Mailing List
Back to Top
Issue 36 G
ISSN 2634-8578
Curated By:
Artur Stashkevitsh
Blockchain, data architecture, Decentralisation
Add to Basket
Share →
Collage of Isa Genzken's work
Collage of Isa Genzken’s work
The Algorithmic Form in Isa Genzken
Algorithmic Form, assemblage, attention economy, Collage, data architecture, hooks, Isa Genzken, montage, Social Architecture, social object, social science, surrealism
Provides Ng
Add to Issue
Read Article: 4200 Words

What’s the Hook? Social Architecture? 

Isa Genzken’s work can be seen as a synthesis of the “social” and the “object” – a visual-sculptural art that reflects on the relationship between social happenings and the scale of architectural space. She was also one of the early explorers in the use of computation for art, collaborating with scientists in the generation of algorithmic forms in the 70s. But what is the social object? What can it mean for architecture? Just as Alessandro Bava, in his “Computational Tendencies”,[1] challenged the field to look at the rhythm of architecture and the sensibility of computation, Roberto Bottazzi’s “Digital Architecture Beyond Computers”[2] gave us a signpost: the urgency is no longer about how architectural space can be digitised, but ways in which the digital space can be architecturised. Perhaps this is a good moment for us to learn from art; in how it engages itself with the many manifestations of science, while maintaining its disciplinary structural integrity. 

Within the discipline of architecture, there is an increasing amount of research that emphasises social parameters, from the use of big data in algorithmic social sciences to agent-based parametric semiology in form-finding.[3] [4] The ever-mounting proposals that promise to apply neural networks and other algorithms to [insert promising architectural / urban problem here] is evidence of a pressure for social change, but also of the urge to make full use of the readily available technologies at hand. An algorithm is “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer”.[5] It is a finite sequence, well-defined, with performance based on the length of code – how fast and best can we describe the most. In 1975, Gregory Chaitin’s formulation of Algorithmic Information Theory (AIT) reveals that the algorithmic form is not anymore what can be visualised on the front-end, but “the relationship between computation and information of computably generated objects, such as strings or any other data structure”.[6] In this respect, what stands at the convergence of computable form and the science of space is the algorithmic social object. 

Figure 1 – Algorithmic Social Science Research Unit (ASSRU) and Parametric Semiology – The Design of Information Rich Environments. Image source: ASSRU, Patrik Schumacher.  

Social science is the broad umbrella that encompasses disciplines from history and economics, to politics and geography; within which, sociology is a subset that studies the science of society.[7] The word ‘sociology’ is a hybrid, coined by French philosopher Isidore Auguste Comte in 1830 “from Latin socius ‘associate’ + Greek-derived suffix –logie”; more specifically, “social” as the adjective dates from the 1400s, meaning “devoted to or relating to home life”; and 1560s as “living with others”.[8] The term’s domestic connotation soon accelerated from the realm of the private to the public: “Social Contract” from translations of Rousseau in 1762; “Social Darwinism” and “Social Engineering” introduced by Fisher and Marken in 1877 and 1894; “Social Network” and “Social Media” by the late 20th century from Ted Nelson. Blooming during a high time of the Enlightenment and the rise of the positivist worldview, sociology naturally claims itself to be a science, of scientific methods and empirical investigations. The connotation of –logie has been brilliantly attested by Jonathan Culler:[9] 

Traditionally, Western philosophy has distinguished ‘reality’ from ‘appearance’, things themselves from representations of them, and thought from signs that express it. Signs or representations, in this view, are but a way to get at reality, truth, or ideas, and they should be as transparent as possible; they should not get in the way, should not affect or infect the thought or truth they represent.” 

To claim a social study as a science puts forward the question of the relationship between the language that is used to empirically describe and analyse the subject with the subject matter itself. If it should be objectively and rationally portrayed, then the language of mathematics would seem perfect for the job. If we are able to describe the interaction between two or more people using mathematics as a language, then we may begin to write down a partial differential equation and map the variables of it.[10] Algorithms that are inductively trained on evidence-based data do not only seem to capture the present state of such interaction, but seem also able to give critical information in describing the future evolution of the system. This raises the question of computability: what is the limit to social computation? If there is none, then we might as well be a simulation ourselves; so the logic goes that there must be one. To leave an algorithm running without questioning the limits to social computation is like having Borel’s monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter, or to apply [insert promising algorithm here] arbitrarily for [insert ear-catching grand challenges here].   

Figure 2– Borel’s infinite monkey theorem in 1913. Image source: Wikipedia. 

What’s the hook? 

A hook “is a musical idea, often a short riff, passage, or phrase, that is used in popular music to make a song appealing and to catch the ear of the listener”.[11] It is a monumental part of Web 2.0 that takes user attention as a scarce resource and a valuable commodity – an attention economy. Music is an artform that takes time to comprehend; as it plays through time, it accrues value in your attention.  

Figure 3 – Drum beat to Empire State of Mind, Nick’s Drum Lessons, “‘Empire State of Mind’ Jay Z – Drum Lesson”, October 5, 2014 

This is one of the most famous hooks of the late 2000s – Empire State of Mind came around the same time as the Web 2.0 boom, just after New York had recovered from the dotcom bubble. The song was like an acoustic montage of the “Eight million stories, out there in the naked’, revealing an underlying urge for social change that was concealed by the boom; just as we see Jay-Z in Times Square on stage under the “big lights that inspired” him rapping: “City is a pity, half of y’all won’t make it”.[12] It was an epoch of R&B, rhythms of cities, of the urban sphere, of the hightech low life. Just the first 15 seconds of Jay-Z’s beat is already enough to teleport a listener to Manhattan, with every bit of romanticism that comes with it. The Rhythms and the Blues constructed a virtual space of narrative and story-telling; such spatial quality taps into the affective experiences of the listener through the ear, revealing the urban condition through its lyrical expression. It is no accident that the 2000s was also a time when the artist / sculptor Isa Genzken began exploring the potential of audio in its visual-sculptural embodiment.  

The ear is uncanny. Uncanny is what it is; double is what it can become; large [or] small is what it can make or let happen (as in laisser-faire, since the ear is the most [tender] and most open organ, the one that, as Freud reminds us, the infant cannot close); large or small as well the manner in which one may offer or lend an ear.” — Jacques Derrida.[13] 

Figure 4 – “Ohr”, Isa Genzken, since 2002, Innsbruck, City Hall facade, large format print on flag fabric, 580 x 390 cm. Photograph, galeriebuchholz 

An image of a woman’s ear was placed on a facade by Genzken, personifying the building as a listener, hearing what the city has to say. At the same time, “The body is objectified and made into a machine that processes external information”.[14] The ear also symbolises the power of voice that could fill a place with a space: an acoustic space. As much as a place is a location, geographically tagged, and affects our identity and self-association of belonging; a space can be virtual as much as it can be physical. Such a space of social interaction is now being visualised on a facade, and at the same time, it is being fragmented: “To look at a room or a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sound simultaneously from all directions at once: I am at the centre of my auditory world, which envelopes me. … You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself similarly in sight”.[15] This is perhaps a prelude to augmented virtual reality.  

Figure 5 – The Surrealist doctrine of dislocation, the romantic encounter of urban objects is “as beautiful as the chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” – Lautréamont, Canto VI, Chapter 3. (a) The cover of the first edition of the Rem Koolhaas’ book Delirious New York, designed by Madelon Vriesendorp. (b) A photograph of New York by Isa Genzken, New York, N.Y., 1998/2000, Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne. (c) A photography by Man Ray 1935 © The Man Ray Trust / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 

As much as Genzken is interested in the ‘‘exploration of contradictions of urban life and its inherent potential for social change”, Rem Koolhaas shared a similar interest in his belief that it is not possible to live in this age if you don’t have a sense of many contradictory voices.[16] [17] What the two have in common is their continental European roots and a love for the Big Apple – Genzken titled her 1996 collage book “I Love New York, Crazy City”, and with it paid homage to her beloved city. Delirious New York was written at a time when New York was on the verge of bankruptcy, yet Koolhaas saw it as the Rosetta Stone, and analysed the city as if there had been a plan, with everything starting from a grid. It was Koolhaas’ conviction that the rigor of the grid enabled imagination, despite its authoritative nature: unlike Europe, which has many manifestos with no manifestation, New York was a city with a lot of manifestation without manifesto. 

Koolhaas’ book was written with a sense of “critical paranoia” – a surrealist approach that blends together pre-existing conditions and illusions to map the many blocks of Manhattan into a literary montage. The cover of the first edition of the book, designed by Madelon Vriesendorp, perfectly captures the surrealism of the city’s socio-economy at the time: the Art Deco skyscraper Chrysler Building is in bed with the Empire State. Both structures were vying for distinction in the “Race into the Sky” of the 1920s, fueled by American optimism, a building boom, and speculative financing. [18] Just as the French writer Lautréamont wrote: “Beautiful as the accidental encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella”, surrealism is a paradigmatic shift of “a new type of surprising imagery replete with disguised sexual symbolism”[19] The architectural surrealism manifested in this delirious city is the chance encounter of capital, disguised as national symbolism – an architectural hook.  

Data Architecture 

Figure 6 – China Central Television Headquarters (CCTV) and Genzken’s Gate for Amsterdam Tor für Amsterdam, Außenprojekte, Galerie Buchholz, 1988.

Genzken’s sense of scale echoes Koolhaas’ piece on “bigness” in 1995. Her proposal for the Amsterdam City Gate frames and celebrates the empty space, and found manifestation in Koolhaas’ enormous China Central Television’s (CCTV) Beijing headquarters – a building as a city, an edifice of endless air-conditioning and information circularity wrapped in a structured window skin, hugging itself in the air by its downsampled geometry of a mobius loop. Just as Koolhaas pronounced, within a world that tends to the mega, “its subtext is f*** context”. One is strongly reminded of the big data approach to form-finding, perhaps also of the discrete spatial quality coming from Cellular Automata (CA), where the resolution of interconnections and information consensus fades into oblivion, turning data processing into an intelligent, ever mounting aggregation. In the big data–infused era, the scale boundary between architecture and urban design becomes obscured. This highlights our contemporary understanding of complex systems science, where the building is not an individual object, but part of a complex fabric of socioeconomic exchanges. 

Figure 7 – The Bartlett Prospective (B-pro) Show, 2017. 

As Carpo captured in his Second Digital Turn, we are no longer living in Shannon’s age, where compression and bandwidth is of highest value: “As data storage, computational processing power, and retrieval costs diminish, many traditional technologies of data-compression are becoming obsolete … blunt information retrieval is increasingly, albeit often subliminally, replacing causality-driven, teleological historiography, and demoting all modern and traditional tools of story-building and story-telling. This major anthropological upheaval challenges our ancestral dependance on shared master-narratives of our cultures and histories”.[20] Although compression as a skillset is much used in the learning process of the machines for data models, from autoencoders to convolutional neural networks, trends in edge AI and federated learning are displacing value in bandwidth with promises of data privacy – we no longer surrender data to a central cloud, instead, all is kept on our local devices with only learnt models synchronising. 

Such displacement of belief in centralised provisions to distributed ownership is reminiscent of the big data-driven objectivist approach to spatial design, which gradually displaces our faith in anything non-discursive, such as norms, cultures, and even religion. John Lagerwey defines religion in its broadest sense as the structuring of values.[21] What values are we circulating in a socio-economy of search engines and pay-per-clicks? Within trends of data distribution, are all modes of centrally-provisioned regulation and incentivisation an invasion of privacy? Genzken’s work in urbanity is like a mirror held up high for us to reflect on our urban beliefs.  

Figure 8 – Untitled, Isa Genzken  2018, MDF, brass fixings, paper, textiles, leather, mirror foil, tape, acrylic paint, mannequin, 319.5 x 92.5 x 114 cm. David Zwirner, Hong Kong, 2021.

Genzken began architecturing a series of “columns” around the same time as her publication of I Love New York, Crazy City. Evocative of skyscrapers and skylines that are out of scale, she named each column after one of her friends, and decorated them with individual designs, sometimes of newspapers, artefacts, and ready-made items that reflect the happenings of the time. Walking amongst them reminds the audience of New York’s avenues and its urban strata, but at 1:500. Decorated with DIY store supplies, these uniform yet individuated structures seem to be documenting a history of the future of mass customization. Mass customisation is the use of “flexible computer-aided manufacturing systems to produce custom output. Such systems combine the low unit costs of mass production processes with the flexibility of individual customization”.[22] As Carpo argued, mass customisation technologies would potentially make economies-of-scale and their marginal costs irrelevant and, subsequently, the division-of-labour unnecessary, as the chain of production would be greatly distributed.[23] The potential is to democratise the privilege of customised design, but how can we ensure that such technologies would benefit social goals, and not fall into the same traps of the attention economy and its consumerism?  

Refracted and reflected in Genzken’s “Social Facades” – taped with ready-made nationalistic pallettes allusive of the semi-transparent curtain walls of corporate skyscrapers – one sees nothing but only a distorted image of the mirrored self. As the observer begins to raise their phone to take a picture of Genzken’s work, the self suddenly becomes the anomaly in this warped virtual space of heterotopia.  

Utopia is a place where everything is good; dystopia is a place where everything is bad; heterotopia is where things are different – that is, a collection whose members have few or no intelligible connections with one another.” — Walter Russell Mead [24] 

Genzken’s heterotopia delineates how the “other” is differentiated via the images that have been consumed – a post-Fordist subjectivity that fulfils itself through accelerated information consumption.  

