P2P Foundation

The Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives

Eric Hunting: Adaptive Architecture, Collaborative Design, and the Evolution of Community

This is a landmark essay on P2P architecture and its prospects, by Eric Hunting.

Publishid in full here at http://p2pfoundation.net/Adaptive_Architecture%2C_Collaborative_Design%2C_and_the_Evolution_of_Community

Below are the intro and conclusions.

There are many anachronisms relative to the contemporary situation perpetuated today in the practice of architecture and two of the most obvious are the delusions of permanence and perfection; the notion that the purpose of design is to realize some kind of ideal adaption relative to the topography and situation of a site and as a consequence if design is proper then the function of space need never change and structure will never go obsolete. And, of course, the higher the 'profile' of the designer the greater the tendency toward these assumptions of permanence and perfection. the design becoming inviolate relative to the designer's prestige, changing from architecture to sculpture.

In reality, we live in a world of change steadily increasing in pace and degree. A world where the works of even history's greatest and most famous architects are very routinely demolished and are lucky to survive a generation. Western society is more mobile than ever before, property value more volatile, and the structure and character of households more dynamic and complex. The environmental effects of Global Warming alone will compel a relocation of some two billion people in the coming decades. The effects of rising, and increasingly volatile, energy costs and the need for nations to reduce carbon footprints may double that number as once conventional modes of living -like conventional suburbia- become untenable and people are compelled to seriously consider the energy and carbon overheads of their daily life. Currently, real estate market bubbles are bursting all over the globe, forcing radical corrections of property value in the wake of decades of irrational finance industry practice, casting people out of their homes and compelling society to consider radical new ways of housing itself in the face of unreliable, unsafe, and increasingly userous mortgage based systems. Social trends have steadily increased the pace of home renovations. While the market increasingly favors homes of generic aspect, homeowners are increasingly demanding customization to suit a burgeoning diversity in aesthetic taste and the structure of the family itself. The nuclear family no longer defines the model household. New household models based on the return of the extended family unit and the emergence of new non-related family groups are emerging. And technology too is having its impact, altering the architectures of domestic infrastructure systems with increase frequency while producing new trends in work and leisure activity that can radically effect the organization of the home and logistics of the household. The past two decades have seen home design slowly adopt the notion of the extra bedroom as optional 'home office' predicated on the assumption that trends in home-based work favored the use of information technology. And yet we are on the verge of a revolution in independent industrial production and associated entrepreneurship that goes far beyond the limits of a home office and which remains completely unanticipated in home design even as designers themselves are leading this work trend.

Clearly, contemporary trends favor a habitat of more freely adaptive architecture and nowhere is this need more acute than in the growing number of intentional communities inspired by growing social dissatisfaction with the dysfunctions of the contemporary habitat. Attrition rates for intentional communities are typically high in the industrialized world owing mostly to social issues; to unrealistic expectations, a lack of effective social skills, sociopathic behavior patterns cultivated in the mainstream habitat's anonymity, and an essential lack of cultural knowledge for what community is and how it works. In the western world especially, generations of Industrial Age development has cultivated an essential cultural sociopathy rooted in the presumed inexorable logic of the Market. Traditional communities were systematically destroyed in favor of an isolated nuclear family unit identifying primarily with the macro-community of the nation-state. The culture of community must be relearned through trial and error and an incremental evolution, yet this is only possible in an environment conducive to that process. An environment where concepts of property and propriety are not presumed absolute and where the physical structure of the habitat is not fixed and does not get in the way of, or unnecessarily complicate, experimentation.

An important characteristic of vernacular architectures of the past was an accommodation -indeed, an anticipation- of spontaneous adaptation. Vernacular building technology is not the product of any formal development process. It is the product of cultural evolution involving the peer-to-peer negotiation between owner/builders and their community, owners and craftsman, apprentice and master-craftsman, and the habitat, time, and the environment. Together, these result in a system of building and design convention peculiar to a location and regional culture. Today, they have tended to become stratified as 'styles' in the modern era, their evolution stunted by the compulsion toward 'cultural preservation' in the face of contemporary nation-states compulsion toward sociocultural homogenization. Many of their building methods are no longer functional or practical in the contemporary context because of so many generations of stunted evolution, missed technology integration, changing economics, and environmental changes. They are mimicked for aesthetics alone. But for a long time they embodied a very organic, collaborative, human process of habitat cultivation -albeit operating at a pace measured usually in generations. Many have sought to revive vernacular building techniques in an attempt to recapture their organic collaborative qualities but long evolutionary stratification has made many of them largely anachronistic and non-functional in a contemporary context, particularly in terms of their labor overhead and thus slow possible pace of evolution. Is it possible to invent a new vernacular adapted to the contemporary situation exhibiting these same functional and social qualities and serving as a medium of community cultivation? In this article we will explore some of the new building technologies that hint at this very possibility. Spontaneously adaptable building systems with quick low-skill assembly and high technology integration that combine some of the benefits of machine production and advanced technology with a potential for the same organic cultivation of community design, now possible at an unprecedented pace of evolution more in tune with the contemporary pace of change.


There is clearly great potential in adaptive architecture, not only in terms of collaborative community development but also in terms of discrete architecture and housing. Though most of the cultural knowledge associated with traditional community development has been lost across the Industrial Age, we see that some of the adaptive characteristics of past vernacular building technologies has been retained or rediscovered in some contemporary building systems, thanks largely to Modernists obsessions with modularity and -ironically- the dream of industrialized housing. There are definitely very important functional limitations in the contemporary technology of adaptive architecture but in many ways they far surpass older vernaculars in the ease and speed of potential evolution. Though many of the possible technologies still remain too underdeveloped for practical use, what we have at-hand today does seem suited to potentially supporting three different scales of experimentation and exploration of peer-to-peer community development. With Pavilion Architecture and Living Structures we have the possibility for very low cost community experiments at a co-habitation scale based on communal pavilion structures or repurposing a variety of commercial and industrial buildings. With Container Module systems and perhaps rudimentary purpose-built Modular Unit Architecture as well as contemporary wood Post and Beam and T-Slot structures we can explore this at a co-housing or village scale. And with purpose built Functionally Generic Architecture based on conventional commercial construction, we can, in combination again with the Living Structure approach, take this to a truly urban scale with 'microcities' or prototype arcologies. It would seem the only practical obstacle to such experiments is people, given that the true start of any such project is accumulating enough people with the necessary skills and freedom of mobility to attempt such projects.

Of course, one could argue that many such experiments are already underway around the world, being imposed by situation onto the various communities of refugees and destitute of the world compelled into creating communities ad-hoc without the benefit of any of these more sophisticated technologies. It would seem, then, that there is great value in such purposeful experiments not only as a means of exploring the social science of collaborative community development but also in the cultivation of methods and technologies that can be be shared with these new accidental communities, giving them means of improving the odds of survival and quality of life for those forced into such experiments by fate and social indifference/injustice.

We have the means, even with so much knowledge lost and with such nascent recent technology, to recapture much of the cultural skill set of community we once sacrificed for the transient benefits of the Industrial Age. The real technology for is the software we carry with us in our minds and cultures. It has only been waiting to be re-expressed in new physical mediums. The Modernists may have never dreamed of such things as they explored what they thought was a future of modular technological building efficiency but which was, in reality, a rediscovery of a mode of living most ancient and very, fundamentally, human.

Eric Hunting

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