The Architecture of Content Management

by Mark Wigley

What does it mean to think of architecture as content management, that is, to think about the oldest and seemingly slowest medium, buildings, in terms taken from the newest and seemingly quickest medium, digital exchange? After half a century of experiments with computers, architecture has absorbed new levels of responsiveness as each layer of operation becomes digitized. Yet buildings have always been much more responsive than advertised and conversely digital exchange produces surprisingly stable spaces. What is intriguing about this threshold is not so much the arrival of a new set of potentials as the reactivation of the oldest ones. Each step into the digital is a step into the past. With just a few more steps, architecture will rediscover its tribal core. The rapid evolution of digital modes is offering archeological insight into the heart of the field.

Content management is ultimately a question of industrial organization, a matter of production, distribution and consumption. More precisely, it is the set of protocols that must be introduced when production, distribution and consumption are no longer easily distinguishable, as in contemporary music formats, blogs, e-zines, social networking sites or encyclopedias. When production is collective, continuous, parallel, uneven and deterritorialized while consumption becomes a kind of authorship, new protocols of access and archiving are needed. This gives rise to major legal questions of intellectual property, privacy and free speech that are transnational and under permanent negotiation. Content management attempts to shape new kinds of flow when products are no longer clearly defined but exist only as versions. In its most radical sense, it is the set of protocols that tries to deal with the fact that the real movement is now within the object itself rather than between one place and another. Every object is treated as but one possible version of the information that generated it. Its physical condition is less valuable than the information. In the end, it is all about information and access. Passwords literally become the key.

Architecture, the oldest access industry, is also in the information business. Take the typical architectural office. It does not deliver an object, a building, but the information needed to produce such an object. Architects have clean hands and almost superfluous bodies. This simple fact was the major accomplishment of the fifteenth-century attempt to elevate architecture from a workshop practice into a liberal art. The architect would now be a designer rather than a craftsman, producing drawings rather than buildings, operating as an intellectual, trafficking in ideas, with the key word disegno meaning both ‘drawing’ and ‘idea’. Architects produce delicate drawings that hover lightly at the threshold of the immaterial world of thought but have the capacity to give shape to the heaviest material. This concentration on the architect’s mind was accompanied by the first portraits of designers, head shots that gave, as it were, an image to associate with the all-important brain. The largely hidden architect’s studio became the support mechanism for that brain, a physical space to carry out mental labor, a workshop for the mind.

The new discipline drew strength from the difference between brains. The pivotal concept of ‘design’ embraced the sense of novelty, that each architect had their own ideas in addition to the rules of nature or norms of culture. Architects could deliver ideas that differed from other architects and different ideas for different projects. The field could develop a kind of forward momentum through such differences as designers influenced each other and their clients. Design became ‘invention’ or at least a balancing act between following and deviating from rules. For centuries, theoretical discourse in the field was dominated by discussion of the appropriate balance between repetition and innovation, the right degree of ‘license’.

Little has changed. The same debate goes on in every office today. Each studio must adopt a mix of innovation and repetition with most projecting an image of gradual evolution. Architects are obliged to largely imitate themselves while offering minor deviations. Rare are the designers whose every work seems completely different. Only slightly less rare are those who always deliver exactly the same project. Even then, offices that make each project different must use many of the resources employed in previous projects, while those that produce the same result every time must be extremely inventive to enable them to implement an identical building regardless of the specific constraints and desires involved in each situation. Both kinds of offices become sophisticated content management systems that redeploy the resources of previous work to supplement the new project. This involves specialized archiving strategies, with access and use protocols. Personnel are a key part of that system and to join the office is to internalize the system. Indeed, many workers effectively become part of the archive itself, acting as storage and retrieval units. The projection of designs out of the office is made possible by a continuous, but largely invisible, absorption of information into the office’s archival heart. The internal structure of a design office is extremely complex in terms of information flow.

