Eric Hunting on the historical origins of peer to peer architecture

This is the start of a fascinating interview with polymath Eric Hunting. In the first question, while reviewing his interest in sustainable building, he mentions a number of modernist antecedents, while the second question is the occasion for a more lengthy disgression on the p2p aspects of traditional community architecture.

Question: I have been impressed by your deep knowledge of shelter and housing, and know you are very interested in open design practices, perhaps you could start by summarizing how this interest originated, so that our readers can know a little bit of your background.

Eric Hunting:

I’ve long had an interest in such futurist personalities as Buckminster Fuller and Paulo Soleri, in the subject of environmental sustainability, and a fondness for Modernist design as well as the more unusual design disciplines (such as the multi-faceted field of organic design), but my concerted study of alternative architecture originated with a very practical need. As an MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome) patient I have had a critical need for low-toxic housing -housing free of latently toxic materials that minimize the accumulation of indoor air pollution- but discovered that a general ignorance in the homebuilding industry of the nature and origins of materials commonly in use made obtaining such housing in the US a virtually insurmountable challenge. Though it is possible to build conventional housing with a simple substitution of safe materials for those of dubious safety and a return to some pre-WWII building techniques, the relative scarcity or increased labor/skill overhead of such substitutions can radically increase the costs of a home. Most of the sufferers of MCS, and the often considered related Gulf War Syndrome, are extremely economically challenged due to an inability to tolerate most work environments and so affording even low-cost conventional housing is difficult, let alone any housing that might cost far more than normal. This being my own situation, I was compelled to begin exploring the full spectrum of home and industrial building technology and design in the hopes of finding means of both realizing non-toxic housing and greatly economizing on its cost compared to conventional housing without any sacrifices in standard of living.

Overlapping as it does the fields of industrial technology, environmentalism, renewable energy, architecture, relief/aid technology, and more, through this research I was exposed to not only a remarkable variety of overlooked building methods from the ancient past to the near-future but also a largely overlooked history of architectural and industrial design. I was particularly intrigued by the long obsession with modular architecture among the classic Modernists and the question of why virtually all attempts at making this work for mainstream building have failed despite a century of truly remarkable invention. I also became interested in the curious evolution of the sustainable technology and renewable energy movements, which originated with the likes of Fuller as a very progressive high-tech-oriented, movement, changed after the late 70s Energy Crisis into a soft-tech movement with a very anti-technology, anti-Modernist stance, and in recent times has returned again to a high-tech approach riding on the coat-tails of New Modernism. (an evolution mirrored in the environmentalist movement in general) This all led me to the discovery of the mid-century Post-Industrial movement, how it related to people like Fuller and Solari, how it once split over the prophesies of cultural revolution and Total Automation (the first incarnation of the idea of Singularity), and how it has been reinvented/reinterpreted over the turn of the century by writers like the Swiss activitst/author P.M. Alvin Toffler, Chris Anderson, Ray Kurzweil, Kim Drexler, Terence McKenna, etc., in the emerging Maker movement, the Open Source software movement, in the nanotechnology development community, in the transhumanism community, and among the new generation of Diamond Age science fiction writers. I came to notice and was intrigued by how so many people coming from so many completely different directions were arriving at convergent views of the underlying trends of the present and common vision of the future they point towards.”

QUESTION TWO: In my understanding, peer to peer is the voluntary self-aggregration by humans in order to create common value. This takes place through the use of open and free raw material (i.e. the intellectual basis for cooperation to occur), participatory process of development of the common knowledge, and a ‘commons’ oriented output, so that the result is universally available to all and can serve for further levels of refinement. It is my conviction that such peer production practices are morphing from their use in the creation of content and free software, towards the open design of physical production, and I would include in that the production of shelter and housing, and rural or urban space in general. So it is something that, as a non-expert, would like to discuss with an expert such as yourself.

In terms of my description above, i.e. the three new paradigms, or any correction that you feel you need to add to that yourself, do you think there is today an actual or potential emergence of something that we could call ‘peer to peer’ architecture. If the question is too complex for one reply, perhaps we can start one paradigm at a time. Is there something like an open and free architecture today?

Eric Hunting:

I think the P2P movement is rediscovering something that has existed as a fundamental aspect of true communities since the origin of civilization but which western culture lost the memory of over the Industrial Age as it systematically disrupted or destroyed traditional communities in favor of new macro-communities, reducing human beings to economic units and cultivating a mass sociopathy. For as long as the human species has existed, we have come together in groups for the purpose of cultivating very practical, tangible, survival-critical resources beyond the means of the individual. And before the advent of bureaucratic institutional systems, P2P was the only way these resources could be created because you simply could not force people to participate in things against their will as long as they had somewhere else to go. The original and most basic communal resources were most likely protection, sexual opportunity, productivity, and propriety. From these derived countless others culminating in the creation of fixed architecture requiring communal participation to create. One of the key benefits of the productivity resource -the higher productivity yield from physical labor shared- is that through group participation one can construct dwellings of much greater robustness and comfort than is possible for the solitary individual working alone. But in order to gain this communal labor in exchange for one’s own participation a P2P negotiation must be conducted with one’s fellow neighbor-builders in order to work out equitable dwelling sizes and acceptable designs and locations. The very organic character of the organization of ancient villages and cities is a reflection of the fluid nature of property -a function of propriety- within this P2P process in small groups. This is still a hallmark of P2P activity today, as demonstrated by the more organic nature of Open Source code design compared to its corporate produced counterparts. Ultimately, the architecture of an entire village and its key facilities is worked-out in this P2P fashion and over time standards codified as ‘traditions’ are established to streamline the P2P process across the physical evolution of a community, culminating in what we today refer to as architectural ‘vernaculars’; region/culture-specific systems of design and methods of construction.

