Architects in the adaptive city

Benjamin Bratton proposes that one half of all architects and urbanists stop designing new buildings. Instead, they should be focusing their attention on the design and development of new software that provides for better use of structures and systems we already have.
Bratton proposes the above as an ‘experiment,’ I would go further and suggest that in the coming decades, the architects and urbanists in Bratton’s proposal will have very little say in the matter. Architects will surely have to drastically redefine themselves and the entire profession if they are to survive.
For centuries, one person, or one group of architects, urban planners, politicians, whatever have been defining their perfect city, suggesting that their solution is the perfect answer to urban living. The daily living and working conditions of a city should not fall to one person or one small group. The city and its people are constantly changing, perhaps now at a faster rate than even before, both in population size and culture.
A population can quickly outgrow its city or region in the space of one generation. The people change and the city lags. It’s for this reason, the future city should be an adaptive, inter-connected, self-organizing network that can respond to users’ needs on a scale and at a rate not currently available. An adaptive city that can respond to change immediately, relieving the population of the short sightedness of politicians and urban planners.

The city should world like a connected network divided into cells. These cells are capable of communicating with and learning from one another. Furthermore, these cells are capable of expanding and reposition themselves to suit the collective needs of its users.
The current economic, capitalist market model that drives building and construction does not lend itself well to architecture. What’s more, the technology and research that is coming out now is breathing down the traditional architect’s neck. For the profession to have any contribution at all, it must redefine itself, and soon.
But is it a bad thing, anyway, this end of an era? I believe the death of architecture will be the beginning of a new level of social living. It’s not just the arrogance or the mightier than thou attitude that I’m looking forward to being rid of. It’s the glimmer or new technology that I hope stamps out the need for a current day architect.
Futurists and science fiction writers would have us believe that the cities of the future are as static as they are today. Sure, they may have a machine-like aesthetic but it still lacks the adaptability or macro-intelligence that can be observed in nature and potentially exploited through bio-mimicry.
The future city should be one that is self-organized, inter-connected and digital throughout. It should be continuously responding and adapting itself to the populace on a scale and at rate that is today unavailable. The city observes patterns in its people and responds accordingly. It is a continuous feedback loop: the citizens shape the city, both physically and culturally and the city in turn shapes and influences its people. Interaction is encouraged and it is the collective efforts of the entire population that mould this future city. There is very little room for a current day architect in this future metropolis. Once the tools and infrastructure have been put in place, there will be no longer be a need for space designers as a profession. The people on the street, the end users are instead the designers. People have an uncanny ability to adapt to their built environment, it’s about time the built environment began adapting, and the technology emerging now means it’s closer than ever before. Less autoplastic and more alloplastic.
The future adaptive city should have three connection types or loops:
People – People.
Building – Building.
People – Building.
Sure, there will have to be some rules or parameters (though I’m hesitant to use this word in case it evokes ideas of a certain ‘style’.) But once these have been defined the city will be left to its own will. Moreover, these rules can be, and should be defined by its end users, collectively.
The idea of adaptive cities is not necessarily new, (Archigram’s walking city or Constant’s new Babylon spring to mind.) But they, unfortunately did not or perhaps could not have prophesied the level of technology being making itself available to us.
Behnaz Farahi hints at the possibilities for an adaptive city or at least, building element with her installation/project, ‘breathing wall.’ She explores the potential for a gesture-based interaction with the built environment by employing the use of a leap motion device as means of controlling the wall remotely.
She writes:
In the future it may even be possible to design a direct interface which allows users to interact with their environments without any intermediary mechanism. Such interfaces will make control of our physical environment much easier.
But how would Farahi’s wall react to brainwaves rather than gestures? What if the scale, form, texture, material, colour were also adaptive? Let’s go one step further and ask what if it was only a ‘wall’ when it needed to be? Could it become a window? A door? A shelter? A communication device? A bottle opener? A city…?
The biggest question however, is what does Farahi’s wall become when it is required to meet the needs of multiple users? How does it democratically meet the needs of all? Does it go with the majority? Or a hodgepodge of all user’s needs?
We must explore how an adaptive city might respond to certain real life events. For example, how does an adaptive city respond to:
 An overflow of refugees from a nearby war or natural disaster?
 An act of terrorism?
 An earthquake, flood or natural disaster?
 Warfare?
 Disease?
 Population booms?
I do not have the answers for the above questions, but I would propose that the adaptive city would and should be continuously learning. How it responds to one of the above situations the first time should differ from the second, third and hundredth. The city’s system will act as a negative feedback loop, in this way the change won’t overshoot creating negative side effects. What’s more, could one adaptive city be communicating with another elsewhere on the planet? Tweaking its response to the above situations suit its own unique requirements. This of course changes the scale of an interconnected city to an interconnect earth, then galaxy, then universe.
It’s also impossible to answer how the city may look. This is a something that should be embraced, it’s not until the populace has been given the tools that the city can begin to take shape. The city should be as unique as its people. Each city and its elements are the sum of its experiences, thoughts, feelings and emotions. A part of themselves reflected in the city. There is not one planner or group of planners.
The adaptive city should however get ‘smarter,’ that is, react in a way that is more beneficial to more people depending on how many users are interacting with it. Pattern seeking algorithms can respond to the city much faster than observers can. Without its people, the city is nothing.
The elements of an adaptive city should be able to self-organize themselves into more complicated structures by learning from and looking at its neighboring elements. It will rely on the ability to self-assemble itself. It should act like a neural network: Each building, or building element, or person, or whatever would act like a digital neuron. Constantly firing information to its neighbours, doubling back for confirmation, and spreading throughout the built environment. This creates a self‐assembled, self‐organized complex landscape.
It however would be foolish to observe one of these component separately, but rather should be considered in the context of the whole. As Steven Johnson in his book Emergence writes, “there has to be feedback between agents, cells that change in response to the changes in other cells.”
In the example of the neural network, an experience persists in the form of reverberating neural circuits which become more strongly defined with repetition. Patterns emerge reinforcing the physical city space, Johnson comments that this process: “marks out a fixed space in the brain and thereafter become part of our mental vocabulary,” in the case of the city, replace ‘mental vocabulary’ with ‘physical vocabulary. ‘
If you were to read Jane Jacob’s one would think we are already there: “Vital cities have marvelous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties,” Johnson on Jacobs comments that cities get their order from below; they are learning machines, pattern recognizers—even when the patterns they respond to are unhealthy ones.
I believe Jacobs is right in that cities already have a life-like quality of their own and the ability to adapt. I would argue however that the potential for a city to change and adapt depends heavily on its people, an oppressed people live in an oppressed city. If these people were the ones in control of their built environment however, something new and a more accurate representation of the populace would emerge.
Jacobs wrote extensively on the power of the sidewalk and fought aggressively with planners who proposed taking people off the streets. She was correct in that it is on the streets where interaction between people happens. The question however is: how do you get more people using the sidewalk? I would propose that if the population were rewarded for their interaction on the street through their physical environment, it would encourage users to interact with their city.
To use a computer as a metaphor, if the city is the hardware, then what would be the software or user interface?
It would appear that augmented reality is closer than it has ever been, Google Glasses will soon be available to the public and China has naturally already created a knock off that is available at a much more accessible price. Perhaps augmented reality will be necessary to interpret this future
connected city. Imagine a device (less cumbersome and intrusive then Google glasses) that allows you to interpret your built environment on levels before unseen. In front of your eyes will be the vast amounts of data on every element of your built environment, and, if they choose to share it, the personal data on whom you share the space with.*
The obvious argument to the proposal of augmented reality is why the need for any built environment at all? Why not just an infinite plane that people walk around in, with their personal built environment projected into their eyes? Or a step further would be, why not just hook us up, reclined in chairs and let our physical bodies waste away whilst our brain is stimulated with whatever it desires, as portrayed in many dystopian science fiction film?
Maybe we will end up like this one day, but in the more immediate future, I would say that there is a need for a built environment, the augmented reality is just a tool to help interpret. If everyone has a vision of their own personal utopian projected into their head, interaction between citizens does not exist. The danger of augmented reality is being cut off from your fellow citizens. One would lose all the influences and inspiration from the world around them without the interaction that happens naturally in the cities and on the streets.
So what is the architect’s role in all of this?
There is no place for a traditional architect or architecture practice in this future city, those in the profession can keep the term ‘Architect’ (with a capital A, if they must) but they will not be the ones pitching new projects. There will be no need for pitches as there will be no clients, one will not approach a planning committee or a builder or financers to start a project, it will exist as it is needed.
The architect won’t be engaged to design the built environment, everyone will be doing that and everyone will be very, very good at it. The city itself will be searching for patterns and making adjustments as they are needed also.
No, the architect must reinvent herself as the designer of the tools that will be provided to the city’s citizens. She must be working vigorously in producing adaptive, smart materials, researching emergent, evolutionary and self-organizing systems that can be found in the natural environment. She must also, as Fredric Jameson warns, be fighting against homogenization and crying for a resurgence of regionalism and being wary of a certain ‘style’ that comes from the software being made available to us.
As Ivan Chtecheglov wrote over 50 years ago:
The architecture of tomorrow will be a means of modifying present conceptions of time and space. It will be means of knowledge and a means of action. The architectural complex will be modifiable. Its aspect will change totally or partially in accordance with the will of its inhabitants.”
* I will not be going into the issues of privacy and the sharing of data in this paper.

