The emergence of participatory techno-utopias: GEAM, GIAP and Yona Friedman

This post is part of my attempt to construct an archaeology of Open Architecture(s), with emphasis on works where the figuration of technology plays a central -although not always explicitly stated- role. In this entry I provide fragments of the general climate which nourished the radical architectural proposals of the 1960s-1970s in France and consecutively focus on the life and work of Yona Friedman. This approach by no means claims to be a complete account of the emergence of the participatory project – in fact it is deliberately selective. As many of you may argue, participatory design did not only inhabit the space of unbuilt utopian projects, neither can the radical utopias of the time be viewed under the unified interpretational prism of technology-mediated participation, as this was not always what was mainly at stake; a reading of Constant’s proposals solely from this viewpoint would be deficient.

I choose to focus on Yona Friedman and his Mobile Architecture for a series of reasons. First, because his biography can be seen as an exemplar of the historical transformations which interest me in this exploration; from modernist paternalism, to the technopolitical utopia and then to computation. Second, because his work “played” simultaneously in the European and American scene, acting as the precursor, not only of the sixties architectural radicalism (Archigram, the Japanese metabolists) but also of the Architecture Machine Group at MIT. In that sense, through the work on Friedman one can establish connections between this radicalism and the first computational experiments in architecture.

My claim is that the destabilization of the architect-expert and the emergence of the demand for the “democratization” of architecture through the mediation of technology can benefit from an investigation on the way technology was conceptualized in pre-computational examples.

Eckhard Schulze Fielitz's metaeder structures for a Spatial Urbanism

Yona Friedman is part of a generation, situated from the late ‘1950s to the early ‘1970s, which radically modified the boundaries and definition of Architecture. The rejection of the Modern Movement paternalist practices and the quest for an Other Architecture, cannot be seen isolated from a broader change of paradigm, which not only created new conditions and subsequently new issues to be addressed, but decisively influenced all the fields of architectural thinking and praxis. Being very conscious of the fact that the relation of the socio-economical shifts of the post war era with the multiple paradigmatic shifts in architecture is far beyond the scope of a blog entry, I will resort to a single observation: The social and economic shifts in the end of the ‘50s formed the demand of a new functionality and led to a re-conception of architecture beyond the built secular object, as an environment, a spatial field for the expression of the relations and processes of an increasingly complex world.
According to Andrea Branzi[1], the culture of classical modernism could not accept the idea of chaos as a product of the emerging international market and insisted in the belief that the observed chaotic phenomena were not but the result of a temporary decadence, curable by the modernist endeavor. However, this climate of crisis, also created the opportunity for cultural change, through the questioning of the traditional definition of the “projet” and the assertion of a discursive and experimental nature of architectural production.
Referring to this phenomenon Marie Ange Brayer[2] identifies the inauguration of an architecture which constantly questions its own practice and is at the same time demiourgic and critical. This architecture poses as the common denominator of its explorations the question of mobility, “the utopia of an architecture without inscription”. It is around this demand that a new experimental aesthetic arises in the cycles of architects and artists, who move beyond rationalist order and push architecture to its conceptual limits through constant inquiry and experimentation.