So, in fact, P2P architecture is not new. It was how most people housed themselves and built their villages and cities for most of human history and how a very large portion of the world still does it, wherever true communities have not been supplanted or disrupted by western economics and people, of necessity, still primarily employ their own labor in a communal fashion to create their homes. Basically, wherever pre-industrial and primary cultures still persist in some form around the globe. Because we have so little functional memory of life before our all-encompassing all-controlling bureaucratic complexes, we tend to over-estimate the importance of authority figures in earlier societies, assuming that there was always some kind of dictatorial control in communities. But, in fact, the so-called ‘rulers’ had very specialized and limited roles in early society because their authority came from group consensus and they simply had no special knowledge or insight compared to the average person. These people functioned primarily as mediators and conflict-resolvers, not dictators or even organizers. Indeed, anthropologists have noted that, no matter who might be sitting in the chief’s seat, most often the person who really kept primary culture communities functioning was an especially socially clued-in older woman with a talent for communication who functioned as a catalyst of P2P activity and general social harmony. The original, functional, queen bee. So ‘rulers’ might always have the last word, but rarely ever the first.

In the west P2P architecture can only manifest itself in the scarce situations where community can be overlooked or ignored by bureaucrats and authorities seeking to suppress the expression of it -especially community that can command any sort of control of real property and economic resources. So we tend to see P2P architecture emerge ad hoc, entertainment-oriented, and often temporary in sub-cultural ‘special interest’ communities. For instance, model plane enthusiasts often build club airports complete with miniature airstrips and air traffic control towers. This is sometimes taken to the scale of ‘fly in communities’ (like the one John Travolta lives in) where private plane enthusiasts create a communal airport which they build their homes around, each having a hangar as well as a car garage. Model train enthusiasts build club train layouts in a shared building -sometimes of astounding area. Groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism and the various Civil War re-creationist groups establish temporary military camps or villages. Artists communities often form residential communities around the shared facilities like kilns, foundries, and galleries. Urban gardeners collaborate on the creation of community farms and gardens in abandoned lots. (which, it’s interesting to note, American cities such as New York long and violently resisted throughout the 20th century, police sent in to destroy such community gardens whenever bureaucrats were made aware of them as such challenges to official urban planning by mere residents were not tolerated) And, of course, there’s the Burning Man festival which is an annual temporary city of P2P managed microvllages that has become a showcase for some of the latest in prefab and temporary architecture, itself increasingly the product of P2P projects. (such as the Hexayurt relief housing project)

But the most functional examples of P2P architecture in the west -the closest we get to village creation in the manner of those early societies- may be those Danish-style co-housing communities based on actual group participation in the very deliberate design of the community architecture. This is usually done with an architectural firm (often specialists in co-housing) working as both a source of base-line design concepts as well as a mediator of group negotiations over design. However, the ultimate common architecture and aesthetic is a product of group consensus and, though construction is usually primarily performed by conventional contractors and everything paid for by conventional mortgages, sweat-equity investment is common as a means of reducing housing costs through group effort. The limitation, of course, is that because of the reliance on ‘professionals’ to design and build the finished architecture as well as conventional mortgage financing, later evolvability of the architecture is precluded or severely diminished which, for a functional small community that is architecturally divergent from the conventional forms around it, is eventually a death sentence for the community as a whole. Interestingly, this concept has been far more successful in the more culturally progressive regions of Europe like Scandinavia than in the US. Here, where the lack of heritage made the Industrial Age suppression of even the real memory of community more complete (largely supplanted by the fantasy communities of Bedford Falls, Mayberry RFD, and Walnut Grove…), the fundamental lack of social negotiation skills produces very protracted periods of organization and negotiation in co-housing development. It typically takes several times longer to organize a co-housing project here than anywhere else on the globe and there is a far higher rate of project collapse. The concept has been more successful here in the form of ‘master planned’ co-housing communities instigated by architects that people simply buy-into after-the-fact, the design left to the ‘experts’ and the P2P portion of the development process -with all that distasteful face-to-face human interaction- largely eliminated.

Ironically, eco-villages -similar as they sometimes are to co-housing and often confused with them because there is cross-over of sustainable building methods and renewable energy technology- rarely employ consensus architecture development in the manner of Danish co-housing and rarely use common architectural designs or deliberate community pre-planning except where imposed upon them by the master plan of an architect. This may be explained in that eco-communities not instigated by architects rarely actually employ architects and when not architect-designed rarely employ the sustainability-appropriate village/urban densities that necessitate concerted P2P collaboration. The lack of cultural memory of functional community architecture may also have something to do with this. A lot of environmental ‘enthusiasts’ tend to think sustainability is all about straw bale and rustic woodwork, harbor notions of community that seem to derive more from JRR Tolkien than anything in real human history, and seek eco-community creation as a means of ‘escape’ from everything symbolically urban. So the end result is sometimes ‘eco-villages’ built ad hoc in once pristine wilderness that are about as sustainable and community-oriented as a suburban cul-de-sac of McMansions with Hummers parked in their driveways. It’s ironic that eco-communities, so often predicated on the objective of demonstrating community ideals, so rarely embody an expression of community in their architecture while co-housing, largely predicated on simply making a better form of suburbia than the market will offer (often for the sake of child-rearing), is often much more functional as community because is has practical, rather than idealized, reasons for socialization and deliberately crafts habitat to accommodate that with the aid of designers versed -at least- in the ergonomics that requires.”

1 Comment Eric Hunting on the historical origins of peer to peer architecture

  1. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Eric Hunting on the historical origins of peer to peer architecture, part two

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