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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.90 Santiago ago. 2015

http://dx.doi.org/10.4067/S0717-69962015000200007 

READINGS

From the Fun Palace to the Generator
Cedric Price and the conception of the first intelligent building

 

José Hernández*(1)

* Architect, Magíster en Arquitectura, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile. jhernandezv@me.com


Abstract

Like most of Cedric Price’s projects, the Generator was never built. However, its principles –which take the cybernetic explorations of the Fun Palace one step further– make it a case worthy of attention. Thus, this article discusses a project that was not only demountable and reconfigurable, but also, being designed to operate with artificial intelligence, could get bored if users did not interact with its components.

Keywords: Cybernetics, project, artificial intelligence, Gordon Pask, system design



When speaking of Cedric Price, it is impossible to ignore the Fun Palace; designed in conjunction with the theater producer Joan Littlewood,(1) it integrates entertainment, leisure, education and productive activities in a social center capable of transforming and interacting with its users. By dissolving the conventional opposition between work and leisure, the Fun Palace seeks to exercise a democratizing role by allowing universal access to a personal learning and development model outside the elitism of traditional institutions. Littlewood’s approach is charged with a profound social mission bound to the transformations put forward by the Labour Party regarding the use and exploitation of free time:

Those who at present work in factories, mines and offices will quite soon be able to live as only few people now can: choosing their own congenial work, doing as little of it as they like, and filling their leisure with whatever delights them. (Littlewood, 1968)

Price describes the Fun Palace as a giant mechanized shipyard(2) where all the building components are constantly moved by a crane system that allows the complete transformation of the complex. Formally, the Fun Palace neither seems like nor constitutes a conventional building but is rather a structural framework capable of responding and adapting to social needs. In all of the Fun Palace’s versions, the infrastructure allows the continuous adaptation of the project while everything else is understood as an open architecture meant to be assembled and disassembled in an ensemble defined by the succession of events it holds.

Although the Fun Palace is not a single project nor does it have a linear development, the design process consists of the systematic search for order within the possibilities of its transformation. In the final, more widely published drawings, the representation of the Fun Palace concentrates on emphasizing constant movement with the juxtapositions and contradictions it entails. However, the drawings regarding the development process of the project are focused on the creation of a standardized modular order that permits the universality of the components and the expansion of the possible alternatives through the project’s continuous transformation. Conceptually, this operation involves overcoming the mechanistic notion of assembly and moving the focus from a work composed of parts to the assembly of an interactive system made up of events. The movement and transformation of the Fun Palace is just as or more important than its physical components, because in light of the project’s objectives, the building can have as many forms as its requirements demand.

While on a formal level the Fun Palace, and almost all of Price’s work, corresponds to the crudest expression of industrial elements, this condition is no more than the reflection of the lack of emphasis on design in comparison to the performative possibilities the building allows. To achieve this idea of constant change, Price proposes using technology that was already available in the seventies for the naval and aeronautic industries, that is, using a precise and carefully designed technology to achieve an open, indefinite scheme as a way to expand the possibilities and freedom of the users.

This concept also implies overcoming the idea of program. By focusing on user interaction, the Fun Palace supposes a paradigm shift by moving the mechanistic notion of machine-function towards a cybernetic notion of system-objective. In cybernetic terms, a system is an artifact with a sub-specified function capable of transforming and redefining itself in view of an objective. Unlike the machine idea inherited from the Industrial Revolution, the cybernetic system is capable of correcting and redefining its functions in view of achieving a particular objective (Bateson, 1972).

In these terms the Fun Palace is itself a cybernetic system with the objective of delighting its users; it has an openly sub-specified objective that allows to expand the alternatives of project development. In consequence, the program is every function necessary to achieve this delight and, as such, they should not only change over time but also be aware of the type of response from the audience.

These changes are grounded in the incorporation of cybernetic concepts into our way of thinking and managing a project. Even before conceiving a responsive and transformable architecture, it is the process itself of thinking and developing architecture that is understood as a cybernetic process. The Fun Palace documents show a process based on research and development similar to that of a technological development than a traditional architectural project. The early incorporation of these administrative tools orients the design process to achieve specific objectives that are redefined in each of the project’s revision processes. An example of this would be the PERT diagram (Program Evaluation and Review Technique)(3) which was developed by the US Navy in the fifties as a statistical methodology oriented towards project development.(4) The same design process of the Fun Palace is expressed through a PERT diagram that lays out the sequence of tasks to complete and the interdependencies that allow moving on to the following tasks.

