Why? Why am I doing this? In a sense, it would seem as if I’m abandoning what people who have known me for a while would say was more a vocation than a career in architecture.
In fact, I see it as a way of satisfying the same drive by other means. For some architects, and I’m certainly one, the attraction of architectural work is that it allows you to first imagine and then make new bits of the world that work better – that are more beautiful, more humane, more efficient.
The world of digital technology offers these same possibilities but significantly, it allows the solutions to be unchained from the weight and drag of the physical world – offers scalability, ubiquity, relevance, impact beyond that of any but the most iconic of buildings.
More than that, the digital world is new, uncharted – the space of the unexplored and even the unimagined is so much larger than the territory that has been mapped out, and unlike the real-world, this is a multi-dimensional, self-referential space, where each new invention can spawn whole universes of implied possibility.
It seems trite and trivial to say it, but I am convinced that we are merely in the low foothills of what a digital culture that includes the vast bulk of humanity will offer.
I have always been excited by the implications of IT, right from the days when my dad, a (the!) systems analyst for Bulmers Cider, would bring home flowchart templates and reams of green/white listing paper and analyse simple problems with me (the one I remember was about removing fluff from the belly button – a simple if..then loop).
I did some simple coding at school, and then worked for a year before university as a systems operator and programmer (using Basic, on a real VT100 terminal, not an emulator) at the QE Hospital in Birmingham ( with a PDP-11 comprising eight or so huge filing-cabinet size boxes, hard disks the size of paella pans holding 2.5Mb), all of which was engaging and interesting, but in those days was so far removed from daily life that it seemed like a hermetic world, specialised, not really offering anything directly empowering.
Computers were still hugely expensive, the preserve of corporations and institutions; in the service of the system, rather than agents for change, and I was in an anarchist punk band, for heaven’s sake!
I got it, though – the deep understanding of the reality of what a computer is – that brutishly fast rule follower, utterly without interest in you or what you are trying to do – a sort of visceral understanding of what you are dealing with that I believe is the first thing you need to learn in order to properly work with computers – a deep sense of what the thing actually is, on the basis of which all the other understandings can be simply technical, but without which no technical knowledge can be grounded in a human understanding.
A year of utter disengagement with electrical engineering later, and I fell in love with architecture.
I never lost touch with tech, though, and for a while I had use of one of the earliest portables – an Osborne 1 (again, courtesy of my dad).
Still no time for hacking though – I was hacking the real world, making buildings and furniture, and making noise, posters and graphics for my band, bIG fLAME.
I went to California, and witnessed some of the early life of the internet, working with a contractor who was active in the WELL community in the Bay Area. I had gone there to study with an architecture teacher called Chris. Alexander, who had written (among other books) a wonderful book called A Pattern Language, which has interestingly had perhaps more impact in the digital world than in the architectural world; Chris’ work directly inspired the Design Patterns movement and indirectly engendered the wiki, which was invented by Ward Cunningham as a tool for collaborating with others in developing and discussing Design Patterns (the book was apparently also the inspiration behind the original Sim City game).
Gradually, IT invaded architectural offices, to the great surprise of the older generation, who had never needed much more than some pencils and pens, a drawing board and a phone. The idea that you would need these expensive boxes, and that they would then need to be upgraded regularly, that the software which made them useful would need to be upgraded too, was a powerful shock, an experience of the disruptive change that digital technology could bring.
I was using mostly digital tools – drawing with CAD, doing 3D work, implementing email, developing project documentation systems in Filemaker. Nevertheless these things were no more than tools, more or less useful in doing the real work. The world was still resolutely analogue – digital information was still dead information, often less useful than dead-tree documents, as networks were still patchy, slow and primitive, and the tools were often only barely compatible with each other.
Then we were asked to pitch for what became the William Gates building at Cambridge University (we didn’t get the commission), and, in preparing for the interviews, I read Nicholas Negroponte’s ‘Being Digital’, which impressed me greatly, and powerfully made the point that everything – everything that possibly could be – was going to be digitised, and sooner than you might imagine – that the logic of this was more about leveraging the uses of information for human benefit than it was purely about money. That the digitisation of human culture could be a positive phenomenon that had the potential to empower people and communities – that IT in the age of the internet could be a democratic, not just a corporate enabler.
Nevertheless, opportunities to go it alone came up, to design and build projects in just the way I thought it should be done, and a decade rushed by. As larger projects came my way, though, the dreadful condition of the UK construction industry became harder and harder to ignore, and gradually came the realisation that in part this was due to the contrast with the digital industries.
Computers have enabled enormous productivity increases in almost every sector over the last forty years, while during the same period, the productivity of the construction industry has decreased significantly, as in-depth training has been done away with. With every passing year, the disparity between what can be achieved in construction compared to what can be achieved digitally has become more glaringly obvious.
With a major project – (an eco-friendly GP surgery in Herstmonceux) coming to an end, I’ve decided not to take on any other large scale work for the meantime, and throw myself into London’s startup /tech culture.
Already, I’m having good experiences, as I hope is clear from other posts, meeting interesting people and getting encouraging feedback. The enthusiasm and positivity of this sub-culture reminds of my time spent studying in California, and ideas are bubbling up all the time – it’s still design for a better world, just in a different medium.