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Louis Kahn used to tell his students: if you are ever stuck for inspiration, ask your materials for advice. "You say to a brick, 'What do you want, brick?' And brick says to you, 'I like an arch.' And you say to brick, 'Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel.' And then you say: 'What do you think of that, brick?' Brick says: 'I like an arch.'” Khan stressed you had to respect brick's inherent nature and order. He stressed not to just use brick as a secondary material, or because it was cheaper, but put brick into absolute glory. That is the only position that it deserves.
Believing his materials had a stubborn sense of their own destiny was one of the many quirks of this oddball architect, who died of a heart attack in a toilet at New York's Penn Station in 1974.
Inspired by ruins, DNA and primary geometry, Louis Kahn was one of the 20th century's most influential architects. Born in Estonia in 1901, the Jewish American brick-whisperer is most famous for a series of enormous institutional complexes that stand in swelteringly hot places: the laboratories of the Salk Institute in California; the Institute of Management at Ahmedabad in India, with its dynamic brick colonnades; and the brooding concrete fortress of the National Assembly in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
For Kahn, form did not necessarily follow function; nor did his projects celebrate all the new possibilities of industrial materials. Created from monolithic masonry, and drawing on primary geometries with great circles, semi-circles and triangles sliced out of their weighty walls, his buildings exude a timeless and sometimes sinister presence. They look like the hastily vacated remnants of a future cosmic civilization.
Kahn would describe his building sites as "ruins in reverse." In Dhaka, this served him particularly well: legend has it that, during the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971, bombers spared the construction site of his National Assembly, taking the mysterious cellular complex to be the ruins of an ancient historic site. But such layered shells were no aesthetic folly or indulgent fetish for the archaic. The Dhaka building's perforated walls are a vital tool, protecting the interior spaces from direct sunlight and allowing passive ventilation.
In a 1944 essay titled “Monumentality,” many of Lou’s mature architectural ideas appeared in embryonic form. “Monumentality in architecture may be defined as a quality, a spiritual quality inherent in a structure which conveys the feeling of its eternity, that it cannot be added to or changed,” the essay began. “Monumentality is enigmatic,” Kahn observed. “It cannot be intentionally created.” What he seemed to be suggesting, even at this early stage, was that the architect could not simply impose his own egotistically ambitious, monument-seeking will on the material and the design. Instead, the modern designer or engineer needed to remain receptive to the kind of power that could only emerge organically from his chosen materials as he shaped them toward their specific functions. Such passive receptivity was the very opposite of the virile assertiveness that characterized contemporary architects in the popular imagination—in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, for instance, which had just come out the previous year. What Lou seemed to be advocating in his obscure little essay seemed, by contrast, positively feminine.
Douglas C. Engelbart, a computer science visionary who was credited with inventing the mouse, the now-ubiquitous device that first allowed consumers to navigate virtual desktops with clicks and taps. Officially, the device was called the “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System,” but Dr. Engelbart’s lab dubbed it the “mouse” for its taillike cord. “We thought that when it had escaped out to the world it would have a more dignified name,” Dr. Engelbart said later. “But it didn’t.”
Engelbart was trying to create better thinking tools, in pursuit of bootstrapping. Bootstrapping is the process of getting better at getting better. Doug Engelbart coined the term bootstrapping to describe the strategy at his Augmentation Research Center, of focusing on building tools for thinking powerfully, and building tools for making tools. Things that bootstrap exhibit exponential improvement.
Perhaps no better illustration can be found of Dr. Engelbart’s egalitarian and utilitarian vision for the computer than his landmark 1962 paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”
In the paper, he described an architect drafting on a computer screen: “He sits at a working station that has a visual display screen some three feet on a side; this is his working surface, and is controlled by a computer (his ‘clerk’) with which he can communicate by means of a small keyboard and various other devices.”
At the time, the workplace description was a postcard from the future.
“That,” Dr. Engelbart later told the Christian Science Monitor, “was my first real awareness of what I’ve come to see as the biggest single problem”—the absence of a way to express futuristic concepts in modern-day terms.
All computing projects Dr. Engelbart oversaw were propelled by his desire for simplicity. Bill Duvall, an engineer who worked in Dr. Engelbart’s lab, told Computer Reseller News that when Dr. Engelbart interviewed job candidates, he would hand them a pencil with a brick attached to it with masking tape and ask them to write their name. If our writing tools were that unwieldy, he would demonstrate, people would be discouraged from using the tool. He argued the effort in doing calculations and writing down extensive and carefully reasoned argument would dampen individual experimentation with sophisticated new concepts, and perhaps discourage a good many people from even working at extending understanding.
Engelbart came up with the brick-pencil while thinking about the Whorfian hypothesis, a linguistics concept which states that the world view of a culture is limited by the structure of the language which that culture uses. Essentially that the way people think is affected by their languages. And the development of language relies on manipulating symbols.
