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09/22/2010

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54
The ArchitecturalRelevance of Gordon Pask 
Usman Haque
reviews the contribution of Gordon Pask, the resident cybernetician on CedricPrice’s Fun Palace. He describes why in the 21st century the work of this early proponentand practitioner of cybernetics has continued to grow in pertinence for architects anddesigners interested in interactivity.
 It seems to me that the notion of machine that was current in thecourse of the Industrial Revolution – and which we might haveinherited – is a notion, essentially, of a machine without goal, it hadno goal ‘of’, it had a goal ‘for’. And this gradually developed into thenotion of machines with goals ‘of’, like thermostats, which I might begin to object to because they might compete with me. Now we’ve got the notion of a machine with an underspecified goal, the system that evolves. This is a new notion, nothing like the notion of machines that was current in the Industrial Revolution, absolutely nothing like it. It is, if you like, a much more biological notion, maybe I’m wrong to callsuch a thing a machine; I gave that label to it because I like to realisethings as artifacts, but you might not call the system a machine, youmight call it something else.
Gordon Pask 
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Gordon Pask (1928–96), English scientist, designer, researcher,academic, playwright, was one of the early proponents andpractitioners of cybernetics, the study of control andcommunication in goal-driven systems of animals andmachines. Originally trained as a mining engineer, he wenton to complete his doctorate in psychology. His particularcontribution was a formulation of second-order cybernetics asa framework that accounts for observers, conversations andparticipants in cybernetic systems.Pask was one of the exhibitors at the ‘CyberneticSerendipity’ show staged at the ICA, London, in 1968, curated by Jasia Reichardt, an exhibition that became the inspirationfor many future interaction designers. The interaction loopsof cybernetic systems, such as Pask’s Colloquy of Mobiles(1968), where actions lead to impacts on the environment thatlead to sensing and further modification of actions, are coreto the notion of a Paskian environment. He is also known forhis Conversation Theory, a particularly coherent andpotentially the most productive theory of interactionencompassing human-to-human, human-to-machine andmachine-to-machine configurations in a common framework. There has recently been a ground swell of interest in Pask’s work by architects, artists and designers,
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though hisassociation with architects stretched back to the 1960s,through to the early 1990s, with collaborations undertaken inparticular at the Architecture Association, London, and withthe Architecture Machine Group at MIT (later to become theMedia Lab). It may be argued that these collaborations weretoo far ahead of their time and were not fully grasped by the wider architectural community, but they did help to set thefoundations for dynamic, responsive and authentically interactive environments. The extent of Pask’s research, theories and artefactdesign/construction was enormous.
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 As such, different groupsof people find completely different tracts from his back catalogue relevant to their own work. In the 1960s, he worked with the architect Cedric Price on his Fun Palace project as
Gordon Pask, cybernetician.
 
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resident cybernetician, introducing the concept of underspecified goals to architecture systems. In the 1970s,Pask’s contribution to the philosophy of MIT’s ArchitectureMachine Group was focused around the notion of architectureas an enabler of collaboration.
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 And in the 1980s and early 1990s, architects such as John Frazer at the Architecture Association were particularly interested in how Pask’sadaptive systems might be applied to the architectural designprocess in order to evolve building forms and behaviours.Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, Pask’sConversation Theory seems particularly important because itsuggests how, in the growing field of ubiquitous computing,humans, devices and their shared environments might coexistin a mutually constructive relationship. If we think of havingconversations with our environments in which we each haveto learn from each other, then Pask’s early experiments withmechanical and electrochemical systems provide a conceptualframework for building interactive artefacts that deal with thenatural dynamic complexity that environments must have without becoming prescriptive, restrictive and autocratic.In this context, his teaching and conversational machinesdemonstrate authentically interactive systems that developunique interaction profiles with each human participant. Thisapproach contrasts sharply with the ‘Star Trek Holodek’approach often attempted in so-called intelligentenvironments, which presumes that we all see all things inthe same way and which denies the creative-productive role of the participant in interactions with such environments. Pask recognised, for example, that interpretation and context arenecessary elements in language – as opposed to locatingmeaning itself in language – which is particularly importantto consider for any design process, not least the constructionof architectural experience.His theories on underspecified and observer-constructedgoals have been a major influence on my own work. In 1996,tutored by Ranulph Glanville, former student and collaboratorof Pask, and Stephen Gage, also a Pask aficionado, my finalarchitecture school project, Moody Mushroom Floor, was aninteractive floor system of sound, smell and light thatdetermined its outputs in relation to fluctuating goals andperceived responses – no behaviour was preprogrammed.
’A rch i t e c t u re of Conversations‘, sketch by Gordon Pask to annotate a conversationbetween two individuals (designer and co-designer) giving rise to ane n v i ronment; an external observer can attribute intelligence to this enviro n m e n t .
Now, at the beginning of the21st century, Pask’sConversation Theory seemsparticularly important becauseit suggests how, in the growingfield of ubiquitous computing,humans, devices and their shared environments mightcoexist in a mutuallyconstructive relationship.
A photo of what is believed to be the last remaining fragment of a SAKImachine. The queries and correct responses are defined by metal ‘bits’ placedin an array, much like punch cards were used in early computers.
 
