Though the twelfth Venice Biennial Architecture is concluded, this year’s theme – People Meet in Architecture has left everyone wanting for more and returning for a long tem project, beyond the present exhibition. “Our idea is to help people and society relate with architecture, to help architecture relate with people and society, and to help people and society relate with each other”, as states Kazuyo Sejima, this year’s director.
But how can we respond in a concrete way to this goal? How can we meet people’s increasing desire for participation in the decision-making procedures that lie beyond the environment we live in? Recent open source architectural experiences seem to give us a possible answer.
The use of open source and crowdsourcing methods in the planning practice leads to some changes concerning primarily the role of architects and users. If Michel de Certeau was certain that use and consumption were active practices that represented a way to possess creative space (as well as of any other structure) , the current architectural and participation design experiences seem to push in that direction, suggesting the user’s intervention from the planning phase and thus potentially broadening to the entire Web 2.0 community the possibility of actually affecting the final product.
Sharing, collaborating, confronting, participating: these are the key actions of a modus operandi which could remind us of- yet within a completely different technological and social context – Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon , a constantly redefined, remodeled and inhabitant-built planetary scale city.
Yet what perspectives, dynamics and landscapes could unfold for/thanks to such architectural practices? We talked about this with Daniel Dendra (anOtherArchitect), architect and founder, along with Peter Ruge and Rosbeth Ghobarkar (LOOM) of OpenSimSim, an open source planning network, “open to everyone cherishing the world of design and the design of the world”, from architects to scientists, from producers to final users.
The project has just been exposed at the Venice Biennial Architecture, involving nine studies  for the conception of a domestic functional unity called “pod”, which would primarily satisfy environmental, technological and economical sustainability requirements, as well as flexibility needs: pod can be built directly by the user or by a company and can be inserted into a pre-existing construction or a new plan. It’s been since June 2010 that architects have working on this project, sharing and confronting each planning step.
Another part of OpenSimSim‘s contribution to the Biennial Architecture is the show of the plans’ models, built through a mutual exchange and collaboration among the different teams.
However, OpenSimSim‘s attention is focused on the testing and experimentation of future possibilities and new paths rather than on exposing old results. That is the reason why maybe the most interesting part of their contribution is an “in progress” version of the online platform, in the shape of an augmented reality installation the observers can interact with.
The online platform is already on the net and open to contributions from the community’s, and a new beta version will be soon available.
Now it is already possible to follow all the steps of the plan thanks to an exhaustive video documentation available on the net and made by the artist Natalia Fentisova: it ranges from discussions on strictly planning aspects planning, to the dynamics of change determined by open source models, the participants share each moment of comparison in a clear way and focus their attention to the users’ comments.
“Open Source is changing many aspects of our everyday life. [ ] We are shifting from a corporation owned consumer world to a community driven participation system where people are enjoying contributing their knowledge and time to the wider public for free” , the founders of OpenSimSim affirm. In the architectural field this aspect implies the passage from the individual designer (or the team as well) to a broaden network.
Architecture could take advantage from an extended participation of very different experiences, skills and knowledge, and, at the same time, the users would have the chance to contribute more concretely to the decisions concerning the environment in which they live. However, what is still to be seen is how all of this can find its application on a large scale, how such participation would become real and mutual and how this will influence the constructive process…Yet this is our true challenge. What are we waiting for?
Elena Biserna: I would like to start by asking you how the OpenSimSim project was born: what are the needs, the reflections and the issues that led you to design a platform for broader discussion on architectural design?
Daniel Dendra: OpenSimSim started around one a half years ago during a discussion with my friend and fellow architect Peter Ruge about the situation of our profession. We made a small experiment and asked people to choose between a pair of pictures: a historical house and a contemporary building (but I don’t want to name the architect in question) most people told us that they prefer the historical house. We also showed another pair of pictures: an old car (the same age as the building) and a contemporary car. Most of the people preferred the contemporary car.
So there seems to be a huge problem in our profession: we either make buildings that are not good enough to satisfy the needs and wishes of the users, or we don’t communicate contemporary architecture well enough. We actually think it’s a bit of both.
In the past years our profession was driven by a fast forward movement toward iconographical and spectacular buildings. The starting point of this movement could be probably defined with the “Bilbao Effect” which led to the idea of a city full of “Bilbao Effects”: Dubai. Many architects participated in this crazy movement (us included) but we received a great wake up call with the financial crisis. Now we have time to look back and understand what we have done.
At this point I would like to quote Dieter Rams (the great German industrial designer) who said: “We do not need to create outstanding design but better design”.
