Open Source Architecture Experiment (2003)

A series of experiments in open source architecture, as performance, installation and workshop

Architecture may be thought of as a combination of static 'hardware' and dynamic 'software'. Pushing the analogy further, architecture could be considered an 'operating system' within which people write their own programmes for spatial interaction. One model of operating system that is particularly relevant to architecture (since the design of space is always collaborative) is an open source system.

Open Source Architecture Experiment diagram by Adam Somlai-Fischer

The open source architecture experiment has taken place three times, in three different formats.

1. RAM 4, Helsinki (November 2003). Event performers were Margot Jacobs (Interactive Institute, Sweden); Andrew Paterson (University of Art and Design, Finland); Adam Somlai-Fischer (aether design group, Hungary); Ophra Wolf (Pursue the Pulse); and Usman Haque (Haque Design and Research). Open source tactics were applied at two levels - first during the event design process by the 5 performers and second during the event itself, where relationships between performers and participants varied according to the control and openness of the choreographies. Main ideas brought into the mix were - locative media (Andrew), which provides control structures that one allows oneself to be part of; open choreography (Ophra) in which a set of instructions can be modified by those who interpret them; play and people-centered design (Margot) where open systems place emphasis on users as designers; low-tech media architecture (Adam) in which existing technology and spaces are re-appropriated; architecture as an open source operating system (Usman) where a collaborative framework is provided within which people create their own social space.

2. PixelAche, Helsinki (April 2004). Same as RAM 4 performance

3. Doors of Perception 8, Delhi (March 2005) – workshop by Usman Haque. See below for further information.

One way of thinking about the design of space is to consider it as an "operating system". Just as computers are a combination of "hardware" (the physical box, chips and keyboard) and "software" (the codes and programmes that bring the box to life) so too can architecture be considered as a combination of hard stuff (the walls, roofs and floors) and soft stuff (the smells, sounds, thermal and social phenomena that animate a space).

We can stretch the analogy of "operating system" a little further. In computers there are different kinds of operating system, ranging from Windows, thru Mac and Unix to Linux. These operating systems differ not only in having different features and interfaces, they are also based on different ideas of openness. Linux is a type of operating system that falls under the category of "open source" - unlike other operating systems, the source code at the heart of the Linux system is open to anyone to view, modify and upgrade as necessary, with the requirement that any such revisions be equally "open" and available to all. This metaphor suggests territory that might be interesting explore in the production of space. To apply such a notion of "openness" to the design of a "spatial" operating system requires two main strategies. The first is that the space in question must somehow be open to all to be interpreted, inhabited, appropriated and redesigned. The second is that the tools for making these interpretations, inhabitations, appropriations and redesigns must be equally open.

Open Source Architecture Experiment at RAM 4, 2003

Such a space is designed to encourage the interactions of its occupants and is only truly given meaning when people take an active role in configuring the space.

Designers and architects who want to experiment with such concepts as interactive spaces and responsive systems, particularly on large, urban-scale projects, are often prevented from doing so because of the complexity, logistics or costs involved with such systems. Prototype research seems prohibitively expensive and the most interesting concepts and approaches often remain on the drafting board until a suitable client/investor/sponsor is found. Alternative channels for development need to be found; a solution is at the heart of open source architecture - the combination of reusability, open choreography and "low-tech".

Architects and designers don't necessarily need the precision and accuracy that scientists usually do in order to explore the poetries of interaction. They therefore often do not require such sophisticated equipment in order to develop truly interesting interactive projects. They work well with the "making-the-best-of-what-we-have" approach, using artifacts at hand, and are comfortable with the idea of "hacking" existing technology (in the sense of taking it apart to understand how it works and putting it back together again, usually with improvements). In this way, it is possible to design interfaces, sensors, bio-feedback devices and actuators all using relatively simple technology that might even already exist in people's homes. In particular, inexpensive remote control toys are these days ripe for dismantling and reworking; kids walkie-talkies can be used to set up a simple wireless network; energy source for a simple interactive device could be generated from the movements and footsteps of people within a space.

Part 1 - Experiments with low-tech

  • Inflatable/Infloatable - creating large inflatables using garbage bags, cellotape and old desk fans, participants will be able quickly to transform both interior and exterior spaces. If helium is easily accessible these will be transformed into floatables (leaky though they may be). What happens to these forms over time? And how might this affect or be affected by the interactions of people in those spaces?
  • Power source - how can predatory power sources be employed, e.g. a device that holds on to the legs of passers-by and generates energy through their attempts to extricate themselves.