These radical groups seem to almost unanimously attempt to orchestrate a liberation from Architecture, which until then was perceived as a discipline oriented towards construction. I find very interesting Andrea Branzi’s observation about a disintegration of the total work of international modernism in its constituent parts. He observes: “All the activities around the conception of the work, which were until then interconnected in multiple scales, gradually become cultures and logics in their own right, calling for a central position and an exclusive strategy”. City without architecture, architecture without city, objects without city or architecture, architects without work are not but products of these schisms of the parts of the former total “projet”[3].
The groups emerging from this disciplinary turmoil, to which I will refer in more detail below, were by no means formed by a body of common beliefs, principles or practices, but rather from the participation in a general reformative era. In fact it was often the case that some of these groups were formed exoterically and did not become conscious of their existence until the moment that an external observer provided them with a name and identity.
A characteristic example of such a construction is the GIAP (Groupe Internationale d’ Architecture Prospective) founded in 1965 with the initiative of the historian and art critic Michel Ragon. In his interview to Marie Ange Brayer και Frederick Migayrou[4], Ragon accepts that the idea of the synthesis of the arts and the social role of the artist were two of his main preoccupations at that time. It was this “romanticism of the avant-garde” that led him publish articles on Yona Friedman and after they approached him, Maymont, Ruhnau and Frei Otto.
Having all these files at hand Michel Ragon admits that he started realizing affinities, not so much in terms of content, but mostly in the realization of the necessity of decisive change. “It was obvious that Le Corbusier’s time had finished and now something new was coming […] I thought that a synthesis was necessary so I wrote “Ou Vivrons nous Demand?” […] There was indeed an international condition of creation, but nonetheless many of its participants did not know each other. For example Friedman with Maymont. They met later, but did not really appreciate each other.”
One can barely question the inaugural character of Ragon’s first collection, before which there was barely any literature on prospective architecture. This construction attracted the interest of Yona Friedman, Maymont and Schoffer, who thought that it was important to invest it with manifests and exhinitions, which was also the initiation of GIAP. This concept of “prospective architecture” was the central theme of the weekly meetings of the group in a room that they had been offered by the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, as well as the content of publications and exhibitions which followed.
The presence of Michel Ragon, taking into account his vision on a synthesis of the arts and his contribution in the theorizing of the relation between architecture and sculpture in the 60s, perhaps led to a totalization of architecture, which in turn contributed in the subversion of its stiff disciplinary boundaries. It signified what Friedman defines as the existence of a link between architecture and the fundamental fields of human culture, like the sciences (physics and biology), the social organization (economy, group construction) and the arts (individuation in all possible forms). This does not mean that architecture is more or less important than any of these sectors, but that it is part of the same whole.

But let’s take a few steps back.

Yona Friedman in his atelier in Paris (source: Blueprint magazine)

The 10th CIAM which marked the end of the International Style, brings Yona Friedman in Dubrovnik, from Israel where he was working as an architect. Friedman has already completed his studies in the Technion at Haifa and earlier in the Polytechnic University of his birth-town, Budapest, he has come in contact with Konrad Wachsmann’s studies on prefabrication techniques and three-dimensional structures and he has already realized an unsuccessful attempt of participatory residential design with inhabitants of Haifa.
The central theme of Dubrovnik’s CIAM was the constitution of a Charter of Habitat, discussed by four different subgroups. Through the subgroup “Growth and Change”, Yona Friedman has the chance to present for the first time the principles of an architecture which allows for social mobility through habitats and urban configurations which are composed and recomposed according to the intentions of their inhabitants.
Friedman’s proposals on mobility found the support of the journalist G. Kuhne, who published an article authored by Yona Friedman in the german magazine “Baumwelt”. This publication became the reason that Friedman left Haifa and moved to Germany, where he met Frei Otto and Gunschel, to the Netherlands and finally to Paris, where he settled in 1957 after receiving a collaboration proposal from Jean Prouve.
Paris was the founding place of GEAM (Groupe d’ Etudes d’ Architecture Mobile) team, which was formed around the demand for an architecture adapted to the fast paced changes of modern life, clearly influenced, as may other groups which were constituted around the same time, from a general climate of inquiry and experimentation which followed the 10th CIAM inside and outside its circles.
In 1958, having already published the “Manifest for Mobile Architecture”, Friedman outlines the fundamental principles of its most renown application: the Spatial City. According to him, the pedagogy of Architecture itself had led architects to dismiss the importance of the user, who they substituted with the non-existent entity of the “Average Man”; a being whose invented needs were increasingly discrepant with the needs of the real user. In his manifest, Friedman advocated for an architecture where “the habitat is decided by the user within the framework of an infrastructure which is neither determined nor determinant” and where the buildings “should touch the ground as little as possible and can be disassembled and moved, can be altered according to the desire of each inhabitant”
Based on the model of the “Spatial City” a tri-hedrical space-structure with inhabitable voids supported by columns and spanning over inhabited and uninhabited areas, Friedman produced in 1958 his proposals on the Spatial Tunis and Spatial Paris and in 1959 the Venice Monegasque. Friedman retained his interest for the three-dimensional space structures for the following years, through the study of bridge-towns. The most well known example from this era is the Bridge over the Army Channel which he designed in collaboration with Eckhard Schulze Fielitz.

