One issue I have always had with architecture is that it typically involves clients. Clients, when they invest in architecture, usually expect some kind of return on their investment, and in this sense, they almost always bring capitalist relations to bear on the design process. This is fine unless you happen, like I do, to wish for an architecture that moves beyond the determinism of prevailing power structures. Because of its immense cost, the production of buildings is a difficult thing to wiggle out of these determining forces. I have argued in a previous issue of Paprika! that perhaps subversive architects should be ready to let go of producing buildings altogether, favoring instead a radical misuse of the existing built environment, with the architect becoming more of a hacker of spatial softwares than an top-down manufacturer of spatial hardware. Here, I’d like to present a caveat to that repudiation of the production of actual built form.
In the weird world of business “theory”, a new paradigm is taking over: agility. Companies, rather than investing tons of resources into a product in order to perfect it before its launch will release a “minimum viable product” (MVP), which they test in the actual marketplace and iterate upon in a series of releases. First introduced in the software world, agility has recently witnessed broad success in the world of hardware production as well. Can architecture learn something from this?
Upon returning to San Francisco (where agile jargon has annoyingly made its way into the everyday lexicon) as a YSOA graduate, I began two organizations in which I have been testing these and other questions hatched during my graduate studies: Nookzy, which is a peer-to-peer spatial amenity sharing platform that uses the market to encourage sharing behaviors that ideally will continue more effectively in a non-market context; and Spontaneum, which is a fast-growing group dedicated to throwing illegitimate events that misuse urban spaces, turning parking lots into movie screenings, underpasses into naked dance parties, and deploying select illumination of unrecognized features of the city as a means of elevating these to monument status, along with other seemingly nonsensical urban interventions. For Nookzy, the improvement of tiny spaces on a very low budget is made possible by the fact that the company benefits from altering the spaces of the hosts because they will then have a higher occupancy rate, yielding more income for all parties. Nookzy pays for the adjustments, and this is a new and interesting way to deliver design services in an “agile” kind of way. As a first “MVP”, I fabricated a small, $3,000 two-story building that hosts 8 hammocks, an upper deck with an enclosed, 18-foot canvas yurt structure, and a sharp, radial form, complemented by 18 sheer, bold red curtains, which we erected at Burning Man. It was a popular feature of Black Rock City, and so we are going to find it a permanent home in San Francisco, where it can be booked by Nookzy users on an hourly basis (hopefully we can stick a few $300 inflatable hot tubs in there as well). This is low-budget design in which the designer has total control of the whole process because it is inexpensive.
In any case, Spontaneum is the more interesting example here, in my opinion, because it uses minimal structures to alter the experience of existing spaces. For our events, it often is the case that some small amount of infrastructure is needed. At the bare minimum, Spontaneum needed a generator for remote electricity, some speakers, and some bold lights—hard to come by for a decent price, but fortunately, the widespread practice of indoor marijuana cultivation has brought cost-effective, impractically bright lights that have no green spectrum, and whose output therefore appears pink into the marketplace. Super bright pink grow lights are therefore readily available to the urban hacker who wants to set out to contrarily illuminate corners of the city that nobody seems to appreciate. None of this gear can’t be had by Friday with free two-day shipping, and so it is a replicable set of tools that we have used in our initial hardware. A new strategy, which I have grown rather fond of recently, is the use of colored plastic cling wrap over existing lighting in indoor and outdoor spaces, such that the illumination is tinted with whatever hue the hacker desires. We do what we can to keep the costs down and the events free. We borrow stuff from friends; we use tools and toys in multiple ways; we try to achieve the maximum effect with the minimum material; we rarely get permission (permission is expensive!); we have eliminated the client completely. I believe we have accomplished a minor instance of architectural self-valorization.