Mateus van Stralen’s Paper Proposal

The machine for living: Standardization and variety in design in the Conversational Age

The purpose of this paper is to explore the subjects of standardization and variety in architectural design in two different contexts: Industrial Age and Conversational Age. Variety is used in Ashby’s sense and can be thought of as the number of states a system might actually take. It is held that despite the common claim that new processes of computer aided design and computer aided manufacturing can lead to more variety in design, most practices are based on paradigms and formal approaches that lead to the standardization of variety, thus lowering the possibilities for novelty to arise.
We will approach this by discussing Le Corbusiers concept of the “house as a machine for living” in the perspective of mass production and mass customization. Initially, the essential characteristics of mass production and mass customizations will be identified. Mass production is the essence of the Industrial Age, where the machine represents an extension of the body. The automation of the gesture enables more speed and repetition to make more in a faster and controlled way. The constraint of standardization is that it lowers the potential for variety and novelty. Mass customization appears to be a characteristic of Conversational Age, where the machine represents the “amplification of the collective mind”. In a Conversational Age mass customization should lead to dialogue and intersubjectivity through conversation, generating variety and novelty. The relation between mass customization and conversation is of paramount importance for novelty to arise, as variety and standardization are observer dependent. Without conversation mass customizations means the imposition of variety from one observer to the other, leading to the standardization of variety. Therefore we argue that the proper term to point a characteristic of Conversational Age should be dialogical customization instead of mass customization. Dialogical customisation could lead to the creation of a system – observer related machines – were variety from different observers can interact through conversation to enable novelty.

Next we will attempt to demonstrate that albeit architects dispose today of the necessary mediums for conversational design – parametric modelling, digital fabrication, digital devices with sensors and actuators and so forth – they tend to use these as tools and reproduce the same paradigms and formal approaches of the industrial age. The uses of this new design processes have encouraged a flux of new theories and project strategies based on computing, each with its promise of changing the architectural practice. Some of these resulted in intellectually seductive, visually provocative and complex shaped architectures, generating variety in a new formal repertoire. These standardized variety of architectural blobs and waffles can generate some level of novelty but doesn’t indicate a true paradigm shift in the process of production of architectural space.

We find that a possible way to reach a true paradigm shift in the process of production of architectural space is to use dialogue as a design approach, shifting the focus from the object to intersubjectivity, amplifying variety and the potential for novelty to arise. According to Vilém Flusser, the dialogue or intersubjectivity is the main characteristic of responsible design. Responsibility in Flusser’s sense means the openness of the design to others, as he considers every design an obstacle and proposes that responsible design be the least obstructive as possible. For architects, this means using the available mediums as means to open the design and fabrication process to others. In an era of mass customization the focus on the object tends to a standardization of variety, but a shift to dialogue and intersubjectivity may lead to a new way of production that really changes our understanding of space and the way we relate to each other.

Cybernetic traditions:

  • 5) Education and conversation
  • 7) Art; design; music; literature

2 thoughts on “Mateus van Stralen’s Paper Proposal

  1. Ranulph Glanville

    This is, to my mind, a nice intervention in which variety has the role of placing a limit that is to be transcended (see, for instance, my Variety in Design, from the early 1990s). I don’t mean to take away from your contribution in saying this, but to point to a way of thinking about variety that is about escaping control—at least in the restrictive sense of control.

    It seems to me that the model you are using fails to take into account two understandings that might help. The first is the production line, which places the expert problem analyst in the driving seat without regard to the expert problem solver (e.g. craftsman). The second is mass customisation. I would be interested to see you incorporate both of these, along with an expanded notion of the value of Ashby’s measure, variety.

    Finally, I am not convinced that Le Corbusier actually meant the house as a machine for living (not, as you correctly quote, for living in!) in such a literal manner. It’s a metaphor, an image, and he rarely really pursued the idea as much more than this. It’s a statement of object aesthetic as much as of production process or logic of operation (commodotie and firmness in Wootton’s translation of Vitruvius)

    I like the concept of the “conversational age”.

  2. Mateus van Stralen


    First of all I would like to thank you for your comments. They really helped me to rethink, prepare and improve my presentation. Two of your works were really important to elaborate the argument: Variety in Design and The Value of being Unmanageable: Variety and Creativity in CyberSpace.

    I addressed the concepts of standardisation, mass production and mass customisation looking at how they deal with creative potential. Following Ashby, Robinson and your work on variety, I assumed that the higher the number of brain states available in the system, the higher the creative potential and as consequence the higher the possibility for novelty to arise – to create something new – to design. In that sense we could say that what standardisation and mass production do is to impose the variety of one observer (group of observers) to the others. This is the case in the production line, where designers/companies use the variety of their system to create a design, a product, that they in turn impose to whom is going to fabricate(workers using uniforms and doing repetitive tasks) and to whom is going to use the object or process. But it is of course a more superficial way to address the relation of the expert problem analyst and the expert problem solver. I hope to be able to discuss this in more depth in the paper proposal.

    I agree that Le Corbusier didn’t actually meant the house as a machine for living in a literal manner. He used the metaphor from a technological perspective, with a focus on the industrial production process, and not from the users point of view. The focus on the technological perspective leaded to the notion of a standard user, with virtually no variety, as illustrated by his Modulor. If we shift the focus to the user and understand the machine as an extension of the human body, the house should then adapt to the observers needs and idiosyncrasies, where they can chose to exercise their creative potential. I think this shift is urgent in the Brazilian context where standardisation still plays an important role in the construction of the built environment.

    The works of John Habraken (open-builinding) and Alejandro Aravena (Inquique houses) were presented as two interesting approaches to this problem. Both works are important improvements to the way to deal with creative potential, but in the end they are still attempts to control by restriction. What we have in this two processes is that if the design is to open it becomes a obstacle and people may need another designer or expert to make the infill. In this two mass customisable systems we may have the impression we are making choices, but in the end our choices are largely programmed by the designer, and not really the fruit of our own variety. In one way or another the resulted variety of the system will be lower than its initial potential.

    The problem of this two approaches is that in a way they are trying to keep some form of restrictive control, but as we have seen the variety of this system, a group of people, a community, is transcomputable. This makes this system unmanageable, and you have already showed us that being unmanageable is no a bad thing, that the value of being unmanageable is the possibility to enhance creativity. We believe that a possible way we can benefit from the creative potential of the whole group is trough conversation. The network of interactions between the observers already exists. What we have to do as architects is to create a conversational process that can amplify and channel the creative potential of the system to the built environment.

    You have described three ways to face unmanageability: to reduce complexity, to change the organisational structure (how control operates), and to alter our attitude to unmanageability. I think Le Corbusier’s work can be included in the first approach, and Habrakens and Aravena’s in the second. What we want to explore is the third approach, to alter our attitude to unmanageability. We believe this can be achieved through conversational customisation. For architects, this means not only to use the computer as a medium but also as means to open the design and fabrication process to others. This is an ethical necessity if we agree with Von Foerster’s imperative, to act as always to increase the number of choices. In the paper proposal I will try to discuss this further and present some works we are doing to investigate the possibility for a more conversational customisation.

    I wanted you to know that it was really a great experience for us to participate in such a wonderful conference and I hope that we can bring more people next time. I had also great conversations with Ben and Delfina and we ended up discussing the possibility to propose a international congress or seminar focused on cybernetics and architecture to be held in Brazil. I hope we can manage to put this together.

    One more time thank you for your comments and for having organised this great congress.


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