An essay by Diana Smiljkovic
Emails are read and messages sent from a laptop in bed. Meetings take place by the bedroom desk where colleagues animate the computer screen while coffee is brewing on the kitchen counter. Horizontal pieces of ‘domestic interior real estate’ work in conjunction with gleaming screens to project labor outward while also provide a space where one can project it inward. Social life is confined to the digital spheres of an ever-expanding array of online platforms. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has propelled this narrative into a global condition. Work has immigrated home, and with the advance of online technologies, professions find themselves in the need to adapt or perish. With this immersion into the digital, we see vast changes to the physical world of professional practice such as geographic de-clustering of megacities and the dissolution of office spaces. Architecture as a discipline of spatial design might be a productive place to start unfolding this reflection.
As the current condition is drastically changing the way we work, I take a look back at the European Renaissance and make my way up to today, to try and frame the present within moments of technological developments that have historically altered architectural labor. The invention of perspective during the renaissance period portrays the shift from a theocentric cosmology towards anthropocentrism. At this point the architectural discipline moves away from transcendental value of ‘god’ mediating between man and nature towards immanent value where man becomes the animating force in architecture. By shifting the eye, the subject/object relationship centers itself in architectural thinking, invoking the separation of master builder and architect.This in itself identifies a split between mental conception and physical production. The invention of perspective and turn of cosmology is synchronous with the the change from an inherently collaborative practice to a much more individualized discipline.
With the advent of mechanical technologies and standardization the modern period brings forward another shift to the architectural practice. From the individual creative genius of the renaissance is born knowledge applied productivity. The architectural office still presents hierarchy, however the systemization that spatial mechanics allow welcomes a form of collaboration, while still affirming that ideation and construction are two distinct concepts.
The post modern period brings forward the introduction of the computer and CAD software programs within the architecture office, however individual use of computers is not considered yet. The technology is operated by trained individuals who work alongside architects as their physical-to-digital translator, such teams are composed of 10 or more people to ensure a successful creative workflow.
Towards the end of the 20th century we see the disintegration of the CAD department with the proliferation of the office computer which present itself as a new tool to the individual architect. This compartmentalizes workflow into distinct workstations.
Technologies, from perspective, to the personal computer, to the internet, project the historical undulation of individualization and collectivization within the architectural profession. Alongside we see the transition of the product of practice from object, to knowledge and communication. Such technologies alter the disciplinary lens as perspective takes the eye from god to man, computer does so from man to machine and the internet from machine to the individual-collective.
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the majority of activities into the domestic, amounting to remote work, online education and so on. As individuals are deprived of physical interaction, internet technologies present themselves as a supplement.
Sven Birkerts in Changing the Subject sets up a binary distinction between the individual and the collective mind that emerges with the immersion into the internet. In contrast, Boris Groys in In The Flow embraces the complexities of practice online and presents a more nuanced interpretation by arguing that the divine gaze of the internet complicates the artist’s practice, as well as changes the focus from object to aura. This essay argues that Groys presents a more accurate framework for understanding how architectural labor is being redefined today with the exacerbation of online collaborative platforms.A redefinition that further dematerializes the work of the architect and supports the role of the architect as a UX designer.
This topic of individual vs collective, and practice vs product runs central in this paper. Central questions that frame the argument ask how online technologies (that have surfaced during this current condition) are altering the way an entire profession works and in turn what its outcome is, and if so, can we identify an emergence of a new digital avant garde of architecture.
Firstly, complexities of individuality and collectivity within the architectural profession are brought forward challenging Sven Birkerts binary interpretation of the internets role in Changing the Subject. By analyzing online performance and usage of collaborative work platforms I attempt to argue that with the advent of new technological innovation a form of individualism is rendered in the architectural profession (supported by Lynn’s Archaeology of the Digital), but with time it synthesizes new forms of hybrid individual-collaborative practices. The time for this to happen has been compressed due to the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, presenting a situation of speedy innovation and reinvention.