Part 2 - Reappropriating existing devices

  • Cellular automata umbrellas - often regarded as "digital" devices (in the sense that they are either open or closed), participants will experiment with using them in both these states but also the "analog" states in between - half closed, almost open, etc. They will experiment with them further, first as "shields" (from the rain, the sun, information, interaction) and then as "collectors" (amplifying sound). Finally, complex group behaviour will be examined by looking at how a simple open-close algorithm at the individual level can affect the global state as a whole.
  • Participant suggestions - at this stage participants will be encouraged to develop their own ideas for reappropriating devices. The outcome of this will depend entirely on what they find around their schools, streets and homes.

Part 3 - Choreographies of interaction

  • Designer/User vs. Performer/audience - movements in art have challenged the distinction between audience and performer for the last 50 years, however designers (architects in particular) have been slow to pick up on such challenges. This experiment will explore how "open" choreographies allow for both a "meta-control" and freedom for the "creative participants". Devices from previous experiments might be employed (e.g. umbrellas or inflatables) to question how to design the process of design. How "free" is "openness"? If a system is completely "open" then how can any movement be made?
  • Final interaction sequence - a final "performance" will be created collaboratively with the entire group that brings together all the various things they have designed/experienced in the series of experiments.
Open Source Architecture Experiment inflatables, London, 2004


Open Source Architecture Workshop, Doors of Perception 8, New Delhi, 18-20 March 2005

If one thinks of architecture as an "operating system", combining hard stuff and soft stuff, then it might be productive to consider how lessons learnt from developing an open source operating system (in the computer world) might be applied to the design and construction of space (in the architecture world).

Open Source Architecture Experiment inflatables, Doors 8, 2005

What do we need to consider?

  • how to make spaces that can easily be configured/reconfigured/reappropriated.
  • how to provide tools that make the exercise open to as many participants as possible.

What did we do?

  • We got together in teams of three.
  • We made inflatables using plastic bags, cellotape and desk fans.
  • The inflatables had to be big enough to fit 3 people (sitting/standing/lying down) and a stool. Of course there also had to be an inflation point and an entrance.
  • It was an exercise in design-while-making; there were no plans drawn and little discussion apart from during the fabrication. NO BRAINSTORMING!
  • Once the inflatables were built, we moved on to the inflatable built by the neighbouring team and reconfigured it so that it could coalesce into a large inflatable.
  • This required negotiations around the connection points and the means of connection, rather than planning the structure as a whole.
  • Finally we made projections, exploring the idea of open source, copyright of image and how the surface can become communicative and take on new meanings.

Why inflatables?

  • They are easy to make and they are easy to adapt.
  • They have a history of "idealism", which is relevant to open source.
  • They exist in time, they are dynamic, they change as they inflate or deflate or even as people move around inside of them.

What did we learn?

  • How to build inflatables!
  • How to construct "space" from everyday low-tech materials.
  • That it is difficult to make things collaboratively without discussion. But that doesn't mean we have to discuss before making.
  • In an open source environment you can't become too attached to your work.
  • It is important to negotiate connections to your neighbours and also to understand that your work will be changed by those around you.
  • It is possible to construct complex, dynamic spaces (i.e. architecture) without being experts (none of the participants was an architect!).
  • Complexity in design can arise from non-complex units (e.g. cellular automata; though we never did make the cellular automata umbrellas...).


  • Tabita Kurien, National Insitute of Design
  • Sonal Nigam, National Insitute of Design
  • Manoj Verma, National Institute of Fashion Technology
  • Priyanka Arora, National Institute of Fashion Technology
  • Noor Ansal, National Institute of Fashion Technology
  • Adil Hussain, Pearl Academy of Fashion
  • Sakshi Babbar, Pearl Academy of Fashion
  • Nandita Singh, Pearl Academy of Fashion
  • Rashmeet Kaur, Pearl Academy of Fashion
  • Prarthna Ahuja, Pearl Academy of Fashion
  • Thomas Abraham, Srishti School of Design
  • Hidish Singh, Srishti School of Design
  • Smriti Mehra, Srishti School of Design