Open Source Architecture

(Originally published in A10 #07, Jan/Feb 2006, Amsterdam. This version was presented at theAlternate Currents Symposium, at the University of Sheffield)

Dislocating our attention from today’s architectural mainstream, and namely from its major modernist inheritances, I suggest that we’re facing an alternate practice in architecture, which stems from the idea of a shared urban code.

I believe that, although still relatively marginal to the core of today’s architectural discourse, this practice is more connected to everyday culture than the modernist one that preceded it. Immersed in a new metropolitan culture, this practice is, in fact, a relevant participant in the open cultural atmosphere that, nowadays, is being constantly remixed in our fast-paced cities.

In fact, facing the manifold problems and anxieties originating in the changing urban culture of the begginings of the 21st century, it is indeed about time to wonder if there are positive signs of current attitudes and trends that, from the point of view of architectural practice, may offer new perspectives on how to embrace again the rich, multicultural everyday of our cities.

Open-source archtecture is in this sense a proposed designation for a phenomena that, coming from the margins of the established contemporary system of architecture, is deeply involved with different cultures present in the cities and metropolises of our day. (1)

In that context, an open-source architecture would be one in which architectural expression becomes a shared code: one that feeds on the codes of everyday urban culture and one that, in return, is open for appropriation by other urban practitioners such as artists and designers.

Maybe this interaction was always an ambition in architecture – namely to express society’s needs or aspirations or to see its own expressions accepted as relevant. In that sense, there were also earlier moments in which architecture shared with other artistic and social movements the capacity to interact strongly with urban culture.

But these momentary inputs tend permanently to codification within the discipline – and therefore to become exclusively read as architecturally autonomous.

As such, there is also a recurrent need for a change of paradigm and language that allows for a reconnection with everyday life.

This change of paradigm and language is what I propose we are facing again around us and is the main propeller of what I am designating here as open-source architecture.

And if similar paradigm shifts have lately been recognized in other cultural areas by diverse sociologists and theoreticians (2), it is also about time to explore how these changes affect the nature of architectural practice.

In a recent issue of Archis, Dennis Kaspori already suggested open-source code as an organizational model for contemporary architecture.(3)

I want to go a bit further on that argument and propose that an open-source architecture is already under way, not so much as an organizational model, but as a metaphor that extends and opens up the notion of code as we normally – and restrictedly – understand it within architecture.

Code in architecture stands for the progressive encryptation of a certain system and language of builders and building, something that over the course of the last century grew more and more alienated from the people, everyday life and the culture of the city.

As such, we are now used to identify architecture with a highly specialized code.

In fact, since the Renaissance, we have seen this code being increasingly mediated by different forms of representation and also proliferating through specific and successive codes, which grow on one another or against each other. More recently, after post-structuralism and the crises of Modernism, we also faced the claims for successive recodings. We have even witnessed the call for a double-coding that, after Umberto Eco, would allow architecture to address both the high and low end of its own cultural reception.

Even so, the multiple codes of contemporary architecture have largely remained encrypted in the discourses and domains of the discipline. The international system of architecture as-we-know-it helps to gate-keep the code in the right circles. This gate-keeping means not only a self-perpetuation device for the architectural system itself, but has also become an eventual and dutiful protection of the professional exercise.

Recently, though, there are signs of an uprooting of this maintenance of architectural codes. Disruptions of the architect’s role, transgressions into the fields of art, subversions of the aims and purposes of design, appropriations of codes originating in urban culture, seem to flourish in between a generation of younger practices.

In this sense, it seems particularly interesting to investigate how the nature of everyday urban practice may be altering our previous, modernistic, views on the function(s), values and codifications of architecture.(4)

In fact, by the start of this new century, the impact of urban change not only once again dilutes the idea of a national or stylistic genesis, but it also begins to disturb the ways in which we are conventionally used to see the role and public profile of architectural culture – certainly a way of understanding where architectural code stems from and what it intends to address.

One way in which we can attest to this reality is to recognize how the architectural star-system adapted and conformed to the society of the spectacle – offering it a highly developed architectural code that, only vaguely derived from the International Style own global condition, provides an effective answer to the cosmopolitan nature of a media-driven urban culture now spread across the globe.

But other effects, parallel to this one might be taking place in different circles.

Curiously it might be the sheer exaggeration and overwhelming presence of the star-system that may be pushing architecture in new directions and, inclusively, outside its own more restrict domains.

I believe that, in a pervasive if marginal way, the influence of the star-system, as we’ve seen it growing over the past decade or so, may be heading to produce a radical splitting within the architectural community itself.