At the same time, Price was fully aware of the conceptual consequences and new paradigms that the Fun Palace’s formulation brought. The first challenge is unequivocal: "to arrange as many forms of fun as possible in one spot", as with the solution proposed: "The varied and ever-changing activities will determine the form of the site. To enclose these activities the anti-buildings must have equal flexibility."(5) (Fig. 01) Likewise, he is aware of his own role within the radicality of his approach; in the same document he hand-corrects the architect’s title stamped on the sheet to say "ANTI-ARCHITECT Nº1."


Fig. 1. Cedric Price. Fun Palace. c. 1964.
Camden Town Pilot Project. Axonometrics showing basic range of
components within standard cubes. Diazotype, 35,3 × 67,3 cm, DR1995:0188:446
Courtesy of: Cedric Price fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal. © CCA

More than a particularly important project, Price crystallizes his particular vision of architecture in the Fun Palace. Far from being simply interested in an industrial and mechanized aesthetic, the Fun Palace represents the origin of a set of project and performance methodologies that make up an agenda that influence almost all of his later work.

But, as we saw from the beginning, Price was not alone in his adventure. The development of the Fun palace was closely linked to Littlewood’s experience with avant-garde theater, where she explored the possibilities of interaction between the actors and the audience (Fig. 02).(6)


Fig. 2. Cedric Price. Fun Palace, 1964. Brochure. Photomechanical print, 36,2 × 59,6 cm (open), DR1995:0188:525:001:016
Courtesy of: Cedric Price fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal. © CCA

Pask was the key figure that linked Price to the avant-garde of British cybernetics. Trained as an engineer, he was involved with the development of this emerging discipline early on. In 1963, Pask was invited to join the Fun Palace team while pursuing his doctorate in psychology(7) from which his approach and contribution to cybernetics is centered in the study of the conversations and its possibilities of establishing guidelines from which these interactions occur.

One of the most specific documents developed for the Fun Palace is the proposal for a cybernetic theater by Gordon Pask in 1964.(8) Although it does not refer to the operation of the building as a whole, it constitutes one of the most direct cybernetic exercises applied to architecture: the proposal for a cybernetic theater and its possibilities for interaction. All interventions in the theater are centered around two fundamental innovations. The first proposes the implementation of a series of circuits for audience participation drawn as a system of relatively simple and inexpensive buttons and lights. The second step implies the development of a methodology to creating interactive scripts and a processing system that allows to stage these plays.

Of special interest is the relationship mentioned by Pask between the concept of scripting(9) –as the writing of a dramatic play– and the design of a small piece of software.(10) Consequently, the development of a cybernetic piece (of theater) would essentially be conceived as a computer program where audience and actors are part of the very same system where the play is developed.

In the Fun Palace, these concepts were applied in the development of a partially designed control system whose development is documented in the cybernetic committee’s memos and reports. The project incorporates several feedback mechanisms through which the project is able to interact with its users. This responsiveness is based on a complex system where the building and its users act mutually in a dynamic of constant transformation. Indeed, a general scheme of the Fun Palace’s cybernetic system is perfectly analogous to the diagrams used in the proposal for the cyber theater that was later developed more deeply by Pask in his theory of conversation.(11)

In that scheme, the complexity of the response system that depends on multiple parameters and sub-processes on different levels involving a high degree of autonomy from the system and an absolute distancing from a linear mechanism of input-output. However, the fundamental point is the portion comprising the central circuit of the Fun Palace where the outgoing users (modified) are compared with those arriving (not modified).

This comparison allows for adjusting the rest of the internal mechanics of the system to establish a main objective from which to optimize (in this case maximize) the rest of the variables. This point is central, because for the first time the function of an architectural space is identified as the capacity to generate change (observable and measurable) in the user.

This cybernetic conception places the physical form of the building and its components in a secondary role so as to focus on its ability to engage in interaction. Each component is designed from the capacity to relate with others and detonate actions that contribute to the system dynamic. The material and aesthetic properties of the physical components of the projects are contingent upon their capacity for reuse and transformation over time.

Consequently, the nature of the component is virtualized as the physical parts of the project are put on the same plane as the computer components of the project, because both are understood as nodes in a network of information that makes up a system. Thus, the component can indistinctly be a physical element of the building, a sensor, a transducer, an ‘actuator’(12), an information processing unit, a user or a group of users. The assembly of these components is performed by means of information channels that can be equally immaterial insofar as they maintain the connections within the system.

