Cybernetic Urbanism in Future London


Martha E. LaGess, B.A., B.Arch. [Rice University]

LaMa Studio, London, and Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge, UK    e-mail:


Michael McNamara, B.A., B.Arch., M.Arch., [Harvard]

LaMa Studio, London, and Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge, UK




The means for a cybernetic design practice [utilizing feedback systems] are already available.

This paper describes teaching concepts that we are infusing into practice. Our students, a generation well placed for the 21st century paradigm, are going to “press for change.” We encourage a new “medieval practice” involving continuous contact with sites. The Active Brief redefines the traditional brief [or program] in terms of person, place, and activity. Interconnectivity relies on web-based means to reintroduce temporal processes to urbanism. Cybernetic Urbanism includes several techniques to make real-time interventions whilst working in situ. Norbert Wiener coined the term cybernetics; perhaps a more philosophical definition, suggested by Louis Couffignal, [a cybernetics pioneer], characterizes it as "the art of ensuring the efficiency of action[1]". In architecture, we intend cybernetics to mean feedback between design processes and sites. Design decisions should continually update, via an iterative process, to recognize changing states of a project from initial sketch to completion. Many of the examples are shown on the Harvard website: Although we do not work as cyberneticians, our architecture requires site-based feedback on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.


“We’re going to press for change!”

The Big Issue is a UK newspaper sold by homeless vendors that was promoted by the slogan: “we’re going to press for change!” It neatly suggests the overlap of meanings on an urban site. Containing at least six distinct connotations, 'press for change' is a programme for action and a process combined: 'press' and 'change' slip meanings as variations on themes. Like Douglas Hofstatder, we consider “variations on a theme [slippage and overlap] to be the crux of creativity.”[2] Likewise, the active brief of an urban condition should be multifarious, at one level an ambiguous stage for daily routine, and at another a highly specific accommodation for a choreography of props and actions [as demonstrated by the combined brilliance of Chareau, Bijvoet, and Dalbet at the Maison de Verre in Paris].

London is a laboratory for improbable urban and architectural experiments with enormous potential for alternative scenarios. London lacks, however, aspects of urbanism  prevalent in the public culture of Mediterranean cities. Some of our studios concentrated on Southwark, one of London's most rapidly growing boroughs. In the spirit of Southwark Cathedral, we welcome a new “medieval practice” involving continuous contact with decisions on site. As Unit Masters at the AA, Harvard, and currently at Cambridge, we are inculcating students into two primary modus operandi: the first of these is a sort of round-robin between digital and analogue media: students are requested to hybridise their hand tools with CAD and digital applications. This round-robin of analogue and digital is a metaphor for the differences between off-site design and site installation. Secondly, we promote a process executed online with continuous feedback. Media convergence [the goal of delivering all digital media, e.g. internet and television, through one converged medium] will accelerate the adoption of  design feedback tools. Architects will not necessarily become cyberneticians, but our designs must be technologically-enabled by the feedback systems developed for industry and construction.

Active Brief

Hybrid briefs proliferate in an urban boom. Whilst teaching at the Architectural Association from 1993 until 2001, LaGess-McNamara London studios recorded evolving briefs. We believe that brief as nouns is only marginally useful; instead our studios seek the latent potential of brief by using verbs or actions, thus, Active Brief. It has three components: Place, Person, and Activity.

Place: When architects routinely worked on site, as in medieval examples, it was far easier to envision activity and space directly. Design was carried out in person. We refocus on the uniqueness of sites by overlaying present and future desire and activity.

Person: In our teaching, we have used the student groups as a “body” of research in which their own measurements and representations of themselves have formed a catalogue of sizes and personal themes. Also consider the experiments of Muybridge and Eakins. [3]

Activity: Artefacts develop meaning from use and occupation, or in spite of them. Stated as verbs, the brief suggests multifarious activities with their tendency for coincidence and conflict. Streets and buildings are a theatre of daily life in which we emphasize the ensemble of person, place, and action within a time sequence.