Yet the medieval workshop mode never entirely dissolved. To some extent, every contemporary architect’s studio retains the earlier logic in which a pattern book unique to the workshop was applied to all commissions. Such a workshop, which only works on variations of a single theme, was a straightforward content management system with the rights to use the information in the pattern book protected by a guild, a trade union able to control the market. The pattern could be seen as the intellectual property of the studio but what was valued was the shaping of the material according to the pattern rather than the pattern itself or its generation. The pattern itself acted as the signature of a workshop whose personnel were largely anonymous. With the rise of design as invention, an independent signature had to be attached to the work and the individual brain of the newly visible artist needed to be celebrated as a kind of proxy for the complexity involved in the development of each project. All that is really happening today is that the pattern book is evolving much more rapidly and complexly.

Since only a small proportion of projects in even the most successful architectural office are actually built, and even then many alternative versions have been developed, sometimes in complete detail, and major parts of the final version are usually left out for a variety of reasons and planned later phases or additions are rarely executed, the visible designs are just the tip of an intellectual iceberg. The office is a vast reservoir of information – a knowledge base drawn on and added to by each project. When an office starts out it mainly generates new content but as it continues it increasingly manages existing content, redeploying forms, techniques and details that have been tested or are continuously being tested. As the office keeps evolving it can change direction or multiply directions but it will still draw on the same expanding archive. The idea of such an archive must be there at the beginning because in a crucial sense the concept of the archive precedes that of design. The young office must construct the myth of an already established archive as a source of authority and to some extent every project in even the most prominent of offices must reconstruct this myth. It is this mythical archive that makes the real archive possible; one could even claim that it is even the real driving force behind the studio. What allows designs to be projected out into the world is the exponentially greater counter-movement of ideas running deeper into the office. Design becomes but a symptom of an endless archiving project.

In crude terms the client is buying limited access to a studio’s information base and particular ways of reading it. Architectural design is deeply collaborative, with each building usually having more contributors than a film. But only one signature is ultimately attached to each design, as if it were an attempt to bottle up the incalculable complexity and ambiguity of authorship and suppress the sense that what was produced is but a version of an ongoing multi-dimensional interaction, a degraded version at that since compromise is one of the basic ingredients of the discipline with buildings often changing at the last minute and continuing to change after being ‘finished.’ Yet a degraded version of what exactly? Not a singular ideal object but more a set of research trajectories or intersections of trajectories that continue with other projects, as if there is only really a single project in each office with each design being just another phase of testing. An office needs to make key decisions about protocols for storing and reactivating all the versions of every version. These become protocols that ultimately define the office’s intelligence since the design of the content management system has a major impact on the content being managed. Thus management strategy ultimately becomes a design strategy.

The very idea of management initially seems antithetical to design. If design is about the production of new knowledge, management seems to be about regulating the flow of existing knowledge. Yet even the most experimental design offices are filled with managers (administration, information technology, financial, public relations, etc.). Within the everyday life of the office these managers usually conform to the
opposite stereotypes of designers in terms of appearance, hours, punctuality, predictability and so on. While design never stops and has no sense of limit, management tries to maintain order as a kind of restraint in the asylum but design can never separate itself from management. No distinct border separates them. All offices sustain a biodiversity of roles ranging from those who only manage to those who only design. What differs is the balance; from more corporate offices that maximize management to smaller offices that emphasize design. The more management intensive offices are predictably expert in obtaining, maneuvering and distributing available knowledge while the more design intensive offices focus on generating new knowledge. Of course effective management itself requires innovation and vice versa; the strongest design firms have often, if not always, developed uniquely efficient management strategies.

In the end, each studio is little more than a content management system, a self-archiving and distribution mechanism that is usually so robust that a major challenge for an experimentally-minded office is learning how to forget in order to open up new trajectories or modes. The design studio becomes a resilient delivery system, able to export more or less the same kind of project regardless of the idiosyncrasies of site, client, regulations, construction expertise, neighborhood reactions, material costs, weather patterns and so on, while claiming to respond sensitively to each and every one of these variables. Furthermore the evolution of the field is restrained by the fact that the internal operations of each studio are treated as an industrial secret. Studios primarily influence each other at the level of their results rather than their tests. The field uses a very primitive system of cross-fertilization, with professional magazines operating as a very loose feedback loop, slowing down and evening out rather than accelerating, intensifying and multiplying the trajectories of experiment.

In their endless articles, exhibitions, lectures and interviews architects rarely present the genealogy of any project within the office. They focus on the final version with rare acknowledgements of the ever-present gaps between the interests of the office and the client. One can feel the testing only in lectures on unsuccessful competition entries, even if it is usually just the last scheme that is discussed. Failure still acts as one of the richest veins of generation and cross-fertilization, alongside the traditional slow feedback loops of apprenticeship, the movement of personnel between offices, the breakup of offices and the involvement of many designers in teaching. Scholarship retroactively provides another loop in effectively reconstructing each project, architect, period or region as a content management system emphasizing the evolution, refinement and application of ideas but such loops can only be effective by moving into real time, bringing archeological and forensic precision into direct contact with the latest developments.

As a field architecture is a remarkably inefficient content management system, engaging a vast array of largely independent research units in a very small set of restricted opportunities and even then utilizing only the smallest proportion of their inventions or inventive capacity. The rich knowledge base of each office could clearly be used differently. Studios could access each other’s libraries, influencing each other at the level of the test rather than the result, using commissions as an excuse to do tests as distinct from doing tests to realize a commission. That is, to think of content management in architecture as the creative act. This would mean rethinking the entire disciplinary infrastructure of schools, exhibitions, magazines, awards, monographs, professional ethics, licensing, and so forth, along with the roles played by critics, curators, publicists, archivists, etc. Particular attention would need to be paid to exemplary cases of content mismanagement.

Take schools of architecture, for example. Each can be seen as a robust content management system with its own archive, a library of tested ideas, access protocols and rights. Each consciously reinforces the cult of the individual inventive designer and the primacy of design while unconsciously promoting a collaborative workshop mentality through the repetition of patterns whether of a particular teacher, philosophy or even the school itself in consistently producing recognizable work. Indeed, most schools are themselves part of a larger workshop, endlessly recirculating ready-made content, managing what others produce and feeding predictability to a profession that as a content management system remains a descendent of the Masonic guilds that once orchestrated and controlled the rights to all patterns, but that is now defined by maximum responsibility and minimum rights.

Schools actively contribute to the field’s passivity. Despite usually being housed in research universities, most schools do not consider the key questions of innovation, influence, archiving and rights, along with almost all forms of management. The question of management is again seen as supplementary to design, better learned through apprenticeship. This might be true, but by failing to consider these issues they remain unexposed to radical experimentation despite the fact that, for example, the most successful architects usually develop a polemical archiving strategy. To some extent to be aware of designers is to experience the sophistication of their archive, their ability to control the flow of information. Paradoxically, the first symptom of creativity is managerial.

To elevate the concept of content management, to see innovation and management as intimately linked, even to see intelligence itself as inseparable from management thereby challenging the congenital sluggishness of the field, only requires asking questions as simple as: when the work of one architect is imitated by an other, does that constitute successful distribution or piracy?

Any answer takes us back to the basics. To commission an architect is to commission a brain, to buy some thinking power and the license to use some thoughts. More precisely, it is a license for an image of those thoughts, a version, or a version of a version even. Architects traffic in ideas, having argued for millennia that ideas can be impregnated in material such that a building communicates thought, that architecture is a medium carrying a message, that architecture has content. Design is seen as organizing the content for investment in an object, but the building is only one of the many distribution channels and probably the least likely to be activated as well as the least accessed in comparison to the vast global array of paper and electronic publications in which designs continuously circulate.

