Free +[?] Open: P2P Urbanism

Peer-to-peer Urbanism is along the lines of the tendency, also discussed in the “Free and Open: On, In and In-Between”, of the reloading of latent architectural visions under the light of the new cultural constructs of the networked paradigm.

The “Brief History of P2P-Urbanism”, written by Nikos A. Salingaros and Federico Mena-Quintero is an essay/manifesto explaining the origins of P2P Urbanism concept, the ideas it fuses and the strategies it deploys in order to “define space for people’s use” through “creative and cooperative practices”. The text was published in October 2010 and it is marked as version 4.0 (a reference to the versioning conventions of the definitions and op ed articles of affine communities?)

This text succeeds the P2P Urbanism Definition which was published a month earlier and which I plan to discuss in detail in one of my coming posts, along with similar definitions moving along the same lines. Apart from offering the opportunity to look at the P2P Urbanism Movement as a “flavor” of “Open” architecture, this text is also interesting in terms of the methods that it uses in order to orchestrate this intersection of past architectural discourse with the culture of open source, in order to produce a new diagram of space and city building.

The first chapter titled “Recent History of Urbanism” starts with a polemic on the top-down large scale city planning combined with the pseudo-novel “starchitect” buildings, with “notorious visual characteristics” which marked (notice the past tense) the landscape in the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. These architectures are criticized for sacrificing centuries of collective building wisdom for the sake of innovation.
The US New Urbanism (1993), or what in Europe was simply referred to as Traditional Urbanism, is situated as a critique to post WWII international modernism and its discontents; the city-as-machine, the high rise spatial economics meeting cookie cutter housing, the car centric development. Oriented towards a more human environment, it places the needs of the users at the center of its discourse and reclaims the city for its inhabitants through the production of human scale spaces(“well-proportioned” buildings are explicitly mentioned) for everyday life and social interaction.
This approach is accompanied by a “willingness” of the planners to engage the community in their decisions, contrary to what is characterized as a “hit-and-run” model of development where spaces are designed in absentia of their true stakeholders – the inhabitants. However, New/Traditional Urbanists, still tend to resort to top-down, central models, primed by a the predominant financial models favoring large scale development.

The fundamental goal of this text is to frame P2P Urbanism as an alternative to the paternalist practices of Modernist thought, which is perpetuated in the thinking about space and the city through construction industry inertias, financial models, architectural education, monumentalization of the modernist past etc. The desire to transcend the boundaries of “top down and energy-wasteful modernism”, is discussed as a point of inersection between different lines of thought around the world, ranging from political movements actively participating in urban renewal to a growing mass of urbanists and architects.

The vision of P2P Urbanism is explicit: “We wish to give everyone the tools to design and even construct their own physical space.”

This is where open-source software and p2p concepts plug into the discussion. The reference to open source does not escape some of the usual assumptions that Richard Stallman points out in his article “Why Open Source missed the Point of Free Software”. Open source is discussed by Salingaros and Mena-Quintero as the new name for free software (quotes like “Nowadays this is commonly called open-source software”, “Free or open-source” are indicative). The imprecision of this account, however, should not come as a surprise. Its purpose is to set the ground for a broad metaphor, based on the ideas of free access, modification according to the user’s needs and redistribution of information, using the affordances of blogs, wikis, mailing lists and shared documents for communication and collaboration. The formation of online communities of diverse individuals, carrying different skills and interests which they share for a common cause, is discussed as the basis of the concept of P2P, which was initiated in economy and technology development and distribution (material and immaterial)
The advocates of P2P Urbanism, a concept still in its making, are portrayed as a heterogeneous group only just realizing their common intentions (from “followers of Christopher Alexander” (!) and “urban activists” to the potential candidates of Permaculturists, “advocates of vernacular and low-energy construction, and various independent or resilient communities that wish to sustain themselves “from the ground up”)

What is fascinating in this text is the explicitness with which it orchestrates parallels between unanswered demands stemming from a disciplinary history of architecture and conceptually affine paradigms emerging in other areas, which is one of my central research hypotheses in this blog.

