Cybernetics (information + control) for art and architecture

Pointer from: Architectural Intelligence by Molly Wright Steenson
Place digested: Devoured on Bart ride home
Time digested: Sept 17, 2018




Suggested citation Mathews, S. (2005), ‘The Fun Palace: Cedric Price’s experiment in architecture and technology’, Technoetic Arts 3:2, pp. 73–91, doi: 10.1386/tear.3.2.73/1

Since the Fun Palace programme would be ad hoc, determined by the users, and like a swarm or meteorological system, its behaviour would be unstable, indeterminate, and unknowable in advance. Yet, even without a specific programme or objective, the Fun Palace would have to self-regulate, and its physical configuration and operations would need to anticipate and respond to probable patterns of use.

Price realized that the solution to the problems posed by the Fun Palace lay in the new fields of cybernetics, game theory, and computer technologies. The Fun Palace would need to be able to ‘learn’ behavioral patterns and ‘plan’ for future activities by modelling these according to the cybernetics principles and game theory strategies. It could thus anticipate unpredictable phenomena, because instead of a determined programme, it relied on probability to adjust its programme to accommodate changing trends and events

To Pask, the central theme of cybernetics was the study of the ways in which complex biological, social or mechanical systems organize themselves, regulate themselves, reproduce themselves, evolve, and learn.24 He regarded cybernetics not as a unilateral system of one-way reactivity, but as a two way ‘conversation’ between entities.25 To Pask, cybernetics held particular promise for architecture and design, which he saw as essentially interactive (or ‘conversational’) systems of human interaction.

Price didn’t exactly agree with Pask’s notion of the architect as social engineer. Instead, he trusted that the cybernetic control systems would enable him or any other paternal, controlling force to withdraw from the scene entirely. He hoped that an autonomous cybernetic control system would allow users to shape their own environments and their own goals.

As the concept of the Fun Palace gradually shifted towards cybernetics, planners placed more importance on quantification and mathematical models based on statistics, psychology, and sociology. In a 1964 memorandum, Pask enumerated the specific areas where mathematical models were needed:

1. Fun Palace and environment, visiting patterns.
2. Mechanical and architectural considerations: available capacities, etc.
3. Provision of specific participant activities, interactive activities.
4. Individual participant situations: teaching machines, etc.
5. Controlled group activities.
6. Communications and information systems.
7. Specific conditioning systems: environmental variables for different users.
8. Cybernetic art forms
9. Determination of what is likely to induce happiness.

That the Fun Palace would essentially be a vast social control system was made clear in the diagram produced by Pask’s Cybernetics Subcommittee, which reduced Fun Palace activities to a systematic flowchart in which human beings were treated as data. The diagram produced by the committee described the Fun Palace as a systematic flowchart. Raw data on the interests and activity preferences of individual users was gathered by electronic sensors and response terminals, and then assigned a prioritized value. This data would then be compiled by the latest IBM 360-30 computer to establish overall user trends, which would in turn set the parameters for the modification of spaces and activities within the Fun Palace. The building would then relocate moveable walls and walkways to adapt its form and layout to changes in use.

The Cybernetics Subcommittee outlined plans to use an array of sensors and inputs that would provide real-time feedback on use and occupancy to computers which would allocate spaces and resources according to projected needs. Space allotted for a popular event would grow, then shrink once interest had waned. Thus, the Fun Palace would be a sentient entity, a virtual architecture which could learn, anticipate, and adapt.

Certainly the most prescient proposal for the application of computer technologies was the ‘Pillar of Information’, also proposed by Roy Ascott, a refinement of his earlier idea for a ‘Juke Box’ Information system.46 Ascott’s ‘Pillar of Information’ would be a kind of electronic kiosk which could display information of all sorts, based on the model of the Encyclopedia Britannica. His system was among the earliest proposals for public access to computers to store and retrieve information from a vast database. In addition, and even more innovative, it would also keep a memory of previous inquiries. As one person took information from the pillar, a trace would be recorded of the transaction, and subsequent users would be able to track the patterns of use, and the system would suggest multiple knowledge pathways, in much the same way that use patterns on the Internet of today are mapped through the use of tracking ‘cookies’. Ascott envisioned that this would give users insight into the interests and queries of other Fun Palace users. Based on patterns of user interaction, the Pillar of Information would gradually develop an extensive network of cognitive associations and slippages as a kind of non-hierarchical information map, both allowing and provoking further inquiry beyond the user’s initial query.