Design for empowerment for Design: environments, partners and toolkits

In my last post I examined a shift in architectural discourse which emerged from the cycles of International Modernism and subverted its most fundamental assumptions from the inside. This discourse, initiated at the CIAM 10 in Dubrovnik questioned the practices of the architect-expert as paternalistic and by definition reductionist, unable to account for the complexities of modern life, and advocated for systems which allow for the expression of the “relational needs of man in society” [1]. The vision was to orchestrate architectures which transcend the “pure and inhuman technique of modernist functionalism”[2] and are receptive to unpredictable, ever changing personal needs; or to use Yona Friedman’s words “personal hypotheses”. Within this context the megastructural topologies of spatial urbanism are born as the “return to the science fictional attributes of the Modern Movement, ideal and magical, detached from the real where they think they adhere”[3]
Of course, one cannot dissociate this climate of architectural prospectiveness from the broader spatial culture in France. In his text “The Urban Utopia in France, 1960-1970”[4] Larry Busbea argues that the unbuilt projects of spatial urbanism were in fact depictions, representations of this spatial culture. He proposes to read them as a mixture of the flux space of the postwar “trentes glorieuses” in France, the thriving of structuralist thought and the emergence of a discourse amongst intellectuals allowing for the conception of a technological humanism (Van Lier, Simondon, Moles).
The situation of spatial urbanism in its historical context, or in other words its reading as a cultural product made at a specific place and time is inarguably valuable and perhaps more valid from a methodological standpoint. However, what I am interested in doing in this post is to look at spatial urbanism as a diagram of technology mediated design participation; to detach it from its context and examine its structures and operational modes.
I have already framed the hypothesis that there are interesting diagrammatic affinities between the way the roles of the architect, the user and the technological platform are conceptualized in spatial urbanism and in early computer aided participatory design (1970-1975). These affinities are often overshadowed by a clear difference of the general climate in which all these proposals were formed. On the one hand, the engagement of the users in the design process through the help of computers is seen as an episode of american technocratic pragmatism and the spatial culture in France stemming from a network of philosophical and political referents. Busbea’s observation that “The French engagement with these networks and systems was fundamentally different than that of the Americans, whose energies were clearly focused on economic superiority and political supremacy”[5] is indicative of such differences which exclude the possibility of parallel readings of the french and the anglo-saxon scene.

In this post I will talk about Yona Friedman’s Spatial City [6] along with the space allocation and design program that accompanied it (the Flatwriter), Nicholas Negroponte’s Soft Architecture Machines [6] and John Frazer’s Evolutionary Architecture [7], to propose three intersecting diagrams of technology mediated participatory design, with emphasis on the way the technological tool is figured / conceptualized in the process.
I claim that these proposals can be read under the prism of three main schemes: technology-as-environment, technology-as-subject and technology-as-toolkit respectively. This schematization is a first attempt towards a taxonomy which can be used as a conceptual frame to discuss current practices of technologies for the democratization of design, or -as the title denotes- design for empowerment for design.

1. Urban climates: designing the new Umwelt
The megastructure is initiated as a spatial urbanism of the unpredictable fostering the relational needs (besoins relationelles) of its inhabitants. It is detached from the ground and extends in three-dimensional space offering a new technological substrate, which rejects the stable and the permanent and creates the ground for a multiplicity of personal hypotheses. The megastructure is a global man-made environment, a new artificial nature where even climatic conditions can be adjusted (what Dominique Rouillard refers to us urban climatization). This mega-scale climate conditioning gives an end to the human fight against a hostile nature, which was considered one of the fundamental raisons dʼexistence of architecture in the paradigm of modernist functionalism.

Yona Friedman's Collage of the Spatial City extending over the Place de la Concorde in Paris - Source:

Larry Busbea interestingly points out that the spatial urbanism stems from a psychological drive to design and therefore control the networked, ultra-technological, undecipherable universe of flows which constituted the new landscape of human interactions in the postwar metropolis; Paris more specifically. If technology had become an Umwelt to use Van Lier’s words, then this Umwelt can be the new object of design, can be architecturalized and inhabited.
In the heavy, systematized structures of spatial urbanism rises the vision of a continuous immaterial world of flows. A world beyond spatial segmentations; a garden of Eden reclaimed through technology. As one can clearly see from the drawings of the megastructure the ultimate dream of the megastructure’s creators (Friedman, Otto, Fielitz, Zenetos) is for it to disappear, to become an invisible environment through its absolute ubiquity. This all pervasive technology contains all the constraints that ensure the viability of the system. What is designed here is a framework which allows for a multiplicity of subjectivities and gives space to free play without ever allowing the system to fail.
in the context of spatial urbanism, architecture is liberated from the the constant intervention of the experts by having all the fundamental constraints that ensure its viability detached from it and transposed in an outer layer, which conversely is an object condensing high technical knowledge and innovative expertise. Within it, architecture as we know it, in the scale of the building, is left to the taste and preferences of the individual. Within the spatial city, anything goes.

