Open [Source (Code)] Architecture: Codes and Coding

The last few posts are parts of a thought experiment which aims to problematize “Open Architecture” by looking at the different faces of the phrase itself. One my central hypotheses in this blog has been that “Open Source” operates as a “boundary space”. This idea borrows from Star and Griesemer’s discussion of “boundary objects” as objects which have “different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation” [1]. Along these lines, “Open Source” is analyzed as a space which various disciplines use to rethink their models of production, distribution and use of knowledge and artifacts. This process draws simultaneously from their disciplinary concerns and history as well as from metaphors and free associations with the worlds of Software and Hardware, where the ideas of Open Source have been predominantly developed.
In order to understand how the various discussions on Open Architecture(s) use metaphors from “Open Source” I propose a strategy which begins by isolating different word combinations contained in the phrase “Open [Source (Code)] Architecture” and then seeks to expose potential questions that they raise and tensions that they contain. These complementary framings aim to problematize the Open Source metaphor in architecture from as many perspectives as possible.

The word-systems that I have so far analyzed are [Open, Open Source] and [Open, Source, Architecture]. I first examined the history of Open Source so as to expose the ideological tensions between “Open” and “Free”. This aimed to challenge the assumption that “Open” has an inherently democratizing intention, although its results may provide this potential. I then discussed how the idea of access to the “Source”, which is central in the OSS definition translates in Architecture, where the ambiguity between information and end result is vast.
This post continues this word game by proposing the system [Open, Code, Architecture]. The question of what “Code” is in Architecture and therefore what “Open Code” would be, is far beyond the scope and the length of this post. My purpose is to propose a series of -essentially elliptic- framings of architectural Code, which can be useful in informing the discussion on Open Architecture.
A fascinating aspect of this discussion is that Code, as a set of instructions which lead to an end product, can be viewed from a double perspective in architecture: building code (building regulations) and computational code (building representation and generative tools). Each one of these areas contains, in turn, multiple meanings and interpretations. Starting from the idea of building code, as a regulatory system developed around the processes and objects of building, it is interesting to trace these different meanings.

On Code
A commonly shared belief is that the first building code was the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1780 BC). This code regulates the social relations around the act of building and assigns responsibilities in case of accidents or failures. Apart from the surprising austerity of the punishments it prescribes, what is interesting to observe is that it is very much structured around the idea of building safety. However, instead of codifying the design requirements to achieve it, it provides some strong “incentives” to ensure it. A telling example is: “If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death”.
Current building codes, have of course little to do with that. Carrying the same principle of safety and extending it to a discourse on public health and welfare, they mandate a set of rules and requirements with which buildings have to comply in order to be built. As far as the legislative part is concerned, codes are either laws of the state, proposed by committees of experts and tailored to local requirements with governmental decrees; or they can be specified by the local authorities based on “model codes”. Indicative examples of that are the Eurocode, which applies to all the countries of the EU replacing their former national codes or the International Building Code, which has been adopted by US states such as New York.

All professional architects are required to build “to code”.
In fact this is the most common source of disillusionment for most beginning professionals, who nurtured in the freedom of academia, find themselves operating within a highly structured and rigid framework. Code creates an entire ecosystem of code-knowers, code-interpreters and code-policers, which to a great extend defines the landscape of architectural practice.

When it comes to the actual content of the code, the discussion has again multiple dimensions. A first set of rules is related to the building itself and its resilience to accidents and natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, floods etc. In many cases, the history of code revisions narrates a parallel history of natural catastrophes. An indicative example is the seismic code in Greece, oscillating between the politics of profit of the building industry (inexpensive concrete, fast construction) and the frequent seismic activity, resulting in multi-victim failures of large parts of the built fabric. The history of form of the greek polykatoikia (popular multi-storey building) can be seen to certain extend as a history of corrective moves following large disasters.
Apart from ensuring the safety of the residents, building codes are meant to also ensure their “wellbeing”. One aspect of this is expressed through the “medicalization” of building and the emergence of requirements evolving around the idea of “health” (from the size and number window openings to forbidden hazardous materials), parallel to the modernization of cities. Another interesting aspect that can be discussed through looking at building codes is the idea of standardization of human measurements. How high can the rise of a stair be? How wide should its steps be? What is the minimum height of a space? How wide does a corridor have to be? John Hardwood’s “The Interface: Ergonomics and the aesthetics of survival”[2] offers very interesting observations on the technologies of wellbeing and their relation to the concepts of the “normal”, the “machine” and the “environment”.

