Towards a Tool-Based and Self-Organizing Architecture

My position is that it is not up to us to propose. As soon as one ‘proposes’ – one proposes a vocabulary, an ideology, which can only have effects of domination. What we have to present are instruments and tools that people might find useful. By forming groups specifically to make these analyses, to wage these struggles, by using these instruments or others: this is how, in the end, possibilities open up. Michel Foucault.1

Owners and users of buildings are increasingly staging the architectural design process, even up to the point where they become designers themselves. For instance, employees of a company or organization are more involved in the design of their future work spot and future homeowners design their houses themselves. This ‘down to top’ method is preferred over the traditional ‘top down’ approach where the architect dominated the design process. The focus in ‘down to top’ systems lies in the completion of processes by employees, rather than dominating them. The employees are ‘agents’ in these non-hierarchical systems and have the satisfaction of more responsibility. This makes them more motivated which results in higher productivity. For example Semco, a company founded by Brazilian entrepreneur Ricardo Semler,2 is successful in applying non-hierarchical self-organizing systems in its organization.

By shifting roles and letting clients, employees or companies be the designers instead of the architect, the product becomes more user friendly and in sync with the user. The danger in this approach is that the result could be chaotic. But like Semler did at Semco, some simple rules and conditions have to be applied so employees can take self-direction and self-control. The question remains, how can architects cope with the shifting role?

In the 1950s the German brothers Eberhart and Wolfgang Schnelle, founders of the Quickborner team,3 were the first to propose a self-organized system in designs for office layouts. They proposed to group employees based on relationships between employees or objects instead of going along with the typical Tayloristic ordering system based on hierarchy. Every time relationships changed inside the organization, the employees could change the office layout themselves. The result was a more dynamic office landscape.

The main advantages were the liberation from a hierarchical company and a more productive employee. However, the big disadvantage was that buildings could not cope with the dynamics of the open Bürolandschaft. Noise, lack of daylight, insulation and ventilation problems are just a few examples why the strategy does not work in all situations.

The Schnelle brothers proposed a self-organizing grouping format or a strategy giving companies tools for redesigning and rearranging their interior by themselves. Architects could contribute to these interior processes by studying these self-organizing interior processes and proposing buildings based on these processes. In this case the only things the building design provides are opportunities and constraints to the interior, setting a breeding ground.

If we study these self-organizing processes, we have to look at nature and biological systems. In nature these processes also take place, for instance in structuring ant colonies. Ant colonies are structured by internal processes and conditions, in combination with the constraints of their environment. Each individual completes tasks for a greater cause, in this case the survival and growth of the colony. Mathematicians have studied these processes and transformed them into algorithms. With these algorithms engineers can simulate self-organizing processes with the use of computers.4 The outcome of the simulation is not known because of the complexity level and the varieties of input. Thanks to the use of computers, calculations can be done in far less time.

To help clients who strive to be self-organizing, architects could propose designs based on self-organized processes. Instead of making complete designs, architects should, like Schnelle, present design tools and instruments for making designs. Clients can use these tools to make their own layouts. For the architect, designing tools is designing rules. Like the design of a hammer; to hammer a nail into a wooden beam you need to apply a shaped material in a certain way and use it with a particular force. A rule is created to put a nail into the beam. These rules are interlinked with the object. So to design a tool or set of tools could be a complex task. Not only the purpose of the tool and how to apply it must be clear, it also has to be tested in different situations. Architects can present a specific design as a (temporary) end result. The design should be based on a tool or toolset for clients that can also be used at a later time to change or expand their design.

An example of a self-organizing system in a design process based on a set of tools was the proposition for a business centre at Rotterdam-The Hague Airport consisting of individual work spaces. In order to optimize the commercial value of a unit by the guarantee that the unit will be exposed to a sufficient amount of daylight, a virtual lab was built to simulate the ordering process. In this virtual lab daylight with an overcast clouded sky was simulated. One of the tools used was a computer program that operated inside the virtual lab. This tool calculates the exact amount of natural light falling into a cell, thus deciding if the cell will live or die and should move or rotate.

To describe the beginning of the process, one can use the analogy of a Petri dish with bacteria in a laboratory. If we translate this way of thinking to the design process, a breeding ground for units is formed according to the fire safety rules and conditions for evacuating a building. This breeding ground is specifically located around an elevator shaft (and emergency stairs). Outside this breeding ground, a cell cannot survive, setting constraints to the location of the cells. The location of the first shaft is rather randomly determined, yet in accordance with local regulations for emergency evacuations. In the virtual lab we let the computer ‘grow’ units around the shaft using a set of tools as described above, up to the point where the position of a unit is no longer in compliance with the maximum distance to an emergency exit. That’s when a new shaft will be generated and the process of growing units repeats itself. The growth comes to an end, either by the distinct (physical) borders of a site or building or by the absence of breeding ground. In this case clients could use the tools to expand or change the design and generate different possibilities.

In the example above a simple self-organized strategy was presented based on tools containing different computer algorithms. In this case the role of the architect has shifted to a tool designer. Instead of designing final solutions or designs, the architect becomes an indirect designer of final propositions and presents possibilities. This certainly doesn’t make the position and responsibility of the architect less important. The architect not only needs to know the volume or space of the client’s internal processes, he needs to know in detail how the processes are working in order to shape and advise the right tool or toolset. To operate on this level, the architect could propose alterations in the client’s processes, which makes him more customer-minded. After he shapes, has tested and presented a tool, the architect needs to have the ability to let go of the client’s design process. An architect that has built up experience with this approach has built his own tool store for future projects.

1) Michel Foucault, ‘Confinement, Psychiatry, Prison’, in: L. Kritzman (ed.), Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984(New York: Routledge, 1988), 197

2) VPRO, Tegenlicht, De kapitale kracht van geluk (Dutch-English spoken), broadcast 4 February 2013.

3) Magazine ARCH+, issue 2: Kybernetik, Systemtheorie, published 1 April 1968.

4) See also the computer simulation Game of Life designed by John Conway, published in 1970 in: Martin Gardner, ‘Mathematical Games – The Fantastic Combinations of John Conway’s New Solitaire Game “Life”’, Scientific American 223 (1970-10), 120-123