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Towards hackable architecture

My presentation at Applied Brilliance today was a quick version of my Innovation from Constraint talk, a talk that makes the argument that some of the best design ideas come from facing the constraints provided by material circumstance. Using a whole mess of examples stolen from Afrigadget, the talk argues that we hack technologies once they become familiar – from charcoal to bicycles to mobile phones. I ended with a couple of examples of innovative uses of social network technology, making the case that people were often using web2.0 tools for activism because the tools were what they had access to in closed, repressive societies, not because the tools were somehow shinier than traditional media tools.

After all four morning speakers presented, the session moderator presented the four of us, and the room, with an interesting dillema. He asked us to imagine that we were architects and that our firm had been hired by a developer to build a super-luxury seven star hotel in Senegal. We each offered our hopes for a hotel that was environmentally responsible and culturally sensitive, at least, within the constraints of our own worldviews. While I wanted to ensure that the public spaces of the exclusive hotel were open to the general public, incorporating Dakar’s remarkable musical culture, Tom Shannon wanted to bury the hotel deep underground and fill it with ice rinks and other cold-based features, powered by thermal exchange towers spanning the deep ocean and the hot, humid sky…

So our moderator changed the question – assume the developer rejected all your interesting, environmental culturally appropriate ideas and insisted on Dubai meets Disney in Dakar. Would you take the job, or would you turn it down, forcing you to fire most of the staff of your firm? Our panel split pretty evenly between those who felt that one had to defend artistic and cultural vision versus those who felt that even an ugly, evil hotel could have benefits to local workers and craftsmen if executed wisely. (Guess which camp I was in.)

What was exciting was turning this second question over to the architects and designers in the audience and getting their feedback after a short deliberative session. Many of the teams fought the question, arguing that the goal was to persuade the developer that the only way to compete in a global market was combining luxury with responsibility. But my favorite response came from an architect who referenced the ideas of creative reuse in my talk and said, “Build the hotel. Assume it’s going to fail and be left to fall apart. How do you build a building so that it can be hacked after the fact?”

Amazing idea. Not unlike Stewart Brand’s critical observation in How Buildings Learn that we need buildings that can be shaped to our needs, evolving over time. But it’s a very different design challenge to build something designed with the idea that it might be impermanent, and might be more useful in its component parts than as a coherent whole – it’s a way of thinking that I suspect must be disconcerting to a lot of architects. Discussing the idea afterwards, another architect mentioned that environmentally conscious architects are working hard to design and execute buildings that have almost no construction waste – this is probably a very different strategy than one you might take where your agenda as an architect is to provide local craftsmen with new skills and materials that aren’t available locally… like the difference between designing software when you’re trying to minimize expensive human labor and when you’re trying to take advantage of hundreds of thousands of distributed minds.

The downside of giving a lot of talks is that you don’t get enough downtime to develop your own ideas. The upside – you get lots of amazing ideas from people riffing off the ideas you’ve shared. A balancing act…

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