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The Death of the Architect

Graduation work by Rob Tönissen.

In the last 30 years innovative technological and software developments from the digital revolution have strongly influenced the way we think about sharing and working with knowledge in contemporary society. Various operating systems (e.g. Windows, Macintosh and Linux), the Internet and related software (e.g. Google, Yahoo and Mozilla Firefox) have become known to a wider audience and are hard to be ignored in our everyday practices. Especially digital social platforms (e.g. Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook) and digital sharing platforms (e.g. Dropbox, Yousendit and WeTransfer) take a more significant position into our contemporary society.

New techniques, emerging collaboration movements and an evolving society define the contemporary society, where it is easier than ever before to make a reproduction or to get access to information on people, places and products all over the world. These developments are accelerating and are also starting to influence the way we think about organising and producing new knowledge or work in architecture. So how will the role(s) of the architect evolve along with these rapidly successive developments in our network-based knowledge society.

Nowadays these innovations are not emerged in all contexts yet, but the developments from the digital revolution have put the fitness and flexibility of the traditional structures and mechanisms in our society into question and gave room for other movements to emerge. A remarkable tendency in this context is the open source movement that generated a different attitude towards the power-knowledge interactions in the organisation and production of work. This alternative organisational movement emerged previously only in the technological and software contexts (Raymond, 1999), but many other contexts followed ever since and the developed open source model has become generally accepted and applicable in new knowledge development (Weber, 2000). As a product of the network economy and a potentially rich source of lessons for functioning within this network, the open source model will according to Weber (2000) also have considerable legal, economic, political and social consequences. Therefore the emergence of the open source model has important parallels with technical, political, economical and social developments in the contemporary network society. Most of these developments are not new, but are in their incipient stage entering and changing the current systems in other contexts. Von Hippel (2004: 93) labels these emerging open source movements as “innovation communities”: Such communities become sources of user-led innovation whereby new changes in processes and products are increasingly developed by users and aided by improvements in computing and communication technology (c.f. Sergio J. Rey, 2009: 195).

The open source model has already proven to be successful in the development of technology and software (Raymond, 1999), but is still virtually an underexposed model in the context of architecture. That in this research concerns the art and science of designing buildings and other physical structures or projects in the public space (e.g. urban design and landscape architecture). According to Kaspori (2005), this would be a desirable organisational renewal for the architecture discipline, which is increasingly consumer-driven and at the mercy of the market. Already in 2005, Kaspori stressed the potential importance of open source in contemporary architecture for the network-based knowledge society.

“The digital revolution thoroughly upset prevailing Western ideas about intellectual property.’ (David Garcia, 2002: 37). 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.” (Kaspori, 2005: 328)

He advocates that architects should redefine what they could contribute to the contemporary network-based knowledge society. By not only looking inwards applying their inventiveness to the production of their designs, but also by looking outwards and forwards to the organisation of their practice in order to search for countless opportunities offered by these turbulent times of political and economic instability (Kaspori, 2005). This seems especially important since the implementation of developments of the digital revolution and the emergence of alternative collaboration models in architecture, like the open source model, again question the current roles that architects play in the organisation and production of contemporary architecture.

Roland Barthes

Complex authorship

The architect’s position and role has always been under intense discussion (Alberti, 1452; Pevsner, 1936; Jencks, 1977; Wigley, 1998) but up to now this did not significantly change the conceptualisation of the architect as a single master creator (Alberti, 1452). The architect’s personality remained strongly identified with the architectural design and the object that he or she had made public. Herein the architects played different dominant roles in the development and creation of total designs (Wigley, 1998), isolated theoretically from the external world. The designs were only made public until they had reached a polished stage of maturity (Rey, 2009). Architecture was mainly produced in these traditional design models until alternative collaboration models emerged in late postmodern society.

In the 1960s and 1970s new socially progressive community-based and transgressive anti-architectural design groups emerged and were conceived as collaborative alternatives to the standard traditional design models with the single master creator at the hierarchical top of the design process (Lee, 2007). It was until then that the idea of the architect was perceived solely as this autonomous unique creator. While the collaborative alternatives in the counter culture of the 1960s gave new perspectives to who or what an architect could be, the call for complex urbanism by Jane Jacobs (1961) and complex architecture by Robert Verturi (1966), still did not significantly change the traditional conceptualisations to dominate the professional identity of the architect. Aided by the developments in digital and social technologies in the 1990s, such demands started to be realised and seem to have transformed the most authorial acts of designing and drawing. Since late postmodernism’s “desire for architecture that communicates with its users, and one based on the heterogeneity of our cities and global culture” (Jencks, 1977) the logic of authorship in architecture has become more complex in the network-based knowledge society. Especially since these rapidly improving digital techniques make it easier than ever before to copy and reproduce work on a large scale, and also allow the copy to qualitatively match the original or even make a better version.

