Hack the City!
A vanguard of architects is not building skyscrapers or concert halls. They are not bothered by having their own signature style. Even aesthetic perfection leaves them cold. The self-conscious designer of modernism, with its unassailable belief in social engineering, is waning. One could say that the new architect is more of a hacker. Their world is full and buzzing with activity and structures to latch onto. The imaginings of a better future is embedded in the existing situation, and not by wiping the slate clean. This new breed of architect is better equipped for the challenges of our day.
In the developed world the ‘city of the future’ is no longer a dream that lingers just beyond the horizon, it is the city that is already here. It is the city where we live, where we work and will grow old. Perhaps retrofitted with the latest technological innovation, but the patina of history determines its appearance. At the beginning of the last century the main challenge was to house the growing population and industry of a rapidly modernizing society. The major challenge of today is to utilize vacant real estate. On 20 September, 2013 Frits van Dongen, a Dutch Government Architect, summed it up for the press stating: ‘Eight million square metres of office space is vacant, 12 million square metres of business, and there are 30,000 empty homes. We’d better stop building in the Netherlands and first utilize the vacant square metres for useful functions.’ 1  Rijksbouwmeester: we zijn uitgebouwd / Nieuwsuur, 20 september 2013
Spatial designers will have to bite the bullet, it seems that we are finished building. In February 2014, this picture was confirmed on the website of Cobouw by Nico de Vries, President of BAM, one of the largest construction companies in Europe: ‘We have plenty of everything. […] We’ll get a structurally smaller construction sector, specializing in maintenance and redevelopment on the one hand, and a new real estate construction of one-of-a-kind buildings on the other.’ 1  Nederland is af / 28 februari 2014, Cobouw It didn’t take long for consequences to take effect. Since the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008, 50 per cent of the architects in the Netherlands lost their jobs and it led to enrollment restrictions on architecture students at the Faculty of Architecture at TU Delft.
For the designers of cities this makes for a confusing situation. As if the ‘completion’ of the grand project they have been working on all this time, comes as an unreal surprise. Does this mean -since they are ‘finished’ with the construction of the city- that are they finished? Is maintenance, preservation and retrofitting all that is left? This line of reasoning would imply that society is a work of art that could somehow find its true form.
But the blank sheet of paper, on which designers and planners once projected their grand visions for a rational society, is no longer there. Progress is no longer plotted out along coordinates in cartesian space. The spiritually charged emptiness of modernism has given way to a full reality, a future that we already inhabit. In the genre that is concerned with the future by default, science fiction, the modernist utopia of Star Trek has been replaced with a cyber-noir-romanticism of Blade Runner. Inspiration is no longer provided by the idealism and the promises of scientific progress, but a desire to heal our fragmented reality and to build meaningful relationships with our surroundings.
Society is, of course, never complete or finished. The way in which cities are made and used is in constant flux. Today, established methods for regulating the use of the city are becoming irrelevant. The rise of digital networks is creating a new dynamic in the city. For example, Airbnb allows anyone to rent-out their house or apartment for accommodation purposes. With the Uber app, existing taxi services are suddenly confronted with unregulated ad hoc competition. The city is being augmented with a layer of invisible infrastructure that is generating new and unpredictable uses of the urban environment.
Simultaneously, we see that under the pressures of an aging population, sustainability and advanced automation and the socio-economic drivers are shifting from extensive growth – more and larger – to intensive growth with the integration and differentiation of existing structures. The new culture of construction will thus become one of adjustment, re-modelling and improvements from within.
Revitalizing, printing and planting
As a harbinger for this new construction culture one can identify a new generation of architecture and design practices that distance themselves from their utopian predecessors. Their practice is more focused on programming, rather than designing the built environment. Their work is almost always proactive and escapes the client-contractor relationship that has traditionally formed the basis of the design practice. They inhabit the overlapping space of the cultural entrepreneur, programmer and designer. Below I will introduce three of these practices and their projects, that are at work in the Netherlands. They are the poster children of this new generation.
The Rotterdam-based firm ZUS (Zones Urbaines Sensibles, from French: sensitive urban zones), along with cultural incubator developer Codum, revitalized a vacant building in the heart of Rotterdam. Today it is a gathering place of creative businesses, a cultural café, place for events and an urban rooftop farm. ZUS christened this building, the Schieblock. But it does not stop there. From the Schieblock, the Luchtsingel project was initiated: a partly crowd funded pedestrian bridge passing through the Schieblock and stringing together islands in the ocean of traffic. Through this project ZUS seeks to improve and heal this fragmented public space that was once one of the bustling urban squares of central Rotterdam.