But the situation will get worse if we continue to work and design in the way we were doing. With all the current environmental changes our architecture and also our cities need to get much more intelligent as they are now. We can’t simply revert to an old knowledge. We are facing new environmental changes that we can’t only solve by building energy efficient houses. We need to think about the users as well. Most sustainable housing fails, today, because people simply don’t understand how to operate them properly. The solution is not having a large handbook with each house that you need to study, but to design more intuitive design interfaces for these new technologies. So, suddenly, architects are faced with new problems.
Coming back to the contemporary car or even products such as the iPhone, where we find all the latest technologies integrated into a great design if you compare a middle class car with a middle range design kitchen you will figure out that you will need to pay around the same amount of money in order to buy it. But in the car you get a much higher value for money. Even the sound of the closing doors is designed, all technologies are networked and a lot of attention is paid to human interfaces. In the case of the kitchen you get 3 or 4 intelligent machines that are not networked and a lot of stupid MDF  boxes with a nice finish. The problem is not the amount of units produced: there is roughly the same amount of kitchens than cars in the world.
If you look at architecture, the problem becomes even more obvious. We are only willing to produce prototypes with a budget that is far smaller than what any car manufacturing is spending on developing a new car model: 1Billion US$.
So, how can we develop architecture and cities that are as intelligent as cars? For us the only possible way is Open Source and crowdsourcing. We need to open the gates and let everyone become part of it. Up to now we have only learnt the secret words to open the gate: “OpenSimSim”. We need to keep it open and spread the treasure among all of us. The treasure is all of us and all our knowledge.
Elena Biserna: from all this, you arrived at “pod”, a functional and flexible control unit capable of storing and distributing energy to household devices. It is the first project (maybe I should say the first projects) undertaken by OpenSimSim. Would you like to talk about the process, the collaborations, the methodology used to arrive at this first result?
Daniel Dendra: I think it is much easier to log in to OpenSimSim and follow up the process and ideas of each pod design. We documented every step in the design and also published the telephone conferences between the designers and consultants.
Elena Biserna: In fact the documentation of the whole process interviews, workshops, but also web-cam meetings among the architects involved are published on your blog, and everyone can access and comment them Is it also a way to raise awareness and to stimulate a wider debate on these issues and opportunities?
Daniel Dendra: Yes, of course. For us going public for the Biennale was an experiment. So we tested out how much participation and how much transparency we needed for the process to work. Of course we will continue to finely tune it from beta to beta.
Elena Biserna: At the Venice Biennale you presented an “in progress” version of the online platform that you are implementing. Some workstations allow visitors to interact with the projects and to add contents, comments, feedback and so on. What will the users’ ways, levels and modes of participation be in the “final” version?
Daniel Dendra: I don’t think we will ever reach a final version since we have already understood that we need to change our first roadmap and adapt it to the needs, wishes and feedback by the users and participants. So we hope that our project will remain dynamic and flexible. At the moment we are working on a manifesto for Open Source Architecture and also on the second beta version of OpenSimSim. We have the pleasure to present OpenSimSim and reveal the features of the next beta at TEDxBerlin on the 15th of November. .
Elena Biserna: so we have to wait some days before discovering the new version’s potentials! I am interested, however, in delving deeper into the issue of the role of the participants: architecture and design increasingly meet the needs for flexibility and adaptability to user demands. The use of open source models in architectural practices expands this possibility, involving users’ active participation as early as the design phase. How does this lead to redefine the phases of the traditional design process?
Daniel Dendra: The so-called traditional design process tends to end up in the documentation of the built project in photos where no people are shown. Some architects generate art pieces where the user is considered an intrusive entity. This is why only 2% of the architecture worldwide is done with the participation of architects. The users simply do not trust us anymore many of them think that an architect is not needed. At the same time, we have the ambitious goal to reduce our CO2 production to zero by 2050 this is including our building and our cities. By now, we can’t even imagine what the answer to this challenge would be. And I do not think that architects can answer these questions by themselves. If and how we need to change the design process is a question that we can’t answer now.
Elena Biserna: Open source design also leads us to rethink the traditional roles associated with architecture. The fact that the project has become open to contributions from a broad community, leads to a sort of “multiple authorship”, to a large sharing and collaboration between professionals and users, among very different skills and expertise. What perspectives are now open to architects, how is their role redefined?
Daniel Dendra: I don’t think there is a redefinition of the role of the architect. Architecture and urban design have always been a collaborative process. With the need and development of more complex systems facades will become skins we need to include even more thinkers and specialists in this process. The role of the architect has always been similar to the role of the conductor of an orchestra. Many outstanding projects are influenced enormously by clients or other people involved in the process. A movie is followed by a credit list which is several minutes long, but with architecture we credit only a single entity. When we say that a building is designed by Zaha Hadid, if in reality there is a company of around 400 architects, and probably even more consultants involved in it, it is incorrect.
Elena Biserna: Talking about credits What are the consequences of all this in terms of copyright?