Figure 9 – Attention economy and social strata as refracted and reflected in (a) “Soziale Fassade”, Isa Genzken, 2002, Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, and (b) “I shop therefore I am”, Barbara Kruger, 1987 

The Algorithmic Form 

Genzken’s engagement with and interest in architecture can be traced back to the 1970s, when she was in the middle of her dissertation at the academy.[25] She was interested in ellipses and hyperbolics, which she prefers to call “Hyperbolo”.[26] The 70s were a time when a computer was a machine that filled the whole room, and to which a normal person would not have access. Genzken got in touch with a physicist, computer scientist Ralph Krotz, who, in 1976, helped in the calculation of the ellipse with a computer, and plotted the draft of a drawing with a drum plotter that prints on continuous paper.[27] Artists saw the meaning in such algorithmic form differently than scientists. For Krotz, ellipses are conic sections. Colloquially speaking, an egg comes pretty close to an ellipsoid: it is composed of a hemisphere and half an ellipse. If we are to generalise the concept of conic section, hyperbolas also belong to it: if one rotates a hyperbola around an axis, a hyperboloid is formed. Here, the algorithmic form is being rationalised to its computational production, irrelevant of its semantics – that is, until it was physically produced and touched the ground of the cultural institution of a museum. 

The 10-meter long ellipse drawing was delivered full size, in one piece, as a template to a carpenter, who then converted it to his own template for craftsmanship. Thus, 50 years ago, Genzken’s work explored the two levels of outsourcing structure symbolic of today’s digital architectural production. The output of such exploration is a visual-sculptural object of an algorithmic form at such an elongated scale and extreme proportion that it undermines not only human agency in its conception, but also the sensorial perception of 2D-3D space.[28] When contemplating Genzken’s Hyperbolo, one is often reminded of the radical play with vanishing points in Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”, where the anamorphic skull can only be viewed at an oblique angle, a metaphor for the way one can begin to appreciate the transience of life only with an acute change of perspective.  

Figure 10. (a) ‘The Ambassadors’, Hans Holbein, 1533. (b) “Hyperbolos”, Genzken, 1970s. Image source: Andrea Albarelli, Mousse Magazine

When situated in a different context, next to Genzken’s aircraft windows (“Windows”), the Hyperbolo finds association with other streamlined objects, like missiles. Perhaps the question of life and death, paralleling scientific advancement, is a latent meaning and surrealist touch within Genzken’s work, revealing how the invention of the apparatus is, at the same time, the invention of its causal accidents. As the French cultural theorist and urbanist Paul Virilio puts it: the invention of the car is simultaneously the invention of the car crash.[29] We may be able to compute the car as a streamlined object, but we are not even close to being able to compute the car as a socio-cultural technology.  

Figure 11 – Genzken holding her “Hyperbolos” in 1982, and “Windows”. Eichler , Dominic. “This Is Hardcore.” Frieze, 2014.

Social Architecture? 

Perhaps the problem is not so much whether the “social” is computable, but rather that we are trying to objectively rationalise something that is intrinsically social. This is not to say that scientific methods to social architecture are in vain; rather the opposite, that science and its language should act as socioeconomic drivers to changes in architectural production. What is architecture? It can be described as what stands at the intersection of art and science – the art of the chief ‘arkhi-’ and the science of craft ‘tekton’ – but the chance encounter of the two gives birth to more than their bare sum. If architecture is neither art nor science but an emergence of its own faculty, it should be able to argue for itself academically as a discipline, with a language crafted as its own, and to debate itself on its own ground – beyond the commercial realm that touches base with ground constraints and reality of physical manifestation, and also in its unique way of researching and speculating, not all “heads in the clouds”, but in fact revealing pre-existing socioeconomic conditions.  

It is only through understanding ourselves as a discipline that we can begin to really grasp ways of contributing to a social change, beyond endlessly feeding machines with data and hoping it will either validate or invalidate our ready-made and ear-catching hypothesis. As Carpo beautifully put it:  

Reasoning works just fine in plenty of cases. Computational simulation and optimization (today often enacted via even more sophisticated devices, like cellular automata or agent-based systems) are powerful, effective, and perfectly functional tools. Predicated as they are on the inner workings and logic of today’s computation, which they exploit in full, they allow us to expand the ambit of the physical stuff we make in many new and exciting ways. But while computers do not need theories, we do. We should not try to imitate the iterative methods of the computational toolds we use because we can never hope to replicate their speed. Hence the strategy I advocated in this book: each to its trade; let’s keep for us what we do best.” [30] 


1 A. Bava, “Computational Tendencies – Architecture – e-Flux.” Computational Tendencies, January. 2020.

2 R. Bottazzi, Digital Architecture beyond Computers Fragments of a Cultural History of
Computational Design (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020).

3 ASSRU, Algorithmic Social Sciences, (Accessed December 18, 2021)

4 P. Schumacher, Design of Information Rich Environments, 2012.

5 Oxford, “The Home of Language Data” Oxford Languages, (Accessed December 18, 2021).

6 Google, “Algorithmic Information Theory – Google Arts & Culture”, Google, (Accessed December 18, 2021).

7 Britannica, “Sociology”, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (Accessed December 18, 2021).

8 Etymonline, “Etymonline – Online Etymology Dictionary”, Etymology dictionary: Definition, meaning and word origins,, (Accessed December 18, 2021).

9 J. Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

10 K. Friston, ”The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory?“ Nature reviews neuroscience, 11 (2),127-138. (2010)

11 J. Covach, “Form in Rock Music: A Primer” (2005), in D. Stein (ed.), Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis. (New York: Oxford University Press), 71.

12 Jay-Z. Empire State Of Mind, (2009) Roc Nation, Atlantic

13 J. Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation ; Texts and Discussions with Jacques Derrida. Otobiographies / Jacques Derrida, (Lincoln, Neb.: Univ. of Nebraska Pr., 1985).

15 Kunsthalle Wien, “Kunsthalle Wien #FemaleFool Booklet I’m Isa Genzken the …,” (2014).

16 W. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, (London: Methuen, 1982)

17 R. Koolhaas, New York délire: Un Manifeste rétroactif Pour Manhattan, (Paris: Chêne, 1978).

18 Kunsthalle Wien, “Kunsthalle Wien #FemaleFool Booklet I’m Isa Genzken the …,” (2014).

19 J. Rasenberger, High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline, 1881 to the Present, (HarperCollins, 2009)

20 Tate, “’L’Enigme D’Isidore Ducasse’, Man Ray, 1920, Remade 1972”, Tate., (Accessed December 18, 2021)

21 M. Carpo, ”Big Data and the End of History”. International Journal for Digital Art History, 3: Digital Space and Architecture, 3, 21 (2018)

22 J. Lagerwey, Paradigm Shifts in Early and Modern Chinese Religion a History, (Boston, Leiden: Brill, 2018).

23 Google, “Mass Customization – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, (Accessed December 18, 2021).

24 M. Carpo, The Second Digital Turn: Design beyond Intelligence, (Cambridge: MIT, 2017).

25 W.R. Mead, (Winter 1995–1996). “Trains, Planes, and Automobiles: The End of the Postmodern Moment”. World Policy Journal. 12 (4), 13–31

26 U. Loock, “Ellipsoide und Hyperboloide”, in Isa Genzken. Sesam, öffne dich!, exhibition cat. (Whitechapel Gallery, London, and Museum Ludwig, Cologne: Kasper, 2009)

27 S. Baier, “Out of sight”, in Isa Genzken – Works from 1973-1983, Kunstmuseum

28 R. Krotz, H. G. Bock, “Isa Genzken”, in exhibition cat. Documenta 7, Kassel 1982, vol. 1, p. 330-331, vol. 2, p. 128-129

29 A. Farquharson, “What Architecture Isn’t” in Alex Farquharson, Diedrich Diederichsen and Sabine Breitwieser, Isa Genzken (London 2006), 33

30 P. Virilio, Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology (New York: Columbia University, 1986).

Suggest a Tag for this Article
Figure 1: Blender File on particle generation (IPFS hash : QmSCGBzHoeBYwSyHZeBVRN Pc3f3T5LkLaEq75AnynFkf6f).
Figure 1: Blender File on particle generation (IPFS hash : QmSCGBzHoeBYwSyHZeBVRN Pc3f3T5LkLaEq75AnynFkf6f).
Crypto: towards a New Political Economy in Architecture 
Blockchain, Crypto, Cryptography, Deconstruction, Odysseus, peer economies, Political Economy
Theodore Dounas
Add to Issue
Read Article: 4221 Words

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.[5] 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.[6] Computationally, a Blockchain acts as both a state machine able to execute smart contracts,[7] 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.[8] 

The first blockchain, the one invented in the bitcoin whitepaper,[9] 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,[12] 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:

Figure 1: Blender File on particle generation (IPFS hash : QmSCGBzHoeBYwSyHZeBVRN Pc3f3T5LkLaEq75AnynFkf6f).

Architecture as Cryptography 


To explore the idea of blockchain as an infrastructure layer for architectural design, we will introduce Odysseus (Ulysses),[13] a much discussed hero and anti-hero of many turns or tricks (polytropos),[14] 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. [15] 

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.[18] 

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.[19] 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”.[20] 

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 [20]. 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,[21] 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.[22] 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. 


[1] T. Dounas, W. Jabi, D. Lombardi, “Non-Fungible Building Components – Using Smart Contracts for a Circular Economy in the Built Environment”, Designing Possibilities, SIGraDi, ubiquitous conference, XXV International conference of the Ibero-American society of digital Graphics (2021). 

[2] T. Dounas, W. Jabi, D. Lombardi, “Topology Generated Non-Fungible Tokens – Blockchain as infrastructure for a circular economy in architectural design”, Projections, 26th international conference of the association for Computer-Aided Architectural Design research in Asia, CAADRIA, Hong Kong, (2021).

[3] D. Lombardi, T. Dounas, L.H. Cheung, W. Jabi, “Blockchain for Validating the Design Process”, SIGraDI (2020), Medellin.

[4] T. Dounas, D. Lombardi, W. Jabi, ‘Framework for Decentralised Architectural Design:BIM and Blockchain Integration’, International Journal of Architectural Computing, Special issue eCAADe+SiGraDi “Architecture in the 4th Industrial Revolution” (2020)

[5] T. Maver, “CAAD’s Seven Deadly Sins”, Sixth International Conference on Computer-Aided Architectural Design Futures [ISBN 9971-62-423-0] Singapore, 24-26 September 1995, pp. 21-22.

[6] Ethereum.Org, “Ethereum Whitepaper”, accessed 27 January 2022, 

[7] N. Szabo, (1997): “Formalizing and Securing Relationships on Public Networks”, accessed 27 January 2022.  

[8] G. Wood, “Ethereum, a secure decentralised generalised transaction layer” (2022),

[9] S. Nakamoto, 2008, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” (2008), originally at

[10] F. Vogelsteller, V. Buterin, EIP-20 Token Standard, 

[11] W. Entriken, D. Shirley, J. Evans, N. Sachs, EIP-721 Token Standard,

[12] Interplanetary filesystem documentation, 

[13] Homer, E. Wilson trans., Odyssey (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018) 

[14] Ζ. Όμηρος, Σιδέρης, Οδύσεια (Οργανισμός Εκδόσεως Διδακτικών βιβλίων Αθήνα, 1984).

[15] Byung-Chul Han, Deconstruction in Chinese, Translated by P. Hurd (Boston, MA: MIT press, 2017).

[16] Space Caviar collective, Non-Extractive Architecture, on designing without depletion (Venice: Sternberg Press, 2021).

[17] V.P. Aureli, “Intellectual Work and Capitalist Development: Origins and Context of Manfredo Tafuri’s Critique of Architectural Ideology”, the city as a project, March 2011.

[18]  P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Slade, A. Al Khourdajie, R. van Diemen, D. McCollum, M. Pathak, S. Some, P. Vyas, R. Fradera, M. Belkacemi, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley (eds.), IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, UK and New York, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2022) doi: 10.1017/9781009157926.

[19] A.G. Papandreou, Paternalistic Capitalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972).

[20] A. Tritsis, “The nature of planning regions” unpublished PhD thesis (Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, 1969).

[21] T. Dounas, D. Lombardi, W. Jabi, [2022] “Collective Digital Factories for Buildings”, T. Dounas, D. Lombardi, Ed., Blockchain for Construction (Singapore: Springer – Verlag, 2022) ISBN 9811937583.

[22] 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).

Suggest a Tag for this Article
Figures 12 – Planet Garden v.1.
Figures 12 – Planet Garden v.1.
Games and Worldmaking 
consensus reality, games, mediascape, videogames, Virtual, worldmaking
Damjan Jovanovic
Add to Issue
Read Article: 3994 Words
Fig. 1 – Planet Garden v.1 screenshot, early game state


We live in a period of unprecedented proliferation of constructed, internally coherent virtual worlds, which emerge everywhere, from politics to video games. Our mediascape is brimming with rich, immersive worlds ready to be enjoyed and experienced, or decoded and exploited. One effect of this phenomenon is that we are now asking fundamental questions, such as what “consensus reality” is and how to engage with it. Another effect is that there is a need for a special kind of expertise that can deal with designing and organising these worlds – and that is where architects possibly have a unique advantage. Architectural thinking, as a special case of visual, analogy-based synthetic reasoning, is well positioned to become a crucial expertise, able to operate on multiple scales and in multiple contexts in order to map, analyse and organise a virtual world, while at the same time being able to introduce new systems, rules and forms to it.[1] 

A special case of this approach is something we can name architectural worldmaking,[2] which refers broadly to practices of architectural design which wilfully and consciously produce virtual worlds, and understand worlds as the main project of architecture. Architects have a unique perspective and could have a say in how virtual worlds are constructed and inhabited, but there is a caveat which revolves around questions of agency, engagement and control. Worldmaking is an approach to learning from both technically-advanced visual and cultural formats such as video games, as well as scientific ways of imaging and sensing, in order to be able to construct new, legitimate, and serious ways of seeing and modelling. 