The Amsterdam office DUS Architects cherished the dream to make a printer that could print a room, and eventually even a whole house. With little subsidy or knowledge of 3D printing, but not lacking bravado, they started to make the Kamermaker (Room-maker). During the development of the project, the network of technology partners and financiers expanded, and the project has grown to take on the 3D printing of an entire building: a contemporary canal house. The media attention DUS received was explosive as they were the first to make a 3D printed house. The printing of the house is currently taking place on a construction site that is open to the public and doubles as an exhibition.
Technology, ecology and imagination come together on an abandoned site of the former shipyard, the Ceuvel Volharding in Amsterdam. A multi-party cooperation of Space&Matter, Smeelearchitecture, Delva Landscape architects, Jeroen Apers architect, Metabolic and Studio Valkenier drew up a plan, to plant special vegetation that will decontaminate the soil on-site. During the cleansing, greenery houseboats are hoisted onto land. Studios and workshops will be housed within them, each connected to an elevated boardwalk that meanders through the greenery. After 10 years the land will be clean, the houseboats will be hoisted back into the water in search for another refuge.
Practices like ZUS and DUS don’t get stuck in utopias that won’t escape a paper reality. They strive for results. They achieve them by trial and error, by capitalizing on media attention, and by forging partnerships with public and commercial parties. These designers are not political hardliners, nor do they guide their actions by ideology. Although they might adopt the rhetoric of the political (against neo-liberalism!) or attach an ideology (open source!) to their projects, they consider fixed positions as uncomfortable and sorting into narrow categories. Why would you limit a project’s potential with dogmas? In opposition to the modernist social engineering ideals of their predecessors, they do not seem to be able or want to articulate an alternative position of their own. Beyond the local, the specific and the particular, their engagement has no clear purpose. What are then the desires of this vanguard of city makers? What is their ideal city?
The dream of the hacker
To answer that question we have to go back in time, from modernism to the birth of the hacker. Modernist city planners wanted to organize people and goods in a frictionless machine. Their mental image was the functional city: sterile, fresh and shaped by the clear geometry of reason. These visions didn’t just drop from the sky at the time. Le Corbusier looked in admiration at the latest marvels of engineering around him: airplanes, cars and ocean liners, but also the decoration-free architecture of grain silos and bridges. From science and technology, the first machine age and modernism was born. Today there are no majestic novelties that puncture our horizon. Miniature technology of chips and networks that are rewiring our social life and economy are now novel. While architects explore the new forms they can make with these tools, the more significant shift lies in how it disrupts the design process. Opening it up as well as extending it to areas outside of the traditional confines of the discipline.
Today the second machine age is gathering steam. While in the first, machines replaced our muscle power, machines now replace our nervous systems in a way that they are increasingly replacing knowledge workers. This time the engineers extend our culture with computers and digital networks. Does the new technological order also give birth to another social engineering ideal? When Californian hobbyists started in the 1970s with the construction and programming of the first personal computers, their vision could measure up with the heroism of the modernists. These D.I.Y. hippies dreamed of the possibilities of a personal machine, a machine that would make everyone a maker.
For them, the computer was not the unwieldy bureaucratic machine as it was for most people at the time, but a tool for mind expansion; a tool that could liberate the creative potential of its user and create a more beautiful world.
A world of people who would be constantly playing and continuously creating and recreating their own world. It was later that these tinkerers would be recognized as the first hackers.
In the popular media, the hacker is predominantly portrayed as a devious nerd with a laptop breaking into someone else’s computer, or worse, disrupting bank’s servers or stealing private data. But the origins of the activity of the hacker – hacking – and its result – the hack – can be found in a counter-culture of technically skilled hippies at American universities. In their spare time they snuck into the artificial intelligence laboratories where the first computers were located, and programmed these huge calculators to play practical jokes, music and the first computer games. From this creative melting pot an influential subculture has emerged that has its own dreams about the world, its own social mores, and even shared ethics. Technology became a personal tool with which one could fix and create the world.
In Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984), Stephen Levy calls this the ‘hands-on imperative’ of the hacker. In a world of things that are largely the product of standardization and global supply chains, the hacker believes in disassembling and manipulating objects and systems, in order to make new things with it. It is all about learning-by-doing: getting your hands dirty and not simply taking the world at face value. The technological infrastructure that supports our life, from streets to fibreglass, constitutes for the hacker a constantly evolving environment of possibilities. Their workshop is the tangle of the tangible systems that surround us. Having (forceful) access to information and systems can teach you something about how the world works and is derived directly from the hands-on doctrine. For the hacker this information must be public and freely exchangeable, because innovation and progress in a community are only possible if one can build upon each other’s work. Behold the social engineering ideal of the hacker.