In 1976, ten years after the rejection of the proposal for the Lea Valley, Price officially ended the Fun Palace project. This decision was based on the fact that the project was originally planned to have a ten-year life cycle after which technological advancement and variations in social requirements would render it obsolete.

At that time, construction work had been completed on the Centre Georges Pompidou, which would open in January of the following year. The project by Rogers, Piano and Franchini makes explicit reference to the Fun Palace as a conceptual and formal reference even when the final project would keep only this last aspect. The difference between both projects is demonstrated explicitly in Banham’s article on the Centre Pompidou: "…the project was never as radical as the floorless Fun Palace or as casually innovatory as Price’s Interaction Centre now being completed for Ed Berman" (Banham, 1977).

Unlike the Pompidou, the industrial aesthetic of the Fun Palace is intrinsically linked to the mechanical capacity of cranes and their operational possibilities. Even in the elements indifferent to the mobile structures, Price decided to use industrial elements as an operation to eliminate all trace of design and determination of shape. Thus, these standardized, off-the-shelf elements form part of a system where they can be relocated and discarded when they become obsolete. This exercise involves completely removing the formal art of the discipline so that its possibilities for user interaction may appear.

That same year one of Price’s few built projects, the Interaction Centre in Kentish Town, London opened. While it was a much more austere project and at a smaller scale, its role as a community center shares the same principles and objectives as the Fun Palace such as the structural scheme of an open frame with modular programs. In this context, the importance of the moment in which the Generator commission appears –1976– becomes evident.

The Generator begins with a commission from the director of the Gilman Paper Company, Howard Gilman, to build a recreational and activity center for the White Oak Plantation employees.(13) Price’s response is a reconfigurable complex composed of 150 cubes of 12 feet (3.6 meters) that are subdivided and grouped in standard modules (Fig. 03).(14) The project is configured on a tartan grid of 13 × 13 feet (12’ 12"), composed of a 12 feet module plus a one-foot separation. This tartan type fabric had already been used in the structural system of the Fun Palace,(15) designed under the guidance of Frank Newby (Mathews, 2007:77).


Fig, 3. Cedric Price. Generator. 1976-1979. Site plan showing initial layout of bases. Stamp pad ink on diazotype on paper, 36,4 × 70,9 cm, DR1995:0280:437.
Courtesy of: Cedric Price fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal. © CCA

At each one of the grid´s meeting points lays a concrete base where the other project components are mounted. Each unit is configured as a universal structural framework where standard, off-the-shelf components are organized enabling it to accommodate different programs (Fig. 04). Screens and walkways are added to this kit of parts, which like the cubes can be moved by a crane according to explicit requirements of the project.(16)


Fig. 4. Cedric Price, Felix J. Samuely & Partners. Generator: August, 1978. Axonometrics
showing typical assembly details. Electrostatic print on paper 29,6 × 21 cm, DR1995:0280:651:001:012
Courtesy of: Cedric Price fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal. © CCA

In one of the Generator design development documents, Price makes a size comparison between the Interaction Centre, the Centre Georges- Pompidou, the Fun Palace and the Generator (Fig. 05); this demonstrates the programmatic correspondence between the four projects and the context in which the Generator is framed.


Fig. 5. Cedric Price. Generator, Yulee, Florida, USA. Size comparisons between the Inter-Action Centre, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Fun Palace and the Generator Project. Between 1977 and 1980. Red ink stamp and graphite over electrostatic print on paper, 29,7 × 21 cm, DR2004:1263:001 Courtesy of: Cedric Price fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal. © CCA

The Interaction Centre is represented through its open and closed spaces. Although there is a portion of the building that is fixed, the exterior space is framed by the structure that defines the area of variability of the project.

The Fun Palace is entirely a space for opportunity. Represented by a line that limits a void, Price draws the crane level as a dotted line above the building. This representation, though the most diagrammatic in the whole Price’s archive, is the most accurate with respect to the variable and indefinite nature of the project.

In contrast, Price drew the Centre Pompidou as a black square. Unlike the Fun Palace, the Centre Georges Pompidou is a fixed scheme, where all the possibilities are always predetermined and confined to the structure. Finally the Generator is represented as a regular scheme, and, like the Fun Palace, the dotted line of the crane level appears again, but this time over a layout of scattered pieces. Even though they are formally different, the diagram is perfectly analogous to the transformational possibilities of the Fun Palace.