This complexity makes authorship in architecture and the role(s) of the architect again subject of discussion in the organisation and production of contemporary architecture. Just as Lee (2007: 1) describes in his research to design discourses: “Design has become an everyday activity rather than a professional study”. Lee (2007) illustrates with this that with the current technological and software developments it seems that everyone is nowadays able to have access to designs or to the act of designing itself. Design in architecture is according to him a matter of theory and since this is becoming an increasingly collective good rather than an exclusive property of architects, the role of the potential user becomes also an increasingly important part of the authorship discussion in architecture. By enabling the potential user to join the design process early and often, relying on a large amount of delegation and being open to external input through a process of network collaboration (Rey, 2009), the open source model shakes up the established conceptualisations of authorship in architecture:

“To question this (or any) logic of authorship is to question the most fundamental shared value of an authorial discipline, its belief in itself as a game and in the stakes that make it a game that merits being played – one that is, furthermore, distinct from others. In cultural history, the logic of authorship is a representation, an “operation of classification and delineation that produces the multiple intellectual configurations by which reality is constructed in contradictory ways by various groups.” (Lipstadt, 2007: 164)

Therefore the significance of emerging new collaborative models’ challenge to authorship can, according to Lipstadt (2007), not be underscored enough. In particular because the developments in the digital revolution and the emergence of user-led open source models are contrasting the traditional organisation and production of design models in architecture.

Michel Foucault

Architect as mediator

The concept of authorship is theorised extensively in significant philosophy, sociology and literature studies by Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” (1967) and Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author” (1969). These studies have contributed to the discussion of what authorship is, and how the relation between author and work can be understood and recognised. Therefore their studies on authorship are still considered as the most important in contemporary analysis of authorship.

The link between the author’s persona and its original produced work are, following Roland Barthes’s theory (1967), therefore less important than the interpretation of the reader – its user. Consequently the considered intellectual ideas and thoughts from a specific author become “to be used” services instead of “to be owned” products. From this postmodern perspective it makes sense that the mode of authorship began to change from the author-God into the author as mediator. Initial ideas, thoughts and interests of the solitary author became less important in the organisation and production of work. Instead, the users’ ideas, thoughts and interests became just more and more important in order to obtain the new focus for designing user-experiences in postmodern architecture. This is clarified by Barthes’ theory (1967) as that the author’s presence eventually fades, while the work remains present in an eternal “here and now”. Including that, once complete, the meaning of the work no longer dwells within the person of the author, but within the consciousness of the beholder, the reader. Realising the importance of “the reader” instead of “the author”, when producing work, therefore explains the different mode and conceptualisations of authorship in postmodern production and organisation of architecture.

However, architecture discourses are not solely responsible and able to adapt to another organisation and production of architecture. The context, as Michel Foucault (1969) notes, will always set the conditions in which other discourses will arise and disappear. And also, the absence of “the” author as a person does not simply imply that the author-features disappear too. Michel Foucault explains in his work “What is an Author?” (1969) how these author-features are still represented in the different conceptualisations of authorship that can be found in the social decision patterns of the design communities. Their choices made in different perspectives on parts of reality create a set of practices or strategic games within which realities are produced and different conceptualisations of authorship are formed. From this perspective, the members of the project’s community will adopt these features and this makes the relationship between architects, architecture and users more complex, but also more flexible and with bigger support. Then, the production of architecture will not be a product of a relatively closed traditional organisation, with an exclusive author-God central in the design process, because everyone becomes more dependent on each other. Instead, it will act as an open circular organisation that constantly will improve and produce another version of the existing architecture, managed by the active members of the project’s community. In these interactions it were, until recently, the open source discourses that seem to have led the way in developing alternative conceptualisations of authorship in this author as mediator mode.

Cartoon of the author-God.

Reborn authorship in Open Source Architecture

Architecture discourses have primarily adopted and adapted the technical applications of developments from the digital revolution and are now facing the consequences from not having adopted and adapted the social applications of developments from the digital revolution as might have been desirable. In order to enable new collaborative conceptualisations of authorship in contemporary (open source) architecture discourses to be reborn, the traditional ideas and conceptualisations of authorship can only start with the figurative death of “the” author-God architect.

This evolution in the mode of authorship, as is stated by Roland Barthes (1967) and Michel Foucault (1969), transforms not only the role of the author in the process, but has also an effect on the produced work in the future and on clientship. For contemporary architecture this includes the management of openness (accessibility and transparency) in an architectural project and producing other kinds of products in smaller steps. The initial attempt to turnaround thinking about authorship in architecture calls therefore also for a turnaround in thinking about clientship and ownership. As in the open source discourses, there are already alternative organisations and structures emerging that provide services for the clients to meet their interests, without abandoning openness in the organisation of the open source project. Further research into conceptualisations of clientship and newer forms of licensing in architecture would be interesting, since there is already a tendency of emerging alternative forms of organisation and production in architecture. Especially in the organisation and production of landscape architecture it is not always clear who the author(s) are. Given the fact that the landscape is probably the biggest open source system already in existence, the open source model seems to have great potential within the landscape architecture discourses. Besides, conceptualisations of authorship within contemporary landscape architecture discourses are already for a longer period of time common with participation architecture and therefore share more author-features with the emerging open source communities than the build architecture discourses did until more recently.

Authorship in architecture discourses will always continue to develop into contemporary modes and conceptualisations of authorship. Therefore, perhaps the best way to understand architectural authorship within the emerging and evolving open source communities in architecture discourses is to make the author not exclusive, but inclusive in the organisation and production of contemporary architecture. Including that the architects, other experts and the potential users share author-features by providing openness on social and technical aspects in the project’s open source community to the members. Ultimately, it will be the continuing combinations of decisions of these members that will delineate the different conceptualisations of authorship in an open source architecture community. Therefore authorship can constantly change during a project and is dependent on the ongoing power-knowledge interactions between the members, the project’s context and technological innovations of its time. Eventually the management of openness will give space for creativity and innovation by welcoming potential great ideas that are generated through active collaboration between experts and users on a shared project in the production and organisation of open source architecture.

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maart 25, 2014

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