Why I am here
Second post in and I’m already well past my self-dictated update schedule. Nevertheless, in this post I wish to set the scene a little more as to the nature of my research and the ways I plan to go about it.
First of all I should explain the structure of my course and the work expected from it. I am an MPhil in Architecture student. As such, my work is equivalent to two years of a PhD programme. I was awarded my place on the programme with the expectation that I develop a piece of unique and valuable research that in some way contains a design component; that is, my research uses processes of design as a method of some sort.
My proposal for this programme centred around my personal interests in the nature of design processes, and the relatively novel field of open source production. This area of research has not differed, but has gradually, with assistance from my supervisors, become greatly more specific, an exploration in definition; what is an open source architectural practice and what impact might this have on the wider architectural profession?
In order to answer these questions, or at least provide some new insight into open source from an architectural perspective, my intention is to explore the history and definitions of open source as it has come to be understood in the field from which it emerged, computer software development. The term has expanded beyond this field and has been adopted to a number of different ends; from writing encyclopedias (Shirky, 2005) to politics (Rushkoff, 2003). A number of architects and urbanists have begun to develop projects around the collaborative model of open source and these nascent forms of open source architectural practice provide opportunities to understand how the specific constraints of the design and creation of architecture and urban form have altered the definition of open source as applied in this context. Arcbazar, Wikihouse, Open Plans, Open Source Ecology, The Open Architecture Network, and the One Thousand Square Project all have elements of open source production embedded in their make-up, be it a collaborative design process, the open way in which key decisions are made, or the way in which project data and ideas are shared and distributed. By understanding what is “open” about these projects a definition of an open source architectural practice can begin to form.
The Open Architecture Network (recently re-branded as Worldchanging), which is a communication and distribution tool developed by the charity Architecture for Humanity, is a particularly key example in my eyes, of an architectural organisation pushing the possibilities of open source. It is my hope that a central part of my research will be a thorough ethnographic study of this design community. I hope to understand what sets apart their methods and working practices from traditional architectural practices and how the use of a web-based communication platform, Creative Commons licenses to distribute design drawings and data, and more transparent and less-hierarchic governance in project decisions, alters the day-to-day role of ‘open source architects’.
With this understanding I hope to build a profile of an emergent culture of architects and designers that might allow me to speculate on where these changes might take the architectural profession. It is my belief that the open source model, which is built around the open distribution of data and ideas and more informal roles and organisational hierarchy, is fundamentally at odds with the codified and regulated nature of modern professional architecture, that defends its interests through copyright protection and carefully defines ordered practice structures. What might emerge from this collision of models is difficult to anticipate but evidence from both inside and outside of the architectural community suggests that open source is not to be overlooked or underestimated as a potential avenue for advancing and expanding the social role and impact of architects.
Through my research and dissertation I hope to explore whether my optimism that open source can provide new and lasting ideas for architecture is valid. It could simply be a passing fashion that finds no meaningful ground. Alternatively, as architects are becoming increasingly marginalised in the production of the built environment, it may provide a model that encourages greater relationships between architects, professional in related fields, and the general public, and a renewed culture of collaboration and sharing of ideas that is enriched through new media.
In later posts I will discuss some of the specific challenges of an open source architectural practice. I’m interested in understanding how novel copyright systems like Creative Commons might protect architectural creations, who is the responsible party when a design is shared by numerous individuals rather than a single practice, and what might motivate architects to contribute to open source architecture projects to begin with.
Rushkoff, D. (2003) Open source democracy: how online communication is changing offline politics. Demos.
Shirky, C. (2005) Epilogue: Open Source outside the domain of software. In: J. Feller, B. Fitzgerald, S. A. Hissam, & K. R. Lakhani eds. Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software. MIT Press, pp.483–488.