These notions are central to the research seminar called “Games and Worldmaking”, first conducted by the author at SCI-Arc in summer of 2021, which focused on the intersection of games and architectural design, and foregrounded systems thinking as an approach to design. The seminar is part of the ongoing Views of Planet City project, in development at SCI-Arc for the Pacific Standard Time exhibition, which will be organised by the Getty Institute in 2024. In the seminar, we developed the first version of Planet Garden, a planetary simulation game, envisioned to be both an interactive model of complex environmental conditions and a new narrative structure for architectural worldmaking.  

Planet Garden is loosely based on Edward O. Wilson’s “Half-Earth” idea, a scenario where the entire human population of the world occupies a single massive city and the rest is left to plants and animals. The Half Earth is an important and very interesting thought experiment, almost a proto-design, a prompt, an idea for a massive, planetary agglomeration of urban matter which could liberate the rest of the planet to heal and rewild.  

The question of the game was, how could we actually model something like that? How do we capture all that complexity and nuance, how do we figure out stakes and variables and come up with consequences and conclusions? The game we are designing is a means to model and host hugely complex urban systems which unravel over time, while being able to legibly present an enormous amount of information visually and through the narrative. As a format, a simulation presents different ways of imaging the World and making sense of reality through models. 

The work on game design started as a wide exploration of games and precedents within architectural design and imaging operations, as well as abstract systems that could comprise a possible planetary model. The question of models and modelling of systems comes at the forefront and becomes contrasted to existing architectural strategies of representation.

Mythologizing, Representing and Modelling 

Among the main influences of this project were the drawings made by Alexander von Humboldt, whose work is still crucial for anyone with an interest in representing and modelling phenomena at the intersection of art and science.[3] If, in the classical sense, art makes the world sensible while science makes it intelligible, these images are a great example of combining these forms of knowledge. Scientific illustrations, Humboldt once wrote, should “speak to the senses without fatiguing the mind”.[4] His famous illustration of Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador shows plant species living at different elevations, and this approach is one of the very early examples of data visualisation, with an intent of making the world sensible and intelligible at the same time. These illustrations also had a strong pedagogical intent, a quality we wanted to preserve, and which can serve almost as a test of legibility.

Figure 2 – Alexander von Humboldt, Chimborazo volcano.

The project started with a question of imaging a world of nature in the Anthropocene epoch. One of the reasons it is difficult to really comprehend a complex system such as the climate crisis is that it is difficult to model it, which also means to visually represent it in a legible way which humans can understand. This crisis of representation is a well-known problem in literature on the Anthropocene, most clearly articulated in the book Against the Anthropocene, by T.J. Demos.[5] 

We do not yet have the tools and formats of visualising that can fully and legibly describe such a complex thing, and this is, in a way, also a failure of architectural imagination. The standard architectural toolkit is limited and also very dated – it is designed to describe and model objects, not “hyperobjects”. One of the project’s main interests was inventing new modalities of description and modelling of complex systems through the interactive software format, and this is one of the ideas behind the Planet Garden project.  

Contemporary representational strategies for the Anthropocene broadly fall into two categories, those of mythologising or objectivising. The first approach can be observed in the work of photographers such as Edward Burtynsky and Louis Helbig, where the subject matter of environmental disaster becomes almost a new form of the aesthetic sublime. The second strategy comes out of the deployment and artistic use of contemporary geospatial imaging tools. As is well understood by critics, contemporary geospatial data visualisation tools like Google Earth are embedded in a specific political and economic framework, comprising a visual system delivered and constituted by the post–Cold War and largely Western-based military-state-corporate apparatus. These tools offer an innocent-seeming picture that is in fact a “techno-scientific, militarised, ‘objective’ image”.[6] Such an image displaces its subject and frames it within a problematic context of neutrality and distancing. Within both frameworks, the expanded spatial and temporal scales of geology and the environment exceed human and machine comprehension and thus present major challenges to representational systems.  

Within this condition, the question of imaging – understood here as making sensible and intelligible the world of the Anthropocene through visual models – remains, and it is not a simple one. Within the current (broadly speaking) architectural production, this topic is mostly treated through the “design fiction” approach. For example, in the work of Design Earth, the immensity of the problem is reframed through a story-driven, narrative approach which centres on the metaphor, and where images function as story illustrations, like in a children’s book.[7] Another approach is pursued by Liam Young, in the Planet City project,[8] which focuses on video and animation as the main format. In this work, the imaging strategies of commercial science fiction films take the main stage and serve as anchors for the speculation, which serves a double function of designing a new world and educating a new audience. In both cases, it seems, the focus goes beyond design, as these constructed fictions stem from a wilful, speculative exaggeration of existing planetary conditions, to produce a heightened state which could trigger a new awareness. In this sense, these projects serve a very important educational purpose, as they frame the problem through the use of the established and accepted visual languages of storybooks and films.  

The key to understanding how design fictions operate is precisely in their medium of production: all of these projects are made through formats (collage, storybook, graphic novel, film, animation) which depend on the logic of compositing. Within this logic, the work is made through a story-dependent arrangement of visual components. The arrangement is arbitrary as it depends only on the demands of the story and does not correspond to any other underlying condition – there is no model underneath. In comparison, a game such as, for example, SimCity is not a fiction precisely because it depends on the logic of a simulation: a testable, empirical mathematical model which governs its visual and narrative space. A simulation is fundamentally different from a fiction, and a story is not a model. 

This is one of the reasons why it seems important to rethink the concept of design fiction through the new core idea of simulation.[9] In the book Virtual Worlds as Philosophical Tools, Stefano Gualeni traces a lineage of thinking about simulations to Espen Aarseth’s 1994 text called Hyper/Text/Theory, and specifically to the idea of cybertextuality. According to this line of reasoning, simulations contain an element not found in fiction and thus need an ontological category of their own: “Simulations are somewhere between reality and fiction: they are not obliged to represent reality, but they have an empirical logic of their own, and therefore should not be called fictions.”[10] This presents us with a fundamental insight into the use of simulations as the future of architectural design: they model internally coherent, testable worlds and go beyond mere fiction-making into worldmaking proper. 

Simulations, games and systems 

In the world of video games, there exists a genre of “serious” simulation games, which comprises games like Maxis software’s SimCity and The Sims, as well as some other important games like Sid Meier’s Civilization and Paradox Studio’s Stellaris. These games are conceptually very ambitious and extremely complex, as they model the evolution of whole societies and civilisations, operate on very long timescales, and consist of multiple nested models that simulate histories, economies and evolutions of different species at multiple scales. One important feature and obligation of this genre is to present a coherent, legible image of the world, to give a face to the immense complexity of the model. The “user interface” elements of these kinds of games work together to tell a coherent story, while the game world, rendered in full 3D in real time, provides an immersive visual and aesthetic experience for the player. Contrary to almost any other type of software, these interfaces are more indebted to the history of scientific illustration and data visualisation than they are to the history of graphic design. These types of games are open-ended and not bound to one goal, and there is rarely a clear win state.  

Figure 3 – SimEarth main user interface with theGaia window.

Another feature of the genre is a wealth of underlying mathematical models, each providing for the emergence of complexity and each carrying its own assumptions and biases. For example, SimCity is well known (and some would say notorious) for its rootedness in Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics approach to modelling urban phenomena, which means that its mathematical model delivers very specific urban conditions – and ultimately, a very specific vision of what a city is and could be.[11] One of the main questions in the seminar became how we might update this approach on two fronts: by rethinking the mathematical model, and by rethinking urban assumptions of the conceptual model. 

The work of the game designer Will Wright, the main designer behind the original SimCity, as well as The Sims and Spore, is considered to be at the origin of simulation games as a genre. Wright has developed a vast body of knowledge on modelling simulations, some of which he presented in his 2003 influential talk at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), titled “Dynamics for Designers”.[12] In this talk, Wright outlines a fully-fledged theory of modelling of complex phenomena for interactivity, focusing on topics such as “How we can use emergence to model larger possibility spaces with simpler components”. Some of the main points: science is a modelling activity, and until now, it has used traditional mathematics as its primary modelling method. This has some limits when dealing with complex dynamic and emergent systems. Since the advent of the computer, simulation has emerged as an alternative way of modelling. These are very different: in Wright’s view, maths is a more linear process, with complex equations; simulation is a more parallel process with simpler components interacting together. Wright also talks about stochastic (random probability distribution) and Monte Carlo (“brute force”) methods as examples of the simulation approach. 

Figure 4 – SimEarth civilisation model with sliders.

Wright’s work was a result of a deep interest in exploring how non-linear models are constructed and represented within the context of interactive video games, and his design approach was to invent novel game design techniques based directly on System Dynamics, a discipline that deals with the modelling of complex, unpredictable and non-linear phenomena. The field has its roots in the cybernetic theories of Norbert Wiener, but it was formalised and created in the mid-1950s by Professor Jay Forrester at MIT, and later developed by Donella H. Meadows in her seminal book Thinking in Systems.[13]  

System dynamics is an approach to understanding the non-linear behaviour of complex systems over time using stocks, flows, internal feedback loops, table functions and time delays.[14,15] Forrester (1918–2016) was an American computer engineer and systems scientist, credited as the founding father” of system dynamics. He started by modelling corporate supply chains and went on to model cities by describing “the major internal forces controlling the balance of population, housing and industry within an urban area”, which he claimed could “simulate the life cycle of a city and predict the impact of proposed remedies on the system”.[16] In the book Urban Dynamics, Forrester had turned the city into a formula with just 150 equations and 200 parameters.[17] The book was very controversial, as it implied extreme anti-welfare politics and, through its “objective” mathematical model, promoted neoliberal ideas of urban planning. 

In another publication, called World Dynamics, Forrester presented “World2”, a system dynamics model of our world which was the basis of all subsequent models predicting a collapse of our socio-technological-natural system by the mid 21st century. Nine months after World Dynamics, a report called Limits to Growth was published, which used the “World3” computer model to simulate the consequences of interactions between the Earth and human systems. Commissioned by the Club of Rome, the findings of the study were first presented at international gatherings in Moscow and Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1971, and predicted societal collapse by the year 2040. Most importantly, the report put the idea of a finite planet into focus. 

Figure 5 – Jay W. Forrester, World2 model, base for all subsequent predictions of collapse such as Limits to Growth.

The main case study in the seminar was Wright’s 1990 game SimEarth, a life simulation video game in which the player controls the development of a planet. In developing SimEarth, Wright worked with the English scientist James Lovelock, who served as an advisor and whose Gaia hypothesis of planetary evolution was incorporated into the game. Continuing the systems dynamics approach developed for SimCity, SimEarth was an attempt to model a scientifically accurate approximation of the entire Earth system through the application of customised systems dynamics principles. The game modelled multiple interconnected systems and included realistic feedback between land, ocean, atmosphere, and life itself. The game’s user interface even featured a “Gaia Window”, in direct reference to the Gaia theory which states that life plays an intimate role in planetary evolution and the regulation of planetary systems. 

One of the tutorial levels for the SimEarth featured a playable model of Lovelock’s “Daisyworld” hypothesis, which postulates that life itself evolves to regulate its environment, forming a feedback loop and making it more likely for life to thrive. During the development of a life-detecting device for NASA’s Viking lander mission to Mars, Lovelock made a profound observation, that life tends to increase the order of its surroundings, and that studying the atmospheric composition of a planet will provide evidence enough of life’s existence. Daisyworld is a simple planetary model designed to show the long-term effects of coupling and interdependence between life and its environment. In its original form, it was introduced as a defence against criticism that his Gaia theory of the Earth as a self-regulating homeostatic system requires teleological control rather than being an emergent property. The central premise, that living organisms can have major effects on the climate system, is no longer controversial. 

Figure 6 – SimEarth full planetary model.

In SimEarth, the planet itself is alive, and the player is in charge of setting the initial conditions as well as maintaining and guiding the outcomes through the aeons. Once a civilisation emerges, the player can observe the various effects, such as the impacts of changes in atmospheric composition due to fossil fuel burning, or the temporary expansion of ice caps in the aftermath of a major nuclear war. SimEarth’s game box came with a 212-page game manual that was at once a comprehensive tutorial on how to play and an engrossing lesson in Earth sciences: ecology, geology, meteorology and environmental ethics, written in accessible language that anyone could understand.  

Figures 7&8 – Planet Garden simplified model and main game loop.

SimEarth and other serious simulation games in general represent a way that games could serve a function of public education while remaining a form of popular entertainment. This genre also represents an incredible validation of claims that video games can be valuable cultural artifacts. Ian Bogost writes: “This was a radical way of thinking about video games: as non-fictions about complex systems bigger than ourselves. It changed games forever – or it could have, had players and developers not later abandoned modelling systems at all scales in favor of representing embodied, human identities.”[18] 

Lessons that architectural design can learn from these games are many and varied, the most important one being that it is possible to think about big topics by employing models and systems while maintaining an ethos of exploration, play and public engagement. In this sense, one could say that a simulation game format might be a contemporary version of Humboldt’s illustration, with the added benefit of interactivity; but as we have seen, there is a more profound, crucial difference – this format goes beyond just a representation, beyond just a fiction, into worldmaking.  

As a result of this research, the students in the seminar utilised Unreal Engine to create version one (v.1) of Planet Garden, a multi-scalar, interactive, playable model of a self-sustaining, wind and solar-powered robotic garden, set in a desert landscape. The simulation was envisioned as a kind of reverse city builder, where a goal of the game is to terraform a desert landscape by deploying different kinds of energy-producing technologies until the right conditions are met for planting and the production of oxygen. The basic game loop is based on the interaction between the player and four main resources: energy, water, carbon, and oxygen. In the seminar, we also created a comprehensive game manual. The aims of the project were to learn how to model dynamic systems and to explore how game workflows can be used as ways to address urban issues. 