Newcomer architects around Europe and some other places may be starting to acknowledge that, now that the star-system is well defined and soundly reproducing, this is not only a closed system tending to stagnation, but that it may also be just a byproduct of a specific moment. I’m referring, namely, to architecture’s media explosion and the consequent ascension of architects to the realm of media celebrity previously kept for actors, football players and supermodels.

Some architects may, of course, still aspire to enter that particular world and will be fighting to arrive there at a later stage and age.

In that context, the domination of specific architectural code – and, more so, of the effective and restrict codes that guarantee the profession a high symbolic return – will still be instrumental in defining the who’s who of the architectural establishment.

But other practitioners, many others – and particularly those who start to constitute a visible surplus of this specific architectural system – may start to entertain other purposes, if not simply wishing to leave this particular coded game.

Even if we were speaking of merely substituting one game for another; even if were speaking of a new game that is filtered by its own specific media and code effects, surely we would then be talking about a parallel level of reality within the definition of the architectural system.

Namely, we would be talking about a level in which codes are no longer restrictive and bounding, but rather constitute a bridge to external references and everyday life.

To enter such a realm of open-source and thus understand how this trend may come to integrate the possibilities of architecture, one has first to briefly understand what Pierre Bourdieu would undoubtedly call the cultural field of architectural production.

We’ve already identified the high end of this system: stardom.

This defines a large establishment that involves architects, critics, specific media and their audiences and intermediaries.

In the periphery of this end of the system there are also the so-called challengers: both those architects that belong to the immediate lower levels of the cultural high end of production and the newcomers that are slowly making their way up through the system, acquiring visibility, networking up through the meanders of the system.

Then you have the large sector of architectural production.

This includes not only the medium and large corporate firms of architects, but also the unacknowledged practitioner. Both of them produce most of the city around us. Neither is really into the symbolic game of the high-end subsystem.

Both sectors cater for the very large ranks of those that – normally being young architects in need of survival – simply support them, forming the teams of dozens and hundreds that fill both the star offices and the remaining corporate companies.

This fast and general portrait of the field of architecture evokes an economical and symbolic system that has been quite balanced up till now.

While the corporate sector of architecture is now happy to fulfill technological and economical expectations – namely by its use of a highly specialized code that represents undoubtedly a professional surplus –, the so-called star system of architecture is hired to produce monuments around the world in their author’s specific language.

But when such a system reaches critical mass – and this certainly happened in many countries over the last few years – I believe the system starts to create a surplus that is no longer that marginal and that may create an alternative reality.

The architectural star-system and its byproducts, for example, may have reached a saturation point by which its own surplus starts to produce agents which are forced to readapt to the conditions of contemporary cultural production outside architecture.

As Lars Lerup suggests in After the City, the democratization of architectural formation may spill out into our societies in a much more pervasive and unexpected way than we suppose. It may even help to implode the architectural system as we know it.

In fact, if not every member of a class of producers is absorbed in the large-scale market, then the idle surplus of creativity will start to expand naturally onto a marginal cultural production that tends to gain its own logic. And that may put into question the now established way of looking at architecture and its own codifications.

If you don’t want – or are not provided with the opportunity – to belong to a system prepared to create only monuments or corporate culture, you will have to find other ways to express yourself.

Not wanting to enter the ranks of those supporting the star and corporate systems means that more and more newcomers to the field of architecture are driven out of its mainstream system and into other forms of activity. Those that had neither the ambition to become traditional challengers of the establishment, nor did they have the patience to fill the ranks of the system, are thus ready, if necessary, to abandon the tradition of the field both in terms of its professional domains, rules, procedures and codes.

But, if one has to deny the backbone tradition on which one has built his or her professional knowledge, what does one turn to instead?

One turns to something else… One becomes idle or embraces macjobs. One waits. One lives his or her life. And one devises tactics to somehow profit from all of these circumstances.

At this point one also probably starts to embrace again the urban cultures from which one sprung to the architectural world and where one has hopefully kept some social connections.

By the time one faces the possibility to re-embrace the architectural profession, one has probably contacted other cultures, one has become aware of other realities, one has come back nearer to everyday life and one has started to rediscover and share values that somehow seemed lost within the codes of the profession.

And when eventually one gets the odd architectural commission, one has gained not only the freedom to do whatever it pleases him or hersef, but one has also gained the possibility to express oneself through newly acquired or reacquired codes.

My hypotheses here is then that, by now and in this way, some architectural practices purportedly or unconsciously moved outside the two aforementioned forms of architectural mainstream and, thus, they have started to refuse the inherent codifications for commercial or monumental culture present in current discourses.

Paradoxically – or not – these practices also belong to a generation that, although eventually feeling some sort of aversion towards the commodification of architectural codes, has, all the same, started to accept full immersion in urban and mass culture as a natural part of their lives.(5)

And accepting immersion in mass-culture implies embracing codes that were not generated within the field of architecture – something that leads us to the second range of reasons for an open-source architecture to be emerging.

This reasons address the already referred reassessment of metropolitan mass-culture in the beginning of the 21st century and the fact that this culture requires new approaches from the practices that build and represent our environments.

Such as by the end of XIXth century sociologists like Georg Simmel were discussing the nature of the cosmopolitan mentality in terms of the new spirit that it was able to produce, also the urban nature of the end of the XXth century is now producing its own set of effects.

These effects include, as before, strong components of eclecticism.

They include the return of the repressed through new forms of ornament and the omnipresence of mass-culture.

They include the irruption of urban and visual cultures and lifestyles that become instantly spread and shared across the globe.

They include modes of thinking and patterns of behavior that differ from only one generation back.

And they include, ultimately, the new forms of acceleration in communication technologies and their consequences for connectivity and exchange.

All of these phenomena coincide with the reassessment of code in philosophical thought.

Computing and software has again suggested the structural significance of code, and the explosion of the media has made us more aware of its defining intermediate role.

Code surrounds us and defines reality for us, in a way that has even been taken to fictional and metaphorical consequence in a motion picture like The Matrix.

As such, also in architecture there must be an approach to the idea of code that may reassess its importance to architectural practice.

The notion of open-source architecture addresses precisely the way in which code is nowadays also a defining tool for the nature of architectural practice.

In this sense, code not only speaks in terms of architectural language and professional rules of conduct – as before – but it also becomes a key for the social understanding of an alternative practice of architecture. One in which the code of architecture is openly shared and generates itself outside its expected circuits within the discipline.

After all, I am indeed referring to a recent architecture that feeds on the contrasting and spontaneous codes of plural urban cultures, something that may include commercial brand culture, the media, the influence of local communities and popular urban expressions, economical conditions, political issues, and, of course, the positive and bold embrace of plain everyday practices.

Its themes are low budget, everyday needs, DIY, political concerns, mobility and temporariness, conceptual subversion, and even happiness and optimism.

Its forms range from the temporary interiors to the small-scale projects; from installation to performance; from activism to individual expression; but also from commercial and community work to small local public commissions.

Indeed, this is a culture that doesn’t come straight from the regular architectural history book. It doesn’t stem from the usual code of architectural thinking. It is, therefore, uncomfortable with the usual value gate-keepers.

So, this architectural practice not only builds upon a new set of codes available in the city, rather than in the traditional view of the architectural discipline, but it also contributes to a generic code which cannot, as before, be closed in its own specialist circuit.

Because it is based in the sharing of a broader urban culture, this language is also speaking back in the understandable terms of such culture.

Through life-style media, architecture’s code was already somehow spilling onto the streets. Now this same code is getting back on architecture, already chewed by the streets.

And because it’s based in open-source code, this architectural culture is not the exclusive kingdom of specialists, but it is open for appropriation by hackers and amateurs.

And suddenly, around Europe, in-between the two realities described here, there seems to be a consistent mass of practitioners that produce something that, in its diversity and in its difference from mainstream architecture, offers a different portrait of what everyday architecture might be. Of what the architect’s role might be within a changing urban culture.

As such, I believe there are now more connections and shared values in between these practitioners around the hyperurbanised centers of the westen world, than in between each different local community of architects in each of these different places.

It’s a question of discourse, it’s a question of attitude, it’s a question of lifestyle, if you want, but, essentially, it’s a question of sharing an everyday culture that is more global, media-driven, cosmopolitan, and less determined by disciplinary constraints and concerns, than ever before.

Of course, this is not like an international movement.

It’s silent and discrete. It’s eclectic and open-ended. And it’s there: in stores, in bars, in your mama’s backyard, in local communities, in third world countries, in urbanite rooftops or in obscure cellar shows.

It feeds, if you want, on a shared open-source code that more and more people are appropriating from different local contexts with a surprising freedom, dexterity and capacity of concretization.

It is something that is being achieved with clients you would think to be conservative and unaccepting; something that is springing in the least improbable places.

In terms of architectural expression, it is a somewhat marginal production that is definitely post-post-modern.

It finds its vocabulary and components in all of last century’s architectural culture, but also in what Venturi and Scott Brown are calling the iconographic culture – something I would more broadly call the visual culture of the metropolis.

It speaks of a condition that generates spontaneously from the changing condition of the metropolis.

On the other hand, though, this code is also being remixed by other people.

In fact, and as I have already pointed out, through the slow opening of the generalist and life style media to architecture, some of the well kept codes of contemporary architecture were already becoming accessible to other urban practitioners.

Once we are in the affluent society and in the information society, it does not necessarily happen that the architecture thus produced by non-architects is only that of the developer or the uncultured self-builder.

