SOFTSPACE AND THE POSSIBILITIES OF OPEN SOURCE ARCHITECTURE
constructed environment, with its direct impact on people every day
and its constant transformation through use and reuse, is a collectively
designed project. It incorporates vastly different and sometimes conflicting
logics. The issues arising from people’s differing perspectives and
approaches will have significant consequences on the way architecture
in general evolves in the twenty-first century. Computer terminology
has borrowed much from the discipline of architecture; here, we borrow
back some analogies from the computer world to suggest ways that architectural
evolution could occur.
architecture has been thought of as hardware: the static walls, roofs
and floors that enclose us. An alternative approach is to think of architecture
as software: the dynamic and ephemeral sounds, smells, temperatures
even radio waves that surround us. One might also consider the social
infrastructures that underpin our designed spaces. Pushing this analogy
even further, we can think of architecture as a whole as an “operating
system”, within which people create their own programmes for spatial
design that emphasises “softspace” over “hardspace” is a little like
“software” design rather than “hardware design” in computer terminology,
where “hardware” refers to the physical machine and “software” refers
to the programs that animate the machine. In an architectural context,
technology is used to provoke interactions between people, and between
people and their spaces. If softspace encourages people to become performers
within their own environments, then hardspace provides a framework to
animate these interactions. The idea of an architectural operating system
lies in the design of the systems that integrate the two. One model
of operating system that is particularly relevant to architecture (since
the design of space is always a collaborative process) is an open source
is a space designer and we all use our spaces and interfaces differently.
We place posters on walls, paint them light blue or orange, position
furniture in rooms, make love in kitchens, use “bedrooms” as “offices”,
sing opera in the shower, spray particular fragrances in our bathrooms
and use staircases for arguments, games and romances. Meanwhile, we
are increasingly likely to undertake the construction or improvement
of our own homes without needing the services of an architect. Yet,
most people do not think of themselves as being able to “design”.
in architect-designed environments, technological developments throw
into question the very role of the architect, because user- and environmentally-responsive
mechanisms allow people themselves to take prime position in configuring
(i.e. designing) their own spaces. The simplest form of such mechanisms
is the thermostat, regulating temperature according to our requirements;
more recently, systems that allow for changing colour, texture, layout
and transparency of walls and other systems that suggest the circular
process of “conversation” with one’s environment have made it clear
that architects no longer have priority in defining the boundaries of
people's movements and desires. So what then does an architect do?
an architect designs interaction systems then the production of architecture
(which exists only at the moment of use) is placed in the hands of the
end user. Architectural design, the choreography of sensations, can
provide meta-programs within which people construct their own programs.
In computers, an “operating system” is the software (like Unix, Windows
NT or Mac OS X) that runs a computer at its core level and which provides
a platform upon which to run other programs. Extending the analogy to
architecture, a spatial operating system provides frameworks to encourage
multitudes of architectural programs. In this conception, people are
the designers of their own spaces — architects simply design the meta-systems.
systems conflate distinctions between audiences and performers; users
and designers; occupants and architects and open up creative possibilities
for designed space, designed events and designed situations. They also
raise challenges for the social role of designers in providing meta-systems
that foster individual creativity and encourage people to choreograph
their own spatial programs, design their own spaces and invent their
own logics. The quandary is to design operating systems that promote
creativity without adding further layers of prescriptive control.
source” in the software universe refers to a type of source code (with
which software is designed and
built) that is accessible to all; that is freely distributed as long
as it remains equally open; that allows for modification and derivatives
as long as the result is equally open; that is non-discriminatory; where
patching is possible without disturbing the integrity of the main work;
and that is technology neutral.
an open source architecture requires a framework in which the distinction
between “those who design” and “those who use” is replaced by participatory
system that encourages a constructed project to be constantly “patched”
or “performed”. Such an architecture comes close to the visions Dutch
artist, architect and situationist Constant had in his project New Babylon.