Planet Garden is projected to become a big game for the Getty exhibition; a simulation of a planetary ecosystem as well as a city for 10 billion people. We aim to model various aspects of the planetary city, and the player will be able to operate on multiple spatial sectors and urban scales. The player can explore different ways to influence the development and growth of the city and test many scenarios, but the game will also run on its own, so that the city can exist without direct player input. Our game utilises core design principles that relate to system dynamics, evolution, environmental conditions, and change. A major point is the player’s input and decision-making process, which influence the outcome of the game. The game will also be able to present conditions and consequences of this urban thought experiment, as something is always at stake for the player.  

The core of the simulation-as-a-model idea is that design should have testable consequences. The premise of the project is not to construct a single truthful, total model of an environment but to explore ways of imaging the world through simulation and open new avenues for holistic thinking about interdependence of actors, scales and world systems. If the internet ushered a new age of billions of partial identarian viewpoints, all aggregating into an inchoate world gestalt, is it a time to rediscover a new image of the interconnected world? 

Figure 9 – Planet Garden screenshot, late game state.
Figures 10–16 – Planet Garden v.1.


[1] For a longer discussion on this, see O. M. Ungers, City Metaphors, (Cologne: Buchhandlung Walther Konig, 2011). For the central place of analogies in scientific modeling, see M. Hesse, Models and Analogies in Science, and also Douglas Hofstadter, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking (Basic Books, 2013). 

[2] The term “worldmaking” comes from Nelson Goodman’s book Ways of Worldmaking, and is used here to be distinguished from worldbuilding, a more narrow, commercially oriented term. 

[3] For a great introduction to the life and times of Alexander Von Humboldt, see A. Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).

[4] Quoted in H. G. Funkhouser, “Historical development of the graphical representation of statistical data”, Osiris 3 (1937), 269–404.

[5] T. J. Demos, Against The Anthropocene (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016).

[6] T. J. Demos, Against The Anthropocene (Berlin: Sternberg Press 2016).

[7] Design Earth, Geostories, The Planet After Geoengineering (Barcelona: Actar, 2019 and 2021). 

[8] L. Young, Planet City, (Melbourne: Uro Publications, 2020).

[9] For an extended discussion of the simulation as a format, see D. Jovanovic, “Screen Space, Real Time”, Monumental Wastelands 01, eds. D. Lopez and H. Charbel (2022). 

[10] S. Gualeni, Virtual Worlds as Philosophical Tools, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) 

[11] For an extended discussion on this, see Clayton Ashley, The Ideology Hiding in SimCity’s Black Box, 

[12] W. Wright, Dynamics for Designers, GDC 2003 talk,

[13] D. H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems, (White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008). 

[14] Arnaud M., “World2 model, from DYNAMO to R”, Towards Data Science, 2020,

[15] Wikipedia, “System Dynamics”,

[16] Forrester, Urban Dynamics (Pegasus Communications, 1969).

[17] K. T. Baker, “Model Metropolis”, Logic 6, 2019,

[18] I. Bogost, “Video games Are Better Without Characters”, The Atlantic (2015),

Suggest a Tag for this Article
Mereology, WanderYards, Genmao Li, Chen Chen and Xixuan Wang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2017.
From Partitioning to Partaking, or Why Mereologies Matter
Architecture, Building, Digital, Digital Architecture, Discrete Architecture, Mereologies, Mereology, Participatory Design, Virtual
Daniel Koehler
University of Texas at Austin
Add to Issue
Read Article: 5574 Words

Parts, chunks, stacks and aggregates are the bits of computational architecture today. Why do mereologies – or buildings designed from part-to-whole – matter? All too classical, the roughness of parts seems nostalgic for a project of the digital that aims for dissolving building parts towards a virtual whole. Yet if parts shrink down to computable particles and matter, and there exists a hyper-resolution of a close to an infinite number of building parts, architecture would dissolve its boundaries and the capacity to frame social encounters. Within fluidity, and without the capacity to separate, architecture would not be an instrument of control. Ultimately, freed from matter, the virtual would transcend from the real and form finally would be dead. Therein is the prospect of a fluid, virtual whole.

The Claustrophobia of a City that Transcends its Architecture

In the acceleration from Data to Big Data, cities have become more and more virtual. Massive databases have liquefied urban form. Virtual communication today plays freely across the material boundaries of our cities. In its most rudimentary form virtuality is within the digital transactions of numbers, interests and rents. Until a few years ago,  financial investments in architectural form were equatable according to size and audience, e.g. as owner-occupied flats, as privately rented houses or as lease holding.[1] Today capital flows freely scatter across the city at the scale of the single luxury apartment. Beyond a certain threshold in computational access, data becomes big. By computing aggregated phone signal patterns or geotagged posts, virtual cities can emerge from the traces of individuals. These hyperlocal patterns are more representative of a city than its physical twin. Until recently, architecture staged the urban through shared physical forms: the sidewalk, lane or boulevard. Adjacent to cars, walkable for pedestrians or together as citizens, each form of being urban included an ideology of a commons, and grounded with that particular parts of encountering.

Figure 1 – (left to right) Floor area comparisons between housing projects from the Brutalist era (top) and today (bottom): Previ, Atelier 5 vs Seguro, Kerez La Sainte-Baume, Le Corbusier vs The Mountain, BIG; La Muralla Roja Calpe, Bofill vs Communal Villa, Dogma. Image: Daniel Koehler.

In contrast, a hyper-local urban transcends lanes and sidewalks. Detached from the architecture of the city, with no belonging left, urban speculation has withdrawn into the private sphere. Today, urban value is estimated by counting private belongings only, with claustrophobic consequences. An apartment that is speculatively invested displaces residents. The housing shortage in the big cities today is not so much a problem of lack of housing, but instead of vacant space, accessible not to residents but to interests they hold in the hyper-urban.[2] The profit from rent and use of space itself is marginal compared to the profit an embodied urban speculation adds to the property. The possibility of mapping every single home as data not only adds interest, like a pension to a home but literally turns a home into a pension.[3] However this is not for its residents but for those with access to resources. Currently, computing Big Data expands and optimises stakeholders’ portfolios by identifying undervalued building assets.[4] However, the notion of ‘undervalued’ is not an accurate representation of assets.

Hyper-localities increase real estate’s value in terms of how their inhabitants thrive in a neighbourhood through their encounters with one another and their surrounding architecture. The residents themselves then unknowingly produce extra value. The undervaluing of an asset is the product of its residents, and like housework, is unpaid labour. In terms of the exchange of capital, additional revenue from a property is usually paid out as a return to the shareholders who invested in its value. Putting big data-driven real estate into that equation would then mean that they would have to pay revenues to their residents. If properties create surplus value from the data generated by their residents, then property without its residents has less worth and is indeed over-, but not under-, valued.

Figure 2 – (left to right) City in a Building, City as a Building and City as an Element of Architecture. Image: University of Innsbruck, Daniel Koehler with Martin Danigel and Jordi Vivaldi, 2016-2018.

The city uses vehicles for creating public revenue by governing the width of a street’s section or the height of a building. Architecture’s role was to provide a stage for that revenue to be created. For example the Seagram Building (van der Rohe, Johnson, 1958) created a “public” plaza by setting back its envelope in exchange for a little extra height. By limiting form, architecture could create space for not only one voice, but many voices. Today, however, the city’s new parameters hidden in the fluidity of digital traces cannot be governed by the boundaries of architecture anymore. Outlined already 40 years ago, when the personal computer became available, Gilles Deleuze forecasted that “Man is not anymore man enclosed”.[5] At that time, and written as a “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, the fluid modulation of space prospected a desirable proposition. By liquefying enclosures, the framework of the disciplinary societies of Foucault’s writings would disappear. In modern industrial societies, Deleuze writes, enclosures were moulds for casting distinct environments, and in these vessels, individuals became masses of the mass society.[6] For example, inside a factory, individuals were cast as workers, inside schools as students. Man without a cast and without an enclosure seemed to be freed from class and struggle. The freedom of an individual was interlinked with their transcendence from physical enclosures.

Figure 3 – The Hyper-Nollie Plan, Daniel Koehler, 2019. Image: Daniel Koehler, 2019.

During the last forty years, the relation between a single individual and the interior framed architecture rightly aimed to dissolve the institutional forms of enclosures that represented social exclusion at their exterior. Yet, in this ambition alternative forms for the plural condition of what it means to be part of a city were not developed. Reading Deleuze further, a state without enclosures also does not put an end to history. The enclosures of control dissolve only to be replaced. Capitalism would shift to another mode of production. When industrial exchange bought raw materials and sold finished products, now it would buy the finished products and profit from the assemblies of those parts. The enclosure is then exchanged with codes that mark access to information. Individuals would not be moulded into masses but considered as individuals: accessed as data, divided into proper parts for markets, “counted by a computer that tracks each person’s position enabling universal modulation.”[7] Forty years in, Deleuze’s postscript has become the screenplay for today’s reality.

Hyper-parts: Spatial Practices of representations

A house is no longer just a neutral space, an enclosing interior where value is created, realised and shared. A home is the product of social labour; it is itself the object of production and, consequently, the creation of surplus value. By shifting from enclosure to asset, the big data-driven economy has also replaced the project behind modernism: humanism. Architecture today is post-human. As Rosi Braidotti writes, “what constitutes capital value  today is the informational power of living matter itself”.[8] The human being as a whole is displaced from the centre of architecture. Only parts of it, such as its “immanent capacities to form surplus-value”, are parts of a larger aggregation of architecture. Beyond the human, the Hyper-city transcends the humane. A virtual city is freed from its institutions and constituent forms of governance. Economists such as Thomas Piketty describe in painstaking detail how data-driven financial flows undermine common processes of governance, whether urban, regional, or national, in both speed and scale. Their analysis shows that property transactions shelled in virtual value-creation-bonds are opaque to taxation. Transcending regulatory forms of governance, one can observe the increase of inequalities on a global scale. Comparable to the extreme wealth accumulation at the end of the nineteenth century, Piketty identifies similar neo-proprietarian conditions today, seeing the economy shifting into a new state he coins as “hypercapitalism”.[9] From Timothy Morton’s “hyper-objects” to hypercapitalism,  hyper replaces the Kantian notion of transcendence. It expresses not the absorption of objects into humanism, but its withdrawal. In contrast to transcendence, which subordinates things to man’s will, the hyper accentuates the despair of the partial worlds of parts – in the case of Morton in a given object and in the case of Piketty in a constructed ecology.

When a fully automated architecture emerged, objects oriented towards themselves, and non-human programs began to refuse the organs of the human body. Just as the proportions of a data center are no longer walkable, the human eye can no longer look out of a plus-energy window, because it tempers the house, but not its user. These moments are hyper-parts: when objects no longer transcend into the virtual but despair in physical space. More and more, with increasing computational performance, following the acronym O2O (from online to offline),[10] virtual value machines articulate physical space. Hyper-parts place spatial requirements. A prominent example is Katerra, the unicorn start-up promising to take over building construction using full automation. In its first year of running factories, Katerra advertises that it will build 125,000 mid-rise units in the United States alone. If this occurred, Katerra would take around 30% of the mid-rise construction market in the company’s local area. Yet its building platform consists of only twelve apartment types. Katerra may see the physical homogeneity as an enormous advantage as it increases the sustainability of its projects. This choice facilitates financial speculation, as the repetition of similar flats reduces the number of factors in the valuing of apartments and allows quicker monetary exchange, freed from many variables. Sustainability refers not to any materiality but to the predictability of its investments. Variability is still desired, but oriented towards finance and not to inhabitants. Beyond the financialisation of a home, digital value machines create their own realities purely through the practice of virtual operations.

Figure 4 – The hyper-dimensional spaces of the digital economy are incompatible with cellular architecture. With every dimension added, the hull will gain weight until it absorbs more space than its content. From pure mathematical calculations, the dividends associated with the living cell and count more than its inhabitants. Image: Daniel Koehler, 2019.

Here one encounters a new type of spatial production: the spatial practice of representations. At the beginning of what was referred to as “late capitalism”, the sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre proposed three spatialities which described modes of exchange through capitalism.[11] The first mode, a spatial practice referred to a premodern condition, which by the use of analogies interlinked objects without any forms of representation—the second, representations of space linked directly to production, the organic schemes of modernism. The third representational spaces express the conscious trade with representations, the politics of postmodernism, and their interest in virtual ideas above the pure value of production. Though not limited to three only, Lefebvre’s intention was to describe capitalism as “an indefinite multitude of spaces, each one piled upon, or perhaps contained within, the next”.[12] Lefebvre differentiated the stages in terms of their spatial abstraction. Incrementally, virtual practices transcended from real-to-real to virtual-to-real to virtual-to-virtual. But today, decoupled from the real, a virtual economy computes physically within spatial practices of representations. Closing the loop, the real-virtual-real, or new hyper-parts, do not subordinate the physical into a virtual representation, instead, the virtual representation itself acts in physical space.

This reverses the intention of modernism orientated towards an organic architecture by representing the organic relationships of nature in geometric thought. The organicism of today’s hypercomputation projects geometric axioms at an organic resolution. What was once a representation and a geometry distant from human activity, now controls the preservation of financial predictability.

The Inequalities Between the Parts of the Virtual and the Parts of the Real

Beyond the human body, this new spatial practice of virtual parts today transcends the digital project that was limited to a sensorial interaction of space. This earlier understanding of the digital project reduced human activity to organic reflexes only, thus depriving architecture of the possibility of higher forms of reflection, thought and criticism. Often argued through links to phenomenology and Gestalt theory, the simplification of architectural form to sensual perception has little to do with phenomenology itself. Edmund Husserl, arguably the first phenomenologist, begins his work with considering the perception of objects, not as an end, but to examine the modes of human thinking. Examining the logical investigations, Husserl shows that thought can build a relation to an object only after having classified it, and therefore, partitioned it. By observing an object before considering its meaning, one classifies an object, which means identifying it as a whole. Closer observations recursively partition objects into more unaffected parts, which again can be classified as different wholes.[13] Husserl places parts before both thought and meaning.

Figure 5 – Mereologies, 2016. Image(s): (top) Genmao Li, RC17, MArch Urban Design, B-Pro, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2016; (bottom) Zhiyuan Wan, Chen Chen, Mengshi Fu, RC17, MArch Urban Design, B-Pro, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2016.

Derived from aesthetic observations, Husserl’s mereology was the basisof his ethics, and was therefore concluded in societal conceptions. In his later work, Husserl’s analysis is an early critique of the modern sciences.[14] For Husserl, in their efforts to grasp the world objectively, the sciences have lost their role in enquiring into the meaning of life. In a double tragedy, the sciences also alienated human beings from the world. Husserl thus urged the sciences to recall that they ground their origins in the human condition, as for Husserl humanism was ultimately trapped in distancing itself further from reality.

One hundred years later, Husserl’s projections resonate in “speculative realism”. Coined By Levi Bryant as “strange mereology”,[15] objects, their belongings, and inclusions are increasingly strange to us. The term “strange” stages the surprise that one is only left with speculative access. However, ten years in, speculation is not distant anymore. That which transcends does not only lurk in the physical realm. Hyper-parts figurate ordinary scales today, namely housing, and by this transcend the human(e) occupation.

Virtual and physical space are compositionally comparable. They both consist of the same number of parts, yet they do not. If physical elements belong to a whole, then they are also part of that to which their whole belongs. In less abstract terms, if a room is part of an apartment, the room is also part of the building to which the apartment belongs. Materially bound part relationships are always transitive, hierarchically nested within each other. In virtual space and the mathematical models with which computers are structured today, elements can be included within several independent entities. A room can be part of an apartment, but it can also be part of a rental contract for an embassy. A room is then also part of a house in the country in which the house is located. But as part of an embassy, the room is at the same time part of a geographically different country on an entirely different continent than the building that houses the embassy. Thus, for example, Julian Assange, rather than boarding a plane, only needed to enter a door on a street in London to land in Ecuador. Just with a little set theory, in the virtual space of law, one can override the theory of relativity with ease.

Parts are not equal. Physical parts belong to their physical wholes, whereas virtual parts can be included in physical parts but don’t necessarily belong to their wholes.  Far more parts can be included in a virtual whole than parts that can belong to a real whole. When the philosopher Timothy Morton says “the whole is always less than the sum of its parts”,[16] he reflects the cultural awareness that reality breaks due to asymmetries between the virtual and the real. A science that sets out to imitate the world is constructing its own. The distance which Husserl spoke of is not a relative distance between a strange object and its observer, but a mereological distance, when two wholes distance each other because they consist of different parts. In its effort to reconstruct the world in ever higher resolution, modernism, and in its extension the digital project, has overlooked the issue that the relationship between the virtual and the real is not a dialogue. In a play of dialectics between thought and built environment, modernism understood design as a dialogue. In extending modern thought, the digital project has sought to fulfill the promise of performance, that a safe future could be calculated and pre-simulated in a parallel, parametric space. Parametricism, and more generally what is understood as digital architecture, stands not only for algorithms, bits, and rams but for the far more fundamental belief that in a virtual space, one can rebuild reality. However, with each resolution that science seeks to mimic the world, the more parts it adds to it.

Figure 6 – Illustrations of exemplary stairs constructed through cubes, Sebastiano Serlio, 1566. Image: public domain.

The Poiesis of a Virtual Whole

The asymmetry between physical and virtual parts is rooted in Western classicism. In early classical sciences, Aristotle divided thinking into the trinity of practical action, observational theory and designing poiesis. Since the division in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, design is a part of thought and not part of objects. Design is thus a knowledge, literally something that must first be thought. Extending this contradiction to the real object, design is not even concerned with practice, with the actions of making or using, but with the metalogic of these actions, the in-between between the actions themselves, or the art of dividing an object into a chain of steps with which it can be created. In this definition, design does not mean to anticipate activities through the properties of an object (function), nor to observe its properties (materiality), but through the art of partitioning, structuring and organising an object in such a way that it can be manufactured, reproduced and traded.

To illustrate poiesis, Aristotle made use of architecture.[17] No other discipline exposes the poetic gap so greatly between theory, activity and making. Architecture first deals with the coordination of the construction of buildings. As the architecture historian Mario Carpo outlines in detail, revived interest in classicism and the humanistic discourse on architecture began in the Renaissance with Alberti’s treatise: a manual that defines built space, and ideas about it solely through word. Once thought and coded into words, the alphabet enabled the architect to physically distance from the building site and the built object.[18] Architecture as a discipline then does not start with buildings, but with the first instructions written by architects used to delegate the building.

A building is then anticipated by a virtual whole that enables one to subordinate its parts. This is what we usually refer to as architecture: a set of ideas that preempt the buildings they comprehend. The role of the architect is to imagine a virtual whole drawn as a diagram, sketch, structure, model or any kind of representation that connotates the axes of symmetries and transformations necessary to derive a sufficient number of parts from it. Architectural skill is then valued by the coherence between the virtual and the real, the whole and its parts, the intention and the executed building. Today’s discourse on architecture is the surplus of an idea. You might call it the autopoiesis of architecture – or merely a virtual reality. Discourse on architecture is a commentary on the real.

Adrian Bowyer (left) and Vik Olliver (right) with a parent RepRap machine, and the first child machine, made by the RepRap on the left. Image in public domain.
Figure 7 – Adrian Bowyer (left) and Vik Olliver (right) with a parent RepRap machine, and the first child machine, made by the RepRap on the left. Image: public domain.

Partitioning Architectures

From the very outset, architecture distanced itself from the building, yet also aimed to represent reality. Virtual codes were never autonomous from instruments of production. The alphabet and the technology of the printing press allowed Alberti to describe a whole ensemble distinct from a real building. Coded in writing, printing allowed for the theoretically infinite copies of an original design. Over time, the matrices of letters became the moulds of the modern production lines. However, as Mario Carpo points out, the principle remained the same.[19] Any medium that incorporates and duplicates an original idea is more architecture than the built environment itself. Belonging to a mould, innovation in architecture research could be valued in two ways. Quantitatively, in its capacity to partition a building in increasing resolution. Qualitatively, in its capacity to represent a variety of contents with the same form. By this, architecture faced the dilemma that one would have to design a reproducible standard that could partition as many different forms as possible to build non-standard figurations.[20]

The dilemma of the non-standard standard moulds is found in Sebastiano Serlio’s transcription of Alberti’s codes into drawings. In the first book of his treatise, Serlio introduces a descriptive geometry to reproduce any contour and shape of a given object through a sequence of rectangles.[21] For Serlio, the skill of the architect is to simplify the given world of shapes further until rectangles become squares. The reduction finally enables the representation of physical reality in architectural space using an additive assembly of either empty or full cubes. By building a parallel space of cubes, architecture can be partitioned into a reproducible code. In Serlio’s case, architecture could be coded through a set of proportional ratios. However, from that moment on, stairs do not consist only of steps, and have to be built with invisible squares and cubes too.

Today, Serlio’s architectural cubes are rendered obsolete by 3D printed sand. By shrinking parts to the size of a particle of dust, any imaginable shape can be approximated by adding one kind of part only. 3D printing offers a non-standard standard, and with this, five hundred years of architectural development comes to an end.

Figure 8 – Von Neumann’s illustrations describing automata as a set of linkages between nodes. Image: Arthur W. Burks, 1969, public domain.

Replicating: A Spatial Practice of Representations

3D printing dissolved existing partitioning parts to particles and dust. A 3D-printer can not only print any shape but can also print at any place, at any time. The development of 3D printing was mainly driven by DIY hobbyists in the Open Source area. One of the pioneering projects here is the RepRap project, initiated by Adrian Bowyer.[22] RepRap is short for replicating rapid prototyping machine. The idea behind it is that if you can print any kind of objects, you can also print the parts of the machine itself. This breaks with the production methods of the Modern Age. Since the Renaissance, designers have crafted originals and used these to build a mould from those so that they can print as many copies as possible. This also explains the economic valuation of the original and why authorship is so vehemently protected in legal terms. Since Alberti’s renunciation of drawings for a more accurate production of his original idea through textual encoding, the value of an architectural work consisted primarily in the coherence of a representation with a building: a play of virtual and real. Consequently, an original representation that cast a building was more valued than its physical presentation. Architecture design was oriented to reduce the amount of information needed to cast. This top-down compositional thinking of original and copy becomes obsolete with the idea of replication.

Since the invention of the printing press, the framework of how things are produced has not changed significantly. However, with a book press, you can press a book, but with a book, you can’t press a book. Yet with a 3D printer, you can print a printer. A 3D printer does not print copies of an original, not even in endless variations, but replicates objects. The produced objects are not duplicates because they are not imprints that would be of lower quality. Printed objects are replicas, objects with the same, similar, or even additional characteristics as their replicator.

Figure 9 – Lionel R. Penrose, drawing for a physical implementation of a self-replicating chain of 3 units in length. Image: Photograph f40v, Galton Laboratory Archive, University College London, 1955.

A 3D printer is a groundbreaking digital object because it manifests the foundational principle of the digital – replication – on the scale of architecture. The autonomy of the digital is based not only on the difference between 0 and 1 but on the differences in their sequencing. In mathematics in the 1930s, the modernist project of a formal mimicry of reality collapsed through Godel’s proof of the necessary incompleteness of all formal systems. Mathematicians then understood that perhaps far more precious knowledge could be gained if we could only learn to distance ourselves from its production. The circle of scientists around John von Neumann, who developed the basis of today’s computation, departed from one of the smallest capabilities in biology: to reproduce. Bits, as a concatenation of simple building blocks and the integrated possibility of replication, made it possible, just by sequencing links, to build first logical operations, and connecting those programs to today’s artificial networks.[23] Artificial intelligence is artificial but it is also alive intelligence.

To this day, computerialisation, not computation is at work in architecture. By pursuing the modern project of reconstructing the world as completely as possible, the digital project computerised a projective cast[24] in high resolution. Yet this was done without transferring the fundamental principles of interlinking and replication to the dimensions of the built space.

Figure 10 – (left to right) Mereologies: WanderYards, 2016, Genmao Li, Chen Chen, and Xixuan Wang, 2016; Enframes, Kexin Cao, Yue Jin, Qiming Li, 2017; iiOOOI, Sheghaf Abo Saleh, Hua Li, Chuwei Ye, Yaonaijia Zhou, 2018 (right). Image(s): RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2016-2018.

From Partitioning to Partaking

The printing press depends on a mould to duplicate objects. The original mould was far more expensive to manufacture than its copies, so the casting of objects had to bundle available resources. This required high investments in order to start production, leading to an increasing centralisation of resources in order to scale the mass-fabrication of standard objects for production on an assembly line. Contrarily, digital objects do not need a mould. Self-replication provided by 3D printing means that resources do not have to be centralised. In this, digital production shifts to distributed manufacturing.[25]

Independent from any mould, digital objects as programs reproduce themselves seamlessly at zero marginal costs.[26] As computation progresses, a copy will then have less and less value. Books, music and films fill fewer and fewer shelves because it no longer has value to own a copy when they are ubiquitously available online. And the internet does not copy; it links. Although not fully yet integrated into its current TCP-IP protocol,[27] the basic premise of hyperlinking is that linked data adds value.[28] Links refer to new content, further readings, etc. With a close to infinite possibility to self-reproduce, the number of objects that can be delegated and repeated becomes meaningless. What then counts is hyper-, is the difference in kind between data, programs and, eventually, building parts. In his identification of the formal foundations of computation, the mathematician Nelson Goodman pointed out that beyond a specific performance of computation, difference, and thus value, can only be generated when a new part is added to the fusion of parts.[29] What is essential for machine intelligence is the dimensionality of its models, e.g., the number of its parts. Big data refers less to the amount of data, but more to the number of dimensions of data.[30]

Figure 11 – Enframes, 2017. Image: Kexin Cao, Yue Jin, Qiming Lim, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2017.

With increasing computation, architecture shifted from an aesthetic of smoothness that celebrated the mastership of an infinite number of building parts to roughness. Roughness demands to be thought (brute). The architecture historian Mario Carpo is right to frame this as nostalgic, as “digital brutalism”.[31] Similar to brutalism that wanted to stimulate thought, digital roughness aims to extend spatial computability, the capability to extend thinking, and the architecture of a computational hyper-dimensionality. Automated intelligent machines can accomplish singular goals but are alien to common reasoning. Limited around a ratio of a reality, a dimension, a filter, or a perspective, machines obtain partial realities only. Taking them whole excludes those who are not yet included and that which can’t be divided: it is the absolute of being human(e).

A whole economy evolved from the partial particularity of automated assets ahead of the architectural discipline. It would be a mistake to understand the ‘sharing’ of the sharing economy as having something “in common”. On the contrary, computational “sharing” does not partition a common use, but enables access to multiple, complementary value systems in parallel.

Figure 12 – Physical model, WanderYards, 2017. Image: Genmao Li, Chen Chen and Xixuan Wang, RC8, MArch Architecture Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2017.

