Architecture Open Source. Sense and The City
It seems that the golden age of the Archistar is coming to a close. A revolution is taking place in the way in which cities are designed, prompted by the open source movement and new models of participation by means of the web.
Carlo Ratti, the 44-year-old Italian architect, engineer, and director of the MIT SENSEable City Lab in Boston, is at the helm of Carlo Ratti Associati, an architecture firm based in Torino with branches in Boston and London.
He stands out as one of the world’s most visionary and technological urban planners and was ranked by Wired among the ‘50 people that will change the world’. His works have been exhibited at MoMA and at the Guggenheim in New York City, and for the Biennale exhibition in Venice. His bicycle invention was ranked by Time Magazine among ‘the 25 Best inventions of 2014’.
“Architecture still works according to the copyright model,” explains Ratti in his latest book ‘Open Source Architecture’ (Einaudi, 2014). “While culture and the media seem to be shifting towards copyleft and Creative Commons, thus architecture seems to be the last discipline, in order of time, to be sensitive to these new tendencies. Our daily lives are shaped by spaces, from homes to supermarkets. What would happen if we decided to take on an active role and were to change them?” he asks.
The Swiss-French architect and designer, Le Corbusier, embodied an age in which the main task of the architect was to reinvent society, which meant planning and orchestrating everything from the top; an all-powerful luminary. Now you are saying that architecture will increasingly come from the bottom. Where is this new model taking place? And are we sure that the Archistar era is coming to a close?
There are innumerable examples: Procida Island, the Batak villages, the thatched roofs of the Breton chaumières are all examples of ‘open source’ architecture. The process has always been a bottom-up one of variation and repetition, as described by Bernard Rudofsky in his classic essay ‘Architecture Without Architects’. Houses were built according to the needs of the inhabitants, the real creators of the design and construction, improving the various aspects on the basis of their experience. However, I can’t say whether the era of the Archistar is over yet, but I really believe that many of the factors —based on collaboration and sharing— are now entering the world of design and creating a new professional figure. Someone we might define as a ‘participative’ architect.
Have you ever had the opportunity of examining the issue with other Archistars?
The term Archistar has a rather ephemeral meaning and I don’t appreciate it so much. The definition is often applied to particular designers who have completely different and opposite ways of thinking, and I have personally had the opportunity to discuss my text with many friends, whom you might say, belong to this category. I have received positive comments from many of them and this has increased my awareness on the importance of the collaborative paradigm. A significant example is Rem Koolhaas, often referred to as a star-architect par excellence. At the Biannual Architecture Exhibition (to which we had been invited with our Local Warming project), he did not want to have famous designers, but mostly work groups and researchers.
Are there any Archistar projects that you particularly appreciate?
I appreciate many of them, regardless of who made them. Alvar Aalto was certainly the twentieth-century equivalent of a contemporary Archistar, and his Baker House here at the MIT is fantastic.
Do you feel that this new kind of architecture —especially regarding ‘dwellings’— will take into account the present-day needs of humankind?
I believe that the idea of what a ‘home’ should be like is changing and that belonging to a specific territory has lost its attractiveness, particularly among the new generations, and this trend is likely to continue in the future. However, I do not know if we will ever reach the paradox imagined by Constant (Dutch architect Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys) when in the second half of the twentieth century he wrote, “The airport of today can be seen as the anticipatory image of the city of tomorrow, the city of man passing through”. However, it is sufficient to take into consideration the success of a platform such as AirBnb, which brings into question the concepts of home and property, while people move from one town to another to perceive that something is changing. Generally speaking, I believe the new technologies should serve primarily to improve people’s lifestyle and redesign the experiences therein. A new way of experiencing the spaces around us, which is more comfortable and intelligent.
Which places, in your opinion, satisfy the ambition of the architect rather than the requirements of citizens?
It is difficult for me to think of an entire city. In every town there are positive and negative aspects. However, if I were to indicate a bad model, I would certainly choose Brasilia, a city that is beautiful when viewed from above, with its wings spread out like an airplane, but also a city that in my view was not conceived to meet the requirements and needs of its citizens. It is impossible, in fact, for a pedestrian to compete with the ubiquitous flow of vehicles or even enjoy the beautiful lake —which is a clear example of the design limitations of the Modern Movement.
What is your opinion on concept cities such as Masdar?
Rather than a city, in the case of Masdar, I would speak of a large-scale ‘real estate’ operation and one that is completely managed from the top. In Europe, at least, population growth seems to have halted and I do not think we need to build new cities, but rather: we should reconsider the positive experiences of the beautiful cities that we already have.
What is the role of the architect in shared architecture?
I should like to underline that I also don’t believe in project formulas that derive completely from the bottom up. I believe though that it is always necessary for someone to start the process and, above all, to be in a position to decide when to end operations and arrange the various phases harmoniously. I believe we should replace the ‘hero’ architect with a ‘participatory’ type of architect, who should be capable of handling a variety of input —because the masses often tend to proceed according to the random Brownian motion. I tried to apply this mode of writing in the book, by initially creating a Wikipedia page dedicated to Open Source Architecture and asking various colleagues to collaborate: Ethel Baraona Pohl, Assaf Biderman, Michele Bonino, Ricky Burdett, Pierre-Alain Croset, Keller Easterling, Giuliano da Empoli, Joseph Grima, John Habraken, Alex Haw, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Alastair Parvin, Antoine Picon, Tamar Shafrir. We are referring to what Umberto Eco would define as ‘open work’. At some point, however, I had to conclude my work and give structure to the text. The result is ‘Open Source Architecture,’ a book on participatory creative processes, written according to participatory canons.
You have written that Italian cities are subject to a common denominator: meticulousness for detail, a mix of stories, voices and the struggle for power. What is the common denominator in the heart of a Swiss city?
I believe that the particularly interesting aspect of Swiss architecture is how design and landscape —the powerful nature of the mountains— are able to influence each other.
What themes will you be dealing with at the next Forum in Davos?
I will talk about the Senseable Lab projects, including those of Carlo Ratti Associati, our studio for innovation in architecture. I believe these types of forums are important, aside from the business aspect. They are excellent spaces where we can share and exchange ideas. In a sense, they represent another example of open source.
Expo 2015 is approaching. Do these secular expositions have any sense nowadays?
Universal expositions always tend to accelerate and stimulate innovation, even in the world of architecture. It happened with the Crystal Palace in 1851, with the Eiffel Tower in 1889, with the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe in 1929, and it is still happening today. I personally had the opportunity of creating an installation for EXPO 2008 in Zaragoza, the Digital Water Pavilion, which was nominated by Time Magazine as ‘the Best Invention of the Year’. For EXPO 2015, Carlo Ratti Associati is involved in one of the thematic pavilions, the Future Food District, dedicated to the relationship between new technologies and the food chain. For me it is a great opportunity to develop new ideas and demonstrate what it means to put them into practice.
Article by Anna Piera Franini