Architecture with thresholds
Many new architecture practices can happily identify with this hands-on mentality. They have embed themselves in existing systems and have tried to use them to their advantage. They think in networks and work pragmatically. But unfortunately developed knowledge often remains locked up in individual projects and private solutions, which does not contribute to a universally accessible body of knowledge, referred to as the commons. The open construction site of DUS is mostly an information centre where you can learn about 3D printing. But this is not the same as open source in the way hackers understand it. DUS has not revealed the process of developing 3D printed architecture – they have not shared files, blueprints or source code so that others could build the same way. This does not alter the fact that valuable and replicable knowledge has been gained and shared, but so far it is not open source.
At the same time the architectural world has a few characteristics that contradict the hacker ethic. For instance, established architectural practice is more hands-off than hands-on. Architects make drawings, they don’t lay bricks. Ideas are developed in a scaled-down world, and statically captured in drawings, models and other simulations.
In that sense, architects and urbanists constantly imagine a world, and each completed design must make the transition from fiction to reality. By contrast, hacking never reaches an end-point.
The hack works temporarily and in a specific context. Interventions happen on-site where one learns and refines. In this sense the hacked city is in many ways the counterpoint to the modernist ideal city. It is a city authored by many, instead of one genius designer: a city full of mistakes, little corrections, big updates, clever mash-ups. A city that reveals its history at every step and that celebrates the inventiveness of its inhabitants.
The second obstacle is the complacency of the architect who sees himself as an authority and a privileged professional. This attitude is present amongst the status quo as well as, although in a different fashion, in the new generation of architects. This might be an exaggeration, but there are plenty of stories of far-reaching involvement of committees (filled with architects) and architects who exercise control over any minor changes to their design many years after completion. Although the new guard is not very interested in institutions such as the legal status of the architect title and copyright protection of building designs, that does not mean that authorship for them is an outdated concept. Even though many projects happen in collaboration, and the focus is primarily on the story and the process, it is still the designer who constructs the image and determines the rhetoric. This form of authorship manifests itself less in the built object than in the imagineering, but managing the media and the discourse surrounding the project. This is different for the hacker. For them authorship lies especially in the recognition and acknowledgment of their work in the peer-community that values knowledge, skills and talent much higher than diplomas, résumés or other credentials. In architectural circles, however, the relationship with professional colleagues is rather competitive and mutual recognition is not easily granted, it is based on the acquisition of awards, publications and media exposure.
Perhaps the most fundamental obstacle touches the core of the profession of the architect and the urbanist: their idea of space. The way in which they see and understand space is a cultural construct of which they have little self-consciousness. Their idea of space is abstract. The Cartesian canvas on which space is orchestrated is empty and passive. The paper sheet, the sketch roll, but also the 3D universe on the computer display; these are all empty spaces regulated by geometric laws. Problems are analyzed and solved in a geometric cosmos where mass and void, form and counter-form, axes, symmetry and proportions are the underlying logic.
From system error to creator
This perspective on space is not the only legitimate one, just as making the city has never been the exclusive domain of architects and planners. The city is full of life. The ether vibrates signals from cell towers, phones and Wi-Fi networks. Neighbourhoods and places also exist in dreams and memories of residents. Permits, parking meters and traffic lights regulate behaviour. Real estate agents, housing associations and landlords exploit the built environment. The city is maintained by human interactions in which many representations of space and time are intertwined and related to each other. This social fabric cannot be simply reduced to a representation of a geometry in a three dimensional world. It offers anything but a comprehensive panorama of the city. The hacker adds a valuable perspective to this: the city as a visible and invisible landscape of possibilities and opportunities. To address this, city planners need to explore new perspectives and modes of imagination beyond the disciplinary perspectives that where handed-down to them in their training.
The inspirational role of the hacker for architects goes even deeper. Not only do they radically reinterpret the idea of a discipline, but also show a way in which knowledge and skills can come together in all kinds of new constellations.
The hacker does not represent a discipline; it is anti-disciplinary.
Their engineering ideal is much more concerned with how we make, and not so much with what we make. Furthermore, it is with the emphasis on the how, that the hacker changes our relationship with the surrounding world. In their view, our environment is not one of alienation, but one of recognition: a readable and meaningful environment, something no designer or advertiser can give us. They are not concerned with capturing, but in revealing the world. They show the pleasure of engagement, the connection and crafty tinkering with our world. At the same time they tell us that a powerful universal ideal resides in this activity: that by skilfully dissecting and playing with the systems of your environment gives you access to it, and at the same time it reveals a much larger world.
The hacker ethic and some of the new architecture practices have one thing in common however: they show that a radical reorientation of architecture is possible. In the spectrum between the hacker and the architect – two archetypal makers and in many ways opposites – a multitude of possibilities opens up.