Open source urbanism after the Pritzker Prize

The news that the Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena has liberated the architectural designs of four of his housing projects has made the headlines (for example here and here).

For Aravena’s studio, Elemental, the decision flags a wider and more ambitious turn: they are hereby making “the ABC of incremental housing public knowledge” (see

As they see it, incremental housing outlines the future of an “open system” for urban planning, for which these four designs offer an  “open source that we hope will be able to rule out one more excuse for why markets and governments don’t move in this direction to tackle the challenge of massive rapid urbanization.” The designs are available for download here.

That a Pritzker Prize winner such as Alejandro Aravena talks about “open systems” and “open source” urbanism is very good news. But making one’s technical designs available for download does not, however, amount to open source urbanism.

We would like to take this opportunity to sketch out some of the divergences, but also potential openings, between Elemental’s idealization of open source urbanism and a more realistic implementation. Let us go one step at a time:

1. Aravena has made his designs available for download on Elemental’s website.

2. However, making your designs “available for download” is not the same as “opening access” to them. To “open access” requires unlocking the intellectual property rights that apply to any design.

The designs that Elemental has made available for download do not seem to have any legal license attached to them. Therefore it remains unclear what their copyright status is and, as a consequence, what one can do with them and on what terms.

Insofar as Elemental has claimed that the designs are now “public knowledge” we can presume they mean to say they are in the “public domain”. In other words, Aravena/Elemental have decided to let go the intellectual property rights over their designs: we can modify the designs as we please, as well as use them in both commercial and non-commercial ways.

3. The designs are available as .dwg files, which are the native file format for AutoCAD data files. AutoCAD is proprietary software (and rather expensive at that).

4. Insofar as engineering CAD files require a specific software and knowledge to be used, these designs will remain unintelligible and unworkable to most of the people who might ever find themselves in the position of building their own houses.

5. The designs, therefore, whilst free to download do not in fact problematize the expert and governance systems on which urban planning rests: why some people can “do” design whilst others cannot, who are the experts that get to say (and on what authority) what counts as a design system, etc.

6. We start to see the difference, then, between “free to download” and “open source”.

A truly “open system” for urban designs requires problematizing what “design” means for every community project: what languages of description are inscribed in a design system, what gets recognized as “expertise”, whose competence and skills and knowledge get enlisted into the project, for what purpose and in what contexts, etc.

We have written at some length elsewhere on the various challenges that open source urban projects are likely to face in actual practice, but let us briefly recapitulate some of the issues here:

(i) We have seen how making technical systems available for download does not guarantee their actual use by communities. People may lack the machine technology or knowledge to read or understand particular design files or languages. This does not mean they may not make reasoned decisions and pass expert judgment if they are given the opportunity to become part of the design system.

Therefore, part of the work of any open source urban project will often involve exploring novel visual and iconographic languages through which to make design objects and systems intelligible and usable by those who have never seen or worked with architectural technical drawings before.

The work of the Argentine guerrilla communication group Iconoclasistas offers one such example. Iconoclasistas have long been working in the production of Creative Commons licensed ideograms (pictograms) to facilitate storytelling and cartographies of particular community problems and concerns.

Pictogramas by Iconoclasistas


(ii) Sometimes it is not enough to have access to specific design files, nor to be fluent in the (visual) languages of a design project. Sometimes keeping a log of how these various files and documentary registers change over time is crucial. It is not the files that are important, then, but the archives wherein these files are lodged.

An open source archive helps us see how people have been using its design files, whether they have made changes to them, whether they have used the original designs and developed or extended their original functionalities, etc. The archive keeps track of all such extensions and bifurcations. Such archives work therefore as permanent yet ever-changing infrastructures for the political capacities of the city. We may think of them more amply as repositories for the stories that the city tells about itself.

A marvelous prototype of what an urban archive might look like is the online repository of Inteligencias Colectivas.


Captura de pantalla 2016-04-11 a las 14.13.28

Inteligencias Colectivas home screen,


(iii) As noted above, designing an open source urban project will also require confronting the expert and authorial regimes that underwrite the governance of urban projects: Who gets to speak on behalf of whom and on what authority? For example: Who can sign-off and “certificate” an infrastructural installation? Who assumes public liability insurance over a project? What does “responsibility” mean for any particular urban project? What kind of agency or political subjects are singled-out as “responsible” in each case?

When design is re-distributed among a complex alliance of stakeholders, the location and distribution of responsibility is also affected. Responsibility is not something exterior to design, something that can be adjudicated a priori or a posteriori, nor something that is prescribed de jure according to pre-assigned roles. Responsibilities must be made explicit, often drawn together as part of a problematic. Thus, the requirements that any project obliges its stakeholders to are part and parcel of its design system.

(iv) Open source urban projects test the limits of the city as an administrative unit, confronting numerous bureaucratic and institutional trials over legal permits, public liability insurance, tenure rights over public land holdings, access to electricity and water, waste disposal, etc.

Designing an open source urban system will therefore inevitably require opening-up and designing new spaces and forums of political interlocution, enabling local administrations, civic organizations and local communities to meet each other outside established frameworks of political bargaining. In this sense, the work of politicking is not something that one does before the “real” work of design gets started. An open source urban project involves designing the “wheres” and “hows” of political interlocution and engagement too.

One excellent example of a design project that took the architecture of political interlocution into consideration is the Madrid-based initiative Citykitchen.

(v) These projects face chronic funding and financial challenges, due for the most part to their disruptive, uncertain and illegal status. If the market and the state are no longer to be expected to play a role in the challenges of rapid urbanization (as Elemental note in their ABC), where will the money or the resources come from?

Of course communities have learned over the years to exploit all kinds of financial openings and opportunities, such as tapping into credit and barter economies, re-circuiting local communities’ basic material, recycling or waste management systems, local patronage or community sponsorship, etc. Such economies are therefore also central to an open source urban system.

In a nutshell, then, if we are serious about thinking of urban projects as open source ecologies we must attend to the complex dynamics of experimentation and self-organization impinging on their governance, expert and authorial regimes, cooperative economies, media and languages of description, methods of problematization, and systems of political engagement, to name but a few of the challenges facing these projects. Making architectural designs available for download is a welcomed but otherwise rather small first step in a very long journey.


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