Cities now behave more and more like computers. Buildings are increasingly automated. They use fewer materials and can be built in a shorter time, at lower costs. More buildings are being built than ever before, but fewer people can afford to live in them. The current housing crisis has unveiled that buildings no longer necessarily need to house humans or objects. Smart homes can optimise material, airflow, temperature or profit, but they are blind to the trivial.

Figure 13 – Physical model, Slabrose, 2019. Image: Dongxin Mei, Zhiyuan Wan, Peiwen Zhan, and Chi Zhou, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

It is a mistake to compute buildings as though they are repositories or enclosures, no matter how fine-grain their resolution is. The value of a building is no longer derived only from the amount of rent for a slot of space, but from its capacities to partake with. By this, the core function of a building changes from inhabitation to participation. Buildings do not anymore frame and contain: they bind, blend, bond, brace, catch, chain, chunk, clamp, clasp, cleave, clench, clinch, clutch, cohere, combine, compose, connect, embrace, fasten, federate, fix, flap, fuse, glue, grip, gum, handle, hold, hook, hug, integrate, interlace, interlock, intermingle, interweave, involve, jam, join, keep, kink, lap, lock, mat, merge, mesh, mingle, overlay, palm, perplex, shingle, stick, stitch, tangle, tie, unit, weld, wield, and wring.

In daily practice, BIM models do not highlight resolution but linkages, integration and collaboration. With further computation, distributed manufacturing, automated design, smart contracts and distributed ledgers, building parts will literally compute the Internet of Things and eventually our built environment, peer-to-peer, or better, part-to-part – via the distributive relationships between their parts. For the Internet of Things, what else should be its hubs besides buildings? Part-to-part habitats can shape values through an ecology of linkages, through a forest of participatory capacities. So, what if we can participate in the capacities of a house? What if we no longer have to place every brick, if we no longer have to delegate structures, but rather let parts follow their paths and take their own decisions, and let them participate amongst us together in architecture?

Figure 14 – Interior view of physical model, NPoche, 2018. Image: Silu Meng, Ruohan Xu, and Qianying Zhou. RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.
Figure 15 – Seggregational section, WanderYards, 2017. Image: Genmao Li, Chen Chen and Xixuan Wang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2017.


[1] S. Kostof, The City Assembled: The Elements of Urban Form Through History (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992).

[2] J. Aspen, "Oslo – the triumph of zombie urbanism." Edward Robbins, ed., Shaping the city, (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[3] The World Bank actively promotes housing as an investment opportunity for pension funds, see: The World Bank Group, Housing finance: Investment opportunities for pension funds (Washington: The World Bank Group, 2018).

[4] G. M. Asaftei, S. Doshi, J. Means, S. Aditya, “Getting ahead of the market: How big data is transforming real estate”, McKinsey and Company (2018).

[5] G. Deleuze, “Postscript on the societies of control,” October, 59: 3–7 (1992), 6.

[6] Ibid, 4.

[7] Ibid, 6.

[8] R. Braidotti, Posthuman Knowledge (Medford, Mass: Polity, 2019).

[9] T. Piketty, Capital and Ideology (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2020).

[10] A. McAfee, E. Brynjolfsson, Machine, platform, crowd: Harnessing our digital future (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017).

[11] H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 33.

[12] Ibid, 8.

[13] E. Husserl, Logische Untersuchungen: Zweiter Teil Untersuchungen zur Phänomenologie und Theorie der Erkenntnis.trans. "Logical investigations: Part Two Investigations into the phenomenology and theory of knowledge" (Halle an der Saale: Max Niemeyer, 1901).

[14] E. Husserl, Cartesianische Meditationen und Pariser Vortraege. trans. "Cartesian meditations and Parisian lectures" (Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, Husserliana edition, 1950).

[15] L. Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2011).

[16] T. Morton, Being Ecological (London: Penguin Books Limited, 2018), 93.

[17] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 14, 1139 a 5-10.

[18] M. Carpo, Architecture in the Age of Printing (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2001).

[19] M. Carpo, The Alphabet and the Algorithm (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011).

[20] F. Migayrou, Architectures non standard (Editions du Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2003).

[21] S. Serlio, V. Hart, P. Hicks, Sebastiano Serlio on architecture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996).

[22] R. Jones, P. Haufe, E. Sells, I. Pejman, O. Vik, C. Palmer, A. Bowyer, “RepRap – the Replicating Rapid Prototyper,” Robotica 29, 1 (2011), 177–91.

[23] A. W. Burks, Von Neumann's self-reproducing automata: Technical Report (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1969).

[24] R. Evans, The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995).

[25] N. Gershenfeld, “How to make almost anything: The digital fabrication revolution,” Foreign Affairs, 91 (2012), 43–57.

[26] J. Rifkin. The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[27] B. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2016).

[28] J. Lanier, Who Owns the Future? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013).

[29] N. Goodman, H. S. Leonard, “The calculus of individuals and its uses,” The Journal of Symbolic Logic, 5, 2 (1940), 45–55.

[30] P. Domingos, The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World (London: Penguin Books, 2015).

[31] M. Carpo, “Rise of the Machines,” Artforum, 3 (2020).

Suggest a Tag for this Article
Close-up of the, available nodes online. Image capture 26 September 2020. Image credit: David Rozas.
Affordances of Decentralised Technologies for Commons-based Governance of Shared Technical Infrastructure
Architecture Theory, Blockchain, Commons, Decentralisation, Mereologies, Mereology
David Rozas
Universidad Complutense de Madrid
Add to Issue
Read Article: 3824 Words

In this article I will illustrate affordances of decentralised technologies in the context of commons governance. My aim is to summarise the conversation around the lecture “When Ostrom Meets Blockchain: Exploring the Potentials of Blockchain for Commons Governance” I gave in the Mereologies Open Seminar organised by The Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London on 25th April 2019. I will also extend the conversation by providing a concrete example of such affordances in the context of a community network.

What is Blockchain? Three Key Concepts around Decentralised Technologies

In 2008, an anonymous paper presented Bitcoin: the first cryptocurrency based purely on a peer-to-peer system.[1] For the first time, no third parties were necessary to solve problems such as double-spending, thanks to cryptography. The solution was achieved through the introduction of a data structure known as a blockchain. In simple terms, a blockchain can be understood as a distributed ledger. Distributed refers to a technical property of a system in which certain components are located on different computers connected through a network. The blockchain, in this sense, can be thought of as a “decentralised book” in which agreed transactions can be stored in a set of distributed computers. Data, such as the history of monetary exchanges generated by using cryptocurrencies, can be stored in a blockchain. The key aspect resides in the fact that there is no need to trust a third party, such as a bank server, to store that information.

Nakamoto’s article opened what is considered to be the first generation of blockchain technologies.[2] This generation, up to approximately 2013, includes Bitcoin and a number of crypto-currencies that appeared after it. The second generation, approximately from 2014 onwards, is the extension of these blockchains with capabilities beyond currencies in the form of automatic agreements or smart contracts.[3] Smart contracts can be understood as distributed applications which encode clauses that are automatically enforced and executed without the need for a central authority. They can be employed, for example, to enable the execution of code to provide certifications, such as obtaining a diploma or a registry of lands, according to previously mutually agreed rules. Again, the novel aspect here is the fact that the execution of such rules, in the form of computer instructions, is distributed across a large number of computers without the need of a central point of control.

Complex sets of smart contracts can be developed to make it possible for multiple parties to interact with each other. This fostered the emergence of the last of the concepts I will introduce around decentralised technologies: Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAO). A DAO is a self-governed organisation in which interactions between the members of the organisation are mediated by the rules embedded in the DAO code. These rules are sets of smart contracts that encode such interactions. The rules embedded in the code are automatically enforced by the underlying technology, the blockchain, in a decentralised manner. DAOs could, for example, hire people to carry out certain tasks or compensate them for undertaking certain action. Overall, this can be understood as analogous to a legal organisation, with legal documents – bylaws – which define the rules of interaction among members. The development of DAOs has been, unsurprisingly, significantly popular around financial services.[4] However, DAOs could be used to provide a wide variety of services or management of resources in a more diverse range of areas. A more artistic example of a DAO is the Plantoid project,[5] a sculpture of a plant, which can hire artists to physically modify the sculpture itself according to the rules collectively agreed in the smart contracts encoded in it.

All of these potentials of decentralised technologies represent an emerging research field. Together with other colleagues of the EU project P2PModels,[6] we are exploring some of these potentials and limitations in the context of the collaborative economy and, more precisely, on some of the models emerging around Commons-Based Peer Production.

Collaborative Economy and Commons-Based Peer Production

The collaborative economy is a growing socio-economic phenomenon in which individuals produce, exchange and consume services and goods, coordinating through online software platforms. It is an umbrella concept that encompasses different initiatives and significantly different forms are emerging; there are models where large corporations control the platform, thus ensuring its technologies and the knowledge held therein are proprietary and closed. Uber, a riding service, and AirBnB, a short-term lettings service, are perhaps the most well-known examples of such initiatives. They differ from models that revolve around Commons-Based Peer Production (CBPP), where individuals produce public goods by dispensing with hierarchical corporate structures and cooperating with their peers.[7] In these models, participants of the community govern the assets, freely sharing and developing technologies.[8] Some of the most well-known examples of the initiatives around such commons-based models are Wikipedia and GNU/Linux, a Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) operating system. Commons-based models of the collaborative economy are, however, extending to areas as broad as open science, urban commons, community networks, peer funding and open design.[9]

Three main characteristics are salient in the literature on CBPP.[10] Firstly, CBPP is marked by decentralisation, since authority resides in individual agents rather than a central organiser. Secondly, it is commons-based since CBPP communities make frequent use of common resources. These resources can be material, such as in the case of 3D printers shared in small-scale workshops known as Fab Labs; or immaterial, such as the wiki pages of Wikipedia or the source code in a FLOSS project. Thirdly, non-monetary motivations are prevalent in the community. These motivations are, however, commonly intertwined with extrinsic motivations resulting in a wide spectrum of forms of value operating in CBPP communities,[11] beyond monetary value.[12] An Example of a CBPP Community in Action

In order to extend the discussion of the affordances of decentralised technologies in CBPP, I will employ as an illustrative example.[13] is a community network: a participatory project whose goal is to create a free, open and neutral telecommunications network to provide access to the Internet. If you are reading this article online, you might be accessing it through a commercial Internet Service Provider. These are the companies which control the technical infrastructure you are using to connect to the Internet. They manage this infrastructure as a private good. The project, instead, manages this infrastructure as a commons. In other words, is organised around a CBPP model,[14] in which the network infrastructure is governed as a common good. Over the past 16 years, participants of have developed communitarian rules, legal licenses, technological tools and protocols which are constantly negotiated and implemented by the participants.

I have chosen to discuss the potentialities of blockchain drawing on, a community network, for two main reasons. Firstly, the most relevant type of commons governed in this case is shared infrastructure, such as fibre optic and routers. The governance of rival material goods, in contrast to the commons governance of non-rival goods such as source code or wiki pages, better matches the scope of the conversations which emerged during the symposium around architecture of the commons and the role played by participatory platforms.[15] Secondly, provides a large and complex case of governance of shared infrastructure. The growth experienced by’s infrastructure and community since the first pair of nodes were connected in a rural region of Catalonia in 2004 is significant. In their study of the evolution of governance in, Baig et al. reported a network infrastructure consisting of more than 28,500 operational nodes which cover a total length of around 50,000 km of links that are connected to the global Internet. This study refers to the period 2005–2015.[16] The latest statistics reported by state that there are more than 35,000 operational nodes and 63,000 km of links.[17] Beyond the infrastructure, the degree of participation in the community is also significant: more than 13,000 registered participants up to 2015, according to the aforementioned study, and more than 50,000 users of this community network connect on a day to day basis, as reported by the community at present.[18] Thus, provides a suitable scenario for the analysis of the affordances of decentralised technologies for commons governance.

Ostrom’s Principles and Affordances of Decentralised Technologies for Commons Governance

How do communities of peers manage to successfully govern common resources? The study of the organisational aspects of how common goods might be governed was traditionally focussed on the study of natural resources. This commons dilemma was explored by Hardin in his influential article “The Tragedy of the Commons”, whose ideas became the dominant view. In this article, Hardin states how resources shared by individuals acting as homo economicus (out of self-interest in order to maximise their own benefit) results in the depletion of the commons. The individuals’ interests enter into conflict with the group’s, and because they act independently according to their short-term interests, the result of the collective action depletes the commons.[19] As a consequence, in order to avoid this logic – “If I do not use it, someone else will”, which is not sustainable – it was necessary to manage these commons through either private ownership or centralised public administration. 

Later on, Nobel laureate researcher Elinor Ostrom questioned and revisited “The Tragedy of the Commons”. In her work, she showed how under certain conditions commons can indeed be managed in a sustainable way by local communities of peers. Her approach took into account that individual agents do not operate in isolation, nor are they driven solely by self interest. Instead, she argued that communities communicate to build processes and rules, with different degrees of explicitation, that ensure their sustainability.[20] This hypothesis was supported by a meta-analysis of a wide range of case studies,[21] and has been confirmed in subsequent research.[22] As part of this work, she identified a set of principles for the successful management of these commons,[23] which has also been subsequently applied to the study of collaborative communities whose work is mediated by digital platforms, such as Wikipedia and FLOSS communities:[24]

1. Clearly defined community boundaries: in order to define who has rights and privileges within the community.

2. Congruence between rules and local conditions: the rules that govern behaviour or commons use in a community should be flexible and based on local conditions that may change over time. These rules should be intimately associated with the commons, rather than relying on a “one-size-fits-all” regulation.

