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  • Writer's pictureAbhishek Bij

Who is in Control?

“The spirit of our times is neither the grand optimism of utopian modernist ideals nor the playful technological wonder that influenced the avant-garde of the 60s and 70s." - Theodore Spyropoulos

The layers of complexities present in the contemporary world shadow any purpose for the field of architecture and urbanism. These complexities percolate through various strata into several studios where the urbanists no longer necessarily ponder over a sheet of large landmass, swirling their pens to mark circulation or greens, neither hackle over the program, its percentage and placement, as a process for urban solutions. Faced with the complexity of urban areas, professionals do not have the means to improve the spontaneous development of towns, let alone justify their own intervention. The incompetence of these methods can be justified under rigidity, dimension of time, disparity between the designer and the user and the limitation of scientific and economic means.

Competition Entry by Design Plus Architects
Competition Entry: School of Planning and Architecture by Design Plus

The projects needed to account for the dimension of randomness, change, complexity and chance. These variables were incorporated in the Ten, vocabulary of Team the Megastructuralists and the Radical Architects of the 1960s. These ideologies bore similarities to the features offered by Information and Communication Technology although they were not necessarily hinting at the field.

Today, ICT within the field of architecture and urbanism has proven to be a sophisticated tool for decision-making. Design aid, which facilitates the instant analysis of an actual situation and its data and allows for quick responses. In order to accomplish agendas, ICT facilitates different control types, and these types, or the individually combined, mirror decision-making capabilities. However, with the technology subsuming the studios and their methodologies of several practitioners, the definition of the controller for designed outputs in question.


Centralized Control - Appeared early in human society. Since the Industrial revolution, its complexities grew beyond an individual's capacity. Today with the exponential growth in the [CT sector it has now evolved from managing needs and resources to optimizing it.

Distributed control for this, I shall refer to a recipe developed at Brooks's mobot lab, described in Kevin Kelly's Out of Control.

  1. Do simple things first.

  2. Learn to do them flawlessly.

  3. Add new layers of activity over the results of the simple tasks.

  4. Do not change the simple things.

  5. Make the new layer work as flawlessly as the simple.

  6. Repeat, ad infinitum.

Automated Control - The story of automation is the story of one-way shift from human control to automatic control.

However, Valerie Chatelet believes that automated control is a limited concept, since this form of control is only intentional through its association with one of the first two types.

The paper, on the other hand, enlightens the dependency of both centralized and control distributed upon automated control and thereby marking a metamorphosis of/for the practitioners. The argument accepts the importance of centralized and distributed control as a liaison with automation. However, the urban designs tend to rely on automatically generated solutions' that are either at the stages of inception, within the day-to-day operation of an urban environment or during the process of evaluation.


"Much more apparatus is probably necessary to exercise and evolve intelligence than to sustain it, one can believe in the necessity of the opposable thumb for the development of intelligence without doubting a human capacity for thumbless thought"" Any functional system requires rules, procedures, and hierarchical decisions for its establishment. The links are enormous; hence, even nature cannot do everything all at once. David Wingate's efforts to resurrect a lost ecosystem in Bermuda can substantiate the above. Within the realm of Urban Planning, several projects flirt with the idea of establishing a working environment (however small) with defined and consequently evolving rules. These projects; parametric, generic, genetic, or open source, fall under two essential categories:

1. Where the data exists and is then planted into the project. The situation uses this data for its optimization.

2. Systems that are democratic and consensus based.

One North, Singapore Masterplan by ZHA


One way in which the ICT has influenced the profession is development and usage of design software.

It is no longer limited to geometric and spatial coordinates but sighting different relationships between elements, formalizing the implicit design intentions. The software tools today accommodate for alterations, indecisiveness, and ambiguity within the projects. These tools allow designers to develop a system that is relational or parametric and demands for variables and protocols for formulating both the infrastructure and the form (which is a novelty). This involves linking intentions and knowledge with variables that are beyond the control of the design team, which are then updated by contextual specificities or by other parties defining the project.