Secondly, referring to Groys’ discussion of object to aura, the second part of the paper lists and categorizes collaborative online platforms that are substituting the physical workspace during the COVID-19 pandemic (categories: Video Conference, Online Virtual Reality, Building Information Modeling [BIM], Virtual Board, Cloud Storage and Channel-based Written Communication). I proceed to conduct an analysis of three platforms, (further emphasizing the complexities of defining the distinction between individuality and collectivity) focusing on showing that there is a clear development in practice and the deemphasizing of product.
Lastly, with the argument of the grey zones of individuality and collectivity within the architectural profession brought forward by online collaborative platforms and the shift from product to practice, I conclude with the notion that this has potential to change the product itself, having the same grand effect as the invention of perspective and the computer. With the Internet as a critical medium of work, the role of the architect moves towards a designer of practices - a UX designer of sorts.
COMPLEXITIES OF INDIVIDUALITY AND COLLECTIVITY
In Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (2015), Sven Birkerts presents a binary of individualism and collectivism, declaring the consequences of an all-permeating technological innovation. Birkerts presents two diverging paths, one of which he claims “is moving ominously towards collectivized, dematerialized screen living” (Birkerts, 2015), bringing forward the question whether there is still even a choice other than? In his eyes the two cannot meet.
“No eventual convergence. One is the path — the ideal — of the individualized self; the other is the path of the socially and neurally collectivized self, along which, at some undetermined point, the idea of “self” itself must blur away, become a term no longer applicable” (Birkerts, 2015).
Whilst Birkerts paints the internet as a medium —designed by the few— as an autonomous power that recreates the many in its image and fosters a causal narrative of a medium directly impacting both practice and product, we need to consider the medium itself as a malleable one not exclusively used in a vacuum. Birkerts reads diametrically opposed conceptions into his sources Bustillo, McLuhan, even Rilke — be it Birkerts reading of Bustillo’s expertise and collaboration, McLuhan’s true soul and machine-influence soul, or Rilkes animate being and sentient world. The reading of polarities presents a fragmentary argument.
“Without even officially signing on to hive-oriented behavior and thinking, we begin to manifest it. We become more and more connected, and more and more dependent, on the dynamic interactivity achieved using tools that most of us don’t begin to understand” (Birkerts, 2015).
Whilst this quote might resonate with the situation brought forward in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequential home-work scenario, we must understand the complexities of the internet as a medium enabling collective work. Collaboration tools have gone from being non-existent to a critical part of the office software portfolio.
Zoom.us market caps haven risen from December 31 2019 (pre-lock down) 18.81B to March 30 2020 (first lock down) 42.10B to October 19 2020 (second lock down) 161.65B (Zoom Market Cap, 2020). Comscore’s data shows that “U.S. audiences spent a total of six billion minutes using top collaboration tools in May 2020” (O’Connor, 2020) and that individual use of collaboration platforms in the U.S have risen from 9.9% in May 2019 to 41% in May 2020. “Zoom.us and Microsoft Teams, respectively, have increased by 813% and 943% in unique visitors year-over-year (May 2019 vs. May 2020)” (O’Connor, 2020).
Sign up home pages of online collaborative platforms read “where remote teams get work done” (Miro: An Online Visual Collaboration Platform For Teamwork), “Where Work Happens: For All Kinds of Teams” (Slack), “Get Immersive In-Office Collaboration Right From Home” (Zoom), “More Ways to Be A Team” (Microsoft Teams) and so on. The overemphasizing of collaborative team work online smokes the air in 2020, however it is from a position of collectivization during a time of isolation and individual retreat. The individual, physically separated from the collective assumes their position in a group online. However these platforms differ from the collective effort of a platform like Wikipedia as working collectively doesn’t equate to a collective mind or project nor does it necessarily assume a hive-oriented mentality. The collaborative tools that host work in 2020 present platforms that can both support the individual project as well as the collectivized one and everything in between. In the effort of staying connected yet separated within our online niches, what we see is both the effort of working together at smaller scales of practice whilst being presented access to material across the Internet where geographic location, time zone, personal invite is negligible.