In 1999, the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded its Gold Medal for the first time to a city i.e., Barcelona [4].  Accepting the award, Mayor Pasqual Maragall stated that, "in the last 20 years in Barcelona, we have come to equate 'city' with 'betterment…' [Constructed artefacts are] visible, corporeal, criticisable-action-become-object, which thousands of eyes will gaze on with respect, or will pass over, which thousands of hands and feet will touch, trample, alter, and which make of the city one of the few lasting concepts of our present and future…" Maragall referred to London as Barcelona's big sister [which may be the case in size and complexity], but many lessons of design and urbanism flow from little sister to big.

The designed artifact takes meaning from our occupation of it; this ensemble implies the latent potential of brief.  No longer a list of nouns, [for example, bedroom, bathroom, closet], the Active Brief of VERBS suggests open-ended activities with their tendency for overlaps, conflict, and the resolution of needs through mapping of territory. Brief as a set of verbs characterizes our attempt to translate activity into settings for life. Imagine the room that comes to mind in the nouns “meeting room.” We tend to see a fixed, probably rectangular room, with table and chairs, in words or on a floor plan. Alternatively, the verb “to meet” suggests many alternative possibilities in a variety of settings. We can meet in an airport, a village green, or by chance. Consider the action in terms of innumerable adjustments and protocols that go into meeting. The various possibilities of the verb allow hybrid active briefs to proliferate. Why is the comfort of the home not available in an office?


If a building is characterized by a set of processes rather than a list of rooms, we hope to raise our ambitions for the meeting. What is the full potential of a place established for meeting? Opening a brief outwards, in terms of spaces in a sequence, ancillary spaces can alter to incorporate the subordinate processes that are entrained in every architectural setting. The Maison de Verre by Pierre Chareau, Bernard Bijvoet, and Louis Dalbet abounds in invented and constructed briefs and serves as a model for our practice. An exceptional example is the door between the doctor’s assistant and Consulting where a pragmatic need and an act of courtesy have been combined into one artefact.


Closed Object vs. Interconnectivity


If the building is not seen as a fixed OBJECT (the term used in some architectural contracts, e.g. Germany) but as an environment for processes of action, we may renew the making of spaces. In this respect, we utilize photographic and computer tools that we call SEQUENCE (a term also used by Tschumi [5]). We wish for our sketches to come alive as well as spaces. [Animated GIF Chaos City 01] Sequence drawings and models allow us to locate processes and action within the liquid amber of space. Distinct from a one-way narrative in film, the sequence is meant to introduce into representation measures of time in multiple directions.


What is an alternative to the tendency to produce boxes placed squarely on site? I suggest that this tendency is an engrained simplification of design stemming from isolated monuments of history. Fixation on a designed object is endemic to architecture; production of a building envelope or object (der Objekt) is, after all, a main contractual task. If we consider continuous environments rather than boxlike buildings, we can extend projects beyond traditional boundaries. Developers and architects will need courage for this in profit-driven London and engage in the diplomatic work of convincing owners to give over resources to the public realm [i.e. the proliferation of Section 106 agreements with planners in the UK] [6]. At the DEFRA building in London, LaMa Studio was only beginning to consider the Section 106 potential for the public realm adjacent to the building. Buildings in urban relationships that supersede closed objects are there for the asking when architects know how to play the game.


As the museum architect of Edgar Reitz’s Heimat Three observes, the oldest human traces we have are not buildings but pathways worn by our peregrinations.[7] Returning to Barcelona, we focus on the Ramblas, a pathway which resists the pressure of tourism and remains the principal pedestrian urban route. The path that formed outside the old city walls of the Barri Gotic has sponsored the development of a rich urban model for interconnectivity. Most streets and pavements have not been conceived as a positive element, as an entity. Most routes are a negative or a void space. We must weld occupation of cities to the best possible means of movement. Interconnectivity is the architecture of the in-between. When the in-between is viewed as the most important OBJECT or goal of our architecture, we will participate in an urbanism worthy of the name and its implication of urbanity. Time and sequence are fundamentals of Interconnectivity: objects and buildings not only measure space but movement, demarcating the passagiata.