The Internet of Architecture Things
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Architects in the adaptive city

Benjamin Bratton proposes that one half of all architects and urbanists stop designing new buildings. Instead, they should be focusing their attention on the design and development of new software that provides for better use of structures and systems we already have.
Bratton proposes the above as an ‘experiment,’ I would go further and suggest that in the coming decades, the architects and urbanists in Bratton’s proposal will have very little say in the matter. Architects will surely have to drastically redefine themselves and the entire profession if they are to survive.
For centuries, one person, or one group of architects, urban planners, politicians, whatever have been defining their perfect city, suggesting that their solution is the perfect answer to urban living. The daily living and working conditions of a city should not fall to one person or one small group. The city and its people are constantly changing, perhaps now at a faster rate than even before, both in population size and culture.
A population can quickly outgrow its city or region in the space of one generation. The people change and the city lags. It’s for this reason, the future city should be an adaptive, inter-connected, self-organizing network that can respond to users’ needs on a scale and at a rate not currently available. An adaptive city that can respond to change immediately, relieving the population of the short sightedness of politicians and urban planners.
READ MORE..

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The unoriginal manifesto

It’s a strange feeling when you realize that your ‘original’ design philosophy is anything but. When your personal “aha!” moment has been aha-ed long, long before you. What’s more, its one thing to be beat to the punch by your colleagues or contemporaries, but entirely another to be over 50 years late to the party.
My naiveté was made painfully apparent whilst reading the works of CIAM, Jacobs, Archigram, Chtcheglov and Constant in particular.
To give some context, let me quickly present what I thought was my personal contribution to centuries of Architecture:
A self-organized, inter-connected, digital city. One continuously in flux. Responding and adapting to the populace on a scale and at a rate currently unavailable to today’s technology. The city, (though, perhaps urban-organism is a better word (that an architect would use at least)) observes patterns in its people and responds accordingly. The city is a continuous feedback loop: the people shape, both physically and culturally the city and the city in turn shapes and influences its people. Interaction is encouraged, the collective efforts of the people mold the city, rather than one urban planner or one planning committee. Finally, and most importantly, the architecture profession will be a thing of the past.
Admittedly, the modernism critics of the 50s and 60s may not have been thinking of a “digital city,” but an adaptive, self-organizing, user defined city has made itself so clearly unoriginal that I cringe to think it was mine.
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