3. Collective choice arrangements: in order to best accomplish congruence (with principle number 2), people who are affected by these rules should be able to participate in their modification, and the costs of alteration should be kept low.

4. Monitoring: some individuals within the community act as monitors of behaviour in accordance with the rules derived from collective choice arrangements, and they should be accountable to the rest of the community.

5. Graduated sanctions: community members actively monitor and sanction one another when behaviour is found to conflict with community rules. Sanctions against members who violate the rules are aligned with the perceived severity of the infraction.

6. Conflict resolution mechanisms: members of the community should have access to low-cost spaces to resolve conflicts.

7. Local enforcement of local rules: local jurisdiction to create and enforce rules should be recognised by higher authorities.

8. Multiple layers of nested enterprises: by forming multiple nested layers of organisation, communities can address issues that affect resource management differently at both broader and local levels.

What kind of affordances do decentralised technologies offer in the context of commons governance and, more concretely, with regards to Ostrom’s principles? Together with other colleagues,[25] we have identified six potential affordances to be further explored. 

Firstly, tokenisation. This refers to the process of transforming the rights to perform an action on an asset into a transferable data element (named token) on the blockchain. For example, tokens can be employed to provide authorisation to access a certain shared resource. Tokens may also be used to represent equity, decision-making power, property ownership or labour certificates.[26]

Secondly, self-enforcement and formalisation of rules. These affordances refer to the process of embedding organisational rules in the form of smart contracts. As a result, there is an affordance for the self-enforcement of communitarian rules, such as those which regulate monitoring and graduated sanctions, as reflected in Ostrom’s principles 4 and 5. This encoding of rules also implies a formalisation, since blockchain technologies require these rules to be defined in ways that are unambiguously understood by machines. In other words, the inherent process of explicitation of rules related to the use of distributed technologies also provides opportunities to make these rules more available and visible for discussion, as noted in Ostrom’s principle 2.

Thirdly, autonomous automatisation: the process of defining complex sets of smart contracts which may be set up in such a way as to make it possible for multiple parties to interact with each other without human interaction. This is analogous to software communicating with other software today, but in a decentralised manner. DAOs are an example of autonomous automatisation as they could be self-sufficient to a certain extent. For instance, they could charge users for their services.[27]

Fourthly, decentralised technologies offer an affordance for the decentralisation of power over the infrastructure. In other words, they can facilitate processes of communalising the ownership and control of the technological artefacts employed by the community. They do this through the decentralisation of the infrastructure they rely on, such as collaboration platforms employed for coordination.

Fifthly, transparency: for the opening of organisational processes and the associated data, by relying on the persistency and immutability properties of blockchain technologies.

Finally, decentralised technologies can facilitate processes of codification of a certain degree of trust into systems which facilitate agreements between agents without requiring a third party. Figure 1 below provides a summary of the relationships between Elinor Ostrom’s principles and the aforementioned affordances.[28]

Figure 1 – Summary of the relationships between the identified affordances of blockchain technologies for governance and Ostrom’s principles (Ostrom, 1990). Image credit:, identified by Rozas et al., 2018.

These congruences allow us to describe the impact that blockchain technologies could have on governance processes in these communities. These decentralised technologies could facilitate coordination, help to scale up commons governance or even be useful to share agreements and different forms of value amongst various communities in interoperable ways, as shown by Pazaitis et al..[29] An example of how such affordances might be explored in the context of CBPP can be found in community networks such as

A DAO for Commons Governance of Shared Technical Infrastructure

Would it be possible to build a DAO that might help to coordinate collaboration and scale up cooperative practices, in line with Ostrom’s principles, in a community network such as First of all, we need to identify the relationship between Ostrom’s principles and We can find, indeed, a wide exploration of the relationship between Ostrom’s principles and the evolution in the self-organisational processes of in the work of Baig et al..[30] They document in detail how governs the infrastructure as a commons drawing on these principles, and provide a detailed analysis of the different components of the commons governance of the shared infrastructure in Secondly, we need to define an initial point of analysis, and tentative interventions, in the form of one of the components of this form of commons governance. From all of these components, I will place the focus of analysis on the economic compensation system. The reason for selecting this system is twofold. On the one hand, it reflects the complexity behind commons governance and, thus, allows us to illustrate the aforementioned principles in greater depth. Secondly, it is an illustrative example of the potential of blockchain, as we shall see, to automatise and scale up various cooperative processes.

The economic compensation system of was designed as a mechanism to compensate imbalances in the uses of the shared infrastructure. Professional operators, for example, are requested to declare the expenditures and investments in the network. In alignment with Ostrom’s principle number 4, the use, expenditure and investments of operators are monitored, in this case by the most formal institution which has emerged in the Foundation. The Foundation is a legal organisation with the goal to protect the shared infrastructure and monitor compliance with the rules agreed by the members of the community. The community boundaries, as in Ostrom’s principle number 1, are clearly defined and include several stakeholders.[31] Different degrees of commitment with the commons were defined as collective choice arrangements (principle number 3). These rules are, however, open to discussion through periodic meetings organised regionally, and adapted to the local conditions, in congruence with principle number 2. If any participant, such as an operator, misuses the resources or does not fulfill the principles, the individual is subject to graduated sanctions,[32] in alignment with principle number 5. As part of the compensation system, compensation meetups are organised locally to cope with conflict resolution, in congruence with principle 6. Principles 6 and 7 are also clearly reflected in the evolution of the governance of, although they are more closely associated with scalability.[33] 

The compensation DAO could be formed by a set of local DAOs, whose rules are defined and modifiable exclusively by participants holding a token which demonstrates they belong to this node. These local DAOs could be deployed from templates, and could be modified at any point as a result of a discussion at the aforementioned periodic meetings held by local nodes and in congruence with the local conditions. Among the rules of the smart contracts composing these DAOs, participants may decide to define the different factors that are considered when discussing the local compensation system arrangements, as well as graduated sanctions in case of misuse of the common goods. These rules might be copied and adapted by some of the nodes facilitating the extension of the collaborative practices.

Some of the settings of these local DAOs could be dependent on a federal compensation DAO that defines general aspects. A mapping of the current logic could consist of reaching a certain degree of consensus between the participants in all of the nodes, but having this process approved by the members of the Foundation, who would hold a specific token.  Examples of general aspects regulated by the federal DAO are the levels of commitment towards the commons of each operator, which is currently evaluated and monitored manually by the Foundation. General aspects such as this could be automatised in several ways therefore moving from manual assignations by the Foundation, as is currently the case, to automatically assigned tokens depending on the communitarian activities tracked in the platform. This is an example of a possible intervention to automatise certain collaborative practices assuming the current structure. Figure 1 below provides an overview of a preliminary design of a DAO for a compensation system mapping the current logics. 

Figure 2 – A proposal of a simple compensation DAO. The green arrows represent the extension of practices between local DAOs, including new nodes such as number 5. Black arrows represent the interactions between the local DAOs and the federal DAO, in congruence with Ostrom’s principle 8. Image credit: Rozas, et al, 2018.

More disruptive tentative interventions could consist of the implementation of more horizontal governance logics which allow modifications of the rules at a federal level or to transform the rules that regulate the monitoring. These interventions, however, should be carefully co-designed together with those who participate in the day-to-day of these collectives. Our approach states that the development of decentralised tools which support commons governance should be undertaken as a gradual process to construct situated technology, with an awareness of the cultural context and aiming to incorporate particular social practices into the design of these decentralised tools. 

This basic example of a DAO illustrates, on the one hand, the relationship with Ostrom’s principles: monitoring mechanisms, local collective choice arrangements, graduated sanctions and clear boundaries. These principles are sustained by the aforementioned affordances of blockchain for commons governance. For example, tokenisation with regards to providing permission as to who has the ability to participate in the choices locally and at a federal level and how, as well as the certification of the level of commitment to the commons; monitoring of the expenditures and reimbursements through the transparency provided by the blockchain; self-enforcement, formalisation and automatisation of the communitarian rules in the form of smart contracts. Another, more general, example of this is the increment in the degree of decentralisation of power over the platform because of the inherent decentralised properties of the technology itself. In this way, this could result in a partial shift of power over the platform from the Foundation towards the different nodes formed by the participants. Furthermore, as discussed, the fact that such rules are encoded in the form of configurations of smart contracts could facilitate the extension of practices and the development of new nodes; or even the deployment of alternative networks capable of operating as the former network, and reusing and adapting the encoded rules of the community while still using the shared infrastructure. Overall, further research of the role of decentralised technologies in commons governance offers, in this respect, a promising field of experimentation and exploration of the potential scalability of cooperative dynamics.

Discussion and Concluding Remarks

In this article I provided an overview and discussed an example of the affordances of blockchain technologies for commons governance. Concretely, I described such potentialities drawing on the example of a DAO to automatise some of the collaborative processes surrounding the compensation system of a community network: Throughout this example, I aimed to illustrate, in more detail, the affordances of blockchain for commons governance which I presented during the symposium. The aim of this example is to illustrate how blockchain may facilitate the extension and scaling up of the cooperation practices of commons governance. Further explorations, more closely related to the architecture field, could explore the discussed affordances for commons governance with discrete design approaches that provide participatory frameworks for collective production.[34] In this respect, decentralised technologies offer opportunities of exploration to tackle challenges such as those identified by Sánchez[35] to define ways to allocate ownership, authorship and distribution of value without falling into extractivist practices.

A better understanding of the capabilities of blockchain technologies for commons governance will require, however, further empirical research. Examples of research questions which need to be addressed are those with regards to the boundaries of the discussed affordances. For example, with regards to tokenisation and formalisation of rules: which aspects should remain in/off the blockchain, or furthermore completely in/out of code?

Overall, CBPP communities provide radically differing values and practices when compared with those in markets. In this respect, the study of the potentialities and limitations of blockchain technologies in the context of the governance of CBPP communities offers an inspiring opportunity to take further steps on a research journey that has only just begun.


[1] S. Nakamoto,“Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” (2008).

[2] M. Swan, Blockchain: Blueprint for a New Economy (Sebastopol, CA, USA: O’Reilly, 2015).

[3] N. Szabo, ”Formalizing and Securing Relationships on Public Networks, First Monday, 2, 9 (1997).

[4] See, for example, a cryptocurrency backed by bars of gold in which the governance is mediated by a DAO, last accessed on 24th July 2019.

[5] See, last accessed on 24th July 2019.

[6] See, last accessed on 2nd July 2019.

[7] Y. Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006); M. Bauwens, “The Political Economy of Peer Production,CTheory 1, 12 (2005).

[8] M. Fuster-Morell, J. L. Salcedo, and M. Berlinguer. “Debate About the Concept of Value in Commons-Based Peer Production,” Internet Science (2016); Bauwens, Michel, and Alekos Pantazis. 2018. “The Ecosystem of Commons-Based Peer Production and Its Transformative Dynamics.” The Sociological Review, 66, 2 (2016), 302–19.

[9] V. Kostakis and M. Papachristou, “Commons-Based Peer Production and Digital Fabrication: The Case of a RepRap-Based, Lego-Built 3D Printing-Milling Machine” (2013); V. Niaros, V. Kostakis, and W. Drechsler, “Making (in) the Smart City: The Emergence of Makerspaces,” Telematics and Informatics (2017).

[10] A. Arvidsson, A. Caliandro, A. Cossu, M. Deka, A. Gandini, V. Luise, and G. Anselm, “Commons Based Peer Production in the Information Economy,” P2PValue (2016).

[11] C. Cheshire, and J. Antin, “The Social Psychological Effects of Feedback on the Production of Internet Information Pools,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 1 (2008).

[12] M. Fuster-Morell, J. L. Salcedo, and M. Berlinguer, “Debate About the Concept of Value in Commons-Based Peer Production,Internet Science (2016).

[13] See, last accessed on 30th June 2019.

[14] R. Baig, R. Roca, F. Freitag, and L. Navarro, “, a Crowdsourced Network Infrastructure Held in Common,Computer Networks: The International Journal of Computer and Telecommunications Networking, 90 (2015).

[15] J. Sánchez, “Architecture for the Commons: Participatory Systems in the Age of Platforms,Architectural Design, 89, 2 (2019).

[16] R. Baig, R. Roca, F. Freitag, and L. Navarro. “, a Crowdsourced Network Infrastructure Held in Common,” Computer Networks: The International Journal of Computer and Telecommunications Networking, 90 (2015).

[17] 2019. “Node Statistics,” Node Statistics (2019).

[18] Ibid.

[19] G. Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons. The Population Problem Has No Technical Solution; It Requires a Fundamental Extension in Morality,Science 162, 3859 (1968), 1243–48.

[20] E. Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[21] Ibid.

[22] E. Ostrom, “Understanding Institutional Diversity” (2009); M. Cox, G. Arnold, and S. Villamayor Tomás, “A Review of Design Principles for Community-Based Natural Resource Management” (2010).

[23] E. Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 88–102.

[24] F. B. Viégas, M. Wattenberg, and M. M. McKeon, “The Hidden Order of Wikipedia,” Online Communities and Social Computing, OCSC'07: Proceedings of the 2nd international conference on Online communities and social computing (2007).

[25] D. Rozas, A. Tenorio-Fornés, S. Díaz-Molina, and S. Hassan, “When Ostrom Meets Blockchain: Exploring the Potentials of Blockchain for Commons Governance,SSRN Electronic Journal (2018), 8–20.

[26] S. Huckle and M. White, “Socialism and the Blockchain.” Future Internet, 8, 4 (2016), 49.

[27] P. De Filippi, and S. Hassan, “Blockchain Technology as a Regulatory Technology: From Code Is Law to Law Is Code,First Monday, 21, 12 (2016).