The manipulation of this open-source code is rather the new domain of artists, designers, and other creative urban practitioners.

This is what makes it possible that one of the most successful upcoming architectural groups in Vienna does not include architects as their main core. At least, in architectural gatherings, Propeller Z go around subversively spreading their ironical surprise at being invited when none of them is an architect.

Other practitioners have been trading with the codes of architecture coming from a design practice – like Werner Aisslinger or… for example – and many more as part of a recognized artistic practice – such as Atelier van Lieshout, N55, Tobias Rehberger, Marjetica Potrč, Pedro Cabrita Reis and others.

If, on the other hand, you are by now in desperate need of examples of architectural practices who may be dealing and interacting with the sort of cultural code I’m describing here, you have to think of FAT and MUF in London, Didier Fiuza Faustino and Péripheriques in Paris, NL Architects in Amsterdam, Ian+ and Stalker in Rome, the Poor Boys Enterprise and AllesWirdGut in Vienna, BAR e Raumtaktik in Berlin, Lot/Ek in New York…

And if these names are to become the next mainstream and will somehow leave this practice of the margins, one has to notice that this does not stop open-source architecture to renew itself outside of its own realm.

Also here the cycle of consumption will inevitably apply, but one has to realize that that is only to mimic the way reality and society are constantly reshaping themselves in our metropolises.

Even if these groups loose their radical edge, others will take their place, devising new sources for marginal and connective thinking.

To close my argument, I would say that if there will be any recognition at all of the coherent whole stemming from this two related tendencies – that is, one being the appropriation of the available urban cultural code by architects, and the other the appropriation of the architectural code by other urban practitioners – there will also be a strong effort on the architectural establishment to prove that ‘this is not architecture’, unless, of course, its better examples manage to crawl into the glossies.

But, no wonder, it’s still mainly alternative lifestyle glossies or the other cross-disciplinary design or arts magazine that are interested in portraying these phenomena.

Apart from that, at most, you will find this still marginal and upcoming production in surveys of the so-called young architects, local magazines or in the occasional project being singled out as cultural novelty.

Mainstream architectural magazines only in very specific cases will address the issue, and still always as unrelated phenomena.

Those media, as the non-specialist broadsheets and tabloids, are still mainly interested in the current production of the star system and in the public monuments the architectural system is erecting to itself.

They tend to forget that, by now, an everyday, necessary urban architecture is springing elsewhere.

Pedro Gadanho, October 2007


1 In this sense, some of the ideas presented here are partially indebted to Lars Lerup. As this author suggests “the search for a new metropolitan architecture” is not only “fraught with entanglements and opportunities,” but is also “beyond the traditional grasp of the hand of the master.” In that sense, such a search may also emerge from the practices of the margins. See Lerup, Lars, (2000), After the City, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts, p118-122.

2 Just to give an example in between many possible, we can go back to James Lull, an expert on the sociology of the media. Already in the mid-nineties, this sociologist was acknowledging that the young practitioners at the margins of the mainstream are, nowadays, particularly active assemblers and mixers of different symbolic materials in their environments, freely recombining these to create their own cultural identities. Sooner or later, this could also apply to architectural practice, namely if this is defined in a regime of open-source. See Lull, James, (1995), Media, Communication, Culture, A Global Approach, Polity Press, Cambridge, p109.

3 See Kaspori, Dennis, “Towards an open-source architectural practice,” reproduced in Shamiyeh, M., (Ed.), What People Want, Populism in Architecture and Design, Birkhäuser, Basel, Boston, Berlin: 2005

4 Being interested on what might be changing in the nature of architecture as practiced by successive generations in fast evolving contexts, I have been particularly interested in exploring how contemporary urban culture may influence the cultural production of architecture. As such, in my curatorial activity – from the exhibition Space Invaders, a project on young British practices realized for the British Council UK in 2001, toMetaflux, Two Generations in Recent Portuguese Architecture, realized for the Venice Architecture Biennale of 2004, or to Pancho Guedes, An Alternative Modernist, realized for the Swiss Architecture Museum in 2007 – there was always a particular research on how specific urban atmospheres and cultural conditions affected the nature and codes of architectural practices emerging in different circumstances.

5 A good example of the quest for the acceptance of this contemporary condition is given in Studio Sputnik, (2003), Snooze, Immersing Architecture in Mass Culture, Nai Publishers, Rotterdam.

4 responses to “Open Source Architecture

  1. Pingback: Curatorial Practice as Open-Source « shrapnel contemporary

  2. Pingback: Manifesto as Hyperactive Ego Trip « shrapnel contemporary

  3. Pingback: # MANIFESTO /// Pedro Gadanho | The Funambulist

  4. It’s going to be finish of mine day, except before end I am reading this great post to improve my knowledge.

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