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Article published in Archis #3 2003

A Communism of ideas
Towards an open-source architectural practice

For me, the strongest emotion in architecture remains the sudden moment that something in a project ‘works’[1]
Rem Koolhaas, ‘On Functionalism’

The role of the architect in the building process would seem to have been reduced to that of a visagiste. The complete absence of any architect in the recent parliamentary enquiry into fraud in the construction industry should probably not be seen as evidence of their irrefutable morality, but as proof that they play hardly any part in Dutch spatial planning. The architect is happily doodling away indoors while the big boys are outside building huts. The architect’s authority has completely disappeared. He or she is at the mercy of the market and that means only one thing: everything is affected by risk management. And so everything that is new is automatically problematical.

That may be going a bit too far. Yet it is a fact that more and more tales of a frustrating everyday reality are doing the rounds. A case in point was the recent lecture at the Berlage Institute by Kamiel Klaasse of NL Architects: a firm that is certainly not doing a bad job in terms of media exposure provided a sobering view of everyday practice. The lecture amounted to a succession of languishing projects, either indefinitely postponed or permanently abandoned. One was left with a sense of the impossibility of introducing any form of experiment or innovation into everyday building reality.

That impression contrasts sharply with the attention Dutch architecture receives in the media, both at home and abroad. There is vast innovative potential which is primarily evident in competitions and an endless stream of publications disseminated by an ever-expanding propaganda machine of publishers, the Netherlands Architecture Institute and a never-ending list of local architecture centres. But there it would seem to end. The influence of that potential on the building industry is marginal.

That is the paradox currently facing Dutch architecture. The situation for architects has seldom been so hopeless and yet so favourable. On the one hand, Dutch architecture is praised for its pragmatic inventiveness, its ability to give a twist to everyday banality. On the other hand, humdrum problems do not diminish as a result. Spatial issues concerning mobility and safety, the stagnating house-building sector and the enormous spatial demands for both red (urbanization) and green (greenspace) development must be solved. While the country has big, important social problems, crying out as it were for intervention from architects and mediation from architecture, Dutch architecture continues to bask in the glory of international success.

But this cannot go on much longer. It is high time Dutch architects applied their famous pragmatic inventiveness not only to their designs but also to the organization of their practice, and regained a significant role in spatial planning. In recent years, a great deal of effort has been expended on ‘doing something different’ within the narrow margins of the over-regulated Vinex housing task. The result is a practice in which architects try to rediscover the wheel with every new project. It is time to abandon this method and to look for alternative models for spatial design. This calls not for solo operations but a collective (preferably interdisciplinary) approach.

Accordingly, architectural practice needs to be turned inside-out. Architects should no longer look inwards in search of the essence of architecture. They should also cease harking back nostalgically to past times, when the architect was still a master builder. Architecture must look outwards and forwards, in search of the countless opportunities offered by these turbulent times of political and economic instability. The search for the essence of architecture will have to make way for the question of what architecture can mean for the contemporary network society. It is time for a collectively organized renewal of architectural practice.

The learning organization

An outward-looking practice offers far more scope for making the most of the opportunities. But to take advantage of social developments requires different competences. Knowledge is the prime competitive advantage in the network society. It is, after all, the main commodity of today’s economy: ‘Concepts, ideas and images – not things – are the real items of value in the new economy. Wealth is no longer vested in physical capital but rather in human imagination and creativity.’[2]

For an organizational renewal of architectural practice it is essential that knowledge be interwoven with every tier of the organization and every step of the process. This is sometimes described as a learning organization. Knowledge ensures that organizations stay alert to change. The learning organization is a model for a system that is able to respond to developments, that can adapt and collaborate. Using this model, an outward- and forward-looking practice can be developed. That is to say a practice that is open to external influences, that is capable of identifying developments at an early stage and responding accordingly.

From this perspective it is interesting to consider developments in other professional fields. It is worth noting that there are scattered undertakings which suggest interesting paths for renewal in architectural practice. Examples of collaborative practices can be found in art and in software engineering. They offer an alternative model in which innovation is achieved through the active participation of all parties. Ideas and products are no longer developed in a closed production process organized around the autonomy of the artist or the company, but evolve out of the pragmatism of usage. That is the motor of innovation.