While the Generator seems to be a much simpler project, its control and transformation system is much more complex and arrives at a level of definition far superior to that of the Fun Palace, even though neither of the two projects possesses a specific plan. In John Frazer’s words:

The real difficulty with the Fun Palace was not that no-one knew what it might look like, but that it was never clear how it would be controlled and who would have the fun of controlling all the gantries and moving parts. However, the GENERATOR offers a clear programme of how, and why change is produced and how these variations might affect the environment.(17)

Published as the first intelligent building (Price, 1980), the Generator is in fact, the first project that precisely addresses a dynamic building capable of interacting with project users. At a conceptual level, the Generator shares the approach that makes the Fun Palace an infinitely flexible and program-less anti-building. However, it is the inflection point in which these concepts were capable of materializing in a particular technological development.

The Generator uses the same activity schemes and compatibilities of use, that this, time are part of a determined control system that directs the transformation of the project. These continuities speak of a conceptual correspondence in Price’s approach towards system design of which these ‘components’ form part, as would physical components.

The Comparative Theatre Seating Analysis appears in the same way: a document that originally belonged to the Fun Palace but nevertheless is identically reproduced with the stamp of the Interaction Centre. A copy of this same document appears hand-amended to qualify it now as part of the Generator files. Although it has no physical form in the majority of cases, these schemes properly make up the design of the project.

This kind of almost absolute resignation to design is precisely what distinguishes Price from other architects of the time. The large part of his structures, components and details are defined by his friend Frank Newby(18) and his firm of engineers, or better, are taken straight from the shelf from an industrial provider. In the same vein, the models produced by the office are built as ready-made works from toy pieces and standard parts.

However, it is not that the design process has disappeared. Price discarded the design of form to concentrate on the system design, where the central point is the possibility of the building-system response to the requirements of the user. The purpose of this interaction will be concepts so vague as the delight and enjoyment of the project users. This point is central regarding the relationship with technology where Price postulated that the role of architecture is not in resolving problems but in posing new questions.(19)

Within this logic of an architecture that raises questions, we must then ask ourselves if the Fun Palace had the capacity to transform itself and constantly vary: why was it necessary to rethink the project after ten years?

The problem of uncertainty lies in that the same design operation involves the elimination of potential scenarios. The design of a system, i.e. the progressive establishment of rules of transformation, is also the limit of the variation thereof; that is, the system of variation is at the same time the final restriction to the possibilities of the project. Although the Fun Palace was essentially infinitely transformable, all its operations are restricted to the system that makes the dynamic of the project possible, justifying its own obsolescence.

But in the case of the Generator, its internal dynamic begins to overcome this notion of obsolescence. The dynamic of the project is sufficiently open to render unnecessary the dismantling and reconstruction of the project after some time, because the continuous change defined by the system would be capable of materializing the necessary variations. The possibility of variation and adaptability is ultimately a way to persist over time.

Beyond the conceptual correspondence between the Fun Palace and the Generator, it is possible to find formal and material connections. The Generator scheme is a variation found contained in the formulation of the Fun Palace. In place of relocating components within a unit defined by a structural framework, the Generator starts from the component as a fundamental unit from which the whole is understood as the sum of its parts. Thus, instead of having irregular places contained in a large, regular container, the Generator proposes a logic of equal pieces scattered in an irregular territory.

In fact, the irregularity of the pieces that make up the Fun Palace is shaped as one of the greatest design challenges to which a wide variety of standardized components are proposed, as it can be appreciated in the design’s development drawings. The need for a cell is one of the most crucial components of the project. Even when an infinite variety of parts exist, the standardization of modules and joints is the base for guaranteeing universality and interchangeability of the same. More explicitly, the first element mentioned in the Fun Palace kit of parts corresponds to an open wood cube or ‘box,’ as a container of different project elements.

The Generator is without a doubt Price’s opportunity to reformulate the problem and respond in an even more radical way to the Fun Palace approach. In material and design terms, the Generator can be considered as one of the simplest projects of Price’s oeuvre. However, this apparent, formal simplicity reflects that the raison d’être of the project has moved beyond its formal design.

The global settings of the Generator varied according to a scheme of interaction between the activities realized by the users and the system that controls the project. The computer could induce programs and make them vary according to the user’s response; in the absence of changes by the users, the computer could eventually become bored and induce changes within the system. This logic of interaction over a grid can be understood as a systematization that enables the translation of the project in a structure of information, intelligible and processable in computer terms. Price’s approach is to understand the project as a network of organized and systematized information from which the users form a part. This idea of a system –characteristic of the cybernetic paradigms in which the current technology is based– allows us for the first time to think of an architecture project as an information system where the (material) design of each one of the components will be centered around the generation of universal pieces that can be disassembled and reused.