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More recently, Open Burble (2006) was an attempt to build aconstructional interactive system, in the sense that theparticipants both affected the structure, by moving itthroughout a park, and constructed the way the structureresponded to them by designing and assembling the modularstructure themselves as they chose. Finally, the ongoingprojects Paskian Environments (with Paul Pangaro, anotherformer student and collaborator of Pask) and Evolving SonicEnvironment (with Robert Davis, Goldsmiths’ College) aim toprovide concrete and pragmatic strategies for implementingPask’s theories in an architectural context. What follows is an understanding of how Pask’s lifetime work can be made even more relevant than ever to the practiceof architecture. Pask certainly thought and wrote a lot aboutthe field, but some of the concepts described here are foundedon my interpretation of his projects, which even he may nothave considered architectural. In places I simply try to extendto the field of architecture the approaches he invented; inothers I use concepts that he constructed to consideralternatives to our current assumptions about architecture.Four of Pask’s projects in particular give hints about howto create richer, more engaging and stimulating interactiveenvironments. It is worth bearing in mind that each of thesepredates the common digital computer and was thereforeconstructed mainly using analogue components. Thedescriptions below have been simplified, which is somewhatcounter to the spirit of a Paskian approach – often necessarily complex – but it is hoped they will provoke the reader to followup with Pask’s own writings, which cover both the theoriesand the results of the projects he actually constructed.
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 The MusiColour Machine,
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constructed in 1953, was aperformance system of coloured lights that illuminated inconcert with audio input from a human performer (whomight be using a traditional musical instrument). MusiColourshould not be confused with today’s multicoloured discolights that respond directly to volume and frequency in apreprogrammed/deterministic manner. Rather, with its twoinputs (frequency and rhythm) MusiColour manipulates itscoloured light outputs in such a way that it becomes anotherperformer in a performance, creating a unique (though non-random) output with every iteration. The sequence of light outputs might depend at any onemoment on the frequencies and rhythms that it can hear, butif the input becomes too continuous – for instance, therhythm is too static or the frequency range too consistent –MusiColour will become bored and start to listen for otherfrequency ranges or rhythms, lighting only when itencounters those. This is not a direct translation: it listens forcertain frequencies, responds and then gets bored and listenselsewhere, produces as well as stimulates improvisation, andreassembles its language much like a jazz musician might inconversation with other band members. Musicians who worked with it in the 1950s treated it very much like anotheron-stage participant. The innovation in this project is that data (the light-output pattern) is provoked and produced by theparticipants (other musicians) and nothing exists until oneof them enters into a conversation with the designedartefact. In this participant-focused constructional approach,the data evoked has no limits.
An early Paskian machine.
Gordon Pask and Robin McKinnon-Wood, MusiColour, 1953
The performance system was installed at several locations around the UK.This image shows the control system as installed at Mecca Locarno inStreatham. MusiColour appeared for a final time in 1957.

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