The paper presents a “primitives” approach to understanding the computational design enabled by blockchain technologies, as a new political economy for the architecture discipline. The paper’s motivation lies in exploring the challenges that exist for architects to understand blockchain, evidenced through the author’s multiple prototypes,[1,2,3,4] discussions, workshops and code writing with students and colleagues, but also in the fragmentation of the Architecture-Engineering-Construction (AEC) industry and the impermanence that computational design enhances in architecture. These challenges, while situated within the confines of the discipline of computational design and architecture, are defined and affected by the challenges that exist within the wider AEC industry and its extractive relationship with the physical environment.
Methodologically the paper is a philosophical and semantic exploration on the meaning of architecture in a decentralised context, considering its uncoupled nature with signs and design, and it sets a direction in which architectural practice needs to move, changing from an extractive to a non-extractive or circular nature.
Blockchain: peer economies, trust and immutability, transparency, incentives for participation, and entropy
A blockchain is a distributed computer network, where each computer node holds a copy of a distributed ledger that holds values. Computationally, a Blockchain acts as both a state machine able to execute smart contracts, i.e., software code that is the equivalent of an automatic vending machine, but also a continuous, immutable chain, built out of discrete blocks of information, each of which contains a cryptographic hash of the previous discrete block. Each block contains a series of transactions or changes to the distributed ledger, which in the discipline of architectural design can be a series of design synthetical actions, executed in a bottom-up fashion, and encoded into a block. Within a regular time interval, the blockchain network, though an incentivised participation system, selects the next block to be written to the ledger/chain. Due to the their nature, public, permissionless blockchains act as a medium of trust (trust machines) between agents that are not necessarily in concert or known to one another; are resilient in the sense that losing a large part of the network does not destroy the blockchain; are immutable because one cannot go back and delete information as by design block cryptographic hashes are embedded into the next one creating an immutable chain; and operate through cryptoeconomic incentives, i.e., economic mechanisms that incentivise, not always monetarily, behaviour that maintains or improves the system itself. Economically, a blockchain is a decentralised trust-machine that enables the creation of peer-to-peer economies via smart contracts, tokens and their computer protocols.
The first blockchain, the one invented in the bitcoin whitepaper, has been designed as a replacement for centrally managed financial institutions. As such, blockchains, when pubic and permissionless, act as a medium of de-centralisation, i.e., a channel within which to engage with, where one does not need permission or approval beyond the limits and rules of the computer code that runs the blockchain.
Blockchains encompass cryptography and its semantic discipline, immutability and entropy of information, continuity but also discreteness of information, and trust. Due to their decentralised nature, there is little room to understand blockchains as having affinity with architecture, the act of designing and building. In the following similes, however, I develop the parallels between architecture and blockchain, employing ideas from western and eastern literature.
Applications that have promise within the blockchain space and that are distinctive compared to other similar or competing automation technologies are the creation of tokens, both fungible and non-fungible [10, 11] the formation of Decentralised Autonomous Organisations i.e., organisations that operate through the blockchain medium, and applications of decentralised finance. All these are built through the smart contracts, along with additional layers for interfaces and connectors between the blockchain and its external environment. Since the blockchain is an immutable record, it becomes even more important to ensure that data that passes and gets recorded on the blockchain is of a high quality or truthfulness. To ensure this takes place, the concept of an oracle is introduced. Oracles are trustworthy entities, operating in the exterior of a blockchain, made trustworthy through both incentivisation and disincentives, with the responsibility to feed data into blockchains. Parallel to blockchains, though, remain distributed filesystems, used for storing files, rather than data, in a decentralised manner. One such filesystem is the Interplanetary filesystem, which operates via content rather than addressing: within IPFS we are looking for “what” rather than “where” as we do within the world wide web. Content on IPFS is also cryptographically signed with a cryptographic hash that makes the content unique and allows it to be found. For example, the following file from Blender has the IPFS hash:
Architecture as Cryptography
To explore the idea of blockchain as an infrastructure layer for architectural design, we will introduce Odysseus (Ulysses), a much discussed hero and anti-hero of many turns or tricks (polytropos), as his myth as a craftsman is solidified by architecture in the closing narration of The Odyssey. Inventiveness and the particular craft skills attributed to the character are compelling reasons to use him as a vehicle for creating parallels between blockchain and architectural design.
Odysseus participated in the Trojan Wars, and was the key hero responsible for the Trojan Horse and the demise of Troy. His quest for “Nostos”, i.e. returning home, is documented in the second Homerian epic, Odyssey. The Odyssey describes the voyage of Odysseus to Ithaca, after the Troy war, where his ship and crew pass through a multitude of trials and challenges imposed by Poseidon, in a voyage that takes about 10 years. His crew and ship get lost but he is saved, and manages to return to the island of Ithaca.[13,14] Upon his return, he must face a final challenge.