Seeking to exceed normative urban design methodologies Zaha Hadid Architects proposed the One North masterplan. With encouragement and accommodation of new economic growth, industrial interaction and business development as the primary aim of the project, the challenge lay in conquering the physical isolation of the site with aggressive infrastructural development and spatial strategies that emphasized connections to surrounding areas." Amidst all the sales pitches and terminologies such as Xchanges" (high-density epicenters), Buona Vista Park (low-density spaces balancing the Xchanges), dune like malleable mega form, swaying patterns defining the streets, etc., the success of the proposal essentially lay in the development and incorporation of a pseudo-parametric planning tool. This tool created, tracked, analyzed numeric planning data, and provided calculations, charts, graphs and even 3D dxf output. The design team created models based on concepts, guidelines and now also the interaction with data. The team inserted and manipulated the data tables, which created feedback to the drawing and modeling for design evaluation. One-north was perhaps a breakthrough in collaboration of human, technological and informational inputs. There was an attempt to develop a tool that would be fully integrated into the environment where data distributions would drive the urban form and projective diagramming would re-distribute data. Another example of influential communication technology today would be the impact of wireless connectivity within any working environment. Wi-Fi alters the potential of spaces, by optimizing the usage with overlapping activities, functions and times. "From an urban perspective, the result of this condition seems to be the emergence of more intricate patterns of dwelling in urban areas: more decentralized systems of organization exhibiting higher levels of complexity and unpredictability." In the wake of rationalist planning principles, mixed use has been the paradigm that the planning profession adopted over the course of a few decades. However, with the provisions of the ICT sector, the boundaries between living, working and playing have blurred into something that may be termed as mixed life. These provisions of technology not only infuse complexity within the urban fabric but also are capable of revealing the emerging trends. The instantaneous monitoring and analysis of the conditions cater to the real-time operation of the city. iSpots, an MIT project under Carlo Ratti and Andres Sevstak, was a mapping project that took advantage of MIT's extensive Wi-Fi coverage to better understand the spatial patterns of internet usage that emerge in an environment with ubiquitous connectivity.

ispots on MIT campus -

The project developed in two phases - First Phase involved the mapping of all 802.11 Wi-Fi network antennae on a three-dimensional plan of the university, where the intensities of wireless usage were monitored in real-time. This data allowed assessing the spatial configuration, events and the need for technological changes. The second phase tracked the location and cumulative movement of the campus's inhabitants. Beyond a move­ment pattern study, iSPOTS increased one's visibility within a demarked periphery.

The project enlightened the possibilities of an internet-based working environment, understanding use patterns and reflecting upon aspects of designing a responsive environment. "More importantly, the project seeks to introduce a new real-time planning strategy. The ultimate potential of this technology will be revealed by the users themselves


At the operational level of an urban plan are its users. Although planned environments along with its protocols and tool-sets govern the position, movement and operation of the inhabitants, these are capable of developing, altering or degenerating an urban setting.

Owing to technology and a range of communication applets, the population has discovered ways to reconfigure the system. The dimension of time for these changes might be short, but a change nonetheless.

Two crowd phenomena that have caused a flux within a normative urban setting owing to the use of technology and to the individual visualization of general information, namely Flash Mobs and Smart Mobs.

A flash mob is a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief period, and then quickly disperse. Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper's Magazine, organized the first flash mob in Manhattan in May 2003.

In order to succeed, a large set of people are organized creating suddenness and surprise, using the internet and mobile phones. Smart Mobs consist of people who are able to act in concert even if they don't know each other. The people who make up smart mobs cooperate in ways never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing techniques. The emergence of smart mobs rests neither on the traditional social cohesion of a group, nor on authoritarian coercion designed to make individuals act in their own common interests. Devices conducive to sharing, exchange, association and learning enable a new kind of public commons. A smart mob behaves intelligently or efficiently because of its exponentially increasing network links, essentially through the internet, namely specialist information sites, data sharing sites, online encyclopedias, and software and through the revolutionary SMS. Youth revolutions in Tokyo and Helsinki, and a political revolution in Manila triggered by short instant messages, boast of the success of this phenomenon.

Virtual mirrors (experiments by Loren Carpenter) like Smart Mobs have a direct influence on the type of exchange, collaboration or organization that occurs. Their meaning, hence can dictate the idea of a project. As a result, instead of expressing an intention that demands respect, projects should be valued as an information tool that grants the control of urban development to the people themselves. These tools enable groups to become aware of their actions and the ways in which they could contribute to the city.

