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  • Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape by Molly Wright Steenson
  • Orit Halpern (bio)
Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape
By Molly Wright Steenson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. Pp. 328.

"Computing isn't about computers anymore. It is about living." MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte's words appear prophetic to many of us, glued to our screens for work, consumption, sociality, and health reasons amid a global pandemic. To survive, the need for ubiquitous computing seems unquestionable. It should not be. Our current acceptance and even desire for these mediated conditions are historically situated and contingent. As terms like "reboot" circulate with increasing frequency, we might question what it is we are rebooting or reviving and if we want the future to look like the past. At such a time, it is essential to look back at how we have designed and imagined our computational environments.

Within this context, Molly Wright Steenson's Architectural Intelligence is an excellently researched and accessible invitation to engage with histories of design and computation. To the growing body of literature investigating how digital technologies impact and transform architecture, Steenson offers an alternative perspective. Challenging technophilic approaches to the history of architecture, the book's narrative does not ask if computing has changed architecture, but rather demonstrates that architectural concepts have shaped how we design and imagine digital technologies. The author does so by examining the work of four individuals: Christopher Alexander, an innovator in concepts of object oriented programming and applying computing to urban design; Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the TED conferences; Cedric Price, speculative designer and architect; and Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Lab. What these individuals have in common is their training as architects, although their architectural thinking is not always shared by the field.

Uniquely, the book challenges conventional histories of both computing and architecture. Steenson redefines what constitutes architectural practice and demonstrates how spatial practices and thinking informed digital technology and design. To this end, the inclusion of individuals like [End Page 1265] Wurman is original. His work creating conferences and formats such as TED invites us to consider design as inclusive of such practices as structuring conversations and knowledge production and dissemination. In acknowledging the informatic nature of digital ecologies, Steenson urges us to consider media formats and knowledge infrastructures as central to spatial practices in our present. She argues that architectural thinking since the 1960s has reformulated the concept of space as interactive, adaptive, responsive, and intelligent—ideas that are now universal in the world of digital media.

What constitutes intelligence, of course, is historically contested. Architectural Intelligence clearly sets out to revise commonly held notions of the term. The text's central argument is that each of the figures tracked had different ideas about intelligence. For Alexander, "hyperstability" and maintaining equilibrium were the goals of urban design through computation. For Price, "life conditioning" and interactivity were the measure of success, or what we might label the "intelligence" of a design. For Negroponte, intelligence equated with "self-organization" and "problem worrying." The relationship between the machine and the designer was a "conversation" that would produce new forms of design, creating a human-machine process that could learn and evolve. These differing concepts of intelligence remind us that the work of architects informed our contemporary understanding of machine learning systems, thus influencing design. While all three architects shared influences from cybernetics and the communication and computational sciences of the post-war period, their differing visions of software and design might serve as lessons for the present. Whether we see a technology as having to preserve stability or disrupt social order, also has a bearing on its design. This is particularly important in our contemporary (particularly American) automation and digitization of medical, urban, social service, and environmental management systems. As ideals of data driven planning and self-organizing systems replace centralized and democratic infrastructures, we are left questioning the ethical and political consequences of such discourses and imaginaries.

One critique of this book, is that it only engages in a limited manner with the ethical and political consequences of Architectural Intelligence. Steenson is careful to note her...


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pp. 1265-1267
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