For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the open source software movement, and stirred by the idea that a group of volunteer collaborators, spread over both space and time, were able to build software packages and operating systems that rival their corporate counterparts in usability and security, not to mention end cost to the user (free).
There have been volumes written on the open source movement’s philosophy. The model is far too complex to cover here, as one could easily draw in many themes for discussion: collective intelligence, emergent properties of complex systems, network theory, psychology, etc, etc. What I find most interesting about the phenomenon is how each project is defined by a relatively simple structure, yet yields a very complex, yet coherent, result. I posit that many various projects are defined by the same underlying structure — let’s say: an abstract machine. By this, I mean two products as different as Wikipedia and the Apache web server are essentially the end-results of the same development process. Could that process be applied to architecture?
Naturally, the “open source machine” would not mesh well with “starchitecture”, as no one individual would deserve the credit, and in today’s business environment, no building meant to be even remotely iconic would benefit from this kind of model. No, I think where this model could be best applied is to the opposite end of the spectrum: low-cost houses, gas stations, big-box stores, hospitals, prisons, schools. Things Architects (capital A) don’t want to touch.
Say you’re a middle-class family, and you’ve decided to build a house in the suburbs. You’ve decided you don’t want a development McMansion, you want something unique, but you can’t afford an architect for the design. You buy a plan out of a book, make a few changes, get it code approved and hand it off to the contractor. Someone with a little skill could even draw up their own plans. As long as it meets code, no architects need be involved. But instead of picking plans out of a book, why not pick plans from a website, where architects and architecture students have collaborated on designs for cheap, unique, energy-efficient suburban housing, and made the plans available online for free?
The benefits of this method mirror the benefits of open source software. The designers are proud to see something they worked on come to fruition, can include the built project in their portfolio, and the end user gets something unique and, perhaps, better, than the corporate alternative. If these “open source” houses become popular enough, it could drive big developers to better design practice, much as competition from Linux has driven Microsoft and Apple to implement better security features, and as Firefox has pushed Microsoft to redesign Internet Explorer for enhanced usability. If open source practices force big developers to reconsider their designs, the entire industry stands to benefit.
Technologically, I think we’re almost there… combining programs like Revit with a simple CVS system and a Wiki would allow this kind of collaboration. It would not be that different from a software development team.