2. Architecture without architects: the FLATWRITER
However, after coming in contact with the proto-computational experiments, Yona Friedman starts envisioning a system for design empowerment, a tool which at the same time allows for self-planning within his all containing infrastructure and at the same time empowers individuals to create their own designs, without the mediation of the architect.
In his book Towards a Scientific Architecture, Friedman proposed a model where the desires of the users are expressed within a “repertoire” of computer generated possibilities situated within a containing infrastructure that carries all the necessary utilities. I discuss the details of this program in my paper Architecture-by-yourself: Early Studies in Computer Aided Participatory Design. Friedman claims that the use of the FLATWRITER establishes a new informational process reconciling the future user and the object that they use and allowing for a proclaimed limitless individual choice combined with the immediate chance to correct errors without the oversight of a professional paternalism.
In the second loop of the FLATWRITER Friedman sets out a programmatic outline of a process of self-planning based on a very general idea of loose zoning (efficiency lines). It is quite revealing that the countries which carried the legacy of the megastructure gave self planning a central role in their early computational visions. France and Italy (even after the wave of the megastructural dystopias) are the two exemplify this observation . Apart from Friedman, the Turin Center for the Study of Environmental Cybernetics, was conducting similar research in the 70s while advocating for the collective ownership of information and information processing.
However, what I also find of particular interest in Friedman’s program is the first loop: The users first create an associative graph of spaces by explicitly stating their desires. These desires are then evaluated in relation to “real-life” data, which have to do with a mapping of the user’s everyday habits (how many times one enters a room, what are the user’s most usual circulation patterns). In the case of conflicts between the user’s desires and the life patterns that resulting from this mapping, the program states the conflict and invites the user to reconsider their choices. The constitution of “objective” user behavior models and the establishment of occupancy patterns brings to mind current researches on sensor enhanced environments for behavior monitoring. One does not need to go far to think of projects such as the Newcastle University Culture Lab Ambient Kitchen project, incorporating the dimension of reflection on the way one actually inhabits space.With a hint of irony one could propose that this monitoring, which becomes subtler and subtler as sensor technologies progress, almost proposes a model of inverse phenomenology (!); making design decisions based on the room’s experience of the user. This is not very far from Cedric Price’s Generator project, of a space which rearranges itself based on the user’s behaviors and makes more informed choices based on the users’ reactions to these changes (more about this in the section about Frazer). Also, this is certainly not far away from Negroponte’s initial visions on the interaction of user and environment as they had been hinted towards in his thesis and elaborated on at the Architecture Machine. The FLATWRITER exemplifies the meeting point of the french spatial topologies and the cybernetic visions of the US. However, this contact did not leave the other side unaffected.

The FLATWRITER's repertoire of choices

3. Architecture Machine(s): Your Surrogate You
Yona Friedman has used a mathematical scaffolding to support philosophical positions in a manner which affords the reader the opportunity to disagree with his utopian posture, but still benefit from his techniques. […] If you are a student you will find the paradoxical intersection of two academic streams – participatory design and scientific methods – too frequently held apart by the circumstances of our practice [10]
In the Architecture machine [11], Negroponte had already outlined paradigms of human-machine interaction within the design process, attributing to the computer the role of a problem worrying partner. A medium, which through its computational power can allow architects to reach a new humanism, addressing at the same time the very big and the very small and thus surpassing the reductionist averaging models used in prior architectural paradigms. This approach was primarily based on the assumption that the functions of communication, inference, understanding of the context and self improvement, will raise the machines to the level of valuable collaborators, not problem-solving artifacts, but problem-worrying partners of the designer. These improved versions of his self which would allow him to manage inconceivable complexities and stand critically in front of his own work, with beneficial results both for him and the user.

