The most strategic pathology of modern architecture is its split personality. While it is the profession that lays claim to perhaps the most basic human need, it long ago traded in the staid certainty of presiding over dwelling in favor of the vitality of an identity crisis. Leon Battista Alberti famously breathed life into the modern architect from the cadaver of the “mere carpenter” that he himself had simultaneously decapitated, destabilizing the discipline by counterpoising thinkers and doers. The resulting tension between the serious business of laying bricks, springing vaults, and putting bread on the table and the cultural popularity contest of authorship and ideas became the strong force that still glues together a volatile and vibrant discipline. To keep the schizophrenic discipline vigorous, this tension must be regularly stoked. Open Source Architecture is a recent fillip.
The Thames and Hudson–published non-book is the elaboration of an eponymous article that Carlo Ratti and a cohort of “adjunct editors” first assembled for Domus in 2011. The text masquerades as an open source experiment itself as a printed “wiki”—one to be thought of “not as a book, but as a debate, or a joke, or a brainstorming session.” The ambition is no less than to dump the “top-down, comprehensive design” model of the “Promethean architect” typified by Le Corbusier, the Albertian par excellence, for the “Choral Architect [who] weaves together the creative and harmonic ensemble,” an editorial authority that sits somewhere between top-down and bottom up to orchestrate a networked design process fit for the mechanics and mental theatre of the 21st century. If architecture can now be digitized into data, it goes, then the Molotov cocktail of Creative Commons licensing, crowd funding, and open source sharing fueled by the Internet will become an explosive enough force to recover the participatory ambitions that failed in the 1960s and 1970s.
Albeit cloaked in the drag of collaborative, third person, circumstantial, and equivocal rhetoric, this is a manifesto. Manifestos construct an image of reality into which readers are to be thrown hoping they will stay there and ultimately construct it. Speed is vital; anything to remove friction is permitted. Twisting the facts and bungling history are encouraged. Open Source Architecture plays by the rules of its genre, but while the picture it paints for the future of architecture is clear, its understanding of the open source world it cops from to do so undershoots present reality. For a book published in 2015, it presents an antiquated model, underestimating the present and thereby underselling the future, the capital sin of a manifesto.
A contemporaneous text from outside of architecture by blogger Venkatesh Rao provides a benchmark. Invited by Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm cofounded by the cofounder of the first commercial web browser, Rao spent a year studying the Silicon Valley habits of practice and mind from its epicenter. The study resulted in “Breaking Smart,” a series of essays published freely online that construct an explicit discourse from the largely tacit knowledge embedded in the same new software-driven complex of ownership, sharing, funding, and networking that drives Ratti’s text. The difference is that for Ratti, “the success of software is a direct provocation for architecture’s paradigm shift,” whereas for Rao, architecture is precisely that which cannot participate in the software revolution.
Presenting software as the third “soft technology” after writing and money, Rao’s text diagnoses the effects of its democratization from the military-industrial-academic scale of the latter half of the 20th century to the desktop of most American teenagers, forcing a shift in ethos from the distribution of scarce resources to one that “must be approached with an abundance mindset.” The figure that will “wield disproportionate influence on the emerging future” is the hacker, the new problem-solving archetype that brandishes an iterative, trial-and-error, pragmatist approach that will eclipse the “architect”, which for Rao is the hacker’s idealist, purist, and anachronistic opposite. Whereas Ratti’s formula relies on drawing a homology between architecture and software, Rao’s presents their fundamental incompatibility: the power of software is in-dissociable from its softness and architecture will always be hard.
Ratti’s label for the outmoded dinosaur still practicing “starchitecture” in pursuit of the “Bilbao Effect” to be extinguished by software relies on the two-and-a-half century old idea inscribed in Goethe’s “Prometheus,” the first text to recast the Titan from a cautionary tale of the Renaissance to the exemplary genius for the artist. In the same year, 1772, Goethe wrote an ode praising Erwin, the name of an architect inscribed on the Strasbourg Cathedral that the young writer mistook to be singularly responsible for the towering marvel, a collaborative gothic creation built over generations. Goethe revived Prometheus while making of architecture a frozen and flawed image to fit his imperative. Ratti does the inverse, calcifying the myth to throw forward a new architect over its dead body. But myths can’t be killed, they are trans-historical weapons to be refashioned as needed, and Prometheus has recently risen again. As Rao tells it: “Through the seventies, a tenuous balance of power prevailed between purist architects and pragmatic hackers… As a result of pragmatism prevailing, a nearly ungovernable Promethean fire has been unleashed.” Prometheus has been adopted by the very open source movement Ratti invokes, and precisely, as Rao’s analysis illustrates, by claiming its transcendence of architecture.
This lexical pedantry may seem frivolous, but if the stakes are the very figure of the architect, then Prometheus is well in play. While he was writing the first architecture treatise since Vitruvius, Alberti also penned Momus, a satire featuring an anti-hero explicitly modeled on Prometheus that historians Manfredo Tafuri and Mark Jarzombek have used as a cipher to decode a more complex agenda than canonical history has allowed. While Ratti’s impulse to invoke the Promethean in projecting a new architect in the age of software is well founded, a closer reading of both contemporary techno-culture and architecture history is wanting. As architect and Yale professor Keller Easterling warned in her contribution to the book, “Wiki as encyclopedia is easier than wiki as manifesto.”