In 1962, Doug Engelbart came up with a Neo-Whorfian hypothesis. He thought that if this Whorf guy was right, then speed of symbol manipulation is one of the bottlenecks to augmenting human intellect because it limits our knowledge transfer capacity. And if we somehow increased the speed of operating symbols, we’d improve our ability to improve because more knowledge would be created.
But humans don’t like new truths—and especially don’t like when someone tells them they’re not that smart as they think they are.
That’s why Doug designed an experiment to “de-augment” a human.
He took a brick and a pencil. And a bit of masking tape. He attached the pencil to the brick and then measured how quickly a person would write a sentence with a new “brick-pencil” device.
Figure 2 shows the results, compared with typewriting and ordinary pencil writing. With the brick pencil, we are slower and less precise. If we want to hurry the writing, we have to make it larger. Also, writing the passage twice with the brick-pencil tires the untrained hand and arm.
Now consider that writing is how we’ve been transferring knowledge for thousands of years. And as our progress is a byproduct of what we know, we can assume that if we had 3x slower “brick-pencils,” we’d progress much more differently than we did. The concepts that would evolve within our culture would be different, and very likely the symbology to represent them would be different as well.
History in Pix - Doug Engelbart Institute
How to Build a Digital Brick Wall / Brick, I Want to Become Architecture
Allan Wexler makes buildings, furniture, vessels and utensils as backdrops and props for everyday, ordinary human activity. The works isolate, elevate, and monumentalize our daily rituals: dining, sleeping, and bathing. And they, in turn, become mechanisms that activate ritual, ceremony and movement, turning these ordinary activities into theater.
How to Build a Digital Brick Wall is an exploration of the relationship between the handcraft and computercraft. A brick mouse is used to construct a drawing of a brick wall. The amount of time, sweat, blistering and physical exhaustion to make the drawing of a brick wall is equivalent to the amount of time, sweat, blistering and physical exhaustion of an actual bricklayer.
Brick, I Want to Become Architecture is a portrait of the artist in and as his work. The artist’s body is embedded into the brick wall. The artist became the wall. The wall contained him. When he departed he shed his form, leaving his imprint in the architecture. The artwork invites interaction. One can sit in the imprint of the artist.
Clay blurs the boundary between sculpture and architecture. The work begins as architecture, breaking free of the brick wall of the residence hall. It then extends out to function as sidewalk, as abstract forms, as bench and as artist portrait.
How to Build a Digital Brick Wall 2009 | Allan Wexler
Brick - I Want to Become Architecture | Allan Wexler
“A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others...To the degree that an individual masters his tools, he can invest the world with his meaning: to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tools determines his self-image. Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision.”
— Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality
Born in Vienna between the two wars, the public intellectual and radical priest Ivan Illich had by his mid-30s set out to rethink the world. In 1961, having arrived in Mexico by way of New York City and Puerto Rico, he started the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) learning center in Cuernavaca, an unlikely cross between a language school for missionaries, a free school, and a radical think tank, where he gathered thinkers and resources to conduct research on creating a world that empowered the oppressed and fostered justice.
Illich's achievement was a reframing of human relationships to systems and society, in everyday, accessible language. He advocated for the reintegration of community decision making and personal autonomy into all the systems that had become oppressive: school, work, law, religion, technology, medicine, economics. His ideas were influential for 1970s technologists and the appropriate technology movement—can they be useful today?
In 1971, Illich published what is still his most famous book, Deschooling Society. He argued that the commodification and specialization of learning had created a harmful education system that had become an end in itself. In other words, "the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school." For Illich, language often pointed to how toxic ideas had poisoned the ways we relate to each other. "I want to learn," he said, had been transmuted by industrial capitalism into "I want to get an education," transforming a basic human need for learning into something transactional and coercive. He proposed a restructuring of schooling, replacing the manipulative system of qualifications with self-determined, community-supported, hands-on learning. One of his suggestions was for "learning webs," where a computer could help match up learners and those who had knowledge to share. This skillshare model was popular in many radical communities.
With his book Tools for Conviviality published in 1971, Illich extended his analysis of education to a broader critique of the technologies of Western capitalism. The major inflection point in the history of technology, he asserts, is when, in the life of each tool or system, the means overtake the ends. "Tools can rule men sooner than they expect; the plow makes man the lord of the garden but also the refugee from the dust bowl." Often this effect is accompanied by the rise in power of a managerial class of experts; Illich saw technocracy as a step toward fascism. Tools for Conviviality points out the ways in which a helpful tool can evolve into a destructive one, and offers suggestions for how communities can escape the trap.