Cybernetic Urbanism


We set aside the modern tradition, which too often substituted an understanding of the local site and its social, physical, and environmental conditions with a standardized 'object' building. [8 e.g. Barcelona Museum by Richard Meier] If we consider an unfinished building by Gaudi, we may retrospectively put forward a model for a future cybernetic practice. The images refer to the Colonia Guell chapel [9], best known because of the amazing catenaries model which aided its engineering [rebuilt by Frei Otto]. The spectacular masonry would be unimaginable without the architect/engineer directing masons on site. The feedback element of the Chapel is evident to the visitor in the daring installation of structural components which rely, one by one, on the previous component.


Our goal is to work as directly within the spontaneity of urban places. Based in the richest design data sets, designers can supersede ordinary maps and CAD files. How can buildings and public spaces contribute cybernetic linkages to their sites? Media Convergence will change our means of discussion and presentation to active give and take devices [via web tools] rather than passive TV viewing. Picture, video, and vector programmes [e.g. CAD/GIS] can be combined to simulate the existing conditions of territories, where multiple layers form a rich basis for augmentation. Augmented reality will be the means to see through and overlay upon existing conditions. Augmentations enrich, rather than merely replace [as in Modernism], the existing. CAD and GIS practices are interdependent [e.g. in software products by Bentley Systems] and allow searchable data-base driven maps and building proposals. [10]


The “Voxel” is a unit of searchable space which uses CAD / GIS database systems. [11]. It is the smallest distinguishable component of a three-dimensional space. A particular voxel will be identified by the x, y and z coordinates of one of its eight corners, or perhaps its centre (the term is used in three dimensional modelling). Most GIS queries are based on flat 2D maps. As a three dimensional matrix, the voxel CAD / GIS model suggests a system which can be tracked from centroids anywhere in space. The database drives the voxel and the voxel is the means for feedback to the database.


In summary, the technologically-enabled architect of the present and future will use a range of techniques to “put us in the picture:”


·        Total Stations, GPS, and measurements fed back by WWW. Complex projects by firms such as Lord Foster and Frank Gehry have employed these feedback devices as utilized by major contractors. Petrochemical installations and drilling platforms pioneered a range of current technologies.

·        Web-based means of continuous visual and verbal contact with sites.

·        CAD and GIS: database-driven files[e.g. Microstation, Triforma Bentley Systems]

·        The “Voxel” or 3D searchable database-driven spatial component.


Alas, big firms practiced Cybernetic Urbanism well in advance of small outfits like ours. Gradually, feedback tools and techniques will move down the design “food chain” to small practices and contractors. Nonetheless, the large concerns may not have the time or the inclination to ponder the further potential of feedback systems. Urban models [precedents] must be ready and available when opportunities arise. It is therefore essential to propose a contemporary humanism which we have based on specific places where people engage in overlapping activities.


[1]        Louis Couffignal, Principia Cybernetica Web,


[2]        Hofstadter, Douglas, Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, 1985, Basic Books.

[3]        Muybridge, Eadweard: Human and Animal Locomotion, NB: Why is there no 21st Century Muybridge?

[4]        Royal Institute of Architects (RIBA) Gold Medal, 1999.

[5]   Bernard Tschumi, The Manhattan Transcripts: Theoretical Projects, 1985.

[6]        Town and Country Planning Act, 1990 United Kingdom.

[7]        Edgar Reitz, Heimat 3, Drama Series produced for German Television.

[8]        Richard Meier & Partners, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Barcelona (MACBA) Plaza dels Angels, 1 Barcelona, 1995.Standardized object architecture uniformly installed worldwide. The problem may have started when the projects were placed on urban sites, e.g. Barcelona, Frankfurt, rather than pristine woodland sites, e.g. the Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana, USA.

[9]        Antonio Gaudi: Colonia Guell Chapel; also refer to Mark and Jane Burry at RMIT and their ongoing work at Sagrada Familia.

[10]      Bentley Systems, Exton, Pennsylvania, USA: Triforma, Geographics GIS, and other software packages.

[11]     Harvard website: