published in Archis #3 2003
A Communism of ideas
Towards an open-source architectural practice
me, the strongest emotion in architecture remains the sudden moment
that something in a project ‘works’
Rem Koolhaas, ‘On Functionalism’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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
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?’
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.
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
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
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’.
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.’ In a recent article, the
media researchers Felix Stalder and Jesse Hirsch advocated ‘Open Source
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.
of postproduction and open source
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.’ 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.’
for architectural practice
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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)
OPEN SOURCE ARCHITECTURE. TOWARDS AN EGOLESS, COOPERATIVE AND EVOLUTIONARY
PRACTICE OF ARCHITECTURE.
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.