It used to be that when an architect needed a physical facsimile of his/her project, a draftsman would individually draw the schematics by hand. Blueprints were revolutionary in that they streamlined reproduction through technology, yet they were based on a publishing model that was repetitive — not iterative. Computer Aided Design software, or CAD, streamlined the process even further; however, unlike blueprints, CAD was not based on publishing models, but rather on “technological science.” As such it evolved in a very different way. CAD technology that was initially developed in the 1960s as a proprietary tool for heavy industries—aerospace, automotive and super-computer processing centers— became consumer-oriented in the 1980s when it met the UNIX open platform. The key in its rapid development, dissemination and democratization was exactly this: open technology.
Today, we have 3D modeling software that can pack an exponential cache of information, render designs visible with incredible fidelity, and make those designs easier to adapt. BIM technology (building information modeling) has entered the workplace, too, improving coordination and productivity of all trades involved in project construction, effectively revolutionizing the manufacturing sector. This is technology that, like CAD, has undeniably been pushed forward via the open development and integration of components.
And yet, architects continue to depend on closed distribution models in the face of so much technology that makes design shareable and easy to manipulate. 3D modeling software has evolved and created a competitive market with ever more accessible, cross-border, cross-disciplinary design software. While the blueprint, a “published” medium, came with requisite copyright issues that appealed to the architect-as-artist, today, as a “technological” layer, blueprints cannot afford to stay locked in.
The key here is for architects to take cues from open technology rather than antiquated ideas of closed content. Developments in the tech sector have been promulgated by the tenets of open technology, because the competitive risk has been dwarfed by the advantages - in information design, software technology, even user experience. Just look at how the open application programming interface (API) of public web software has given rise to so many successful new iterations of private sector platforms: all those iPhone apps, Facebook games, Google widgets… even the way a typical website browser looks today has been honed by conference.
There’s perhaps no better example of a company that’s used the potential of open development to its advantage than Facebook. As WIRED reports:
“The social networking giant released Thrift as an open source project back in 2007, and it’s now used by several other web outfits, ranging from Twitter to Evernote to Last.fm. It’s a prime example of how open source software has helped bootstrap an entire generation of web services. Most of the leading web companies now share important parts of their underlying infrastructure in any effort to improve the way they work — and speed the development of the web as a whole.”
In other words, Facebook’s determined that it’s worth sharing some of its secrets to speed its peers (and competitors) into the future.In the case of architecture and building projects, design technology is an apt corollary for communications technology, in that the landscape of construction economies depends largely on the context of the industry. A house can only be built as solidly as its slowest lumberjack.
If design schematics were made open, so that manufacturing partners could directly edit them, and if architectural design were seen as a more interpretative work rather than profitable art, the entire architecture industry would evolve together, the way Facebook has used Thrift to better the entire Web. When everyone in the industry benefits, everyone in the market does, too. Construction costs go down, and more kinds of designers have more kinds of artistic freedoms to take design risks. And when that happens, it should no longer matter to an architect that his/her work was laid bare to peers and competitors, because they will have availed themselves of the most important partner in their project: the end-user.
As the design process becomes more adaptable and interdisciplinary; more complete, powerful and accurate; increasingly easy to manipulate, visualize and understand, our attachment to the idea of “property” must give in. Cross-disciplinary design has brought additional challenges – it is no longer only about reproducing, it is about collaborating and in that sense the limits of ownership have to be questioned if you are to fully use the media available.Copyright, patents and property embedded in closed systems are too cumbersome to ignore.
The discussion about copyright cannot be restricted to tech and has to spread to all layers of the same information. Blueprints simplify complex information, but they cannot be seen as an end; rather, they are a layer in the process. Architects need not relinquish the statute of their own designs for the sake of letting others adapt them, but they can immerse themselves at the ground level of the design and collaborate more seamlessly with others.
Joana Pacheco studied architecture at the Architectural Association in London and worked in Portugal and New York before founding Paperhouses in 2012.