Religion for Atheists
Noah’s ARKitecture / Book of Copies
TrustAn Introduction to ADS4 for the Royal College of Art Architecture Annual 2014
[Annual Design by Laura Jouan]
“Images contaminate us like viruses”
- Paul Virilio
Within the last 12 months architects have been publicly denounced for a number of iniquities: condoning modern-day slavery; colluding with developers to prioritise profit over the picturesque, and designing ‘death rays’. Aggregated with reports of a gender pay gap that is ‘beyond shocking’ and an increasingly inaccessible education system, these matters have compounded a growing mistrust in the architectural profession’s moral agency. With this in mind, ADS4’s theme for the year has been Trust. We have investigated the relationship between architecture and wider society and considered how this relationship is evolving due to the development of new technologies, which are affecting both the design and production of buildings, as well as the critical evaluation of architecture.
Until the invention of the printing press, architecture was thought to be the primary means of expression and communication of ideas, values, and beliefs in a culture. As the speed with which information is disseminated increases exponentially, architecture’s role as a carrier of culture has consequently decreased. While invisible technologies continue to replace tangible physical experience, architecture’s response has been to sacrifice national and regional identity in favour of modernity. Without contextual relevance, architecture fails to sustain cultural significance. Where once architecture was able to carry meaning, the building blocks of culture are now internet ‘memes’. Coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe an “idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”, the term has since taken on new meaning, more often referring to an image or video that is captioned and shared over the internet. The popularity of internet memes has been attributed to their low barrier to entry, their potential for cultural relevance, and the global, participatory culture that has developed around them – three factors that architecture could certainly learn from. As identified by Dawkins, there are three criteria that determine the success of a meme – Longevity, Fecundity and Fidelity. With these ‘memetic’ principals as our design manifesto, ADS4 set out to explore how the rapid progress of technology has changed the way that ideas are communicated, shared and replicated in architecture, and how this will fundamentally affect our ability to trust in our built environment.
With an increasing amount of interaction through iPhones, Facebook or Twitter, and with an ever- growing number of internet users in the world, the dynamics of social interaction, popular culture and communication have changed significantly. In the age of the internet, memes have established themselves as a medium for creative expression, undoubtedly making an impact on the world’s social, political, and cultural landscapes. Although Dawkins was able to accurately define how creative works spread within a culture, he could not have predicted how technology would rapidly amplify the rate at which they spread.
ADS4 is interested in exploring what architecture could learn from this significant form of creative expression. Memes provide a medium for the externalisation of people’s knowledge and enable us to record and archive beliefs and values, and to distribute them within a community. This encourages people to reuse archived knowledge and to edit new experience, which is again accumulated upon the shared pile of knowledge. This pile is what we call culture. If biological evolutions are based on genes, perhaps we require similar genetic media for the augmentation of societies to promote their cultural evolution? Could it be that ‘Internet Selection’ (the cultural equivalent of natural selection in biology) is starting to determine the evolution of civilisation? Taking the three criteria first established by Richard Dawkins, ADS4 developed a MEME Manifesto – a manifesto for an Architecture of Trust. In the spirit of the meme, the three sections of the manifesto are themselves bastardised versions of criteria developed by others:
Longevity – a derivation of Unesco’s World Heritage Criteria.
Fecundity – a reinterpretation of ‘The 10 rules of getting popular’ by Meredith Harper from Gareth Russell’s book ‘Popular’.
Fidelity – a combination of the Intellectual Property Office’s rules for fair-use copying and Mark Zuckerberg’s Loyalty Manifesto for Facebook.
Through this manifesto we have begun to explore the memetic potential of architecture.
As critical projects, all of ADS4's designs have to exist in their own worlds. For the last few years we have been developing various techniques for the building of these worlds, including the use of ‘design fiction’. We think that one of the most important and influential roles we have as critical designers is to talk about complex and difficult ideas and to generate debate. This is what our new worlds allow us to do. We don't construct these worlds for the purpose of fantasy. It is NOT about creating utopias or dystopias, it is about exploring the ‘uncanny normal’ – a place that is familiar and recognisable but that challenges our preconceptions. We build new worlds for our projects in order to test ideas and to suggest alternatives.
The site for this year’s speculations is a Devolved London – a hypothetical scenario in which London has achieved independence from the rest of the UK, catalysed by the vote for Scottish independence in 2014. Within this imagined world, the increased accessibility of personal data, made possible through the ubiquity of social media and the semantic web, has made targeted spending on both public and private sector services appear both efficient and economical. Widespread implementation of ‘digital democracy’ masquerades as ultimate democracy - a governance through participation.
London’s regional characteristics are consequently exacerbated, until it slowly becomes a parody of itself. In 2034, this leads to the effective devolution of the Capital into the 14 constituencies of the London Assembly, now known as the ‘Unified Reformed Boroughs’.
The six projects that follow each present life in one of these newly devolved micro-states. From ‘Cultural Austerity’ in the City of London to early retirement in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and from Tidal Lagoons in the Thames Estuary to a linear smart city linking London and Birmingham, the projects are intended to make us think. They should raise awareness, expose assumptions and spark debate about issues that affect contemporary society.
1. Carrick, Glen & Batty, David (2013), ‘In Abu Dhabi, they call it Happiness Island. But for the migrant workers, it is a place of misery’, The Observer, 22 December, p.20.
2. Prynn, Jonathan (2014), ‘London’s new towers ‘creating a Gotham City skyline’, Evening Standard, 4 April.
3. Wainwright, Oliver (2013), ‘Walkie Talkie architect 'didn't realise it was going to be so hot', The Guardian, 7 September, p.7.
4. Architects’ Journal (2014), “Gender pay gap: ‘beyond shocking’”, 2 May, Number 16, Volume 239.
© Thomas Greenall