Avant-gard making

Written by | Innovation, Slider 1

Avant-gard making

“This is what man tends to call utopia. It’s a fairly small word, but inadequate to describe the extraordinary new freedom of man in a new relationship to universe – the alternative of which is oblivion.”
(Richard Buckminster Fuller, Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity, Overlook Press 1969)

Utopia or Oblivion is the title of a well-known essay by the great American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller. It also epitomises the status of today’s architecture as it confronts revolutionary technological changes poised to redefine its very meaning.
It would be a truism to say that the Internet and the digital revolution have changed most aspects of our lives. The way we work, live, access knowledge, meet, mate and more has been radically transformed over the past couple of decades. Now, the Internet is entering the physical environment as the Internet of Things, and starting to invade architecture’s key medium: space. Step by step, the built environment is turning into an instantiation of the American computer scientist Mark Weiser’s idea of “ubiquitous computing” whereby technology becomes so widespread and seamless that it “recedes to the background of our lives”. Many innovators are working in this new space, developing tools that change the way we use buildings (see the Nest thermostat, for example) and cities (from the way we move with Uber to the way we lodge with Airbnb). What about the role of architects? How can we ensure their continuing relevance at the centre of a new physical-cum-digital universe? And most importantly, how can we ensure architecture’s survival, “utopia” over “oblivion”?
The questions above served as a starting point for this supplement of Domus. We decided to explore the fringes of architectural innovation, looking for a guiding light towards the changes that are happening today. We decided to explore changes in the “chain of design”, which leads from the conception of an artefact, to its production and usage. As a result, the first chapter focuses on design itself, reflecting on the new, porous borders generated by the increasingly pervasive role of software. The second chapter explores new materials in architecture, while the third chapter assesses the impact of new digital manufacturing processes on the industry at large. Finally, the closing chapter on interaction explores how artefacts are becoming “open works” that keep mutating and reacting to users’ needs even after they make their debut into the real world.

The four topics highlighted above could have been explored through a kaleidoscopic collection of what is happening all over the world. However, we decided to focus our lens on a precise place: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and its neighbouring innovation ecosystem of Cambridge. MIT, in fact, is a small universe in its own right, and allows us to account for most of the crucial themes confronting architecture today. If “avant-garde making” means pushing the boundaries of the status quo, MIT and its surrounding area have a special role, combining pure research with concrete applications. They are places of experimentation, built around a network of laboratories, spin-offs and start-ups. This ecosystem is the right place to learn, teach and translate a utopia into reality. It is a site of mens et manus (to quote MIT’s motto, “mind and hand”), where knowledge is constantly transformed into products and services that have the potential to improve people’s lives. In a recent email to the faculty, MIT’s president Rafael Reif wrote, “MIT’s mission statement directs us not only to advance knowledge and educate students, but also to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges. If we hope to deliver serious technological solutions to urgent global challenges – like clean water, climate change, sustainable energy, cancer, Alzheimer’s, infectious disease and more – we need to make sure the innovators working on those problems see a realistic pathway to the marketplace.”
Accompanied by the lens of one of the most famous photographers in the world, the celebrated Oliviero Toscani, we set forth to explore architectural innovation at MIT. We chose to focus on a specific location also to remark on the importance of physical space, one that is all but fading, despite the impact of Internet in our lives. The American city planner Melvin Webber’s words come to mind here: “For the first time in history, it might be possible to locate on a mountain top and to maintain intimate, real-time, and realistic contact with business or other associates”. No prediction could have been more wrong. The fact that we can work or study from anywhere does not mean that we want to. In the era of bits, we still need physical places in which to work, meet and exchange ideas. MIT and Cambridge’s buildings, streets and halls form a village devoted to innovation. Telling the stories of this village – stories grounded in a proximity of spaces and architecture – is also our way to pay tribute to architecture and Domus’s history. As architecture feels a disruption, space still has a crucial role to play.
We travelled with Oliviero Toscani to Cambridge for an intense tour, to take pictures of (almost) all the people and companies featured in this special supplement.
He is the one who brings to life the pages that follow, unveiling the practicing of the avant-garde.
Ultimately, our goal with this collection of case studies is not only to show innovation per se, but also to illustrate how to “make innovation”. This reportage would like to offer some guidance and starting points. It is a call for action, so that we can collectively ensure that a New Architecture will remain central in tomorrow’s world – utopia over oblivion.

This article was originally published on Innovation, Domus supplement, March 2017


Carlo Ratti

Ratti was born in Turin in 1971. He graduated in engineering from the Turin Polytechnic and the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris in 1995.
At the University of Cambridge, he took a master’s degree in Environmental Design in Architecture in 1996 and a doctorate in 2001. In 2002 he founded Carlo Ratti Associati in Turin. He teaches at MIT, where he directs the SENSEable City Lab that he founded in 2004.
He has co-authored over 500 publications. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Financial Times, Scientific American, Il Sole 24 Ore, Il Corriere della Sera, Domus. He is currently serving as co-chair of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, and as special advisor on Urban Innovation to the President and Commissioners of the European Commission.

Last modified: 15 March 2017