Architecture and Democracy are trendy, overused and misused terms of disputed meaning and origin (1). Paradoxically, mixing these two terms help us to understand both and it’s interdependency. Despite the non‐linear approach, let me narrate here on this blend:
The practice of architecture is multi‐faceted and deeply political for a number of reasons: It creates and divides spaces where we live our everyday lives in and shapes who we are, it allocates vast amounts of natural resources with climate change implications, it is embedded in the construction sector, (one of the strongest economic developers worldwide), it mingles public and private interests, it uses IT (Information technology) at its core, it is fashionable and it is based on biased reasoning. Such multi‐faceted condition of the urbanized world has been increasingly regulated on the search for a democratic process: Top‐down, with the creation of zoning laws, and bottom up, with co‐design schemes involving citizens in the decision process. Both approaches are far from effective, the former is unable to avoid corruption; the later remains of local and expensive application with no possibilities of generalization.
What to do then?
My life’s path awarded me, at an early age, in designing and leading large scale projects directly with decision makers which included the political cast of several countries of four continents. This went by during remarkable periods of our recent history: e.g. the design of Governmental buildings in Oman during the Arab Spring, a Campus for Moscow with Google during Putin’s reelection, a UN backed Library for Tashkent during Karimov’s leadership, etc. No matter in which country, a banana or not republic, common to all AEC (Architecture, Engineering and Construction) industry, is, the design for maximum profit with the minimum of requirements (regardless of the source of the money) (2). Some of the common practices of the AEC industry are hasty design decisions, corrupted and unlawful destruction of heritage; stark slavery‐like, top‐down decision process (on the excuse of fast decision making) and design decisions based on personal wealth (3). These are the processes in which we create spaces which makes out our cities, and “as we enter a space, the space enters us” (4), we cannot expect an enlightening democratic and inclusive city coming out of such stressed, dictatorial and selfish process.
Before all such vices managed to wipe out any possible virtues within me (or from the killer which every major architectural office in Russia employs), I stepped out from the misleading details of the praxis, to take a look at the bigger picture and contextualize myself, in order to find a way to improve the process of architecture. And through such process lies also the answer, we must enable a contextualization of the city linked to the spaces we are able to perceive (rooms).
The logic is simple: we spend most of our lives in rooms which we know close to nothing (who built it, why, how, who owns it…). And we live in cities which make out for all of what our society is about. Then democracy asks us to act politically and to make decisions about the society (the city), which, again, we know close to nothing.
So, to have a functioning democracy, which requires informed citizens; we must thus understand the city we live in, in its multitude and complexity. (5)
How to do it?
The broad proposition of architectural democracy is thus to enable the built environment to act as a tool for a local critical thinking of its users, the citizens, for better informed decisions at local and global level. Now, imagine I can see, or even better, edit information to any object or space around me. It’s memories, financial and technical aspects, etc. If I can visualize the relationships among other objects and spaces and with people, I can then scale it up, aggregate the information, and better understand how the city works and who owns it. An easy access to a multitude of information, if independent, spatially related and decentralized, could guarantee a higher dissemination and equally higher quality of information, both essential aspects of democracy. Luckily we have now the technology that enables this linkage between the small and larger scale of the city, both at a top‐ down and bottom up strategies.
Top‐Down approach: We can use the ongoing, centralized policies and technologies of BIM (Building Information Modelling, which in simple terms are 3D models with metadata, meaning, I can click for example a door in the 3D and know about its costs, physical properties, ownership, etc.). These breakthroughs in the AEC industry, backed up by governmental policies, increase the process transparency among experts (reducing unnecessary planning hours and increasing the output quality).
Bottom‐up approach: We can use the ground‐breaking, decentralized technologies of photogrammetry/SfM technologies. It is now possible to take simple photos of our houses and turn them into 3D models. Such 3D models can also be made interactive, much like the BIM explained above. In doing so, we can generate our own DIY BIMs and guarantee a decentralized source of its metadata.
Now, the ignored point so far is, how to use these ongoing strategies and technologies (open source tools, BIM, Linked Open Data, CityGML, Internet of Things, photogrammetry, etc.) to deeply embed the end‐user experience in it, to allow a truly accessible and inclusive urban interface on a scale of the everyday life, that empower citizens with particular issues of the city and allow them to organize themselves and act on it. (6)
To make this a reality and to test how it could work, I have been pursuing an applied research at Aalto University (Dpt. of Engineering) parallel with the development of technologies along with several companies and institutions (see architecturaldemocracy.com for more information).
The proposal of “Architectural Democracy” is thus to create an urban digital framework where citizens interact with the built environment by locally accessing/editing data linked directly into it. It deals with technologies and policies to turn buildings into open source interfaces (open source buildings) to improve the public understanding of the built environment along the everyday life of citizens and, with it, the quality of political participation. Rather than sophisticated robots, our smart‐ buildings and smart‐cities should promote citizen’s awareness and invite for participative political behaviors, contributing to deepen direct democracy and to promote sustainable economic dynamics in cities.
(1) Cf. “The life and Death of Democracy” by John Keane where the origins of democracy can be traced back to Mesopotamia with the early examples of public assemblies.
(2) My last position as a Senior Architect in Switzerland can be resumed at best at, turning a land plot from some ABB top manager into profit within 4 years’ time.
(3) you know this is the case when you are designing a classical Greek-like entrance for a school in Muscat
(4) Pallasmaa, Juhani. “Space, place and atmosphere. Emotion and peripherical perception in architectural experience.” Lebenswelt. Aesthetics and philosophy of experience. 4 (2014). Page 232.
(5) The classical ground breaking work of Leonardo Benevolo on cities opens up with such a similar remark
(6) Cf. the writings of de Lange, M. and M. de Waal (2013). “Owning the city: New media and citizen engagement in urban design.” First Monday 18 (11).