“P2P-Urbanism is all about letting people design and build their own environments, using information and techniques that are shared freely.”

The first point of focus for the realization of this declaration is an Open Source city code, receptive to local conditions and the needs of the individuals while ensuring the sustainability of the whole (for example DPZ “Smart Code”). This rings many bells when one is thinks of Yona Friedman’s or Nicholas Negroponte’s proposals, drawing their inspiration from vernacular planning “codes, where the urban fabric is produced bottom up, through a set of neighboring rules. The main conceptual displacement here is that the code itself is actually accessible to the community and can be modified and distributed. In other words, the paradigm of a platform which allows for the expression of local needs and desires is replaced by a new scheme where the platform itself is modifiable.
However, what P2P Urbanism acknowledges as their conceptual predecessors, is the J. F. C. Turner on self-built housing in South America and Christopher Alexander’s “Pattern Language” and the “Nature of Order”. I was surprised by the lack of reference to the participatory megastructural visions of the 1960-1970, mainly because of the multiplicity of parallels in the way they articulate their goals (priming of user needs, rejection of modernism). One can only speculate about the reasons of this absence, ranging from the authors’ personal histories and influences to an implicit rejection of technological fantasies and an orientation towards more pragmatic and realizable proposals.

A very suggestive but not sufficiently developed part of this account is the authors’ hint towards the common through the work of Agatino Rizzo in Italy. Rizzo’s idea of “Cityleft” or “Open Source Urbanism”, as well as the possibility for the emergence of the common as a sphere between the private and the public, as Negri and Hardt discuss it, is a fascinating field of inquiry which calls for its own space in this blog (– coming soon!)

What is of particular interest in this text is P2P Urbanism’s action plan, explained though an example incorporating an architect (carrying assumptions about space), a builder (carrying an accumulated knowledge), a user (carrying needs and desires). The model which is proposed can be condensed to the following:
“P2P-Urbanism is like an informally scientific way of building: take someone’s published knowledge, improve it, and publish it again so that other people can do the same. Evidence-based design relies upon a growing stock of scientific experiments that document and interpret the positive or negative effects the built environment has on human psychology and wellbeing.
The practice of the “charrette” as systematic request for user input prior the realization of the process is discussed as a means for negotiation of conflicts and interests and the maturing of the acceptance of a design amongst the cycles of a community.

P2P Urbanism is not a humanitarian act, it is the persistent architectural vision of the expression of spontaneous local desires within sustainable wholes, the interplay of local and global rules “A P2P process will have to somehow channel and amalgamate pure individualist, spontaneous preferences and cravings within a practical common goal”
The target areas of this new paradigm for Urbanism are both large scale cities (“western”, I assume) in the tradition of most of the past proposals I have so far discussed in this blog and small scale, self built settlements in the developing world, allowing people to “take care of their own problems”.

With architectural corporatism, the deceptions of the top down models of landscape urbanism, the knowledge priesthoods, geometrical fundamentalisms and spectacular acrhitectures as the main detractors, P2P Urbanism proposes a free, community based educational and informational process allowing inaugurating a participatory and collaborative production of space so as it reflects its true essence: the deep socio-cultural processes which fuel it.

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One comment

  1. Thanks for your insightful comments on our two articles. Please note that they are but two of the introductory chapters in our book, available free online:

    P2P URBANISM

    Most important, this book contains a detailed description of a participatory design method for social housing, which is the main application so far. The rest would be just more theoretical speculation without a program to address the major problems of our world. This book will be revised in the future, when we write new material and get the time to work on it — so far it is being offered to everybody who can benefit from its ideas.

    By the way, your question of why we chose to include some topics and exclude others (such as technological fantasies now being built in the Arabian desert and in China, eventually to be abandoned as so much scrap metal and shattered plate glass) is, I believe, answered in the rest of the book.

    With best wishes,
    Nikos

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