Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The emergence of a new paradigm for a design office

Recently my old house at Chembur went in for redevelopment. Part of the reason was the termite infestation in that building. A corner of my mind did not miss the irony: The puny termite actually got the building down... even if they did it indirectly through the hands of a builder.

Scientists have been marveling at the cooperative capabilities of termites, ants and such like insects. If you get down on your knees and see them at work it would be hard to grasp what was really happening. At an individual level; each termite is probably doing very little. But when you put all their activities together something entirely different comes through: something that is distinctly not possible by each of the termite.

In Gestalt theory, there is something called the principle of closure which is best illustrated by the diagram shown alongside. The principle of closure applies when we tend to see complete figures even when part of the information is missing. We see three black circles covered by a white triangle, even through it could just as easily be three incomplete circles joined together. (http://www.usask.ca/education/coursework/skaalid/theory/gestalt/closure.htm)

In other words, a new shape emerges out of the collection. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Equivalently, when the termites are at work; their efforts are greater than the sum of what each one puts in. Scientists have abstracted this phenomenon and have noticed it in several areas. They have given another name to this phenomena: They call it emergence. It is a response to simplify complexity.

What could be the reason why the termites behave in such a fashion? My guess is that left to each individual, the environment around them poses too many factors that the individual cannot assess and respond to. Hence nature has given them a way to work cooperatively together as a collective super-organism. Even if a few oTermite cathedral built by cooperative work of termitesf the termites do not fit into that cooperative (due to genetic malfunction and other reasons) the gestalt will still work because there are so many of them who work together.

There is a lesson for us architects and other designers here: Modern life has brought in so many complexities that I believe it is beyond the capability of even the most talented architect/designer. Earlier, our offices used to be personality driven: i.e. one or a few talented personalities used to spew out the knowledge which was used by the design firm to solve design problems they were given to solve.

Today, the horses have already run away from the stables; so there is no point closing the stable door. We cannot hunker down in our design office and hope that each design office can tackle all aspects of design and provide a good solution. Do we know what all issues we need to be knowledgeable about? Let's see: Environment, climate, psychological, social, political, sustainability, energy, pollution....the list is actually quite vast.

If we need to handle all that, we need to emerge out from our individual offices and that too in masses. We need to set up collaborative systems so that we become a super-organism.

In one area of design; namely software design, such an approach has already yielded results. The open source movement in software brings together large collective of software programmers and users who can pore over the design and improve it. Even if all users do not participate in the actual coding of the software; the potential that they could (if they so desire) is good enough to keep the software clean and powerful. There are no vested interests who can manipulate the software so that only very few people succeed and reap the benefits.

I believe this approach MUST come into all kinds of designing; not just software design. It is inevitable that it will come. Why do I say it? At the risk of repeating myself; not only are the issues that a design office beyond the capability of the most talented among us but the issues are coming in thick and fast. Take for example; housing for the middle-income and low-income group in India. Under no circumstances can the design demands of this population be catered to by the existing architectural offices in India; even if every one of them work full time. The reason is: logistics. The sheer numbers involved in this growing economy of India can exhaust all individual efforts.

Hence an open source movement in architecture is the only recourse. And this is how it will work:

The new design office would not be a closeted cathedral. Instead, the doors would be open to a bazaar of people who can come in and go. The architect who initiates a design will form a temporal organization for a particular project and build up a daisy-chain of fellow consultants and assistants who will work on the project at hand. The same consultants/assistants may or may not work on other projects. Each consultant in that daisy chain would in a similar fashion build up their own "daisy-chains". Responsibilities and rewards will be shared along the daisy chain. I have been promoting TeamTAD to achieve this objective. It is possibly the world's first open source movement in architecture.

Two immediate objections are often presented to me when I come to this point:
  • a) Will my talent get to be seen and recognized? (i.e. who owns the copyrights?)
  • b) How will I make money?
The open source movement in software design were also initially considered non-intuitive and perplexing probably because of these two 'objections'. However time has settled these controversies: Every person who works on an open source software project is acknowledged. In fact, it is illegal to remove the name of anyone who had worked on the software earlier. So the whole daisy-chain of acknowledgments are preserved. At a first superficial glance, it may look as if this is a rebellion against recognition of talent. But that is completely wrong. Architects will definitely get acknowledged and recognized for their work using this system.

