By Ariana Orozco
In 1961, a group of architects gathered in a Soho loft to gripe about the inequalities of the world. As they looked around London, they wondered: if they could imagine a better city, would they imagine a better world? My research investigates how 1960s-1970s architects and theoreticians used emerging technology to revolutionize city, and even country, planning.
This collective, later known as the editors and contributors of Archigram magazine, began to imagine radical architectural approaches which combatted reifying consumerism in the 1960s, and connected technology and urban planning. Their greatest designs were megastructure cities that were reactive to citizens’ needs, especially in fostering socialization with other residents. They wanted every part of the city to be movable so that people could build and unbuild entire urban centres to be conducive to more relational environments.
‘Plug-In City:’ Cities would be made up as giant structures with posable joints and portable units.
Though their designs were unbuildable structures that never came to fruition, their philosophy did later influence buildings like Paris’s Centre Pompidou. They were considered some of the most radical thinkers in Western Europe for their anarchist and communitarian allusions. However, simultaneously time across the world, countries were attempting to use emerging cybernetics in an even more reforming way: to nurture a new era in socialism.
Cybernetics, like Archigram’s buildings, is a reactive system where interfaces adapt based on internal signals and generate an appropriate output. In Chile between 1971-1973, the government toyed with the idea of “Project Cybersyn.” Project Cybersym was a futuristic system model that would allow the government to monitor resource centers and economic responses across the country. For example, if a factory or region had low supply of copper or a human resource, the system would notify governments to a possible course of action to redistribute resources from one place to the next. It supported a socialist regime to maximize material benefit for citizenry. The project launched a series of protypes where the interacting computers created a cybernetic environment which continuously took stalk of its own data, therefore making decisions based on the machine’s history. Today, one might think of the system as early artificial intelligence; although it could not execute decisions, it was programmed to think rationally about when to raise the alarm about abnormal data. Unfortunately, Project Cybersyn was never fully actualized because the 1973 military coup halted investments into technology and the previous regime’s national goals. Chile is not isolated in its political course interfering with its technological trajectory.
Around the same time in the Soviet Union, engineers and theoreticians were being called upon to create a system which could strengthen control of regulatory systems, and hence the strengthen control of the Party. However, the debates surrounding cybernetics most closely resemble the debates we have today about the potential for machine misuse . . . or dystopic visions of a Matrix takeover. In the Soviet Union, their fears were perhaps more limited to the political realm. Many questioned if cybernetics challenged Stalinism and worried a network system could also strengthen feedback mechanisms aligning it more closely to liberal reform. Hence, no actual models ever made it off the drawing board, but many of this era’s cybernetic lessons did including governmental surveillance over big data.
In all of these examples, the system was to be based tightly in human rationality. In Archigram, humans directly interfered, while in the other two they were predictive systems meant to mimic human response. My research aims to connect our contemporary capabilities and fears to their origins. With the emergence of artificial intelligence capabilities and quantum consciousness, the history of cybernetics is essential. It can be frightening or overwhelming to imagine a world where machines control so much. And yet, this project has taught me that our techno-dystopias only occur when we refuse to intervene.
Hobson, Benedict: “Archigram’s Plug-In City shows that “pre-fabrication doesn’t have to be boring” says Peter Cook” Virtual Design Festival. 12 May 2020.
Günther, Clemens. “The Cultural and Political Imaginary of Cybernetic Socialism.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 24, no. 2 (2023): 321-348