussing is the growing role of open source software and now, hardware, in dissolving the traditional roles of the architect. Globally we are witnessing a resurgence of “maker communities” emerging from fabrication labs, do-it-yourself drone building groups to DIWO, do-it-with-each-other movements like Wikihouse. What the ‘networked society’ managed to do, is use existing architectural media and democratize it to everyone and anyone with internet access. Take the Wikihouse movement for example by London architecture firm 00:/ (pronounced, zero-zero). They took the same underlying principal from open source software, i.e. Wikipedia; an open source platform, and applied this to built structures. Alastair Parvin (2013) of 00:/ who spearheaded the project, asks the audience during a TED talk what would happen if everyone could print their own house? 30 years ago this idea of everyone ‘printing’ their own house would seem highly fictional.
Wikihouse enables anyone to download the house plans, have it CNC manufactured and self-assembled. A full scale prototype was built in 2012, with improvements subsequently made by the community. Questions of authorship arise and blur the boundaries between production and designer, professional and amateur. How will this affect the role of the professional ‘architect’ if everyone can build? Questions similar to this and more will force the profession to think its roles differently and adapt.
Indy Johar, author and founding architect of 00:/, in their report “Compendium for the Civic Economy” (Ahrensbach, Beunderman and Johar, 2011), underlies that an overall emerging recurrent theme in all of the self- building communities is “self-organization & collaborative management built on user-centric and open scale-free platforms.” An opening passage of the report summarizes the current movement, “A civic economy is emerging, one which is fundamentally both open and social. It is an economy which is fusing the culture of Web 2.0 with civic purpose”. Here, the expanded role of architectural media has been pushed further, not merely as a representation, but as a platform of creating agency. The real change is in letting people from beyond the architecture/design field to utilize mediums often associated with architectural production. It transcends its former role and becomes a tool for social construct.
Through the increasingly important role of the internet and the mobile device, the separation between information and ourselves becomes thinner. Jeremy Hight (2008) in his article, “A New Area for Collective Activism”, explained it brilliantly by saying “The breadth and coverage of our realities keep expanding, but they are converging in our awareness of space and time”. If we talked about ‘information and reality converging in our awareness of space and time’ 20 years back, people would have surely thought of the fictional future that Ridley Scott envisioned through his 1982 film ‘Blade Runner’. “This is augmented reality, a new and emerging level of interaction. Augmented reality is a system of technology and visualization that allows information to be placed in the field of vision as one moves,” explains Hight. A recent cultural phenomenon would be the Pokemon GO! craze to best describe the immense potential of augmented reality.
Our built environment, however, has not managed to evolve spatially to follow the vast improvements in digital media. A critical question raised by Shannon Mattern (2012), Assistant Professor at the Department of Media Studies and Film at The New School, New York, was, “If our media and our built spaces do not follow the same evolutionary paths, what is the relationship between these two fields of production and experience?” Mattern understands that there is a possible future where we could become disconnected from our physical surroundings if it continues to develop in the same way spatially. That our built environment plays an equally important role. Our spaces around us should make us more aware and require us to interact using our other tactile senses such as touch and smell (Mattern, 2009). Force us to move fast and slow, and at varying speeds through the landscape. The environment should be just as engaging as the media. A possible scenario as written by Martin de Waal (2014) in his book, “The City as Interface” is the “deployment of digital and mobile media as ‘territory device’: an appliance or systems that can influence the experience of an urban area.” Essentially digital information is specifically geo-tagged onto the location, embedded with previous data such as history and past visitors to the place. A sort of urban ghost gets left behind and it is possible for visitors to continue updating the ‘ghost’ with new experiences. That scenario is gradually unfolding itself through digital applications such as Uber and Airbnb that utilizes the local network to engage with a specific geographical location. A convergence of the physical and digital realm in our own ‘awareness of time and space’.
Despite the positivist view of cyber-utopianism; of a networked society free from legal jurisdiction and governance, the digital realm, unfortunately, does not belong to individuals only. State powers and multinationals have also been utilizing the full potential of the ‘networked society’. The ‘Big Brother’ image is further fuelled by the increasing ability of technology to keep a tab on any data as long as it is recorded. Again what was considered fiction as imagined by George Orwell (1949) in his dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, is now the future that we’re currently inhabiting. Political artist and activist, Ai Weiwei is among those on the frontline negotiating between state powers and the freedom to voice out opinions via social media. Due to being vocal with regards to the People’s Republic of China’s regime, Ai Weiwei has been detained multiple times to the point of not being able to leave his home country. Out of this restraining order, however, some amazing projects have emerged such as Project Moon.
Moon is a collaborative project with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Elliason as a virtual meeting place to exchange ideas. As quoted by Robin Cembalest in his ARTNews review, “Moon is a place where people from anywhere on Earth can connect through drawing. It exists beyond the art world, beyond borders, beyond traditional ideas of authorship and value”. A virtual site (https://www.moonmoonmoonmoon.com ) literally left open to the public, the organizers of moon saw users evolving from leaving scribbles and doodles to “collaborations, and clusters, and virtual versions of the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse”. If we were to speculate on possible futures for project Moon, collaborations could be done on the scale of the objects, installations, and buildings even. Whole databases available, not just of good ideas but of the mundane and obscure too.
Couple that with the endless possibilities of augmented and virtual reality, we would see a truly fluid architectural media emerge. The infinite Library of Babel as Jorge Luis Borges could have never imagined happening.
It is clear through points discussed above that architectural media is evolving from a method of representation to an empowering medium. Able to give agency to individuals and communities beyond the field of architecture and design. At its current trajectory, architectural media may evolve into an autonomous framework. Eventually not requiring a ‘central actor’ for the cultural production of architecture to occur. Blurring the role of the creator and the end user. Authorship entitlement will become secondary next to unimportant. What matters is the desired outcome, whether physical or non-physical. The ‘architect’ as a profession may cease to exist in the future, as we see vast shifts in the role that society plays within the built environment. In its most extreme, we can almost imagine the ‘architect’ as a fictional role. Reduced to a romantic, glorified version of the ‘Grand Author’. Cast along with fabled roles such as the alchemist. A role silently waiting for someone to make it a reality again.
Ahrensbach, T., Beunderman, J., and Johar, I., 2011. Compendium for the Civic Economy. 00:/ Publishers: London.
Hight, J., 2008. A New Arena for Collective Activism, Volume Magazine #16: Engineering Society, July 2008.
Mattern, S., 2012. Media and Architecture. Words in Space Shannon Mattern. Avaliable at: http://www.wordsinspace.net/wordpress/teaching/course-list/media-and- architecture/
Mattern, S., 2009. Silent,Invisible City: Mediating urban Experience for the Other Senses. In Frank Eckardt et al., Eds., Mediacity: Situations, Practices, and Encounters. Frank & Timme: Berlin. Avaliable at: http://www.wordsinspace.net/publications/SilentInvisibleCity.pdf
Papamichael, K., 1999. Digital Media in Architecture: Opportunities and Challenges. Berkeley, University of California. Avaliable at: https://buildings.lbl.gov/sites/all/files/43080.pdf
Parvin, A., 2013. Architecture by the People for the People. [TED] February 2013. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/alastair_parvin_architecture_for_the_people_by_the_people
Waal, M.D., 2014. The City as Interface. NAi010 Publishers: Rotterdam.