by Carlo Ratti. Thames & Hudson, June 2015. 144 p. ill. ISBN 9780500343067 (cl.), $24.95.

Reviewed November 2015
Gabriella Karl-Johnson, Architecture Librarian, School of Architecture, Princeton University, gjk@princeton.edu

rattiIn 2011 Carlo Ratti was asked by Domus magazine to contribute an editorial to an upcoming issue on open source design. Rather than writing a definition of the concept himself, Ratti took to Wikipedia and invited collaborators to shape the online encyclopedia's entry on open source design, regarding this crowd-sourced definition as necessarily more valid than any he could have produced alone. Ratti's current book, Open Source Architecture, is an outgrowth of this earlier exploration into the concept of open source design.

While the titular agenda of Ratti's book addresses the architectural possibilities presented by crowd-sourcing and collaboration, the book provides a thorough survey of a range of nineteenth to twenty-first century architectural and urban works. Ratti describes architectural projects from high-modernist creations of the forceful maestro to those idealistic projects attempting democratization through soliciting user input. Le Corbusier's works provide optimal examples of totalizing design schemes of an architectural master, while the socially-driven design experiments of John Habraken and Christopher Alexander provide case studies of optimism in participatory design. In Ratti's assessment, both approaches routinely lead to failure. Whereas authorial design leads to excessive imposition of the architect's will, most participatory design leads to chaotic outcomes.

In providing a background picture of the broad concept of open source design, Ratti details projects that range from the inventions of Benjamin Franklin to Linus Torvald's creation of the Linux operating system. Bridging these past projects to an architectural future, Ratti suggests that "the same energetic participation that drives Etsy, fantasy football, and Tahrir Square could pump a collective vigor into architecture."

The latter portion of Ratti's slim but provocative book describes current collaborative design initiatives, and questions the tendency in architecture to hold steadfastly to copyright and authorship, "when design, media, and culture are moving toward copyleft and Creative Commons." Ratti suggests that architecture will become moribund if it fails to adopt certain features of twenty-first century resource and idea sharing, positing a "networked editorial creative process" for architectural design.

Open Source Architecture consists more of a provocation than a prescription for how to approach open source design. Bridging the gap between architectural theory and history, documentation of design practice, and publications addressing creativity and crowdsourcing in design and computation, the book provides a unique synthesis of concepts. While seemingly peripheral to the titular agenda, Ratti's concise, thoughtful descriptions of architectural projects spanning the last 150 years make for a fine, if unintentional, primer on modern architecture.