Molly Wright Steenson on “Architectural Intelligence”


What is the space between architecture and architecting?

That is the central question of Molly Wright Steenson’s first book “Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape.” The book is about the mostly-unexplored history of the relationship between artificial intelligence, cybernetics, architecture, and design. It centers on deep case studies on Christopher Alexander, Richard Saul Wurman, Cedric Price, and Nicholas Negroponte with the MIT Architecture Machine Group (the predecessor to the MIT Media Lab). It's the result of over a decade of research drawing from archives, technical papers, and interviews. 

“The book tells the radical history of how architects and designers collaborated with AI and cybernetics researchers, and in so doing, put in place the foundation of what we broadly do today in interaction design,” said Steenson, an Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design. “It traces more than 50 years of history with in-depth case studies on four architects: Christopher Alexander, Richard Saul Wurman, Cedric Price, and Nicholas Negroponte with the MIT Architecture Machine Group, and their impacts on information architecture and digital design.

“In each case study, I look at the technological paradigms that each incorporated in their work, such as cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and the programs and interfaces that they used and developed.” 

Steenson, who holds a PhD in architecture from Princeton University and a Master's in Environmental Design from the Yale School of Architecture, investigates how these architects pushed the boundaries of architecture and how their technological experiments pushed the boundaries of technology. 

“The projects the book examines mostly did not result in constructed buildings, but rather in design processes and tools, computer programs, interfaces, digital environments,” said Steenson. “Alexander, Wurman, Price, and Negroponte laid the foundation for many of our contemporary interactive practices, from information architecture to interaction design, from machine learning to smart cities. 

“But what's really important from the perspective of us in the School of Design is that these collaborations influenced a bunch of design and programming practices like information architecture and interaction design, programming methods and languages, and contemporary AI,” added Steenson. “It turns out that the influence of these people, plus their collaborators, poured the foundation for much of what we do today in digital practice. They came from architecture and AI, but design is where we experience the fruits of this work today.

“We need to know this history in order to know our own way forward.” 

Outside of writing, Steenson has been speaking about the impact of Artificial Intelligence on design, keynoting conferences across the US and abroad. She also serves as co-chair for the IxDA Interaction Awards and recently returned from Sweden, where she gave the keynote speech at the Internetdagarna conference in Stockholm.

Before her time at the School of Design, Steenson was an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, adjunct faculty at Art Center in Pasadena, CA, and an associate professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy.

Buy Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape on Amazon >>

Date Published: 
Thursday, March 1, 2018
  • .