In this massive exploration he assumed that everyone is an artist in
the design and construction of their spaces, events and lives. His project
proposed a worldwide structure constantly built and rebuilt by its inhabitants,
a structure that varied throughout its lengths as different groups of
people contributed to it and altered it in different ways. He diminished
the gaps between the practice of art and the practice of architecture
and highlighted the connections between the delight of art and the delight
of architecture. However, the project raises an important question:
if everyone is an artist, and everything is art (read architecture)
then does that not mean that, with no distinctions, nothing is art?
open source movement in software gives us clues on how to resolve this
conundrum – it offers a system that is in theory open enough that anyone
might jump in but in practice has not meant that everyone is becoming
a programmer. There are still those who enjoy the system for the challenge
of building new code, and those who enjoy open source culture without
needing to contribute to the construction process. Similarly, applying
open source to architecture suggests a collaborative democratic project
that exists in time as well as space: an architecture that is created
by people through its use, as a performance, a conversation, a bodystorm
that goes on throughout the life of the architectural system, whether
it is a building or other architectural situation.
design theorist Anthony Dunne, talking about the design of what he calls
“post-optimal objects” (i.e. objects one designs once practicality and
functionality can be taken for granted) says: “the most difficult challenges
for designers of electronic objects now lie not in technical and semiotic
functionality, where optimal levels of performance are already attainable,
but in the realms of metaphysics, poetry and aesthetics where little
research has been carried out” (Hertzian Tales). If we assume that such
systems in architecture could deal with the practical and functional
requirements of constructed spaces then the beauty in design comes from
the poetries of those who use/implement/remake it. A system that allows
people themselves to create their own spaces and collectively build
a social space -- that would be more conceptually “open”.
are several key features to an open source architecture:
1. Designer-participants: where those who participate are also those
who design the system.
2. A control system that one allows oneself to be part of in order to
expand that structure: an example can be found in computer games that
provide modules for end-users to code and create their own, sometimes
startlingly different, versions of the game.
3. Choreographies for openness: group instructions that are interpreted
and modified as necessary by participants, individually or collectively.
To begin, established boundaries are required in order to foster creativity;
this does not mean that they cannot be breached. They are placed as
reference points, not to pre-define limits.
4. Re-appropriation: where existing spaces, objects or actions are both
fuel and catalysts for further creativity.
5. Capacity for sharing design problems: each person has different skills
and often a problem requires a solution that can only be provided by
another. A web-based example, lazyweb.org, shows how it is not important
for everyone to have the technical capabilities in order to have an
open source model of production.
the immediate future, open source architecture would require two distinct
First would be to develop infrastructures that enable “non-professional”
designers to participate more closely in design and construction process.
In some senses, this is already occurring, as the self-build trend shows.
However, “professional” architects can do much more to facilitate the
transition. Pragmatically, they have the opportunity at this stage to
participate in the conversations that take place with regard to enabling
and encouraging good building design and collaborative practice. This
can occur at the practical level of expanding participatory practices
in the industry; however, it can also occur in theoretical discourse
where the very ideas and concepts behind architecture need to be opened.
would be to apply knowledge of space design to the formulation of a
framework within which other people can consciously design spaces. In
this capacity, architects would encourage recognition of the distinction
between “good” design and “bad” design, if that can be said to exist.
Again, this step can be located prosaically within current industry
practice; however, it is also necessary to expand theoretical discourse
on how to “design design”. A spatial operating system acknowledges that
everyone is already a designer: it would be vital with this step to
ensure that architects don’t become just another meta-system that “objectively”
controls the process from above. Rather than directing, they would need
primarily to become enablers or co-operants.
role of architecture undergoes considerable change because people themselves
interpret, appropriate, design and reuse a space within their own frames
of logic. A truly open source architecture does not exist without people
to inhabit, occupy, perceive, interact or converse with it. The resulting
spaces don't merely enable people to develop their own ways of responding,
they are actually enriched by them doing so. As people become architects
of their own spaces (through their use) or developers of their own interfaces,
the words “architecture” and “interface” cease to be nouns: instead
they become verbs. Such an architecture is explicitly dynamic, a shift
that opens up a wealth of poetic possibilities for designers of “open
know that architecture is political. And we know that people themselves
make architecture by using it. The challenge now is to balance the differences
in technical skill, technology access and self-sufficiency desire that
different people have, in order to produce a viably democratic space
(in all senses). Are all architectural systems meta-systems of control?
Open source and similar collaborative design processes suggest that
there are other ways forward.