Having expressed generally the change in work culture, I will now take a closer look at specially the way that the architectural profession and the work of the architect is changing in the face of online collaborative platforms. The introduction of the computer in the 1980’s and 1990’s and of the internet in the 2000’s rendered a form of individualism in the architectural profession, as these technologies secured their place in the architecture office a hybrid individual-collaborative practice emerged especially with the rise of online collaborative platforms in 2020. Here we could argue for the stark binary of one being isolated producing individually minded projects or the internet as an all-encompassing collective vision - but instead we see the blurring of two where Birkerts collectivized mind is challenged. The architectural discourse does not stray into a hermetic, self-referential one due to the internet but neither does it diffuse into the realms of the ‘noosphere’ - sphere of merged human identity. Instead the position of individual is highlighted within the collective through user profiles and chat, sketch, video etc. records. Architectural practice online can now reach further into different niches of thinking and so the individual is constantly met with a multitude of approaches from the many differing collaborative groups.
Architect Greg Lynn in Archaeology of The Digital refers to the importance of attributing the machine in architectural developments from the 1980’s to the early 2000’s by presenting four architects and stating “In all fairness, a fifth actor should be added to this list; an inanimate actor who takes different forms and names: machine, computer, manual, software, code, script, etc. This technological constituent — sought, found, tested, modified and even invented by the architects themselves in order to realize their ultimate vision — attained a life of its own and made the production of these projects possible” (Lynn, 2013). Lynns position on the inanimate actor sees associations with Licklider’s Man-Computer Symbiosis as opposed to Birkerts idea of machine as an intractable force shaping man. The interiorization of the architectural project with the introduction of the computer in the 80’s and 90’s and the shift from collectively-minded projects to individual architectural conceptions, does support my argument that new technologies individualize practice in their introduction. Lynn formulates this shift in the following quote:
“It was during the late 1980’s and the 1990’s, when architectural research and development enterprises pressed for intensive investigations in technological advancement and computer-based tools, that the digital became instrumental in the definition of particular visions and a new architectural direction. Moreover, the 1990’s were notably defined by the field’s near-total dismissal of history and theory, which were promptly replaced by technology driven practices. This change was further intensified by the east access to the World Wide Web, cellular phones, software and computational capacity, among countless other tools. Interestingly, this period was also the beginning of a vanishing interest in the “public” component of architecture” (Lynn, 2013).
I have argued here that we do not stand at a binary between collectivity and individuality instead I lean on the fluid distinctions between practice and product. I have presented a critique of Birkerts binary understanding of individual and collective with the aim of framing this matter in its complexities. Someone like Groys and his focus on practice and product — or aura and object — and their fluidity might help to better frame this complexity.
Fig. 2. Zoom Annotation With Peers on Architectural Plan Drawings.
Fig. 3. Slack Platform Channels for the Home Work Project
Fig. 4. Miro Pin Up Presentations and Reviews
PRACTICES AND PRODUCTS
In In the Flow (2016), Boris Groys argues that the emigration of work to the online implies an art that does not produce objects, but practices. Groys claims that digital production generates “aura without objects, transforming all its materials into vanishing markers of the transitory present” (Groys, 2016). I argue that with the Internet as a primary place for the production and distribution of creative and cultural work today, methods of practice are indeed prioritized over product, but this also changes the product itself.
Groys identifies the real dilemma being the Internet as working space. The process of production - the practice —is exposed from the beginning to end with Internet as medium. The Internet resynchronizes production and exposure, therefore relieving the creative worker from a final product as the process itself becomes a product. As “the operation of framing becomes explicit and remains explicit throughout the experience of contemplating” practice online — from contemplation to communication to production — is dated, archived and traced, which Groys states “is the last blow that finally destroys the ontological autonomy of the subject” (Groys, 2016).
The question of the online spectator arises, the internet being vast yet finite discounts the human gaze and the divine gaze. The internet in Groys’ view is seen through the algorithmic gaze. The Internet as medium has limits to practice online, however, it does present a multitude of possible methods of working, even if not tailored to the human gaze I believe that it enables the individual user to frame their experience online. Practice has become a product — online collaborative platforms. My study of those platforms seeks to investigate how their lens of practice is changing the end product of the architectural profession itself. The changing aura is so to speak, changing the end object.
Most crucial online collaborative platforms that are being used for architectural practice today can be categorized based on communication methods into Video Conference, Online Virtual Reality, Building Information Modeling [BIM], Virtual Board, Cloud Storage and Channel-based Written Communication. The figure below displays a number of online collaborative platforms within their categories and their level of individual or collective usage.
