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The power of networks: Beyond Critical Regionalism

In this co-authored essay Carlo Ratti, Antoine Picon, Alex Haw and Matthew Claudel introduce Network Specifism: a redefinition of Frampton’s Critical Regionalism for the 21st century

In 1961 the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observed: ‘Everywhere throughout the world, one finds the same bad movie, the same slot machines, the same plastic or aluminum atrocities, the same twisting of language by propaganda.’1

Witness the problem of universalisation: a toxic byproduct of the globalisation process. Of course, we are familiar with solo cups and Oreos, but what does this mean for architecture and urbanism? Will all of our cities soon look the same? Are we on track to pepper them with a familiar mix of Hadid and Koolhaas, and then again with anonymous Modernist blocks and Postmodernist McDonald’s?

A famous answer to this question, one that gained great popularity towards the end of the past millennium, in the wake of the Postmodernist debate, was so-called Critical Regionalism. It championed place, above all, as a key force in shaping modern architecture and reconnecting design with specific cultural and natural forces. In the words of Kenneth Frampton, one of its main proponents: ‘The fundamental strategy of Critical Regionalism is to mediate the impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place. It is clear from the above that Critical Regionalism depends upon maintaining a high level of critical self-consciousness.

It may find its governing inspiration in such things as the range and quality of the local light, or in a tectonic derived from a peculiar structural mode, or in the topography of a given site.’2 Critical Regionalism had a noteworthy impact, providing a useful lens to engage and weave together many experiments of the late-20th century, and equipping a new generation with fresh inspiration. However, its propulsive force seems to be evaporating. ‘Starchitecture’ is again on the rise, gracing skylines of cities across the world with their share of signature icons (or, standard trophies).

In a certain sense, Critical Regionalism has been a victim of its success, as the leaders it brought into the global spotlight began building internationally. How does a Mexican-inspired Legorreta-designed building fit with London’s genius loci? Its DNA begins to unravel the moment it is reproduced. The minutiae of place can’t become a signature, if there is an expectation of working in a different region. Or more succinctly, it is the fine line between ‘specificity’ and ‘inflexibility’. As these buildings are scattered around the globe, seemingly at random, it appears to be a radical fulfilment of inflammatory Koolhaasian rhetoric: architecture ‘is no longer part of any urban tissue. It exists; at most, it coexists. Its subtext is “fuck context”.’3

While the answer of Critical Regionalism might be outdated, the main questions behind it are more urgent than ever. If Frampton grounded his theory on the’peculiarities of a particular place’ could we respond by grounding theory on ‘the peculiarities of a particular network?’ Could this approach provide a new answer to the old problem of universalisation? With today’s technologies and tools, a robust ‘Networked Specifism’ would emerge.

Within the conceptual bounds of Network Specifism, place would automatically manifest through the human lens − in other words, through the vibrant network of people who contribute to a project. In recent years, complex scientific analysis has shown us that networks of human interaction are locally grounded. It is what the technologic anthropologist Christopher Kelty describes as a ‘recursive public’ − an open community that is both a result and a generator of networks.4 

‘The capacity of a network to connect people across a breadth of scales seems to provide a new way of mediating between the global and the local. It is the fluid interface between the individual and the collective’

And this isn’t only happening in the realm of architecture. New fields like ‘theoretical ecology’ and ‘network analytics’ are emerging across disciplines, providing meta-analysis of the increasing connectivity within and between those disciplines themselves. They address the network − the fluid interface − and its constitution, propagation and potential valorisation.

Science research, in particular, is undergoing a sea change in networked publication and collaborative writing, to the point that an ecosystem which was formerly populated by the likes of Bohr and Einstein is now driven almost exclusively by co-authored research. Just a handful of the 700 papers published in Nature Magazine in 2008 were written by a single author.5 The same tide is rising, with more or less quantifiable metrics, across almost every discipline, from Broadway musicals to finance.

Even within the bounds of architectural practice, different forms of network seem to be emerging: networks of design professionals using synchronised digital tools to work together from across the globe; networks of competences that bridge traditional disciplines; networks of citizens and building users, who can embark on digitally-enabled participatory processes (a kind of participation 2.0). But now that we have the capacity for hyper-networking (almost limitless cloud-connection on the global scale), the challenge is in bringing it back down to earth, so to speak.

Since 2009, Kickstarter (kickstarter.com) has proven that − given a platform − anyone can make a compelling pitch to the world at large, and have a reasonable hope of getting their idea off the ground. With Kickstarter as a megaphone, voices reverberate throughout a global network and echo back the support of anyone from grandma to Japanese businessmen. Effective, but vast. More recently, Brickstarter (brickstarter.org) has emerged as the equivalent in urban activism, providing a similar venue for raising funding and support, but on the local scale − cities, neighbourhoods, communities.

It targets the sorts of DIY projects that are typically checkmated when they run into bureaucracy, lack of funding and insufficient visibility. And instead of dollars and cents, you might expect support on the order of rolled-up sleeves and potting soil. Brickstarter is essentially a case study in Network Specifism.

As such, Network Specifism could provide very different outcomes based on where it is practised. The aggregation of people’s input on a local project in a mid-sized city will inform the outcome and give it a unique flavour. A global project − say, a new building for the Olympics or the World Expo − could draw on an equally global networked input, mediating between the genius loci and the global zeitgeist.

In this sense Network Specifism could be seen as a redefinition of Critical Regionalism. In the latter, local culture serves to inflect local architectural production. With Network Specifism, this very lens itself could change based not only on the building’s place but also on the networked community that contributes to it. The local becomes relational.

Image

Topic map: sorting 800,000 scientific papers into 776 paradigms organised by connections, aggregations and popularity

References

1. Paul Ricoeur, ‘Universal Civilization and National Cultures’ (1961),
in History and Truth, pp276-77.
2. Kenneth Frampton, ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for
an Architecture of Resistance’ (2002),
in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays
on Postmodern Culture, p21.
3. Rem Koolhaas, ‘Bigness, or,
The Problem of Large’ (1994),
in SMLXL, pp494-517.
4. Christopher Kelty, Two Bits:
The Cultural Significance of Free Software (2008), p3.
5. John Whitfield, ‘Collaboration:
Group Theory’ (2008), in Nature Magazine, 455, 720-723.

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