The Realtime Manifesto

The architectural manifesto defined the modern era. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto started the ball rolling, and Adolph Loos’ Ornament and Crime, Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture and De Stijl followed. All of these are recognized as being amongst the most important pieces of architectural writing of the last century. While it is tempting to think that we may be living in a golden age of manifesto writing now that anyone can start a blog, the carefully-considered architectural manifesto itself doesn’t fit the paradigm of network culture. As editor Justin McGuirk correctly observes in Icon magazine’s “Manifesto Issue” (Icon #50) that “in the early 21st century, there are as many potential manifestos as there are people.” A manifesto is something else entirely when instead of defining the rigid foundations of a movement it attempts to start or join a conversation.

The Absolutist

Patrik Schumacher recently re-presented his “Parametricist Manifesto” of 2008 in The Architect’s Journal. In this manifesto, he makes the claim that “Parametricism is the great new style after modernism” by arguing that it “aims to organise and articulate the increasing diversity and complexity of social institutions and life processes within the most advanced centre of post-Fordist network society.” His attempt to say that there is a given architectural solution to the complexity of network society is naive and is not much more than an update of the modern functionalist approach to design. The communication and collaboration made possible by the network itself solves many problems that previously would have called for architectural solutions. As people spend more and more time living within devices (i.e smart phones, augmented reality applications, online social networks etc.) the need for heavily differentiated physical spaces will continue to decline- particularly as the spectacular cost of these types of architectural spaces continues to rise. By laying out a manifesto in 2008 and attempting to present it again in 2010, it already appears impossibly dated.

The Contrarians

Another publicised manifesto that gained notoriety in the mast few years was promoted by a group known as “Mantownhuman” and published online under the title “Manifesto: Towards a New Humanism in Architecture” with the authors listed as Alastair Donald, Richard J Williams, Karl Sharro, Alan Farlie, Debby Kuypers, and Austin Williams. Page three sums up the general approach:

we must seek a new humanist sensibility within architecture – one that refuses to bow to preservation, regulation and mediation – but instead sets out to win support for the ambitious human-centred goals of discovery, experimentation and innovation.

Later, in accusing architects of allowing “the needs of humanity have become secondary to nature” (p. 4) while at the same time trashing the formalist side of the profession on page 8:

Today’s ironic decadence delights in self-definition: creating a self-referential architecture of amorphous shapes, algorithms and fractals that reinforce the anti-humanist, pseudo-religious notion that truth is a mathematical…

And then, of course, on page 9: “The time has come to break free of an architecture of limits.” While Schumacher’s manifesto is intensely prescriptive, which makes his text look dated, this manifesto takes an opposite track by attempted to play Devil’s advocate to nearly everyone while being completely unspecific as to an outcome. Mantownhuman’s overwhelmingly idealistic, yet negative, outlook comes off as a childish rant- limits are what architecture is made of, and it is not a new “problem”. Society’s complex nature today makes it especially difficult to imagine practising architecture in a world where “discovery” is the end goal, consequences be damned.

These two poles of manifesto writing illustrate the problem inherent in undertaking such a project. Unceasing change and rapid communication allow ideas to be publicly critiqued within minutes of being published. Proposing a finite and declarative statement on what architecture should be, and how the world should work, no longer makes sense. That being said, what comes next?

The Collaborators

Network culture’s new version of the manifesto is is found most easily in social media (Twitter specifically) rather than in on a typeset document distributed by post. With hashtags and @ replies binding user updates into conversation, Twitter has allowed instant manifestos to take shape as ideas are circulated amongst a circle of architects, critics, writers and architecture enthusists. De Stijl is remembered in nearly every architectural and art history textbook as a seminal publication and movement of the early 20th century, yet it most avid users of social media have as many (or far more) followers on Twitter or Facebook as van Doesburg had subscribers without much effort and zero expense. It is easy to write-off a medium that limits contributions to 140 characters as flippant or reactionary, but the networks formed through social media create a variety of possibilities. The process of sharing links and blog comments continues the discussion, and in many cases the collaborative process leads to real-world collaboration as well.

As an example of the collaborative future we can look at the Mammoth Book Club. Published on Stephen Becker and Rob Holmes’ blog Mammoth, the Mammoth Book Club was inaugurated earlier this year with a reading of the book “The Infrastructural City” (2008, edited by Kazys Varnelis). Consisting of blog posts discussing each chapter of the book on an approximately weekly basis, the blog format allows for an editorial viewpoint on the part of the authors, and also allows the readers to interact both with the authors and each other. In turn, everyone is having a public dialogue with the original authors that contributed to the book in the first place. While not a manifesto in the traditional shouty and declarative sense, it functions to advance a set of ideas in a productive way that constantly improves from the feedback.

