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Autopoeisis of a Residential Community
Patrik Schumacher 2002
From the book Negotiate My Boundary - Mass-customisation and Responsive Environments Ed. by Brett Steele and +RAMTV AA publications, London


Negotiate Your Boundary provokes as the attempt to deploy the full panoply of recent 4D modelling techniques and its attendant formal registers in the pursuit of “neighborhood/community architecture”. More-over this prima facie unlikely attempt locates itself within the heart of London, i.e. in one of those relentless metropolitan maelstroms that have been spelling the proverbial death of community for more than one hundred years. To increase the stakes even further this challenge is launched without seeking refuge at the margins of society or relying on any remnant of traditional community life. Instead the contemporary absence of neighborhood community is taken as the inevitable starting point. Then the claim is made that new types of spatial community can be forged precisely from the typical “individualistic”, “fragmented” and “alienated” human material that is charted in the scattergrams of capitalist market research.

Thus the project compounds the unexpected with the unlikely - the perfect heuristics to produce productive design research hypotheses - and we shall see if it indeed succeeds in making the improbable probable.


The project put forward here deserves attention as a new effort to elaborate an architecture with an ambitious social agenda . A series of new ingredients with respect to this effort allow us to revisit the otherwise discredited/suspended ambition of using architecture to facilitate social communication in general and to promote neighborhood community in particular.

These new ingredients are systematically connected to form a plausible strategy for a socially effective architectural practise that does not rely on well tested types but dares to speculate. The following five paragraphs elaborate the key components of this strategy:


1.     The reconceptualization of the status and role of the social goals within the design intent.

The strategy moves away from any preconceived ideal of community life and instead is concerned with facilitating processes of communicative self-organisation where goals evolve in response to opportunities. The formation of social systems is understood as an ongoing process of evolution and autopoeisis. The distinction between system and environment is pivotal. Systems actively distinguish themselves from their environment, trying to preserve their distinctness and to maintain their identity. Their self-referential closure and boundary maintenance is a crucial part of their development. The design intent therefore moves onto a more abstract level and offers spatial and morphological material for potential territorializations and identifications, i.e. focuses on delivering boundary and identity rather than aiming for determinate social patterns.


2.     The reorganisation of the role of the architect within the design process.

The project abandons well-defined typologies – both on the level of the neighborhood masterplan as well as on the level of the individual residential units. Instead of designing full blown and final layouts the design process is phased and intercepted by end user participation in the design process. The architect designs the building blocks as well as the rules of spatial combination and manipulation that structure the participatory game. On the level of the urban layout a field of opportunity is framed and structured. On the level of the residential units the distinction of geno-type vs pheno-type opens up a space for the articulation of individual user preferences as well as for the negotiation and interarticulation of adjacent users. The design of a successful geno-type, i.e. one that is latent with many divers pheno-types, requires a risktaking attitude the more the domain of possibility for final manipulation and articulation into pheno-types is opened up. The architect shifts his/her concern from fixing a result to the question of instigating and steering a vital game of appropriation and negotiation.


3.     The reconceptualization of what constitutes the realisation (life)of the project.

The first stage in the life of the designed project is its existence as a set of visualisations that the developer uses to sell (pre-let) the project. Here the project is launched as a virtual real estate property. Negotiate my boundary goes one step further and incorporates the communicative power of the internet to build up a virtual community in anticipation and preparation of the real residential community. This is a crucial step that significantly lowers the treshold of personal communication and allows the self-selection and communal self-organisation to take off in the safe and non-committal virtual domain. This is also the domain in which participatory design processes finally become plausible. In effect it is precisely those “design processes” of choice, articulation and negotiation that become the vehicle for building up the social relations that might lead to new forms of community. The build up of community unfolds within the framework of negotiation set up by the architect/developer.


4.     The reappraisal of the socio-economic dimension.

The project rejects the dependence upon those utopian socio-economic models which have traditionally been associated with notions of community. Instead the strategy works creatively with the realities and opportunities afforded by the currently prevalent economic forms. The project specifically suggests a combination of mass-customization models a la Dell with the model of the stock-exchange/auction. The private developer is redefined as someone who sells a platform of community formation through selection and negotiation between customers engaged in a drawn out act of buying. This communication process engendered between potential future residents is no zero-sum game of bargaining but allows for an effective value-engineering of the project, thus creating a social surplus distributed between the various involved stakeholders – including the developer. The architect - in recognition of the delicate dialectic between planning framework and individual choice - crafts the spatial rules and architectonic bargaining chips of the process rather than throwing readymade products onto the market. Instead the market evolves with the product. The developer/planner (in this respect not unlike the 19th century London Landlord) personifies social synthesis as his economic interest (global value maximisation) aligns with the collective interest of the overall residential community as opposed to the individual interests of the residents.


5.     The animation of scenarios by means of advanced 4D visualisation techniques.

The effective deployment of new presentation and modelling techniques offered by advanced animation software is an important component in raising the overall profile and prospect of this ambitious project. 3D modelling is prominently involved in offering tangible choices for participating customers and in establishing an intuitive framework for the boundary negotiations that are crucial for the virtual on-line formation of the scheme. The further strategy to script elaborate “socio-architectural” scenarios - one day in the life of the neighborhood - is supported by 4D simulation capabilities that include people animators. Finally it becomes possible to devise and work on complex social scenarios and to speculate in detail about prospective behavioural patterns unfolding within and in response to the proposed spatial configurations. This new technique of design speculation affords a leap in our ability to innovate beyond the mere adaptation/reconfiguration of familiar types. Only on the basis of those new “Hollywood productions” can the imagination be stretched and led deep into unfamiliar territory without loosing every chance to make itself plausible.



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