The Realtime Manifesto

The architectural manifesto defined the modern era. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto started the ball rolling, and Adolph Loos’ Ornament and Crime, Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture and De Stijl followed. All of these are recognized as being amongst the most important pieces of architectural writing of the last century. While it is tempting to think that we may be living in a golden age of manifesto writing now that anyone can start a blog, the carefully-considered architectural manifesto itself doesn’t fit the paradigm of network culture. As editor Justin McGuirk correctly observes in Icon magazine’s “Manifesto Issue” (Icon #50) that “in the early 21st century, there are as many potential manifestos as there are people.” A manifesto is something else entirely when instead of defining the rigid foundations of a movement it attempts to start or join a conversation.

The Absolutist

Patrik Schumacher recently re-presented his “Parametricist Manifesto” of 2008 in The Architect’s Journal. In this manifesto, he makes the claim that “Parametricism is the great new style after modernism” by arguing that it “aims to organise and articulate the increasing diversity and complexity of social institutions and life processes within the most advanced centre of post-Fordist network society.” His attempt to say that there is a given architectural solution to the complexity of network society is naive and is not much more than an update of the modern functionalist approach to design. The communication and collaboration made possible by the network itself solves many problems that previously would have called for architectural solutions. As people spend more and more time living within devices (i.e smart phones, augmented reality applications, online social networks etc.) the need for heavily differentiated physical spaces will continue to decline- particularly as the spectacular cost of these types of architectural spaces continues to rise. By laying out a manifesto in 2008 and attempting to present it again in 2010, it already appears impossibly dated.

The Contrarians

Another publicised manifesto that gained notoriety in the mast few years was promoted by a group known as “Mantownhuman” and published online under the title “Manifesto: Towards a New Humanism in Architecture” with the authors listed as Alastair Donald, Richard J Williams, Karl Sharro, Alan Farlie, Debby Kuypers, and Austin Williams. Page three sums up the general approach:

we must seek a new humanist sensibility within architecture – one that refuses to bow to preservation, regulation and mediation – but instead sets out to win support for the ambitious human-centred goals of discovery, experimentation and innovation.

Later, in accusing architects of allowing “the needs of humanity have become secondary to nature” (p. 4) while at the same time trashing the formalist side of the profession on page 8:

Today‚Äôs ironic decadence delights in self-definition: creating a self-referential architecture of amorphous shapes, algorithms and fractals that reinforce the anti-humanist, pseudo-religious notion that truth is a mathematical…

And then, of course, on page 9: “The time has come to break free of an architecture of limits.” While Schumacher’s manifesto is intensely prescriptive, which makes his text look dated, this manifesto takes an opposite track by attempted to play Devil’s advocate to nearly everyone while being completely unspecific as to an outcome. Mantownhuman’s overwhelmingly idealistic, yet negative, outlook comes off as a childish rant- limits are what architecture is made of, and it is not a new “problem”. Society’s complex nature today makes it especially difficult to imagine practising architecture in a world where “discovery” is the end goal, consequences be damned.

These two poles of manifesto writing illustrate the problem inherent in undertaking such a project. Unceasing change and rapid communication allow ideas to be publicly critiqued within minutes of being published. Proposing a finite and declarative statement on what architecture should be, and how the world should work, no longer makes sense. That being said, what comes next?

The Collaborators

Network culture’s new version of the manifesto is is found most easily in social media (Twitter specifically) rather than in on a typeset document distributed by post. With hashtags and @ replies binding user updates into conversation, Twitter has allowed instant manifestos to take shape as ideas are circulated amongst a circle of architects, critics, writers and architecture enthusists. De Stijl is remembered in nearly every architectural and art history textbook as a seminal publication and movement of the early 20th century, yet it most avid users of social media have as many (or far more) followers on Twitter or Facebook as van Doesburg had subscribers without much effort and zero expense. It is easy to write-off a medium that limits contributions to 140 characters as flippant or reactionary, but the networks formed through social media create a variety of possibilities. The process of sharing links and blog comments continues the discussion, and in many cases the collaborative process leads to real-world collaboration as well.

As an example of the collaborative future we can look at the Mammoth Book Club. Published on Stephen Becker and Rob Holmes’ blog Mammoth, the Mammoth Book Club was inaugurated earlier this year with a reading of the book “The Infrastructural City” (2008, edited by Kazys Varnelis). Consisting of blog posts discussing each chapter of the book on an approximately weekly basis, the blog format allows for an editorial viewpoint on the part of the authors, and also allows the readers to interact both with the authors and each other. In turn, everyone is having a public dialogue with the original authors that contributed to the book in the first place. While not a manifesto in the traditional shouty and declarative sense, it functions to advance a set of ideas in a productive way that constantly improves from the feedback.

The architectural design process no longer resembles the ideal depicted in Any Rand’s “The Fountainhead” (though I’m certain it never really did). The world has become too complicated for one person working alone to manage entire projects through the force of his or her creative genius alone. Similarly, the world is too complex for a one-size-fits-all theory promoted by Patrik Schumacher.

Architecture for Humanity (AFH) has a clear-cut agenda of providing high-quality design for all. Working in many of the world’s neediest regions. Their Open Architecture Network was created as a way for designers, builders and clients to collaborate around the world by providing the infrastructure for uploading, coordinating projects and sharing designs with other users. With 15,000 active users and 50,000 visitors a month, the site has been a success. Working far outside the confines of the traditional architectural practice, Architecture for Humanity has put its strong idealogical stance to work- the Open Architecture Network shows how divergent design vocabularies can come together under the guise of a project without prescribed outcomes.

In the end, Architecture for Humanity has been more successful in “organis(ing) and articulat(ing) the increasing diversity and complexity of social institutions and life processes” (to use Schumacher’s words) than Zaha Hadid’s office. By providing a network and an operating system, instead of a rigid stylistic definition, the Open Architecture Network has moved away from the linear thought processes of modernity and truly embraces network society.