At AA Diploma II (1993), John Frazer and his team developed a device based on continuous feed­ back replacing the concept of 'design team's intention'. The team produced a prototype for the town of Groningen, Netherlands, which combined simulations using cellular automations with their genetic development." Three cellular automatons modeling economic dynamics, solar conditions and spatial restrictions, simultaneously evolved by the historical data, created the town. Thus composed, the progressive model explained the changes that had taken place in the town from medieval center to the present location. Upon reaching the present, the simulations are repeated suggesting possible development paths to the public, which either approves or rejects them. The modification of the models is dependent on these public reactions.

Although the strength of the project lies in the objectification of historical data connected with the opinions of the inhabitants forming the data. the project makes no commitment to take into account the needs of the population at the time of inception. It only commits itself to defining a consensus on the subject of the town's common development objectives.


Sit back and enjoy the show

The examples chosen display the range of practices that mark the shift in thought towards the planning or structuring of urban environments. In the first set, the projects reflect the mannerisms of data collection and its utilization. These possibilities arise with the advent of new toolsets that are further moldable and adaptable. As a result, I argue that these tool sets are primarily creating and evolving the cities and not the mock professionals. With ZHA's design applet, it may be agreed that the parametric tool was fed data by the designers along with the ideas for the structuring the city but the results were solely controlled by the applet. It provided solutions in terms of possible configurations that were further tested by a new layer of information, generating yet another configuration set This cyclic procedure continued until the designer' intervened at a 'satisfactory result' stage. The design team members were essentially manipulators or observers not creators.

iSpot, on the other hand, narrates a tale of an accidental usage shift, whereby, the ICT (Wi-Fi, in this case) directly influences the activity spots on the MIT campus. These alterations were neither planned nor foreseen but were generated by the technological infiltration.

The second set of democratic samples act as illusions that represent the voice of the user. However, they too are very much pinned by the growth of communication means. Phenomena like the Flash Mobs are possible only due to the ease at which information can be transmitted around the globe informally and relatively discretely. Gathering a crowd or protest has always been possible but the evolving information carrying conductors have reduced the time and have increased the numbers multifold.

John Frazer's project attempts an ideal situation where it marries the concepts of centralized and decentralized (distributed) control. The designer dictates at the inception and production stage and user at the assessment level. Nevertheless, the smooth execution at both the levels is dependent on the automated systems.


With the 1969 publication of a New Society magazine's special edition, called "Non-Plan, a Radical Rethinking of Planning Orthodoxy", Architects Cedric Price, Paul Baker and Town Planner Sir Peter Hall radicalized criticism of CIAM's urban design and ratified a profound crisis of confidence that has plagued the architectural, town planning and regional development profession ever since.

Efforts are being made in several offices to define new techniques for urban models in addition to the proverbial "attempts to identify new architecture. In such pursuits may be The Function mixer developed by MVRDV paves the path ahead that accommodates Spatial, Economic, Ecological, Sociological, Programmatic parameters such as Diversity, Construction costs, Daylight, FSI, Crime Prevention, Accessibility, Density, Energy Efficiency, Industry clustering, Park, Materiality etc. The inputs render outputs instantly and provide comparative visual and statistical results.

The parasitic nature of automation is admitted; it needs to be fed by a source. However, its impact is overpowering and the control of design processes and the consequent outcomes have shifted from the hands of both the practitioner and the user into the realms of the virtual, debatably reducing them to the feeding source. The building permits are interpreted as algorithmic codes and user reactions as feedback systems, even though they may be unaware of the cumulative effects of their decisions.


  1. AADRL Documents 2, DRLTEN: A Design Research Compendium, AA Publications (2008)

  2. Anomolie digital arts no. 6: Interactive Cities, HYX (2007)

  3. Kevin Kelly, Out of Control -The new biology of machines, social systems, and the economic world, readings MA, Addison-Wesley (1994)

  4. Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs – The next social revolution, Cambridge MA, Persus Publication (2002)

  5. KM3, MVRDV, Actar, Barcelona (2005) Folding in Architecture, Architectural Design, ed. Valerie Chatelet, London (1993)

Originally Published in Architecture, Time Space & People, March 2010

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