While largely insensitive to the industrial distribution of objects–despite all the rhetoric about industrial processes and effects over the last two centuries–most designers are hypersensitive to the distribution of concepts. Indeed, each building on a site is explicitly understood in terms of importing and thereby redistributing ideas. The architect’s real expertise is in choreographing the otherwise overwhelmingly complex assemblage of heterogeneous systems of any building and precisely detailing the visual effect relative to normative codes such that it can be ‘read.’ At some level the building itself is effectively treated as a content management system that allows certain ideas to be accessed and installs a set of protocols for orchestrating the more or less coherent movement of resources.

All these untheorized but crucial senses in which architecture has always operated in terms of content management constitute the context of the rapidly expanding and deterritorialized design culture in which multiple people simultaneously rework multiple versions, an economy in which no simple lines can be drawn between author, editor, publisher, administrator, archivist and user. As this culture of versioning becomes increasingly visible in architectural discourse, the new formal, temporal, methodological, organizational, representational and economic opportunities provided by digital design and fabrication are also ways of offering insight into the unexplored radicality of architecture’s traditional everyday operations.

In digital design information is again the explicit currency and the logic of parametric design is, first and foremost, a logic of management. To design becomes to collectively massage a data set, blurring architecture, mechanical engineering, environmental control, acoustics, lighting, life safety, etc., in an interactive space of real-time evolution. Each component of a design becomes interactive. Furthermore, building elements can be directly and individually shaped from the digital model and continuously adjusted in response to other elements or concepts. The designer is brought closer and closer to manufacturing and construction. There is a long history of designers attempting to involve themselves in literally delivering buildings to many sites by using industrialization, modularity and standardization, or effectively doing so by promoting particular forms as appropriate to a range of situations. However this ambition has now become inevitable and generic as digitization has brought the logic of distribution closer to that of design. The complexity of versions inside the normal studio can now be projected beyond the limit of the office. Furthermore, this versioning is also extended through interactive buildings that continue the logic of responsiveness through environmental or experiential feedback loops within completed structures. In such a versioning environment all design images are generated, reviewed, legalized and distributed collaboratively. The same image used to construct a building or test a detail can be sent to the client and to a magazine. Or the same digital model can be used to spin off different kinds of images for different people. Even before this, every individual digital image is itself an effect of content management with its own archive of versions and password restricted access to read or write. This allows for the exchange of models rather than results, collaborative work being down on the same model or different projects being spun off from the same model by different offices. The world of content management and the world of design have merged. The crucial area, as always, will be the question of rights. In recent years, new areas of rights have opened up for architects: rights to images in which a building appears, rights to software and rights to materials since now even the most basic materials in a building are being designed individually. As the status of objects blurs with that of information, the space and scope of design expands.

Such a multi user, real-time design environment is justly being celebrated and tested in schools and offices with new partnerships between architects, consultants, manufacturers, construction companies, software designers and media companies. In such an environment designs respond more sensitively to thought with each element of a building collaborating, as it were, with the direction of that thought or minimizing its resistance to it. Rather than simply hypothesize a more efficient, responsive and biodiverse design culture, we need to be sensitive to the reasons designers have so efficiently resisted such efficiencies for so long. It is crucial to more precisely locate the areas of innovation most valued and most avoided by designers. The more the emergent culture can be used to unleash or trigger existing desires, the more radical its potential. Ultimately, the architect’s mission remains an intellectual one. It is in the movement of ideas, including resistance to particular movements, that the figure of the architect is forged and remains surprisingly resilient in the face of so many apparently threatening forces. Indeed, it could be argued that the figure is first and foremost defined by resistance. So the real issue might be what kinds of resistance are uniquely and productively reinforced by the latest version of versioning culture. Digital versioning will undoubtedly become routine in even the most traditionally minded offices precisely because the versioning mentality behind it is and has always been routine in architecture.










Content Management
Mark Wigley