2.10.2008

The Convergence of Web 2.0 and Architecture: How far can we push it?

Websites and web communities such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook and Ebay (among many others) are currently revolutionizing information networking on the internet by allowing its users to produce, share, and manipulate content. Through this participation, users are essentially building and developing the websites and web communities themselves, rendering the actual websites as a mere framework that is expanded upon. Practices like this are archetypal in the current movement in web design and development and are often referred to as Web 2.0, or an improved, more participatory version of the initial World Wide Web.

Last month, Studio Wikitecture, an architecture and urban planning firm, gave a lecture at the annual forum of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) about the studio's aims to apply the decentralized and open-source concepts behind Web 2.0 to the fields of architecture and urban planning. The studio has been using Second Life as a platform for its projects. Inspired by concepts of alternate, digitally connected worlds, such as the matrix in the popularized Matrix Series and the metaverse in Neal Stephenson's Science Fiction cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, Second Life is a public, internet-based software application which is essentially a 3-D, virtual world. For Studio Wikitecture, the use of this program has allowed the studio mass communication and collaboration from audiences worldwide throughout the design process. In their current project, in which they are designing a health clinic in western Nepal, the studio asserts that anyone in the world can help them and participate in the design by means of the internet. By registering and logging in for free on Second Life or by visiting the studio's website, anyone can submit their own design iterations as well as comment and critique on the current status of the project.

Although Studio Wikitecture employs contemporary cutting edge technology that enables for such efficiency, convenience, and outreach, the core manifesto of their studio is very similar to that of preceding, less complex participatory design programs, such as BaSiC Initiative and Rural Studio. Founded in 1995 and 1993 respectively, these programs preceded the likes of Wikipedia and Studio Wikitecture in involving users more in the design and construction of its projects. Both programs stationed themselves in the communities that they were building in, facilitating everyday, hands-on collaboration and dialogue with the actual people that would be using the buildings they designed. Even so, these programs were not even themselves the first to implement the idea. And while a great debate could be sparked arguing over who came up with the idea first, what is more important is the effectiveness of these programs, and which methods of communication are better.

In their lecture, Studio Wikitecture touches on the classic theme of the contrasting pros and cons of big corporations and small businesses. They note that while big corporations can manage at a vast scale with great resources, their services tend to be uniform and detached from the user. Likewise, small businesses often possess the creativity and intimacy that large corporations lack, yet they do not have the resources to reach and administrate a broad audience. Studio Wikitecture claims that through the lowered costs and increased accessibility of communication that information technologies such as the internet provide, it is possible for the first time in human history to have the aforementioned benefits of both large corporations and small businesses, as in their projects and the Wikitecture interface in Second Life (below). However, I would not be so quick to comply. While there is no doubt that the use of Second Life, which has more than 12 million registered accounts, allows for an unprecedented outsourcing of ideas and input because of the sheer quantity of its users, the quality of that input still does not match that which can be gathered from intimate face-to-face meetings. While programs such as Rural Studio physically immerse themselves in the lives of those that will be using their projects, the Wikitecture interface allows only for digital, disengaged immersion. Furthermore, while Second Life is nearly exactly what it's title proclaims (the avatars that users create are truly Second Life users' second lives), those users are human beings first and avatars in Second Life second. As long as we exist as physical human beings, the value of our physical interactions and human senses will always supersede that of their virtual mediations.

While Studio Wikitecture's explorations take great steps in the trying convergence of virtual worlds with the physical world, the internet is simply a tool for creating and designing architecture in the Wikitecture project. It is a super efficient, super accessible, and experiential suggestion box. What if there was a way to further integrate the internet and architecture. How will this be done? In the way that projects such as Wikipedia and Youtube are constantly evolving in real time on the internet, what if the internet was not only a tool, but the essence of a project's existence. Could such a project have a simultaneously evolving real world counterpart? Furthermore, what the internet itself was the entire extents of a project? Could we still call this architecture and moreover, are we still humans at this point of our existence?

1 comment:

Carrie Anne Platt said...

I've really learned a lot from reading through your blog, Jeff! The post on science fiction and architecture was particularly interesting (for obvious reasons).

I also like how this medium allows you to participate in larger conversations about architecture and information technology.

I'm thinking about having students actually blog next semester (instead of just posting and responding to discussion questions on Blogger). Do you have any suggestions for implementing this practice in the classroom (i.e., making it productive/helpful for students rather than just "more work":) ?

Thanks for any advice you can offer. Hope your summer is off to a great start.

 
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