Book Notes: “Architectural Intelligence”

Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape
By Molly Wright Steenson
The MIT Press, 2017

We are now far enough into the information revolution that we can examine critical influences with perspective. Architectural Intelligence surfaces key contributions of architectural thinking and doing towards the shaping of current information environments. It does so by examining the work of four influential architects: Christopher Alexander, Richard Saul Wurman, Cedric Price, and Nicholas Negroponte.

During the early years of digital computing, many architects saw computing as a better way to manage complex problem-solving in traditional architectural practice. However, some architects recognized they were dealing with a different type of architecture, one where information played a more significant role than merely augmenting design practice. The architects profiled in this book were the first — and most influential — to do so:

  • Christopher Alexander, perhaps the best known of the four, originated (and then transcended) the idea of pattern languages. Looking to systematize architectural design, he was mostly shunned by the architectural profession. His work resonated more with software engineers, so Alexandrian thinking has influenced modern software development practices.
  • Richard Saul Wurman vies with Alexander as the best-known of the bunch, although his fame comes from an achievement only tangentially related to the subject of the book: he founded the TED conference. But Wurman’s multi-faceted career is important for other reasons, not the least of which is recognizing information as an architectural material that, when structured correctly, can foster understanding.
  • Cedric Price was unknown to me before reading this book. (Which intrigues me, given that my background is in architecture.) The object of most of Price’s projects was a built environment, albeit always peculiar ones that aimed to exploit the systemic capabilities of new information technologies.
  • Nicholas Negroponte, is the founder of the MIT Media Lab (and its predecessor, the MIT Architecture Machine Group, which is the focus of this chapter.) Negroponte and his collaborators at the AMG laid the foundations for modern conceptions of what it means to inhabit information and how we can effectively collaborate with artificially intelligent systems.

Were these people “architects” in the sense most people think of? Of the four, only Price and Alexander focused on designing built environments during their careers. (And the latter’s buildings have had little impact in the domain of architecture. While in architecture school, I recall being advised to read A Pattern Language but avoid Alexander’s buildings.) While definitely architectural, the work of all four pushed boundaries for which we (still) lack adequate terms. Wright Steenson captures the issue succinctly:

As Alexander, Wurman, Price, and Negroponte began to conceive of their work in terms of informational processing and computational practices, they found themselves in a liminal space between the two fields, which caused them to question whether what they were doing was architectural at all, or something in opposition to it, or something altogether different.

Those of us who design information environments still inhabit this liminal space. Alas, many among us are not aware of it. By examining the pioneering work of these four architects, Architectural Intelligence offers insights into what it means to architect information environments today — and in the future.

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