However, code requirements do not just stem from the building itself, but articulate a relationship of this building with the larger ensembles in which it participates (the neighborhood, the city). Within this context, code defines the relationship between the local and the global. The idea of safety, now becomes public safety, the idea of health, public health etc. The first building codes which also coincided with the forces of modernization in Europe (17th-18th century) were prophylactic measures taken after -again- catastrophic events (plagues, fires etc). The distances between the buildings, the materials of their facades or their geometric characteristics so as to allow for proper light and air in the public space were the types of requirements which progressively became codified. Code as a new form of top down “policing”, defining the way through which bodies are arranged in space as well as the characteristics of that space, cannot be viewed cut off from its political connotations.
However, apart from stemming from-, and exercising, biopolitical power, building codes are also often deployed to preserve a specific “character of place”, which is judged as important for the preservation of community union or national identity. Most practicing architects have stories to share about their experiences of building within “traditional” communities, where the code requirements extend beyond the general geometric characteristics of buildings and mandate formal elements of the design (size and shape of windows, geometry of roofs, colors, materials) These formal characteristics become the trademark of the community. Very telling examples of this in are gated communities and artificial cities around the world which come with a very specific set of building regulations to construct a very specific “spirit of place”. The regulations of Disney’s Celebration are a fascinating example in this direction.
Last but not least, codes specify land use. These specifications are based on prospective models of urban activity and have been an issue of vast controversy throughout the 20th century. From Modernist zoning, exemplified by the Athens Charter (1943), to the postmodern apotheosis of urban complexity, the functional mapping of cities had been a central debate in architectural and urban discourse.

A summary of these diverse observations, is that building code is a top down framework of instructions which gets locally interpreted so as to produce buildings and building complexes with specific qualitative characteristics (“safety”, “well-being”, “beauty”, “character”).
The question is then, what are the implications of the Code being Open?

Opening the Code
I propose that this idea of openness can be interpreted through three different prisms.
The first is more decentralized, participatory building regulations, which allow for inhabitants and communities to have a say in what the underlying principles of their environment are. An example of this is the DPZ Smartcode, a “template intended for local calibration to your town or neighborhood”
The second prism through which the idea of “Open Code” can be viewed is a set of rules which instead of subordinating the local to the global, assert the whole as emerging from local rules and relations. This bottom-up model has long been capturing the architectural imaginary. Drawing its references from vernacular architecture where the only restriction in building is the approval of one’s neighbors, this model was framed by many architects as the pathway to better, more sustainable and more “democratic” designs. Of particular interest are the cases in which these negotiations have been formalized into written rules. Throughout my studies in Athens, I was fascinated by my Professor’s, Dimitris Papalexopoulos, descriptions on the vernacular law of Syros which explicitly described the local, neighboring rules of urban growth.

Yona Friedman's pictograms from Negroponte's "Computer Aided Participatory Design" in "Soft Architecture Machines"

A third attitude towards “Open Code” is the interplay of local conditions with global constraints. This has been the conceptual basis of the early architectural techno-utopias from which I often draw my references. Friedman’s FLATWRITER, for example, proposed a “softer” kind of code (iso-effort lines) and a resilient infrastructure within which every local desire would be negotiated and accommodated.
This opens the discussion to another kind of Code, computational this time, which was initially vested with the vision to couple “the very large and the very small”. In his 1970 book “The Architecture Machine”[3], Nicholas Negroponte framed this vision as a new Humanism enabled by machines. According to his analysis, the main problem with architects was the fact that they were accustomed to the middle scale of the buildings and therefore proved incompetent to handle the complexities of the general (the urban) or the specificities of the very small, perpetuating a gap between the scale of the mass and the scale of the individual. In the new machine “humanism” that he envisions, intelligent machines combine the adaptability of humans and the computational specificity in order to recognize general shifts in context, as well as particular changes, in need and desire. Negroponte envisions an architect-machine partnership, where the machine exhibits alternatives, suggestions, incompatibilities and oversees the urban rights of individuals. In his later book “Soft Architecture Machines” [4] (1975), Negroponte develops this vision into an anti-architect discourse. As Alexander will later do in his “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction”[5], Negroponte characterized the existence of local conditions within unifying global forces as the alphabet of the language of the vernacular. Following this concept of a global “objective” system that allows for local intuitive solutions, he proposed a framework of a resilient building and information technology and introduced a new type of personalized architecture machine, a “design Amplifier” which constitutes the interface between the infrastructure and the user’s ever changing needs.

On (another kind of) Code
In the last part of my post, I will further examine the relationship between the computational code and building code through current examples. I will draw my examples from an edition of one of the most widely circulated architectural periodicals today, the Architectural Design (AD) magazine. The 2009 volume, entitled “Digital Cities”, addressed precisely this question of the interplay of computational code with the production or simulation of complex building assemblages; cities. The different tendencies towards code which emerge in this volume are very useful in problematizing the role of the computational code in the democratization of the building code.
The first article that I will comment on is Patrick Schumacher’s controversial “Parametricism: a New Global Style for Architecture and Urban Design”. Patrick Schumacher is a powerful actor in the current architectural scene with a central role in the Architectural Association in London and as a close collaborator of the renown “digital” architect Zaha Hadid. Taking as a common axis the concept of parametricism, Schumacher sketches the vision for urban design “to integrate the building morphology – all the way to the detailed tectonic articulation and the interior organisation”. He calls this idea “deep relationality”, denoting the integration of all urban subsystems in a unified global, designed system. This system may allow for infinite differentiation, but always relates the local to the global and vice versa under the vision of a rationalized complexity. The top down control of the urban environment, through the computational descriptions of a global system does not need the straight line to be characterized as deeply Modernist. The hegemony of the computational code brings Schumacher’s visions in very close convergence with the modernist ideals of rationality and order besides the mere appearance of visual complexity and differentiation offered by digital tools.