So what makes a tool "convivial?" For Illich, "tools foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user." That is, convivial technologies are accessible, flexible, and noncoercive. Many tools are neutral, but some promote conviviality and some choke it off. Hand tools, for Illich, are neutral. Illich offers the telephone as an example of a tool that is "structurally convivial" (remember, this is in the days of the ubiquitous public pay phone): anyone who can afford a coin can use it to say whatever they want. "The telephone lets anybody say what he wants to the person of his choice; he can conduct business, express love, or pick a quarrel. It is impossible for bureaucrats to define what people say to each other on the phone, even though they can interfere with—or protect—the privacy of their exchange."
A "manipulatory" tool, on the other hand, blocks off other choices. The automobile and the highway system it spawned are, for Illich, prime examples of this process. Licensure systems that devalue people who have not received them, such as compulsory schooling, are another example. But these kinds of tools, that is, large-scale industrial production, would not be prohibited in a convivial society. "What is fundamental to a convivial society is not the total absence of manipulative institutions and addictive goods and services, but the balance between those tools which create the specific demands they are specialized to satisfy and those complementary, enabling tools which foster self-realization."
To foster convivial tools, Illich proposes a program of research with "two major tasks: to provide guidelines for detecting the incipient stages of murderous logic in a tool; and to devise tools and tool systems that optimize the balance of life, thereby maximizing liberty for all." He also suggests that pioneers of a convivial society work through the legal and political systems and reclaim them for justice. Change is possible, Illich argues. There are decision points. We cannot abdicate our right to self-determination, and to decide how far is far enough. "The crisis I have described," says Illich, "confronts people with a choice between convivial tools and being crushed by machines."
Illich's ideas on technology, like his ideas on schooling, were influential among those who spent the 1970s thinking that we might be on the cusp of another world. Some of those utopians included early computer innovators, who saw the culture of sharing, self-determination, and DIY that they lived as something that should be baked into tools.
Another book published in 1971 was Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism, which contained a short essay entitled "Towards a Liberatory Technology." Bookchin described the possibility of an environmentally-friendly technology, which would "make man’s dependence upon the natural world a visible and living part of his culture". Bookchin envisaged small communities integrated into the natural environment and using small-scale technologies which permit decentralisation and autonomy. This article succinctly expressed the vision of a utopian ecological lifestyle, which was associated with the term "alternative technology.”
Computing pioneer Lee Felsenstein has spoken about the direct influence Tools for Conviviality on his work. For him, Illich's description of radio as a convivial tool in Central America was a model for computer development: "The technology itself was sufficiently inviting and accessible to them that it catalyzed their inherent tendencies to learn. In other words, if you tried to mess around with it, it didn't just burn out right away. The tube might overheat, but it would survive and give you some warning that you had done something wrong. The possible set of interactions, between the person who was trying to discover the secrets of the technology and the technology itself, was quite different from the standard industrial interactive model, which could be summed up as 'If you do the wrong thing, this will break, and God help you.'...And this showed me the direction to go in. You could do the same thing with computers as far as I was concerned." Felsenstein was one of the original members of the Homebrew Computer Club and the designer of the Osborne 1, the first mass-produced portable computer.
Many of his designs were leaders in reducing the costs of computer technologies for the purpose of making them available to large markets. His work featured a concern for the social impact of technology. The Community Memory project was one of the earliest attempts to place networked computer terminals in such places as Berkeley supermarkets to attract casual use by persons from all walks of life passing through and facilitate social interactions among non-technical individuals, in the era before the Internet.
Felsenstein was influenced in his philosophy by the works of Ivan Illich, particularly Tools for Conviviality. This book advocated a "convivial" approach to design which allowed users of technologies to learn about the technology by encouraging exploration, tinkering, and modification. Felsenstein had learned about electronics in much the same fashion, and summarized his conclusions in several aphorisms, to wit—"In order to survive in a public-access environment, a computer must grow a computer club around itself." Others were—"To change the rules, change the tools," and "If work is to become play, then tools must become toys."
In 1978, Valentina Borremans of CIDOC prepared a Reference Guide to Convivial Tools. This guide to resources listed many of the new ideas in 1970s appropriate technology—food self-sufficiency, earth-friendly home construction, new energy sources. But our contemporary convivial tools are mostly in the realm of communications. At their best, personal computers, the web, mobile technology, the open source movement, and the maker movement are contemporary convivial tools. What other convivial technologies do we use today? What tools do we need to make more convivial? Ivan Illich would exhort us to think carefully about the tools we use and what kind of world they are making.
“There can be no substitute for the work of rediscovering our common humanity in the practice of hospitality, which, insofar as it flowers into friendship, will be the starting point of politics.”
The Skill of Hospitality - Breaking Ground
Why the Landline Telephone Was the Perfect Tool - The Atlantic