The olive tree bed
During his absence of more than 20 years, his wife Penelope has been under pressure by the local aristocracy to re-marry, as Odysseus is considered lost at sea. Local aristocrats have converged at the palace and are in competition to marry Penelope. She has prudently deflected the pressure by saying that she will chose one of the aristocrats, the “Mnesteres”, after she finishes her textile weaving – which she delays by weaving during the day and unmaking it during the night. However, the day comes, when Odysseus arrives unrecognised at Ithaca, and is warned upon arrival that not all is as one would expect. At the same time, the Mnesteres, or suitors, have forced Penelope to set a final challenge to select the best of them. The challenge is to string and use the large bow that Odysseus had carved and made tensile, and shoot an arrow through the hanging hoops of a series of large battle axes. No other but Odysseus himself was able to tense the bow since he first crafted and used it, providing thus a formidable technical challenge.
Odysseus enters the palace incognito, as a pig herder, and also makes a claim to the challenge, in concert with his son Telemachus. Penelope reacts at the prospect that a pig herder might win but is consoled by Telemachus who tells her to go to her rooms, where the poem finds her reminiscing of her husband. In the main hall of the palace, all the Mnesteres, in turn, fail to draw back and string the bow. Odysseus, however, tenses and strings the bow, passing the first challenge, then successfully uses the bow to shoot an arrow through the axes, providing the first sign that uncovers his identity. At the same time, he connects all the nodes of the battle axes in the line, by shooting his arrow through their metal rings, thus creating a chain. This is the second challenge, after the stringing of the bow that Odysseus must pass to prove he is the true king and husband of Penelope.
The third challenge, remains: the elimination of all suitors. A battle ensues in which the Mnesteres are killed by Telemachus and Odysseus, and thus the third challenge is complete.
The most architectonic metaphor of the poem takes place after the battle, at the moment Penelope needs to recognise her long lost husband, in rhapsody “Ψ”, i.e. the penultimate poem of Odyssey. She calls for a servant to move Odysseus’s bed outside its chamber and to prepare it so that he can rest. Upon hearing that, Odysseus immediately reacts in fury, claiming that moving the bed is an impossibility. The only person who could make the bed movable would be either an amazing craftsperson, or a god, as its base was made out of the root of an Olive tree, with its branches then used for the bed. Essentially the piece of furniture is immovable and immutable, it cannot be changed without being destroyed and it cannot be altered and taken out of the chamber without having its nature inadvertently changed – i.e., cutting the olive tree roots.
Odysseus knows this as he was the one that constructed it, shaping its root from the body of the olive tree and crafting the bed. He then describes how he built the whole chamber around the bed. This knowledge acts as a crypto-sign that verifies his identity. Odysseus himself calls the information a “token” – a “sêma” – a sign that it is indeed him, as only he would know this sêma. In a sense, knowledge of this is the personal cryptographic key to the public cryptographic riddle that Penelope poses to verify his identity.
The story acts as an architectonic metaphor for blockchain, in three layers. First, the token, both the information and the bed itself, cannot be taken out of its container (room) as its structure is interlinked with the material of the olive tree trunk and the earth that houses it. Second, it is Odysseus who is the architect of the crypto-immutability of the bed and the architecture around it, created by the most basic architectonic gestures: re-shaping nature into a construction. Thirdly, the intimacy between Penelope and Odysseus is encapsulated in the token of the bed, as knowledge of how the bed was made recreates trust between them – in the same kind of manner that blockchains become bearers of trust by encapsulating it cryptographically and encasing it in a third –medium, crafted, though, by a collective.
The implication is that architectonic signs are cryptographically encased into their matter, and changing the physical matter changes the sign. Odysseus has created the first architectonic non-fungible token in physical form, where its meaning and its function and utility are interlinked through a cryptographic sema, in the same fashion that a non-fungible token exists through the cryptographic signature on a smart contract corresponding to a particular data structure.
Deconstruction in Chinese
Odysseus is not the only one who has created physical NFTs. Philosopher Byung-Chul Han describes in his book Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese the relationship that exists in Asian cultures generally, but specifically in Chinese, between the master and the copy, where emulating or blatantly copying from the original is not seen as theft; instead, the form of the original is continually transformed by being deconstructed. 