By 1975 Negroponte has already moved away from the vision of empowering the architect and has started formulating the vision of computation as a tool for user empowerment in design, influenced by the vision of an “architecture without architects”. This attitude is manifested in every possible way; in his introduction of Friedman’s Towards a Scientific Architecture, in the Introduction of Reflections on Computer Aids to Design and Architecture[12] where he explicitly mentions Friedman’s ideas as sources of inspiration for how to use computers in architecture and of course in his chapter “Computer aided participatory design” in Soft Architecture Machines.
In Negroponte’s visions the machine acquires connotations of a subject, in conversation with the user-designer. In his Soft Architecture Machines, the ecology of interconnected amplifiers combined with the discourse of a “surrogate you” brings back to the surface the previously discussed scheme of a technological ubiquity. However, this time the technological subject-object is not figured as an environment but as a collective body, with social and political connotations. The design amplifier is the representation of the individual in the collective system. The idea of a network of surrogate individuals, which however maintains the appearance of an one to one, personal relationship between the self and its own design amplifier, proposes a scheme where the machine becomes the space where the individual and the collective are unified.
It seems that the design amplifiers have a twofold function; they establish a ubiquitous network in scale which once more transcends the individual, while at the same time they become recognizable subjects; artifacts with which one can engage in conversation, can empathise with, can learn to know and be known. The process of thinking about thinking through engaging in conversation with one’s amplifier makes it also a tool for self reflection and education. The technological platform/object is portrayed as a subject with the knowledge of an architect (expert knowledge) but no will towards power. On the opposite the machine is establishes an empathic relationship with the user, it “learns” the user and starts injecting him/her with its embedded expertise, making them the architect.
Opposite to Alexander who saw computers as an army of uncreative clerks, Negroponte sees them as conversational machines democratizing design by engaging non experts in an educational and self reflective process; offering them a trip to “Designland”. John Frazer on the other hand sees computers as slaves of infinite power and patience and takes a distance from Negroponte’s approach which “placed high expectations on software and hardware none of which delivered really any answers”.

4. Evolutionary Architecture: Kits of changing parts
One could perhaps claim that Frazer’s Evolutionary Architecture does not quite fit the time frame or the thematics of this discussion. Indeed, the book was published in 1995, two decades after the time from which this discussion draws its references and at what one could call a time of -more at least- computational maturity. However, the Evolutionary Architecture is a condenser of thirty years of work, much of which draws its references from the cybernetics and more specifically Gordon Pask, who also prologues the book. In his foreword Pask sserts architecture as a “living, evolving thing”[13], proactive and culturally expressive at the same time, a condenser of the life of those who inhabit it. His vision is to use the computer not as an aid to design but as an evolutionary accelerator and a generative force: “A new form of designed artifact interacting and evolving in harmony with natural forces, including those of society”[14].
Frazer seldom explicitly discusses design democratization and user empowerment. However, the personalization of design through the interaction with an environment genetically programmed to be responsive to the movements of its inhabitants is a central theme in his book.
When it comes to stating a vision about architecture, Frazer outlines an intelligent environment, not stable like the crystalline structures of the spatial city, but responsive to the ever changing life it fosters. When on the other hand it comes to the technological tool, the computer is conceptualized as an electronic muse, a “genii in a bottle which can compress evolutionary space and time so that complexity and emergent architectural form are able to develop” [15]. More so than his architectural manifest, which can be seen as deeply influenced by the imaginary of Artificial Life, perhaps as a counterpoint to Negroponte’s Artificial Intelligence, what is interesting in Frazer’s book is his presentation of a repertoire for toolkits for design.
In most of the cases, these toolkits cubes with embedded sensors are used as an intuitive way for extracting fully developed architectural drawings and perspectives by playing in the physical world. Frazer characteristically refers to Cedric Price’s Generator project for which he had been asked to be the computational consultant. The Generator is a kit of parts allowing for spatial reconfigurations according to the desires of its users, where even the building itself would be able to register its own boredom and initiate processes of space rearrangements.
The implications of design participation and the discourse on the non expert are brought into the discussion only through the reference to the Walter Segal model, allowing people who knew nothing about architecture to build simple models based on surfaces and sticks through a physical toolkit and have the computer calculate the entire structure for them.

Working electronic model of the Generator project: John and Julia Frazer, Cedric Price Computer Consultants, 1980

This prototyping approach, taking as input sketchy, hand on models from the user and translating them to expert views, is the dominant paradigm in current tools designed for the democratization of engineering offering the possibility of low floor input high ceiling output. An indicative example, but not the only one, in this direction is Fritzing, an electronics prototyping software, with views requiring increasing technical expertise.
Frazer however, denotes the limiting character of the kit of parts approach and advocates for a kit without the parts, or more specifically, a kit with parts which can also be subjects of evolution.
These toolkits are portrayed as form finding tools, providing the designer with constantly unpredictable stimuli and allowing for simulations of the phenotypes of the design’s genetic code under different conditions. The approach of a slave of infinite power and patience, evoking evoking responses to the designer through its endless generative potential and its possibility for simulation is very close to current tangents of computational visions.