Zaha Hadid Architects - Kartal Pendik in Instabul

On the opposite side, Steven Johnson, quoted by Neil Leach in his article “Swarm Urbanism”[6] describes the city as an emergent motif in time. According to Johnson, the city has all the characteristics of a dynamic, adaptive system which evolves based on neighboring relations, feedbacks and indirect control. For him the city should demonstrate a bottom up collective intelligence, not unlike a population of cooperating monads (swarm).
For Neil Leach the concept of emergence, which becomes increasingly popular in architectural discourses, can be traced both as a characteristic of urban systems and as a computational model. Based on this observation Leich raises the question to which extend the latter (computational tools) can be deployed to model and design the former (urban form). Leach refers to the architectural group Kokkugia, which does not attempt to simulate the movement of agents in the city so as to produce an optimal solution, but aims to develop an adaptive and flexible system based on a collective and self-organizing intelligence. The transition from the master-plan to the master-algorithm, views urban planning as a set of micro- or local decisions which create a complex urban system.

Neil Leach - "Swarm Urbanism"

The computational metaphor is very powerful here. The central assumption is that computational systems with bottom-up structures (Cellular Automata, L-Systems) can lead to bottom-up, emergent urban complexes, which are not designed per se, but result from the interactions of the material mass of the city and the ever changing needs of its inhabitants. An example of this approach is the Kokkugia project entitled “Behavioral Urbanism”, which uses cellular automata to envision a growing and shrinking city, not very different from the 1960s megastructural visions discussed in the “Tracing lines of thought” section of the blog. The code here refers only local rules, offering agency to the user, whose decisions and actions control their activation. The lack of centralized, global control may “Open” the system to local perturbations, but does not grant the user direct access to the “code” which guides them.

The project which in my opinion offers interesting insight on the idea of what would constitute a truly “Open” urban and architectural system, is the science fictional fantasy of the provocative French group R&Sie(n).
Their “I’ve heard about…” project is presented as a vision for an unpredictable organic urbanism, which resists to the conventional desire to control urban systems. The regulations for this urban system is not a building code, but a series of “neighborhood protocols”. These protocols do make explicit stylistic references to traditional building codes; short phrases, numbering; axioms, paragraphs, articles and chapters build up the “I’ve heard about…” constitution.

R&Sie(n) - I've Heard About...

In R&Sie(n)’s project, the city is an inhabitable organism, a biostructure in constant evolution , materialized in real time with a fleet of robots controlled by open source algorithms and interpreting an amalgamate of “internal” and “external” data. Human desires are communicated either verbally, through an electronic participation system, or through the chemical excretions of the body, traced through inhaled 24 hour micro-transmitters. This constantly destabilizes the system leading to unpredictable results. When it comes to the structure and the code of the system these are in constant negotiation and reprogramming. The only thing that remains stable, is a set of general rules, axioms which oxymoronically ensure that the system remains unstable and open to change.
In R&Sie(n) project, the “I’ve heard about…” bio-citizens participate in collectively shaping the space that they inhabit. Not unlike Nicholas Negroponte’s interconnected Design Amplifiers, the fleet of building robots becomes the space where the desires of the individuals and a set of “objective” building constraints (an idiosyncratic computationally-coded-building-code) come together. What is very different in R&Sie(n) discussion is that unlike the tradition of the early computational theories which accommodated the unpredictable by allowing for local action within a resilient infrastructure (computational or physical), the Protocol, or the Code of the “I’ve heard about…” project, is not a naturalized black box, determined by the “designer”, but a modifiable framework, accessed and controlled by the collective.

How one passes from this science fictional exploration to its actualization in physical space remains a very hard, almost un-answerable question. However, R&Sie(n) fantasy seems to propose a mental model which learns from the criticisms of the techno-utopias of the 1960s and 1970s and builds on the cyber-cultural potential for real time communication and collaboration. Using these as raw materials it envisions a truly Open Source space; indeterminate, unpredictable, participatory and co-designed. Has that not always been the role of utopia; to create experimental laboratories in which alternate not-so-unreal worlds can emerge?

[1] Star S.,Griesemer, J. Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science 19 (3), 1989
[2] Harwood J., The Interface: Ergonomics and the Aesthetics of Survival. in Aggregate, Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming)
[3] Negroponte, N. The Architecture Machine. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1970
[4] Negroponte, N. Soft Architecture Machines. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1975
[5] Alexander, Ch. 1977. A pattern language : towns, buildings, construction / Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, Shlomo Angel. New York : Oxford University Press
[6] Leach N., ‘Swarm Urbanism’, in Neil Leach (ed.), Digital Cities, London: Wiley, 2009, pp. 56-63