Curiously enough, such offices will highlight the true capability of individuals even though each are involved in a cooperative process to do their work. This was proved in open source software. For e.g. The world has sat up and recognized the efforts of Richard Stallman (Free Software Foundation), Linus Trovalds (Linux, GIT), Brian Cohen (BitTorrent) .... and all of them did their work cooperatively along with others.

The second aspect on how money is to be made is a bit more tricky... It is complicated by the fact that many confuse the freedom to take a look at a design and criticize it to be synonymous with "zero price". Richard Stallman, the father of Free Software Foundation (FSF) often clarifies it by saying that the "Free" of FSF stands for "free as in freedom" and it need not be "free as in free beer"

It is important that fellow designers are given the freedom to peep into the source code cauldron as the software is being cooked. Unfortunately, the act of peeping into the source code gives the feeling that one can take it and run away with it to do whatever you want (Well FSF allows even that, as long as that when you give the cooked design to someone else you will give the same rights that you yourself had received i.e. that other person can also look into the design) Many FSF software are also "free as in beer" and that fuddles the issue even further. So how does one really make money with open-source stuff?

This was best answered in a book on the business aspects of open source (and the book; by the way, was also given away using the open source model!) This is what the authors; Ron Goldman and Richard Gabriel, have to say in their book "Innovation Happens Elsewhere: Open Source as Business Strategy"

The phrase "innovation happens elsewhere" captures the essence of the idea of adding just the smallest amount of innovation necessary for competitive advantage. It is common for people working for a technology company to suffer, at least a little, from the belief that all the really innovative people in their particular technology happen to work at that company. This can cause such a company to work too hard to produce every last bit of related technology, which is often not the best competitive approach. Many advantages accrue when a company adopts the attitude that most innovation happens elsewhere and focuses on choosing the best outside innovations and figuring out the right distinguishing features to make its products competitive.

What they meant was that it is wise for a business to let the mass of people working on the open source project do the actual innovation, and the clever business man should be able to wrap a business model around the innovation and be able to make money via the "wrap". He gives several examples on how this has succeeded. An interesting example is the success of Turbo-Pascal of Borland. It was the first high quality, extremely low-cost compiler... where the innovation actually was done elsewhere (by a person/s in Denmark) Though Turbo-Pascal was not an open-source system; it bucked the trend and in a way proved how business models can be built around external innovations.

What we need is to adopt suitable business strategies for the new open-source kind of architectural practices. I do not know what forms such business strategies will appear; but I've already seen some very innovative economic practices among some architectural firms that have grown quite big. For e.g. Cubellis is a firm in US, made from a collection of smaller firms who act as shareholders. Profits are equitably divided among the shareholders as per the work put by them. Though not yet an open-source firm, it is a sign of things to come. They have grown from a 20 man office in 1986 to over 300 people with offices all over the world. They were recently in India scouting for collaborations.

The profit motivations of a business can be separated from the talents that the business itself has. Hitherto the Internet, it was believed that in order to earn money we need to shut down our shutters and work privately, with some tricks up our sleeve. But that need not be the case. Open-ness can be eminently profitable. Much more than what can be achieved through manipulations behind close doors. It is like the builders of my house saying "let the termites do their job...and we'll come and still find a way to do business". We do have lots to learn from the termites... even business.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The relentless waves of art and architecture

This is the transcript of a lecture of mine which I had given at the D.Y.Patil College of architecture, Nerul, Navi Mumbai.

Art and architecture comes at us like the onslaught of waves at a seashore ... relentlessly, continuously, one after another.

The Dutch painter; Vincent Van Gogh's story ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_Van_Gogh ) is one that of intense introspection... his need to contribute to the world around overwhelmed him, made him continuously restless... he never fitted in anywhere. Only his brother (Theo) believed in him completely and supported him as much as he could. (Both the brothers were eventually buried side by side.) Vincent died unrecognised and unacknowledged, except by his brother, and a very close circle of friends- many of them who were as eccentric as he was. You can feel both the "mother earth" inside Vincent and the rise of the male testosterone; the raw energy that propelled him even though it also made him fairly incommunicado with the opposite gender. (He experienced unrequited love several times in his life) He tried many things in his life (tried to be a miner, a priest, ... ) Nothing gave him that sense of complete satisfaction, he even cut of his ear once in a fit of rage...eventually ended up taking his own life.

Many consider his paintings to be a major deviation from the art scene of his time...in fact, I personally believe he paved the way for the west to accept Indian philosophy and the Buddhist way of looking at things. (e.g. the generous acceptance of contrasts and in-betweens) Hitherto, western art and philosophy had certain reductionist approaches which were not easily dislodged. I am no art historian, but even a casual reading of Vincent's work would indicate this.

