The event included more than fifty presentations in sessions held simultaneously, followed by a leisurely evening panel for die-hards at the NAi in Rotterdam. Taking part were renowned figures such as John Fraser, Marcos Novak and Peter Weibel, as well as a busload of young and ambitious participants ready to show what they can do. There was also a bulky 600-page book to collect all papers. The conference line-up read like a shopping mall of ideas and visions about where architecture is going, can go, and should go. It promised a concentrated array of subjects, styles, objectives and voices in which it would be easy to lose your way. Would it be possible to make anything of it without resorting to lists of names and titles? To be critical and yet acknowledge that the conference brought together an admirable group of talented individuals. The real value of conferences is usually what happens outside in the corridors. So here are some comments on a selection of conference themes.
Interaction is an exchange of information between autonomous entities whereby meaning is created during the exchange itself. In practice, what is meant by this big word in architecture is always reactive or responsive. A wall that responds to your presence is about as interactive as Pavlov’s Dog who is conditioned to drool at the sound of a bell. Interaction implies a certain degree of freedom of movement and choice – not necessarily consciousness, by the way – and not some complicated but ultimately arbitrary and linear pre-programmed on-off switch. The loose use of the word interaction out of context is meaningless, and it proves that architecture remains trapped in a behaviourist past in terms of psychology. But wait another 100 years until, as predicted, buildings and computers can no longer be distinguished from each other, then psychology (and psychiatry) might form part of the discipline. For the present, however, the word interaction should be used with the greatest possible prudence.
Ever since Lawrence Lessing, it’s become common to use the well-sounding software term ‘open source’ for ideas. The best-known example he gives of ‘closed source’ is Disney, which films fairy-tales that belong to the public domain and then acquires the exclusive rights to the story, thus making it private property. Because the source (or code) of software is public, it can be used to learn how something is made, and so the analogy is valid to a degree. But the implication of ‘open source’ is that the software – i.e. the product, not the underlying idea – can itself be changed. Outside the field of software, the term should be used more prudently than is currently the case. When architects want to apply ‘open source’ techniques, the use of the term is more a cause of confusion than clarity. What architects really want to achieve usually is more collaboration between offices (pieces of knowledge) or a vaguely defined openness of function in a design (sharing of final responsibility).
It Has To Change
Is it something about architects, something about the Dutch, or something you find everywhere? If you’re told often enough on a single day in hushed voices that architecture has to change, then things might be getting ridiculous. And why all the complaining if the profession is able to stage such an enormous conference with enough examples of the ‘other’ that are actually built. Closely connected to this phenomenon is the often-heard observation that we’ve reached a ‘turning point’. Better to leave the pinpointing of turning points to historians.
No New Ideas
Judging by the presentations I heard, I think there are no more ideas being developed in the field of responsive architecture and computational design*. Instead, old ones are being rediscovered. The field has established a stable basis within architecture. New technologies and cumulative experiences discussed at conferences like these show that the genre has reached a phase of consolidation in which genuinely spectacular things can be built. Many years of pioneering work by people like Oosterhuis has spawned a generation of architects for whom this view of design forms the idiom within which they work. It is not something that still has to prove itself or needs defending at a fundamental level from critics. John Fraser – who is working on the concrete realisation of ideas from his book Evolutionary Architecture (in the form of architecture and not as evidence or concept) – showed why experience is important. By his readiness to show both the strength and the weakness of the ‘other way’, by pointing out the dangers of credulity (the computer as solution to everything), and by warning against premature conclusions, he made an important recommendation for this branch of design: start with people, not machines.