Collage from Friedman's drawings of the "Spatial City"(1958) and the "Bridge over the army channel"(1963)

According to FRAC center‘s biographical note, Friedman’s space structures were a point of inspiration for the largest part of the radical architecture of his time, namely Archigram and the Japanese metabolist movement. However, besides his highly influential work, Friedman never came to the spotlight of his era: “Besides the ways that the work of his contemporaries has been incorporated in the vocabulary of mainstream architecture, Friedman’s ideas are since his time a footnote in the architectural history of Europe, especially from its British perspective”[5]
As Friedman narrates in his Blueprint magazine interview “Cedric Price’s Fun Palace was influenced by La Ville Spatiale, which was how I got to know him. Building is not an object, it’s a process. Cedric liked this statement a lot” Nonetheless, Friedman particularly emphasizes the field in which his approach was differentiated from Price’s, who used as the structural unit and basis of every human effort the collective: “No individual, whether in particle physics or sociology behaves according to abstract laws: call it the ‘principle of individuality’” In the top down total design Friedman did not see but pseudo-theories, observations which only reflected the preferences of their beholders. He contends that a theory must be general and valid for anybody: “Everyone has their hypotheses. The general theory that I am trying to propound underpins all individual hypotheses”
In a first reading one could place Friedman’s atomo-centric approach as a response in the modernist reductionist and despotic generalizations. Although one can hardly negate the expression of resistance reflexes against the narcissistic subordination of the complexities of reality in rigid rules invented by experts, Friedman himself offers an alternative interpretational framework for the origins of his position. When he was 18 years old he had attended a lecture by Werner Heisenberg in Budapest. The Uncertainty principle, which for many shook the foundations of scientific objectivity, was a deeply formative experience. It would perhaps be legitimate to make links between these adolescent fascination and his suspicion against the 20th century Grand Theories or the adoption of indeterminacy as a fundamental principle in his work.

Pictogram from Friedman's "Utopies realizables" representing his model of the "Societe de faible communication"

A parallel interest, present from Friedman’s first steps and accentuated through time was the self-planning of collectivities in space and the construction of a vocabulary capable of making a “scientific architecture” approachable to non-experts. Although his “African Studies” and his interest on developing countries had started since the 60’s the systematization of this thread of research came through his book “Toward a scientific architecture”. UNESCO, for whom he had worked in India during the 80s, gave him the opportunity to test and develop these ideas through a commission, asking him to create an illustrated manual for un-trained workers, so that they successfully produce structures based on simple materials and techniques. The result of this exploration on self-construction was the Simple Technology Museum in Madras, India.
Through “Toward a Scientific Architecture” Friedman contributed in the systematization of the philosophical implications of user empowerment, turning the concept of “auto-planification” into a consistent and multifaceted theory, while at the same time, he set the foundations for the viewing of computation as a facilitator of the user empowerment that he envisions. What is particularly interesting here, is that the foreword of the book’s English translation is written by nicholas Negroponte, who admits the significant influence that his encounter with Friedman’s ideas had in the transformation of his research agenda.
Friedman’s main objective in this book is to provide the techniques to “democratize” design, to free the user from the “patronage” of the architect, to enable “non experts” to make their own designs, as they are the ones who better know their needs and desires and, most importantly, bear the risk of failure.

Self planning, the rejection of the expert, the invention of languages for learning, as well as his computational endeavors which strongly influenced the Architecture Machine group at MIT, all spinal threads throughout Friedman’s multivalent work, bring him very close to the central theme ofopenArchitecture(s). In my upcoming entry I will attempt to conceptualize Friedman’s figuration of technologically mediated participation, within a larger framework of practices in Europe and the US.

[1]Branzi A., Le mouvement radical, in Brayer M.A, Migayrou F., Architectures Experimentales, 1950-2000, Collection du FRAC Center, Orleans (France): Editions HYX, 2005, pp. 33-38
[2]Brayer M. A., Le FRAC Centre, une collection experimentale, op. cit. [1], pp. 7-10
[3]op.cit [1]
[4]Ragon M., Entretien avec M.-A. Brayer et F. Migayrou, op. cit. [1], pp. 45-50

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