Byung-Chul Han presents a Chinese ink painting of a rock landscape, where a series of Chinese scholars have signed it using their jade seals and have scribbled onto it a poetic verse or two, as a parting gift to one of their friends leaving for another province. Within Chinese culture, the jade seal is the person, and the person is the jade seal. As such, the painting has now accumulated all the signatures and selves of the scholars, and has become unique in the same sense a non-fungible token is unique due to its cryptographic signature onto a smart contract. The difference from the simple non-fungible tokens that one finds by the thousand now on the internet, is that the Chinese painting scroll, according to Byung-Chul Han, is activated and becomes exclusive with the signature-seals and poems of the literati. It is a dynamic NFT, a unique object that is open to continuous addition, and exclusive and recursive interpretation.
The act of creation, then, of the token, the unique sign, is the accumulation of all of the signatures of the scholars, whereby the painting cannot be reverted back to its original format; it is unique because it has been permanently changed. It is the same craft in Odysseus that takes the olive tree and makes into a bed, and then builds a room around the bed, an immobile, immutable sign, and its physical manifestation. The sêma of the significance of intimacy between Odysseus and Penelope is inextricable from the physical object of the bed, and the vector of change for the Chinese ink painting cannot return to its previous condition.
This is where the similarities end though. While the craft is the same, in the Chinese ink scroll, the point of departure is not nature, but another artwork. The non-fungible token of the Chinese art scroll remains open to more additions and recursive poetry, new cryptographic signatures may be added to it, while the olive tree bed has a finality and a permanence. Odysseus changes nature to create his token, and the olive tree can never be the same. To create a bed and the foundations and the wall of the room, the tree needs to be transformed into architecture. The Chinese literati change a drawing, an artefact already in existence, which in the end remains still subject to further change. In the case of the olive tree, the hero is one, single, and the sêma revolves around his relationship with the world. For the Chinese literati and the Chinese ink scroll, the sêma is immutable towards the past but open to re-signing as a manner of recursive interpenetration. Significant mental shifts and attitudes is demanded to travel from crafting architecture like Odysseus, a lone genius who is king of his domain, to crafting architecture like a collective of Chinese literati, where a well balance collaboration is required from all. Both can be served by blockchain as a record of actions taken; however, it is only the collective, dynamic work open to continuing evolution that has the best future fit between blockchain and the discipline of architecture.
“Zhen ji, an original, is determined not by the act of creation, but by an unending process” Byun Chul-Han
The extractive nature of Architecture: Odysseus.
The current dominant political economy of architecture is based on the Odysseus paradigm. The metabolism of the discipline is based on abundant natural resources and their transformation, and this parallels the irrational form of capitalist development.[16, 17] Essentially, the criticism shaped against the extractive nature of the discipline focuses on the ideological trap of continuously creating new designs and plans and sêmas, as Tafuri would have them, reliving the myth of Odysseus as a craftsperson, where every design is a prototype and every building is brand new, and where the natural environment is immutably transformed as the arrow of time moves forward. The repercussions of this stance are well documented in IPCC reports in terms of the carbon impact and waste production of the AEC industry.
In contrast, the “Space Caviar” collective posits that we should shift to a non-extractive architecture. They examine this shift via interviews with Benjamin Bratton, Chiara di Leone, and then Phineas Harper and Maria Smith. The focus within is a critical stance on the question of growth versus de-growth in the economy of architecture, where one needs a little bit more resolution to define the question in a positive term. Chiara di Leone correctly identifies design and economics as quasi-scientific disciplines and, as such, dismantles the mantra of de-growth as a homogenous bitter pill that we must all swallow. Instead, she proposes a spatial and geo-coupled economy, one that can take into account the local, decentralised aspects of each place and design an economy that is fit for that place. I would posit that as part of geo-coupled economy, an understanding of nature as a vector of a circular economy is needed
Decentralisation is, of course, a core principle within the blockchain sociotechnical understanding, in the sense that participation in a blockchain is not regulated by institutions nor gatekeepers. However, before declaring it the absolute means to decentralisation, one needs to take a look at what is meant by decentralisation in economics and development, and the difference with decentralisation in blockchain, as there are differences in their meaning and essence that need alignment.
Decentralisation and autonomy of local economies in the 70s
Decentralisation as a term applied to the economy used to have a different meaning in the 70s. Papandreou, in his seminal book Paternalistic Capitalism, defines the decentralised economic process as a container for the parametric role of prices in the information system of a market economy. In the same book, Papandreou, while interrogating the scientific dimensions of planning, calls for the decentralisation of power, in a regional, spatial function, rather than a functional one, after having set logical (in distinction to historical) rules for popular sovereignty and personal freedom. This is to counter the technocratic power establishment that emerges in representative democracy, as citizens provide legitimacy to the actions of the state. To further define decentralisation of power, he turns to regional planning and Greek visionary spatial planner Tritsis’ PhD thesis: “The third aim: decentralisation. This points to a world depending for its existence less on wheels and population uprootings and more on the harmonious relationship between man and his environment, social and natural”.