[28] D. Rozas, A. Tenorio-Fornés, S. Díaz-Molina, and S. Hassan, “When Ostrom Meets Blockchain: Exploring the Potentials of Blockchain for Commons Governance,” SSRN Electronic Journal (2018), 21–22.

[29] A.  Pazaitis, P. De Filippi, and V. Kostakis, “Blockchain and Value Systems in the Sharing Economy: The Illustrative Case of Backfeed,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 125 (2017), 105–15.

[30] R. Baig, R. Roca, F. Freitag, and L. Navarro. “, a Crowdsourced Network Infrastructure Held in Common,” Computer Networks: The International Journal of Computer and Telecommunications Networking, 90 (2015).

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] See Baig et al. (2015) for further details.

[34] J. Sánchez, “Architecture for the Commons: Participatory Systems in the Age of Platforms,” Architectural Design, 89, 2 (2019).

[35] Ibid.

Suggest a Tag for this Article
View into a codividual interiority. Codividual aesthetics forming a plural space. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.
Codividual Architecture within Decentralised Autonomous Systems
Architecture, Autonomy, Collectivity, Computational Design, Decentralisation, Mereologies, Mereology
Hao Chen Huang
University College London
Add to Issue
Read Article: 2531 Words

In mereology, the distinction of “dependent” or “independent” could be used to describe the relationship between parts and wholes. Using a mereological description, individuals can be seen as self-determining entities independently identified by themselves as a whole. On the other hand, the identities of collectives are determined by their group members which participate in a whole. Therefore, based on parthood theory, an individual could be defined as a self-determined “one in a whole”; in contrast, collectives could be seen as “a part within a whole”. Following the mereological logic, this paper surveys the new term “codividuality”, a word consisting of the combined meaning of “collective” and “individuality”. Codividuality preserves the intermediate values of individualism and collectivism. It consists of the notion of share-ability benefited from collectivism, and is merged with the idea of self-existence inspired by individualism. The characterisation of codividuality starts from individuals that share features, and are grouped, merging with other groups to compose new clusters.


“Codividuals” could also be translated into “parts within parts”. Based on this part-to-part relation, codividuals in the sense of composition begin with existing individuals and then collectives of self-identified parts. Parts are discrete, but also participating entities[2] in an evolving self-organising system. Unlike individuals’ self-determination, parts’ identities contribute by participating, forming a strong correlation in-between parts but preserving autonomy of parts. In codividuality, each individualistic entity obtains the potential of state-transforming by sharing its identity with others; as such, all parts are able to translate one another, and are irreducible to their in-between relationship. From an ontological perspective, the existence of a part is not from adding a new object but by sharing features to fuse itself into a new part. A new part does not contribute by increasing an entity’s quantity but through a dynamic overlap transforming over time. Since the involved entities fuse into new collectives, the compositing group will simultaneously change its form by corresponding to sharing features; as such, codividuality could be seen as an autonomous fusion.

Figure 1 – Mereological drawings of the chosen Precedents, bringing out the individual, dividual and codividual nature of buildings. Image: Hao-Chen Huang.

Metabolism: As One in Whole

According to the definition of individualism, each individual has its own autonomous identity and the connectivity between individuals is loose. In architecture, social connectivity provides insight on the relationship of spatial sequences within cultural patterns. Metabolism, as an experimental architectural movement in post-war Japan, emerged with a noticeable individualist approach, advocating individual mobility and liberty. Looking at the configurations and spatial characteristics in Metabolist architecture, it is easy to perceive the features of “unit” and “megastructure”[3] as the major architectural elements in the composition, showing the individualistic characterisation in spatial patterns. Megastructure as an unchangeable large-scale infrastructure conceptually served to establish a comprehensible community structure. The unit as a structural boundary reinforced the identity of individuals in the whole community.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower (1970) by Kisho Kurokawa is a rare built example of Metabolism. It is a residential building consisting of two reinforced concrete towers, and the functional equipment is integrated into the megastructure forming a system of a core tower that serves its ancillary spaces. The functional programmes required for the served spaces are extended from the core where the structure and pipes are integrated. The identical, isolated units contain everything to meet basic human needs in daily life, which expresses the idea of individualism in architecture that is aimed for a large number of habitants. The independent individual capsules create a maximum amount of private space with little social connectivity to neighbours.

Constructivism: As Parts in Whole

Collectivism could be applied to a society in which individuals tie themselves together into a cohesion which obtains the attributes of dependence, sharing and collective benefit. This is aligned to the principles of constructivism, proposing the collective spatial order to encourage human interaction and generate collective consciousness. In contrast to the Metabolists, constructivist architecture underlined spatial arrangements for public space within compressed spatial functions that enable a collective identification.

The Narkomfin Building (1928–1932) by OSA Group is one of the few realised constructivist projects. The building is a six-story apartment located in a long block designed as a “social condenser”.[4] It consists of multiple social functions that correspond to specific functional and constructive norms for working and living space within whole community. The main building is a mix-use compound with one part for individual space and another designed as collective space. The private and common space are linked by an exterior walkway as a communal rooftop garden. There are 54 living units, and each of them only contain bedroom and bathroom. Each flat could be divided into two, one in which contains a playground and kitchen; the other one, a collective function area, which consists of garden, library and gymnasium. The corridors linking the flats are wide and open, appearing as an urban street to encourage inhabitants to stop and communicate with their neighbours.

Compared with the Nagakin Capsule Tower, the concept behind the spatial arrangement of Narkomfin Building is the collectivism of all needed programs. The large-scale collective was proposed as a means to replicate the concept of the village in the city. Practically this allows for a shrinking of the percentage of private space while stimulating the social interaction within the collective living space. The concept of amplifying communal space aligns to the constructivist movement through the concept of reinventing people’s daily life by new socialist experimental buildings, reinforcing the identity of collectives within the whole community.

Figure 2 – (left) the Nakagin Tower metabolized by individualist parts; (right) the Narkofim constructed with collectivist parts. Image: Hao Chen Huang.

Codividuality: As Parts in Parts

In architecture, the word “codividuality” originally emerged in the Japanese architectural exhibition House Vision (2019) to refer to collective living in terms of the sharing economy, delivering a social meaning: “creating a new response to shared-living in the age of post- individualism”.[5] Economically speaking, codividuality expresses the notion of share-ability in sense of sharing value and ownership. Moreover, it offers a participatory democracy for spatial use in relationship to changing social structures and practices. The architectural applications of codividuality are not merely about combined private space with shared public facilities but reveal a new reality that promotes accessibility and sustainability in multiple dimensions, including spatial use, economy and ecology.

Share House LT Josai (2013) is a collective-living project in Japan, offering an alternative for urban living in the twenty-first century sharing economy. Due to the change of demographic structure and rapidly rising house prices, Naruse Inokuma Architects created an opportunity to continually share spaces with unrelated people by creating an interactive living community in a two-and-a-half-story house. The 7.2 square meter individual rooms are three-dimensionally arranged across the two and a half levels. Between the bedrooms are the shared spaces, including a void area and an open plan living platform and kitchen that extend toward identical private rooms. The juxtaposition of private and communal spaces creates a new spatial configuration and an innovative living model in the sharing economy. Codividuality obtains individuals’ autonomy and, on the other hand, encourages collective interaction. It is not an opposition to individualism nor a replication of collectivism, but a merged concept starting from individualism, then juxtaposing against the notion of collectivism. 

Figure 3 – Fusion of parts. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

Autonomy of Parts

In contemporary philosophy, “Object Oriented Ontology” (OOO)[6] proposes a non-human way of thinking, unshackling objects from the burden of dominant ideologies. Objects are withdrawn from human perception, thereby containing the autonomy and irreducibility of substance. Accordingly, what this autonomy is based on is the independence of the object itself. An individual object is not reliant on any other objects, including humans. Objects exist whether we are aware of them or not. Objects do not need to passively rely on human cognition to represent themselves, but self-evidently and equally stand in the world.

OOO enables a transition in architectural meaning from architecture as autonomous objects to interactive relationships between object and field, where indirect relations between autonomous objects are observed. In an ecological sense, the reason behind this shift could be understood as an irreducibility of the architectural relationship within the environment; in other words, an architectural object cannot be withdrawn from its relation to context. As Timothy Morton writes, “all the relations between objects and within them also count as objects”,[7] and David Ruy states in his recent essay, “the strange, withdrawn interaction between objects sometimes brings forth a new object.”[8] Ruy emphasises the relation between objects based on a dynamic composition interacted with by individuals that is not a direct translation of nature.

In an object-orientated ontology, architecture is not merely an individual complete object but fused parts. This could be translated into a mereological notion of shifting from wholeness to parts. As a starting point for a design methodology, extracting elements from buildings represents loosening the more rigid system found in a modernist framework, by understanding architectural parts as autonomous and self-contained. Autonomous architectural elements cannot be reduced to the individual parts that make up the whole. This shift opens up an unprecedented territory in architectural discourse. Autonomous architectural parts now can participate in a non-linear system involving not only input or output, beginning or end, or cause or result; architecture can be understood as part of a process.

Figure 4 – Sampling of infinite codividual parts shown as yellow. Parts with different states showing the machine learning process of identifying codividual combination. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

Architecture in the Sharing Economy

The rise of the sharing economy in the past decade has provided alternatives to the traditional service economy, allowing people to share and monetise their private property and shift thinking around privacy. In this context the following question arises: how could mereological architecture reveal new potentials beyond the inhabitation of buildings by engaging with the sharing economy? Due to the financialisation of the housing market and, simultaneously, the standardisation and lowering of quality of housing standards due to deregulation of the market, this question is even more pressing. Furthermore the bureaucracy of the planning system limits the architectural designing process by slowing development down and restricting innovation. In this context the reconfiguration of housing to emphasise collective space could be an alternative living model, alongside financial solutions such as shared ownership.

Decentralised Autonomous Organisation

The notion of a Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAO) seems fitting for furthering this discussion. In economic and technological terms, DAO is a digital organisation based on blockchain technologies, offering a decentralised economic model. As an alternative to centralised economic structures within a capitalist system, DAO benefits from blockchain technology as a digital tool for achieving a more transparent, accessible and sustainable economic infrastructure. This involves shifting decision-making away from centralised control and giving the authority to individual agents within the system.

In the Medium article “The Meaning of Decentralisation” by Vitalik Buterin, Buterin describes a decentralised system as a collective of individual entities that operate locally and self-organise, which supports diversity. Distribution enables a whole to be discretised into parts that interact in a dynamic computing system that evaluates internal and external connectivity between parts.[9] Through continuous interaction, autonomous discrete entities occasionally form chains of connectivity. In this process the quantities of parts at junctions continuously change. Over time patterns emerge according to how entities organise both locally and globally. Local patterns internally influence a collective while global patterns influence between collectives – or externally in a field of patterns – similar to Stan Allen’s notion of a “field condition”.[10] This creates global complexity while sustaining autonomy through local connectivity.

Figure 5 – Simulations of the interlocking chains training a machine learning model. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

Distributing Codividuality

Codividuality could be seen as a post-individualism, where a diverse self-organising system withdraws power from capitalist authorities. The process of decentralisation characteristic of DAO is key to codividuality for it allows repeated patterns to form in a connected network. Architecturally, in codividual space each spatial unit consists of an open-ended program and self-contained structure, which means that architectural elements such as walls or slabs exist not for a specific function but serve a non-representational configuration.

Through computing codividual connectivity, autonomous spatial units start to overlap with other units, generating varying states of spatial use and non-linear circulation. What this distribution process offers is an expanded field of spatial iterations, using computation to respond to changes in quantity or type of inhabitants. In this open-ended system, codividual parts provide each spatial participant the capability to overcome the limitation of scalability through autonomous interconnection supported by a distributed database.

Unlike conventional planning in a modernist framework, codividual space does not aim for a module system that is used for the arrangement of programme, navigation or structure but for a non-figurative three-dimensional spatial sequence. The interconnections between parts and the field enable scalability from the smaller scale of spatial layouts towards large-scale urban formations. This large-scale fusion of codividual space generates a more fragmented, heterogeneous and interconnected spatial order, balancing collective benefit and individual freedom. In this shifting towards heterogeneity, codividuality opens a new paradigm of architecture in the age of the sharing economy.

Figure 6 – Perspective of a codividual building proposal for a site in Lisbon. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.
Figure 7 – Perspective view into a codividual space offering a 3dimensional urbanity. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.
Figure 08 – Close-up into a codividual living area. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.
Figure 09 – View into a codividual interiority. Codividual aesthetics forming a plural space. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

[1] H. C. Triandis, Individualism And Collectivism (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995).

[2] “Mereological Thinking: Figuring Realities within Urban Form,” Architectural Design, 89, 2 (2019), 30–37.

[3] Z. Lin, Kenzo Tange And The Metabolist Movement (London: Routledge, 2010).

[4] D. Udovicki-Selb, M. J. Ginzburg, I. F. Milinis. Narkomfin, Moscow 1928-1930 (Tübingen: Wasmuth Verlag, 2016).

[5] "HOUSE VISION", HOUSE VISION (2019),, accessed 9 May 2019.

[6] L. Bryant, The Democracy of Objects, (Open Humanities Press, 2011).

[7] T. Morton. The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[8] D. Ruy, “Returning to (Strange) Objects”, TARP Architecture Manual: Not Nature. (Brooklyn, New York: Pratt Institute Graduate School of Architecture, 2015).

[9] V. Buterin, “The Meaning of Decentralization” (2017),, accessed 9 May 2019.

[10] S. Allen and G. Valle, Field Conditions Revisited (Long Island City, NY: Stan Allen Architect, 2010).

Suggest a Tag for this Article
Subscribe To Prospectives To Automatically Receive Curated Issues By Our Advisory Board Twice A Year!