Towards an Open Source Architecture
Architecture is the judicious, meticulous, magnificent juggling of a whole slew of different considerations, performed in the light of shared knowledge. Now that I have your (possibly highly irritated) attention, let’s talk about open source architecture.
My starting premise is simple: if, as I argued in earlier posts, sharing open source documents or tools makes them easier to use and more accessible, and can help improve architecture as a discipline and profession…… what would happen if we went one step further and proposed making architecture itself open source by allowing third parties to examine, reproduce and adapt our projects?
I admit the idea may sound both obvious and unlikely.
Obvious, because hasn’t this always been the case? Traditional architecture is, after all, based on familiar solutions that can be adopted by anybody, that are passed down as part of our culture and that evolve over time as different people continually come up with improvements. The (more or less restricted) creation and distribution of handbooks, libraries and published building specifications is also, to a certain extent, already happening.
Unlikely, because… we’re talking about architecture: a complex, highly regulated profession involving huge responsibilities and also huge egos. And those egos become evident in some people’s determination to take copyright protection to ridiculous extremes. There’s also a certain reluctance to share unfinished work, work which is inevitably full of unresolved details that we prefer not to disclose to a larger audience. And then there’s a visceral fear of other people taking advantage of one’s work.
But the transposition of the collaborative principles underlying traditional architecture and open source software to the present-day profession is neither as direct nor as impossible as it might seem. If illustrators like David Revoy can make a living sharing practically everything and creating a whole ecosystem of derived works, then why shouldn’t we architects attempt to do the same? After all, we don’t rely on “selling copies” to survive.
Over the past few years, a number of projects have emerged which, with varying degrees of efficiency and commitment, adhere to this philosophy. Examples include the questionable, now disappeared, Paperhouses website, the rigorous compilation of open source solutions in Inteligencias Colectivas, the modular approach of Open Structures, the still rather clumsy documentation-sharing efforts of projects like ELEMENTAL’s incremental housing and Ecosistema Urbano’s Air Tree (which dates back almost ten years), and the Wikihouse project – one of the more serious attempts to fully develop the concept.
It would take a whole thesis to describe and critically review all these initiatives, but in future articles I’ll try to answer some key questions that may help us achieve, and even define, this objective. Questions like:
What criteria define open source architecture?
What does doing open source architecture really mean?
What “source” needs to be shared or made accessible for this purpose?
What challenges will open source architecture pose?