Originally published in GROUND UP Issue 01 : Landscapes of Uncertainty

Design, ever situated within culture, has absorbed the central lesson of our time only too well: the perception of a thing can be as saleable as the thing itself. For all that designers are famously hapless as dealmakers, we have accepted this mantra of the marketing age and made it an open secret within our studios and offices. No project is complete without a convincing diagram; few diagrams are completed before the projects they are meant to have helped generate.

Awash in a biblical flood of information, it has also become crucial that we be seen to ground our proposals in data. In our academies the phrase a priori, incorrectly wielded, has become an accusation, a gauntlet to be thrown at the feet of those whose designs seem insufficiently responsive to their analysis. The intimation is that a responsible design is a design that satisfies the wants of a site, which have in turn been impeccably and quantitatively documented. The design is a fait accompli, demanded by its data. In practice, the idea that a one-off design can be anything but an exercise in educated guesswork is no less a fiction than the perfect diagram. And it is the more dangerous deception of the two, for it is the one we find ourselves believing in.

These phenomena, of the perfectly encapsulated and the perfectly justified design, arise from the same desire: it is a lust for certitude that drives them, a near-maniacal societal obsession with knowing that the right thing is being done, being purchased, being selected. It is a meager insight to point out that this same desire drove the explosion of “brand-name” designers in recent years; many have observed that their attraction lies in predictability, the ability to purchase (in theory, at least) another Bilbao or another Highline. And this only becomes truer in a poor, or shattered, economic environment; developers both public and private, already risk-averse, become even more conservative. Designers are stifled, no space for experimentation can be found. As the margin of error in a balance sheet approaches zero, the demand for certainty approaches infinity.

Yet in the landscape, in a building, in our cities, the right thing is elusive. The best-laid plans frequently fail; the “right thing” can only truly be known after the fact. In truth, no design can ever be fully understood except that it is understood a posteriori, in the light of the experience of the thing as it is constructed. What is needed, then, is a new way of thinking about design; we require a new methodology for spatial and programmatic experimentation, one that leaves room for our experiments to fail, as many must if they truly address themselves to unanswered questions. A new way of working as designers that embraces the unknown, which accepts its own uncertainty.

This essay proposes a framework within which this new way can begin to take shape: by working in the medium of the temporary installation, the risk associated with the realization of experimental designs can be reduced to acceptable levels; by situating these installations in urban public space, they can become performative on a social and cultural level, testing our ideas not only about the things we build, but about how those things affect those who use and inhabit them.

spacehacking – between the virtual and the real

Digital tools have indisputably prompted a sea change in how designers work over the last ten years; some might contend that it has similarly revolutionized the act of design itself, although this latter claim is far from uncontested. But what is remarkable about this revolution, a decade on, is not how fully it has been embraced, but how slow the design community has been to begin to pick apart, to remake, to hack the virtual environments in which our conceptual products are taking shape.

Hacking is a fraught term: it is widely understood to refer to rogue internet users dedicated to defeating and dismantling security protocols for profit or infamy. Yet the original hackers were far from criminal – they were the individuals who, coming out of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, helped birth the Internet. Another application of the term describes hobbyists and tinkerers, like those who in the 1970’s invented modern personal computing in their garages (most famously Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates). Both groups are comprised of individuals who, as an early glossary of web subculture defines it, “delight in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system…”

What this history suggests is that those willing to experiment with new systems are those best positioned to radically reimagine the ways in which those systems interface with our daily lives. This is no less true in design than it was in communication or computer hardware. Hacking is both an act and an ethos.

It is an ethos that is catching on: in software, independent developers are pioneering several important areas of computational design through the medium of free plug-ins for existing programs. On the other side of the real/virtual divide, individuals like Marc Fornes of theverymany are bringing digital fabrication technologies into their practice, designing to the limits of what it is possible to realize. At the same time, there is a push to literally bridge the gap between the computational and spatial environments through interactivity, as shown in the work of firms such as Studio Roosegaarde in Rotterdam, which has over the past several years created new paradigms for haptic and responsive environments.

It may seem, giving the preceding examples, that the “new” methodology this essay seeks is anything but; this is not the case – the will to experiment has blossomed, it is true, but we are not yet sure how to think about our new tools, or what indeed they are for.

One clue to the former question, how to think about hacking in design, is offered by Sanford Kwinter in his work Architectures of Time: Towards a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture. Early in the book, he draws a crucial distinction between the idea of the realization through design of one of a finite number of possibilities and the creation of a virtual, a unique and unlimited conceptual construct. The virtual, for Kwinter, is a sort of possibility space in which a multitude of overlapping Platonic ideals of a design exist and are bridged with the materialized creation of our physical space through a dynamic process-in-time. This interaction, between the virtual and the material, is described as a “continuous, positive, and dynamic process of transmission, differentiation, and evolution.”