Nicolas Bourriaud, the director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, shows in his book Postproduction how art has developed a practice in which new meanings and ideas are generated within a process of ‘cultural recycling’. The recycling, repositioning and reorientation of existing ideas lead to new ideas. These new ideas are in turn circulated and tested for their significance. Such manipulation produces alternative models which provide a different perspective on the relationship between things. Social and economic models are the objects of manipulation. In this way ‘postproduction’ creates an ‘economy of use (and reuse)’, as Dominiek Ruyters puts it.[3]

‘In the face of the economic abstraction that makes daily life unreal, or an absolute weapon of techno-market power, artists reactivate forms by inhabiting them, pirating private property and copyrights, brands and products, museum-bound forms and signatures. If the downloading of forms (these samplings and remakes) represents important concerns today, it is because these forms urge us to consider global culture as a toolbox, an open narrative space rather than a univocal narrative and a product line.’[4]

Within this perspective, the artist is a kind of hacker, changing existing social and economic systems by entering them and manipulating them: ‘In this way, social objects, from habits to institutions through the most banal structures, are pulled from their inertia. By slipping into the functional universe, art revives these objects or reveals their absurdity.’[5]

The artist becomes the producer of alternative models that serve to counterbalance the bias of market-orientated thinking. Against the closed ‘stories’ of commerce, the artist offers open-ended narrative structures that presume an active stance on the part of the spectator. The spectator becomes an active participant in such collective and interactive structures: ‘Contemporary art tends to abolish the ownership of forms, or in any case to shake up the old jurisprudence. Are we heading toward a culture that would do away with copyright in favor of a policy allowing free access to works, a sort of blueprint for a communism of forms?’[6]

Open source

That same ‘hacker’ culture is also the basis for the emergence of a new organizational model in software engineering, the ‘open source’ movement as it is called. Open source means that the source code of a software program is freely available to all and sundry. This has enormous consequences, for once the source code is public knowledge, anybody can in theory alter the program or develop it further. That is also the reason why Microsoft has never been willing to divulge the source code for its Windows operating system. Microsoft and the open-source movement consequently exemplify two entirely different approaches to software development.

Eric S. Raymond, appointed by the open-source movement as its ‘minister of propaganda’, described the two organizational structures as the cathedral and the bazaar. The cathedral is the model for software like that of Microsoft which is protected by copyright. It is a business model with a distinctly hierarchical structure. The opposite of this is the bazaar – a seemingly disconnected but functioning web of relationships on which the open-source movement is modelled. To his amazement Raymond finds himself forced to conclude that this ‘great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches’ appears to work and ‘at a speed barely imaginable to cathedral-builders.’[7]

Actually, the open-source movement is far more than a particular type of software development. It stands for a particular attitude to rights relating to the ownership and use of knowledge. The movement has its origins in use. David Garcia: ‘The digital revolution thoroughly upset prevailing Western ideas about intellectual property. Thanks to the Internet there is an extensive network in which ideas are not so much protected by copyright as developed collectively. Ownership is not what counts, but use.’[8]

Open-source software is developed in response to an individual need for a specific solution. If it proves interesting for others, a group of users quickly forms who pass on and improve the software. The open-source movement has always been closely linked to the academic world, where such an interchange of ideas (peer-to-peer review) is customary. An important principle in this respect is the need for software to evolve ‘in the presence of a large and active community of users and co-developers’.[9]

Open source is a model that has meanwhile passed beyond its own frontiers. In ‘The Political Economy of Open Source Software’, the political scientist Steven Weber concludes that the idea of open source is far more widely applicable: ‘The key concepts – user-driven innovation that takes place in a parallel distributed setting, distinct forms and mechanisms of cooperative behavior, the economic logic of “anti-rival” goods – are generic enough to suggest that software is not the only place where the open source process could flourish.’[10] In a recent article, the media researchers Felix Stalder and Jesse Hirsch advocated ‘Open Source Intelligence’.[11]