 

Notes

1. Joan Littlewood was an avant garde theater producer for street theater. She was an influential figure and widely known in her time.

2. «In the Fun Palace (…) I tried to achieve, in effect, a large mechanized shipyard». (Price, 1979).

3. The PERT method is intimately linked to the CPM (Critical Path Method) commonly utilized together. Unlike the PERT, the CPM is aimed at the development of projects composed of known and measurable tasks so as to identify the sequence of tasks where bottlenecks (critical paths) are produced with the objective of optimizing these processes and consequently the project in general.

4. While these terms were coined in the Navy at the end of the fifties, precedents of this system can be found in the development of the Manhattan Project.

5. Price did not consider the Fun Palace to be a building unit. Hand-written document by C. Price. No Date. Fun Palace Project. CCA Collection.

6. Although the Committee Chariman was Tom Driberg (Labour MP), it was directed by Gordon Pask. (Price, 2002:69).

7. Pask obtains his Ph.D. in psychology from the University College of London in 1964.

8. Pask, Gordon. Proposals for a Cybernetic Theatre. 1964. TS. Cedric Price Archive, Centre Canadien d’Architecture, Montreal.

9. Scripting is the act of producing a script. The term in English refers indistinctly to a dramatic text as a computer program.

10. It is important to note that the dualism between hardware and software is consolidated with the masificación of personal computers at the end of the seventies. Although the physical programming, by means of circuits and logic gates, used by Pask in his artifacts is far from the concept of software, I make the comparison with later terms so as to understand the concept.

11. The Theory of Conversation makes up the base of what Pask calls new cybernetics (also called second class cybernetics) which is composed by the interaction of various systems. This approach is based on a cognitive information transfer model (Pask, 1969).

12. Actuator: device capable of developing an action from a control mechanism. Conceptually speaking, it’s the opposite device to a sensor.

13. The project is located on the White Oak Plantation, property of the Gilman Paper Co. in Yulee, Florida. This plantation is found to the northeast of Yulee, on the border with Georgia, 45 km north of Jacksonville.

14. A series of programmatic subdivisions is specified for these cubes like the modules composed by two or three cubes.

15. As Mathews explains: "Newby designed a more efficient structural system consisting of 14 parallel rows of square service towers (…)The resulting plan was a pattern of interlocking squares which Newby referred to as the ‘tartan grid’." (Mathews, 2007:77).

16. As explained later in the program descriptions, the requirements may come directly from the user’s needs, processed by a program or emerging from autonomous modifications of the program on the system..

17. Frazer, John. "John Frazer". In (Price, 2003a:46).

18. Frank Newby (1926) was a well known engineer in the AA circle at the time. Newby was part of the prestigious firm of Felix J. Samuely, who made his name with innovative projects such as the penguin pool at the London Zoo by Lubetkin. After Samuely’s death in 1959, Newby assumed direction of the firm as well as an academic post at the Architectural Association. Frank Newby was the engineer in charge of the aviary for the London Zoo and the majority of the later projects at Price’s office.

19. This position is summed up in one of Price’s most famous quotes: "Technology is the answer, but what was the question?" an idea that develops in a lecture of the same name. (Price, 1979).

 

References


BATESON, Mary C. Our Own Metaphor: A Personal Account of a Conference on the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation. (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1972).         [ Links ]

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FURTADO, Gonçalo. «Envisioning an Evolving Architecture: The Encounters of Gordon Pask, Cedric Price and John Frazer». PhD diss., University College of London, 2008.         [ Links ]

LITTLEWOOD , Joan; PRICE , Cedric. «The Fun Palace». The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 12, No. 3, Architecture/Environment (Spring, 1968), pp. 127-134        [ Links ]

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PRICE, Cedric. «Au delá du High-Tech». L’Architecture d’Aujourd’Hui (1980), pp. 14-15.

PRICE, Cedric. «Technology is the answer, but what was the question?» (Film). Pidgeon Audiovisual, World Microfilms. 1979.         [ Links ]

PRICE, Cedric. Re: CP. Edited by Hans-Ulrich Obrist (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2002)        [ Links ]

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1. José Hernández | Architect, Master of Architecture, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2015. Programmer and interaction designer for the Energy exhibition at the MAXXI museum in Rome (2013). He has colaborated in exhibitions at the Pratt Institute in New York (2013), the Architectural Association in London (2014), and the Chilean pavilion for the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture (2014.

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