Kwinter’s formulation allows us to see the products of the hacking ethos in architecture not as isolated incidents, nor as closed-loop investigations, but as part of this gradient between the virtual and the material; the ephemerality of a temporary construction allowing it to come partially into being, testing our ability to execute the translation between the perfectly realized virtual (not to be confused with a mere digital model) and the compromised but tangible material.

It remains unclear, however, what these physical and computational experiments are doing, other than testing their own viability. And as their recent proliferation suggests, that viability is no longer in question. This essay argues that the answer to this challenge lies in widening our scope of investigation and experimentation beyond the pursuit of novelty, or “pure difference”, as Kwinter calls it.

Our hacker’s “delight in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system” must move beyond the computer systems on our desks and the fabrication systems in our shops, into the realm of the social and cultural systems we live and labor within, which are no less amenable to the ethos of the hacker than any other. Here we have the roots of a new genre of hacking, one that is distinctly architectural, which we can call spacehacking.

city tactics – the power of place

Even as the projects mentioned above have begun to experiment with form, fabrication and computation, they have largely (and lamentably) left behind one of the central precepts of architectural and landscape design, not to mention much of art and performance: the notion of the site as the physical and conceptual terrain upon which interventions are enacted. At the same time, a parallel breed of inherently sited temporary interventions has begun to take root in cities around the world, organized around ideas about specific geographic and cultural locations.

It is notable that in many cases the progenitors of these contextual installations treat the acts of design and fabrication as casually as the form-driven designers treat the notion of the site. This new category of actors is, nevertheless, deeply embedded in the hacking of the urban environment. Rather than computational, material or architectonic concerns, their work has everything to do with the concept of tactics. Of tactics, Michel de Certeau wrote that:

“The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them... what it wins it cannot keep. ... It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse.”

In increasingly monitored, controlled, and homogenized cities, this ode to the creation of a space of individuation and cultural resistance rings truer now than when it was first written, in 1983. This idea of tactics was updated and built upon much more recently by Peter Arlt, an Austrian urban theorist, who drew a line between urban tactics and urban strategy, suggesting that while urban hackers suffer from a structural power deficit relative to the forces of permanence in the city, they stand to benefit from a fine-grained knowledge of local context and the support of other local actors.

Arlt goes on to suggest that, “the interim user is never interested in money alone, but in putting his ideas into practice.” Testing ideas, crafting experiments in the city, is a primary motivation: these individuals, too, are delighted by their engagement with a system. One compelling example of the power of tactics in negotiating the territory of the city can be found in the work of Les Enfants de Don Quichotte (The Children of Don Quixote), a Parisian group who successfully transformed the conversation around urban homelessness in Paris through the deployment of hundreds of red tents along the Seine that were offered to homeless individuals as free shelter. As they became occupied, the presence of the homeless became impossible to deny – as they were decamped and dispersed throughout the city, the geographic reach of the problem was further emphasized.

There is also a local example of the persuasive potential of experimental tactics in the city, provided by Park(ing) Day and the City of San Francisco’s recent roll-out of the Parklets program. After several years of succeful Park(ing) Days, the proof-of-concept offered by this annual action was so persuasive that the City itself decided to initiate a program under which parking spots that front businesses around the city could be semi-permanently transformed into small parks, or parklets, by the businesses themselves.

This is a small example of a larger phenomenon: the potential for an initial experiment to succeed, and blossom into a more complexly material construction. To move, in Kwinter’s conception, one step closer to the fully real.

synthesis – spacehacking in the city

A key question remains: what may be gained by the marriage of these two methodologies? Frank Apunkt Schneider and Gunther Friesinger suggest a possible answer in their essay “Urban Hacking as a Practical and Theoritical Critique of Public Spaces”:
…a poetics of urban space…is, therefore, fully aware of (local) signs’ and symbols’ molecular significance for the whole of the order. The supremacy of this order’s structures can no longer be attacked by a form of (fantasmatic) revolution. At most, they can be challenged by an aesthetic praxis, in a guerilla war of representations.

That there exists a war of representations in our cities comes as no news to urban hackers and tacticians, who have long sought a way to contend with the forces of capital in our cities. What we require is a way of working that combines ingenious form-making with low cost and the capability for rapid deployment; incisive urban critique with local knowledge and a sense of humor. We must generate these designs, these hacks, rapidly and without fear of failure; a system is only rarely comprehended on the first attempt. If we are lucky we may, like the progenitors of Park(ing) Day, happen upon an idea that blossoms.

Most of our ideas will not benefit from this fate, but their presence, their critique, will increase the intellectual and visual diversity of our cityscapes. They will expose the plasticity of our environments, and render the ground more fertile for future imaginings. Beyond this, we can’t say what potentials such constructions might evidence: they are, after all, experiments. Certainty in hacking arrives only after the fact.


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Kwinter, Sanford. Architectures of Time: Towards a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.

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