Open source favours free access to information and thus affects the foundations of the knowledge economy. It implies a reversal of a wide range of topics relating to the concept of property. Open source offers an alternative model for the development of new knowledge with considerable legal, economic, political and social consequences. Steven Weber covers all these aspects in his summary of the applications of open source. In his view open source is: - a particular methodology for research and development - the core of a new business model (free distribution of software means that new mechanisms for compensation and profit need to be created) - the social essence of a community, a defining nexus that binds together a group of people to create a common good - a new ‘production structure’ that is somehow unique or special to a ‘knowledge economy’ and will transcend or replace production structures of the industrial era - a political movement.[12]

Characteristics of postproduction and open source

If we compare the two models of ‘postproduction’ and ‘open source’ we discover several striking similarities. The most striking is that both Nicolas Bourriaud and Eric S. Raymond use the bazaar as model. Bourriaud uses it as the site of a second-hand economy in which ideas and forms are passed on and thus acquire a different meaning. The flea market or bazaar is a place where ‘something that was produced in the past is recycled and changes direction … an object that was once used according to a certain concept finds new applications.’[13] Raymond emphasizes the self-organizing capacity of this community that is driven by individual goals whose collectivity stems from a similar demand for tools and the willingness to do something to get them.
For both, the bazaar is the model for a hands-on mentality in which new ideas are generated in a process of active involvement and experiment. Both postproduction and open source are based on an economy of use and re-use, in which the traditional distinction between maker and user seems largely to disappear. Just as the artist turns existing social and economic models into objects of reworking, so the spectator is made part of the model; he no longer looks at art from a distance, but takes an active part in the ‘artwork’. That may well be most true of the open-source movement which is driven by a large group of users who are constantly supplying comments and improvements. Developer and user have become one and the same person.
One of the most important changes, therefore, is the fact that both models turn the notion of copyright and intellectual property on its head. They totally overturn the conditions in which ideas come about and are developed. It is of particular interest to architecture that ideas originate in quite a different way in this user economy: ‘if IPR (intellectual property rights) regimes provide incentive to innovate, then distribution of that innovation takes care of itself through the market, in the sense that high quality and beneficial technology will reach at least some and probably all of its potential beneficiaries (depending on the price). Open source suggests an inversion of that logic. In this setting, the key challenge was developing incentives that were set appropriately to promote distribution, and letting innovation take care of itself.’[14]

Consequences for architectural practice

In short, open source requires a shake-up of established ways of thinking and a different interpretation, both socially and economically, of the concept of innovation. The existing (cathedral) model with the autonomous genius of the chief designer at the top of a strict hierarchy is ‘closed’ and based on competition. That competition has proved to be an important generator of innovation, but also leads to enormous fragmentation. The bazaar model, on the other hand, is based on cooperation. It conforms to the network logic of an effective distribution of ideas, as a result of which these ideas can be tested in different situations and improved. It makes use of the ‘swarm intelligence’ of a large group of users and/or developers. This swarm intelligence presupposes a large user base which is actively involved in development. Open source is not a closed community. The sole requirement for this type of cooperation is the same as for all other types of community, namely a shared interest. That interest leads to knowledge being shared between different disciplines and also between professionals and hobbyists. The identification of this user base is accordingly an important step in the development of an open-source architectural practice. The user group transcends the profession and also encompasses other disciplines. In view of the leading role played by government in the country’s spatial planning, it should certainly take an active role in stimulating this approach. And then there are the ‘end users’ (the occupants) of architecture. They too could have a role in the process. The fact is that the open-source process can also be an important stimulus for greater participation by residents in the spatial planning process. The only condition that needs to be met in order to produce an actively involved community is a reasonable promise: ‘It can be crude, buggy, incomplete and poorly documented. What it must not fail to do is convince potential co-developers that it can be evolved into something really neat in the foreseeable future.’[15]