Daniel Dendra: One big challenge for us is to adopt ideas of copy left licenses, such as Creative Commons, to architectural designs. But, frankly speaking, there shouldn’t be any copyright for architecture since our profession is based on hundreds of years of development by nameless people. Our cities have an intelligence that was developed by the participation process of so-called Baumeister. Only recently we developed the ideas of signature buildings and architecture, but most of our buildings worldwide are still developed by a team of un-named individuals. So how can we have a copyright on something that we did not invent? In other professions and markets, such as the music industries in China, the idea of copyrights is obsolete
Elena Biserna: What are the convergences and the differences do you encounter between OpenSimSim and other open source architectural projects such as, for example, Open Architecture Network, Open Source Architecture (OSA) or Open Source Architecture for Africa?
Daniel Dendra: Of course we studied the already existing projects and platforms. In general, we are trying to facilitate the participation of people and designers and we are also targeting not only architects, but all people involved in the building process and also the users of future architectural design. Moreover, we don’t believe that our products should be developed for a certain region of the world most of the projects you mention concentrate on the so-called third world. Our approach is to develop a project that is useful enough for all the world and cultures
Elena Biserna: In fact, I think that the first difference between these experiences and OpenSimSim lies in the will to involve a wider audience, including both professionals and non professionals. What is the importance of the Internet, in your opinion, in terms of will/ability to participate?
Daniel Dendra: Of course the willingness of particpiants during the decision-making process is in the stage of changing. During the last decades this was not so important, but just look around at what is happening worldwide: in France we see the most intensive demonstrations since 1968. In Germany the middle-class is going on the streets to demonstrate against a multi-billion development in Stuttgart. All this was not thinkable some years ago. I think the recent crisis, including also the changing climate, was a wake up call for people. The Internet is just a perfect tool for developing new tools and platforms that nourish this movement.
Elena Biserna: So, from a general point of view, what prospects do you think could be developed for collaborative design practices based on the models of open source or social networks, and what limits there might be (if you haven’t already found any)?
Daniel Dendra: Talent is not bound to a certain geographical region. In a decentralised state such as Germany, this is really obvious many of the world market leaders in certain areas are based in rural areas or small cities. Not all the talent sits in the capital. A collaborative design process could bring together these people that are distributed worldwide and help them to work on future technologies and designs. The limits are, obviously, the fact that people, even with all the technology, like to meet each other and work together in the same space, therefore we also have plans to launch workshops and labs in several cities.
Elena Biserna: In your opinion, are there any risks? Is it possible, for example, that a manipulation of the project would turn people collaboration in a sort of “politically correct” market investigation? Or, in other respects, could the role of the architect or designer turn into a new dispositif of control?
Daniel Dendra: As with any new development or technology there are risks implemented, but at the moment I can’t share these fears. The main perspective of OpenSimSim is to generate better design through crowdsourcing. Its results are not targeting the current markets of architects or designers. 98% of the buildings in the world are done without the participation of an architect: we are trying to gain back some of the lost markets for our profession by delivering superior products that are designed using the intelligence of the crowd. Of course each project has someone who moderates the whole process and should take care that the collaboration develops in the right way; a similar process is used in open source software design.
Elena Biserna: What are the next steps for OpenSimSim? What are OpenSimSim’s objectives for the short- and long-term?
Daniel Dendra: In short-term, we are working on our next beta release and also on the possibilities to include more projects and involve more people. We had a lot of interest for all kinds of projects we are overwhelmed with the interest of people and how positive they receive our ideas. One of the main issues is also to find some sponsors, in other words a guaranty that we can continue with all the ideas we are having.
In long-term, we would like to make our spatial environment better. It would be great if OpenSimSim would become a platform for sharing ideas and design globally, but also for educating more people in terms of architectural and urban design. Of course we have a long-term roadmap, but we have learned that it is better not to stick to it, but to listen to what the users of the platform want. So, mainly, we need your comments, suggestions, feedback and participation. OpenSimSim is about you and your ideas it’s not about us. Sharing is sexy!
1 – Michel de Certeau, L’invention du quotidien. I Arts de faire, Union générale d’éditions, Paris 1980.
2 – Si veda Francesco Careri, Constant. New Baylon, una città nomade, Testo&Immagine, Torino 2001.
3 – http://opensimsim.net/beta/sites/default/files/oss_press-release_2010-08-23.pdf (traduzione mia).
4 – Acconci Studio, New York; anOtherArchitect, Berlin + Moscow; AU Studio, London; BFR Lab, Cologne + Langenthal; Hangzhou Ruge, Hangzhou; Haptic Architects/StokkeAustad, London/Oslo; IÑAKI ECHEVERRIA, Mexico; June14, Berlin + New York; School Architecture, Kyoto.
6 – MDF, o “medium density fiberboard”, un materiale derivato del legno.