It was not just his paintings that made many people sit up and think but his life was also a story that simply had to be told. And what a story it is! .... it was narrated by Irving Stone who wrote his biography "Lust for life" That book is so riveting that it almost does manage to stand on its own merit rather than derive the strength merely from Vincent's life. To me, that book is the other wave that got set in motion See http://www.amazon.com/Lust-Life-Irving-Stone/dp/0452262496

And then the movie made after on his life (the screenplay was based on the book). A classic directed by Vincent Minnelli and George Cukor ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lust_for_Life_%28film%29 ) where Kirk Douglas (the father of Michael Douglas, a current hollywood favourite) plays the role of Vincent. This movie is a must-see, and sometimes they used to show it on some Indian TV movie channel. Don't miss it ever, even if you have read the book. The handsome, craggy face of Kirk Douglas and the way he goes about clumsily in his large frame is very impressive indeed (Vincent was a very muscular type -- opposite of what an artist is supposed to "look" like) It was nominated for many Oscar awards, and won quite a few. To me this movie is yet another wave crashing at the seashore.

And then the song: "Vincent" made by a then fairly obscure American musician, Don McClean ( http://www.donmclean.com/ ). He supposedly never compromised on his music and so never begged in front of Music producers/radio stations and hence never went onto the real high end acts. His song, "Empty chairs" is beautiful not just for the music but also for the amazing lyrics of a love gently lost.

Much of his music was redone by many other artists. For e.g. his very lengthy song; American Pie is an all-time favourite which has seen covers done by many other artists. To me, his song "Vincent" is probably a musician's condensation of what Vincent and his work was all about. Here are the chords and lyrics http://www.guntheranderson.com/v/data/vincent.htm ... and here is the YouTube.com video (which is quite a good composition on its own) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gCORHq_-2Y I feel, the composer of that YouTube presentation has understood what it means to be an impressionist (one of the styles that Vincent Van Gogh painted in) where nothing is presented in "pure blacks" but as fleeting impressions of his life and works. In the whole song, there are very few instances of the word "Vincent". The crafting of the words is so subtle and intense -- many interior designers and architects can learn quite a few things from the words themselves! (e.g., when explaining a color scheme to a client!) "Starry, starry night/Flaming flowers that brightly blaze/ Swirling clouds in violet haze/Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue"

Don Mclean did have a few big hits but as he was not willing to compromise his artistry he did not get much airplay. Other musicians respected his talent though, and now ... for another wavelet ... this time generated by Don Mclean

Roberta Flack, when attending one of Don Mclean's performance heard his love songs ("And I love you so", "Crying" are two very touching love songs) which inspired her so much that she wrote a song about Don Mclean himself! It is called "Killing me softly with his song"
Here is a beautiful rendition of the song by another person (on guitar)

Later on at Wikipedia, I learnt that actually Roberta Flack was inspired by another musician Lori Lieberman who was the one who had actually heard Don Mclean. She wrote a song called "Killing me softly with his softly with his blues" Well...how inspiration comes from many directions...

So the waves keep pounding on the seashore, relentlessly, one after another. Where did the waves originate? In the above series; it was from the restless heart of Vincent Van Gogh.

Such things have happened in India enough number of times in the past, though we do not get to hear of them much as they are often not documented. For e.g. the troubled life of Dada Saheb Phalke -- how he went around influencing the Indian art and film scene. (The painter Raja Ravi Varma was one of Phalke's influences ... that "wave" is not known much. Ravi Varma also influenced a lot of calendar art) Phalke had seen an emotional movie about Christ which inspired him to take up movie-making.

Film director, Kamal Saroop is now documenting his life. The life and works of Kamal is also a story waiting to be told sometime... he was one of the directors of Ghasiram Kotwal, the movie and today he is a big influence on the Indian underground alternative movie movement. He was also one of the assistant directors of Gandhi, the Attenborough movie. A website http://www.phalkefactory.net is assisting in the documentation of his movie making. It will take several years before the movie comes out, and I hope we all get to see the intensity that was Dada Saheb Phalke.

But why remain in the past?

I can see many of you, maybe after several whole nights of hard work, finding that wisp of inspiration in the early morning dew; crafting something so intense and with so much thought that it would set into motion waves that will continuously lash at the seashore of art/architecture in India.