RadMod Buildings

Architecture as a “specialty”—with credentials and degrees—has long had a problem that a number of other professions are beginning to face only today: amateurs.  The vast majority of buildings have not been built by professional architects.  So also, today, professionals in all sorts of fields—whether media production, game design, news, advertising, or citizen science—face competition from amateurs, thanks to digital and social media and the self-organizing way people teach and learn today outside of schools.  Architecture as a profession just faced the “Maker Movement” earlier than other areas.

Some writers distinguish between professional architecture and “vernacular architecture” (stuff designed or built by non-professionals).  However, today, in all sorts of domains, the binary distinction between professionals and amateurs has given rise to a three-way divide among professionals (credentialed), amateurs, and “Pro-Ams”, amateurs who have mastery enough to compete with and sometimes surpass credentialed experts.

Game design is interesting here.  Until recently most game designers—like journalists in the past—had no degrees.  Today many do.  People consider game designers who work for a big company to be professional game designers.  But thanks to the ubiquity of inexpensive game-design tools there are also still many amateurs making independent games, games which are perforce much more modest and scope than the games produced by large commercial companies.  Nonetheless, some of these people gain mastery that competes with the best of professional game designers and become Pro-Ams.

Modding is an interesting “between state” in game design.  Modders use design tools often made freely available with a commercial game to modify or redesign the game.  Sometimes these mods are minor modifications, sometimes major ones, and sometimes virtually new games, some of which have gone on to be bought and published by large commercial game companies.  Modding has become a “Pro-Am” specialty that lies between professional commercial designers and amateurs making their own games from scratch.  Modding allows a designer to use the assets of a large commercial company to produce an independent game that looks and functions like a large-scale, expensive game.

It is interesting that professional game designers often make modding tools freely available to players.  They do this to resource their creativity, but also to build and keep their interest long-term in the game.  Some games have lived on only in modded versions, long after the commercial company has dropped them, thanks to their loyal users who keep them alive as part of a “modding community”.  In the case of a game like Minecraft, there are mods and groups playing, discussing, and rebuilding them that lay well outside the mainstream space of a game now owned by a monopoly, Microsoft.

Today, we live with both virtual spaces (and virtual architecture) and physical spaces (with physical architecture) and mixtures thereof.  When virtual spaces are games they are designed to facilitate problem-solving (that is their function).  In games, modding is more and more possible and expected.  Modding resources creativity, crowd-sources ideas from users, and allows for resilient adaptation across time. 

What about physical architecture?  As we enter an age in which physical buildings and spaces will be influenced by innovations in virtual worlds and virtual teaching and learning spaces, what will the roles of professionals, amateurs, and Pro-Ams be?  In particular, what would happen if physical architecture began to allow, resource, and encourage modding from users?  In my view, if are thinking any buildings where people teach and learn, then modding is going to be a necessity if these buildings are to compete with the rich distributed teaching and learning systems and networked affinity spaces in the digital world.

Of course, people have always rearranged the insides of buildings and tinkered with their outsides.  But that is not what modding means here.  Modding means using the code by which something was built to modify it or even transform it totally.  With games, this code is a program.  With building there are two codes at stake.  One is the blueprint and drawings that specify the building, a specialist “language” or representational system used by architects.  The other is the structure of the materials used in the building, a physical, chemical, structural “code”.  What would it mean for users to use these codes to mod existing buildings and space, not just to build their own buildings from scratch?  In the Age of Fab Labs and “printed” (or “poured”) buildings, we can certainly imagine a time when users can extract and deconstruct materials and re-print parts or all of a building, both in the short term and the long term.

One property that seems to be a hallmark of “great architecture”, as we now know it and, at least, as aficionados discuss it, is solidity.  Below is a picture of a college education building by the 2016 Pritzker Prize winner, Alejandro Aravena.  


This is pretty solid looking, though it does have a feeling things could slide about a bit.  What does such solidity mean in an age were virtual walls are porous like the walls of cells, but not the walls of buildings?  Could a building be organic in the way a cell is, filtering, selecting, blocking, and allowing in?

Imagine a science fiction building:  It is made of “blocks” (units of some sort) that a computer program can move and rearrange at will, sliding, stacking, and aligning them in a great many ways, even on the fly as users imagine new activities in need of new sorts of spaces.  The colors, shapes, textures, transparency, and other properties of the blocks could be re-programmed, as well.  Imagine, too, that the blocks can process both natural processes (breathe) and informational processes (network) and that this can be re-programmed too.  Imagine, finally, that the blocks had in them things like the ion channel gates in cells that let in some things (e.g. light, noise, air, moisture, or living beings, plant and animal) and not others, and that this could also be re-programmed.

Such buildings already exist, in part, though not perfectly, in virtual space.  But they do not (yet?) exist in physical space (and we can well imagine, when and if they ever do, that there will be interesting integrations of such physical buildings and virtual ones).  Let’s call such fantasy buildings: “RadMod Buildings” (Radically Modifiable Buildings and Spaces).

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