Thus, open source provides an organization model for the collective development of solutions for spatial issues involving housing, mobility, greenspace, urban renewal and so on. These are all complex issues that presuppose an interdisciplinary approach; in fact they can only be solved with cooperation. Open source presupposes that these ideas are disclosed and made available to others, who in turn can improve on them. In this way, design changes from a one-off action into a kind of evolutionary process. To make this a little more concrete it is worth looking at present-day practice where a number of ventures launched in recent years have the makings of open-source practice. Examples that come to mind are ‘wilde wonen’ (consumer-led housing) and autarkic living/light urbanism. These are attempts to develop alternative models for spatial planning, and in particular housing construction. The ideas are widely applicable and not restricted to a specific form. Wilde wonen, which allows greater end-user input, challenges the copyright-protected practice of house building and arose, like the open-source community, out of an attempt to protect rather than limit users’ rights (by means of aesthetic controls, for example). As a result, wilde wonen has acquired considerable awareness among the general public though it seems to attract hardly any attention from architecture circles. It could be quite different. Especially now that wilde wonen seems to have been reduced to the distribution of private development plots, it is important to ensure that it continues to evolve.

Autarkic living and light urbanism are different undertakings, but they nonetheless exhibit many similarities. The combination of innovation in areas including communication technology and ecology has enabled their proponents to develop an alternative spatial model that dispenses with the permanent infrastructures of existing spatial models. The result is tremendous freedom, facilitating entirely different forms of urbanity. When these ventures are combined they generate a powerful impetus for further development of this research. But perhaps even more important is the fact that by joining forces it is easier to create a broad base for these ideas.

However, a shared knowledge base like this does not mean that the open source model is based entirely on a barter or gift economy. The development of the Linux operating system in particular has by now demonstrated that open source is certainly economically viable. To clarify this, a distinction needs to be made between knowledge and design. Knowledge relates to charting developments and furnishing models to take advantage of it. Design relates to advising on and implementing such models in concrete situations. The open-source movement has already proved itself perfectly capable of developing economically viable activity. The businesses concerned are mostly specialized in advising on and implementing open-source software. By providing this support they have also made an important contribution to getting this software accepted and distributed in the professional and demanding business environment.

Open source would seem to be an attractive model for an architectural practice wishing to revive its pro-active role in spatial issues. Cooperation and the exchange of ideas give rise to a learning organization that is able to evolve by reacting alertly to change. This sounds easier than it is. As suggested earlier, the idea of a collaborative practice presupposes a complete reversal of the existing organizational model of a discipline that is very keen on its autonomy and the concept of copyright. The first step towards an open-source practice in architecture is to develop a broad-based awareness that cooperation and the opening up of architectural practice to input from outside are important requirements if an effective contribution is to be made to the ever-more complex spatial processes. Open source is not a model to be developed and rolled out on a large scale. It must have a chance to evolve gradually. It entails an experimental process of adjustment. Open source is a process of growing awareness, a turn-around in thinking about the fundamental organizational principles of architectural practice. It is important to depict architecture not only as an aesthetic object or showpiece, but also as a learning process and a subject for discussion.


1. Rem Koolhaas, OMA: A-Z, p. 63.
2. Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access, The New Culture of Hypercapitalism where all of life is a paid for experience, New York (Penguin Putnam Inc.) 2001, p. 5.
3. Domeniek Ruyters, ‘Tweedehands economie’, Metropolis M no. 5, 2002, p. 16.
4. Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction, Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms The World, New York (Lukas & Sternberg) 2002, p. 88.
5. Ibid., p. 67.
6. Ibid., p. 29.
7. Eric S. Raymond, ‘The cathedral and the bazaar’, http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/.
8. David Garcia, ‘Kopieer dit’, Metropolis M, no. 5, 2002, p. 37.
9. Raymond (see note 7).
10. Steven Weber, ‘The Political Economy of Open Source Software’, p. 40. Webpaper at: http://repositories.cdlib.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1011&context=brie.
11. See: http://amsterdam.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0206/msg00030.html.
12. Weber, p. 3 (see note 10).
13. Bourriaud, pp. 22-23 (see note 4).
14. Ibid., p. 29.
15. Raymond (see note 7)

This weblog has been created as a result of the article A communism of ideas, towards an architectural open source practice. It proposes a reorganization of architectural practice in order to deal with the diminishing role of the architect in spatial planning issues. Instead of continuing the battle of egos this weblog sets out to explore new models of cooperation that can reinvent architectural practice and develop innovative spatial models at the same time.