The architectural design process no longer resembles the ideal depicted in Any Rand’s “The Fountainhead” (though I’m certain it never really did). The world has become too complicated for one person working alone to manage entire projects through the force of his or her creative genius alone. Similarly, the world is too complex for a one-size-fits-all theory promoted by Patrik Schumacher.

Architecture for Humanity (AFH) has a clear-cut agenda of providing high-quality design for all. Working in many of the world’s neediest regions. Their Open Architecture Network was created as a way for designers, builders and clients to collaborate around the world by providing the infrastructure for uploading, coordinating projects and sharing designs with other users. With 15,000 active users and 50,000 visitors a month, the site has been a success. Working far outside the confines of the traditional architectural practice, Architecture for Humanity has put its strong idealogical stance to work- the Open Architecture Network shows how divergent design vocabularies can come together under the guise of a project without prescribed outcomes.

In the end, Architecture for Humanity has been more successful in “organis(ing) and articulat(ing) the increasing diversity and complexity of social institutions and life processes” (to use Schumacher’s words) than Zaha Hadid’s office. By providing a network and an operating system, instead of a rigid stylistic definition, the Open Architecture Network has moved away from the linear thought processes of modernity and truly embraces network society.

By Mark

Mark is an architect in San Francisco.


  1. Your twitter post lead me here. And I am going to pass this on. To people who may have differing opinions. But we’ll be unable to dispute the overarching idea. Which is that a network culture has brought us together.

    An inspired piece of, as you say, midnight blogging!

  2. So if I understand you correctly, you’re saying network culture has surpassed the idea of the “visionary” manifesto? In other words, the manifesto is not necessary because we are able to easily exchange ideas in real time?

    If that’s what you’re saying, I have to disagree. Tweets and blog posts and such represent the “garrire” – or incessant chatter of everyday life, not the manifesto. The Manifesto represents something much more thoughtful – even if it can only last for a year, a month, or a week. In fact, I think the manifesto is critical in today’s information-rich world. We need occasional “roars” among all of the “tweets”…

    Regardless, my favorite is Giacomo Balla’s 1913 “Manifesto for Men’s Clothing.” It’s exhilarating.

  3. An interesting thought, whilst I agree with you that the formal manefesto no longer fits our instant world. The natural path of network design is that you end up back with design by committee and we all know how the value of that can be somewhat lacking. We still need the strong visionary to cut a path through the thousands of disparate ideas and form a cohesive outcome. I would suggest this is a different person on every project, someone is always more enthusiastic and has more connection with an issue than others and they will be the best person to drive it. Is this as good for the ego as the manifesto though?!
    This may be what AFH are doing, I need to check it out.

  4. I find it slightly hilarious (in a humbling way) that anyone would describe mammoth as emblematic of the future, but we do appreciate the generous characterization (and certainly hope that others are enjoying reading The Infrastructural City as much as we are — insofar as the book club describes something about the future of architecture and cities, it results from the quality of the material that we’re mining).

    For me, the decline of the value of the manifesto tracks with a decline in a belief in certainty; if one must be humble and doubting in one’s epistemology, then there is little sense in issuing absolute declarations and proclamations like “Ornament and Crime”.

    And this is for the best: an uncertain exploration of the real is far more interesting than a brief text which stakes out absurd positions in the interest of delineating what is and is not permissible.

    (As a philosophical moment, this decline of certainty well precedes the appearance of what is being called “network culture”, but like most philosophical moments, it is taking a very long time to trickle down into architectural discourse. That noted, I think you’re absolutely right to highlight “collaboration” as a key development.)

    I think the issue of the decline of the relevance of the manifesto can be separated pretty easily from N_O_R_T_O_N’s concern about what “tweets and blog posts and such represent”, as one can easily believe that “such” need to be interrupted by “something much more thoughtful” without believing that the manifesto is necessarily that something. (That’s not an outline of my position, though — while I agree that medium matters, I think there are also blogs (and even tweeters) that are at least as thoughtful as the average printed text.)

    On title alone, though, this “Manifesto for Men’s Clothing” sounds worth a read.

  5. Brummie – You are right, there is nothing that strokes the ego like a manifesto.

    N_O_R_T_O_N – I think the days of the “manifesto” have passed, at least in the traditional sense. It was a modernist format that looks outdated today. While the Grand Narrative and reliance on universal “truths” may have died with the passing of Modernism in other fields, architecture has taken a bit longer to catch up (as Rob pointed out in his comment).

    I’m not saying Twitter is the replacement for manifestos, I don’t think they need to be replaced. A manifesto, traditionally a piece of writing that says “this is what the future must be,” doesn’t make sense any more. A blog is a dialogue with its readers that is not a singular thing and is often quite thoughtful. There are a million ways the future must be and thoughtful writers are finding new ways to investigate all of them in a variety of formats (Like mammoth or Mockitecture).

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