In summer 2011 in the International Conference “Rethinking the Human in Technology Driven Architecture”, Kostas Terzidis referred to the computer as a new author in ways very similar to Frazer, while Manuel DeLanda proposed the combination of genetic programming, neural nets and multi-agent systems as the ultimate form finding tool for designers. The vision is quite simple: a tool which can with certainty expose all the possible solutions meeting certain constraints, which has the capability of learning one’s taste through every iteration and designer decision and finally is able to reconcile the local with the global by simulating different behavior patterns under specific general rulesets. The only parts of the process which demand a certain degree of expertise would in this case be the specification of the design requirements prior to the specification of the genetic code and the evaluation of the designs proposed by the computer patient slave.
The designer plays the role of the evaluator of the creative accidents of what in the bottom line is an unimaginative tool. Technology, again, becomes what we expect to surprise us.


In this post I diagrammed three different approaches of design for empowerment for design and commented on fragments of their overlaps, disparities and conceptual continuities to affine contemporary discourses. Whether figured as an environment, subject or toolkit, the technological artifact (be it machine, space-structure or sensor enhanced physical modeling kits) is designed so as to encompass the necessary means of control ensuring the stability and adequacy of the system; be it structural, statistical or performative constraints. Ironically, however, all these proposals are architectural proposals, designed by architects so as to participate in the disciplinary discussion which they try to subvert. Nonetheless, I believe that the dissection and reshuffling of these figurations provide fertile diagrams for the re-conception of technology mediated design participation today, within the broader context of the democratization of/through technology.
For instance, as a thought experiment, when the environment is dematerialized/virtualized and can also be changed in real time, when even the platform can be collectively designed and destabilized then one can potentially conceive a scheme where these two models interact and retroact, contain and are contained within each other in a loop where collectivities design the environments of their interaction?

[1] Alison and Peter Smithson quoted in Rouillard, D. Superarchitecture, le future de l’architecture 1950-1970. Paris: editions de la Villette, 2004
[2] Rouillard, D. Superarchitecture, le future de l’architecture 1950-1970. Paris: editions de la Villette, 2004
[3] op.cit 2, pp.83
[4] Busbea, L. Spatial Culture in France, 1960-1970. in Topologies: The Urban Utopia in France, 1960-1970
[5] op.cit 4
[6] Friedman, Y. Utopies Realisables, Paris: L’ Eclat, 2000
[7] Negroponte, N. Soft Architecture Machines. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1975
[8] Frazer J.H., An Evolutionary Architecture, Architectural Association, London, 1995 download from
[9] Friedman, Y. Toward a Scientific Architecture. (transl. Lang C.) Cambridge, MIT Press, 1975
[10] op.cit 9
[11] Negroponte, N. The Architecture Machine. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1970
[12] Negroponte, N. Introduction, Reflections on Computer Aids to Design and Architecture. Negroponte N. (editor), London, Mason/Charter Publishers, Inc., 1975, 1-13
[13] op.cit 8
[14] op.cit 8
[15] op.cit 8


One comment

  1. Theodora Vardouli

    A brief disclaimer; as the reader has probably observed by now, I make a rather idiosyncratic use of the word “technology”. In fact from a history and theory of technology perspective one could say that I am almost misusing it. If one accepts Feenberg definition in “Critical theory of technology” design, to the extend that it includes a “deworlding of objects (in our case the parameters of the environment or humans) so as to turn them into objects of control” is a technology by itself.
    To avoid confusion and misinterpretations I therefore think that it is important to declare that in the context my discussion “technology” refers to platforms, tools or machines, designed by architects, to contain, mediate or facilitate other acts of design. In that sense, in my discussion “technology” (ie. the platform or tool) is always a product of (architectural) design, stemming from a specific theory about the design process and the roles of its actors.
    Also, an important notice is that in this discussion I use “technology” coupled with connotations of innovation and prospectiveness; as something that is yet alien to us which becomes a vehicle for fantasies and futurologies. In that sense, the awe of the crystalline spatial structures, through the infinite repetition of modular elements in the legacy of Konrad Wachsmann or Buckminster Fuller or on the other hand the promises of the computer, with the yet fresh promises of Artificial Intelligence represent the technological imaginary of their times. It is these “technologies” that are called to fulfill the utopian vision of the democratization of architecture, the unmediated expression of the user’s needs and desires through the assistance of technologies.

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