Based on this definition, Papandreou then builds the vision for a kind of governance consensus between decentralised regional units to form a “national” whole, with rules agreed and set between all units in a peer-to-peer basis. Within this, most importantly he calls for the liberal establishment of a guarantee of freedom of entry into occupations, in a kind of “integration of all forms of all forms of human work, of mental with manual, of indoors with outdoors” as envisioned by Tritsis . Papandreou extends the vision of decentralisation in a global society and envisions the emergence of new poles of global power through regional decentralisation. As such, decentralisation used to mean something other than what it means within the context of blockchain – up until the first politics of “cypherpunk”. Decentralisation used to be a planning instrument and a political stance, rather than a technological strategy against the centralised power of established technocracies. Still, within the local, spatial geocoupling of economies, one can align the political decentralisation and the cypherpunk version of blockchain decentralisation, i.e. of no barriers to participation, of trust in the computer protocol, and the exclusion of authority of central political institutions, from which no one needs to ask permission.
A new political economy for Architecture
When one chains the spatial- and geo-coupled economy that Chiara di Leone proposes to decentralisation, both on the level of the politics of technocracies and the level of the operating system, i.e., the use of blockchains, it is possible to shape a new political economy in architecture, where computation regulates its heart. Encased within this shift is also a shift from the Odysseus craftsperson to the Chinese collective in terms of the “prototype” and our understanding of it. An economy where the artefact is open to recursive reinterpretation and is never finished can easily be transformed into a circular economy and adapted to minimise carbon. We have already prototyped early instances of collective digital factories for buildings, where collectives of architects and digital design agents are incentivised through smart contracts to minimise the embodied and operational carbon impact of buildings: simply put the design teams earns in proportion to the increase of building performance and decrease in environmental impacts.
To be able to create this regenerative renaissance for the discipline we need to make a series of changes to the manner in which the discipline is practised and taught. First, to integrate the function of the architect not only as the designer but as that of the orchestrator of the whole AEC industry. This requires that we abandon the notion of artistry, and embrace the notion of craft and engineering, including an understanding of materials and the economy. Second, to develop the infrastructure, products and services that can make that happen, where we also assume the responsibility and, why not, the liability for that integration. These first two actions will reverse the trend of abandoning the space of architecture to consultants where the erosion of our integrity has led to the glorification of form as our sole function. Thirdly, to shift our attention from star practices to collectives, as we embrace practices where wider stakeholders are considered. Odysseus needs to morph into a collective, where the artefact of architecture is conceived as ever changing, ever evolving, into circular thinking and economies. This might mean that alternative forms of practice emerge, where younger, more inclusive minds have more of a command and say on the purpose of an architecture company (and not a firm). Fourth, in the same pivot we as architects should reclaim the space lost, to embrace rigorously the new tools of the craft in the digital realm. It is not by chance that the title for senior programmers and digital network professionals is that of “architect”, as there is no other word that can specifically describe the people who orchestrate form-function-structure with one gesture. The age of machine-learning generative systems performing the trivial repetition of an architect is already here.
Still, the automation we should embrace as a fifth point, since it allows the shaping and design of circular and peer-to-peer economies, is that of blockchain. This is the true Jiujitsu defence to the capitalist growth-at-all costs mantra. Unless we embrace different, local, circular economies, we will not be able to effect the change we need in the discipline – and this also means that we might not necessarily need to be naive and simplistic about carbon impacts, for example by declaring that timber is always better than concrete. To embrace the automation of cryptoeconomics though, we need to first abandon the romantic idea of the architect as the sketch artist and embrace the idea of the architect as a collaborative economist. Only then will we be able to define ourselves the conditions for a regenerative architecture, in a decentralised, spatial-human-geo-coupled manner.
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 B. Tschumi, “Architects act as mediators between authoritarian power, or capitalist power, and some sort of humanistic aspiration. The economic and political powers that make our cities and our architecture are enormous. We cannot block them, but we can use another tactic, which I call the tactic of Judo, that is, to use the forces of one’s opponent in order to defeat it and transform it into something else … To what extent can we move away from a descriptive critical mode to a progressive, transformative mode for architecture?” Peter Eisenman and Cynthia Davidson, eds, anyplace symposium, ANY corporation, Montreal (1994).