I use ‘radical features’ of the platforms as a guiding principle of my analysis — radical in their significant impact on the way we work together by instilling new disciplines, not only to communication, but to process.
Zoom, although critiqued for its privacy and security issues* has become the leading videoconferencing platform for work meetings, lectures, social gatherings and so on. Described as frictionless, the video platform presents a user-friendly tool. Whilst its video and chat are its main selling features, the annotation feature, hidden in the narrow top-bar, is critical in the way architectural practices communicate through Zoom. Whilst platforms such as Bluebeam are dedicated to redlining drawings, the Zoom annotation feature provides an informal, mind-mapping type of collective contemplation and communication; one person located in their own home-office shares their screen through Zoom, presenting their work to their fellow colleagues, the other — perhaps across the country — annotates the screen for everyone to see their notes and ideas, further inviting more annotations to take place from everyone. This might reflect in person collaborative sketching but the process not only allows for erasure, re-annotation and layering but also synchronous annotation without physical interruption over the drawing board. Further, the annotation feature presents a much more profound change of perception of architectural production. The drawings, less precious, thoughts, less filtered, imprecisions and discrepancies expected. The change in perceiving work as precious and precise to loose, with more tolerance emphasizes a looseness and tolerance that mirrors the material reality of the built environment, yet now there is an acceptance of it that goes against the enlightenment search for ultimate precision.
Slack, a channel-based messaging platform, itself declares to replace email. A radical feature that it presents is the channel. By using mentions, reactions, sharing files, and formatting messages, the channel feature decompartmentalizes information as opposed to single stream emails while still organizing information, it enables fluid a-synchronous communication and informal communication through reactions which eliminates the need for redundant written responses. One creates multiple channels for different themes of work, within which message titles invite other users to answer in threads and react with emoticons as quick responses letting everyone know they have read the post and agree. Its informal, transparent nature alters office communication by eliminating tedious meetings and organizing information so that it can be easily traced. The option of a-synchronous channel-based communication over in-person meetings (virtual or physical) can impact process outcomes by streamlining them to a point which affords leniency. As communication becomes dispersed and speed is promoted, the link between ideas may break, denying relationships to develop across conversations risking the overlapping of synergies in the conceptual stage of a project. This fracturing of conversations into silos mirrors a typical problem that one comes across in dealing with structuring directories of files: the impossibility of redundancy. Working with a synthetic mindset is innate to the architectural profession, here is presented a threat to synthetic integration as the fracturing of conversation creates the fracturing of ideas. Slack presents an organizational way of thinking that differs from a synthetic thought process, presenting a more scientific model of thought. Slack also expresses the difficulty of conceiving a collective mind as such a rigid structure is needed for its support.
Miro, an online collaborative whiteboard platform, like slack includes integrations of other platforms so to provide “everything you need to collaborate online” (Miro homepage). Whilst its infinitely zoomable canvas and web whiteboard is its main feature, the collaborator cursor engages users in a unique way. By being able to perceive each other through the screen as abstracted cursors, the two-dimensional plane brings forward spatial qualities of perception of scale, movement and practice. A design review hosted in Miro presents the swarm of cursors moving from drawing to drawing letting everyone know where the gaze is located in real time. Miro presents the dilemma of content and idea curation. The Miro board is the process, but also the gallery itself - the interactive museum. What we see here brings us back full circle to Groys’ main concept of direct realism and affordances as presented by J.J. Gibson (Gibson, 1979). It reveals that the architect becomes a co-designer of practices in addition to the design of passive objects. Miro doesn’t tailor to the authors creation of a narrative, but instead allows the user to browse and piece together a relationship between ideas. The concept of adjacency in a curatorial sense takes center stage. The cursor is the projected gaze of another, while in a physical pin up you cannot see the gaze of the other, presenting your narrative, Miro enables the gaze to be tracked, the authors narrative to be redundant. In Miro it becomes very clear that you have this crossover between the perception of the real but also its representation.The fact that you can see people moving around brings it closer to perceiving a spatial reality whilst still being a fiction.
“The possibilities for collaboration are endless” (Miro homepage).