In 1970 the architect, engineer and inventor Buckminster Fuller published a book called I Seem To Be A Verb1 in which he proposes a human being as a series of actions, doings, and consequences, an evolutionary process, not a thing.2

A process means change. What could being a verb mean today? What in the environment we make could support that?

The word ‘building’ in English and most languages, is a verbal noun, the description of a process.

This essay takes up from the last sentence of a previous essay (space-dis-place)3 : “…and if we are being verbs, it’s going to be easier and more fun if the spaces that surround us are being verbs too” and asks what might be involved in that, how might that work?


Goethe, as well as being one of the great writers of European culture, was profoundly philosophic and scientific by inclination. We can suppose that he was pretty smart, and when we hear his aphorism “Architecture is frozen music”4 it sounds plausible. However, when we examine it closely, it begins to fall apart and reveal itself as nonsense. Frozen music? Music is a movement in time and if it becomes motionless it ceases to be – it dies if frozen. So is architecture dead music? Doesn’t sound so good.

Now Goethe was not only smart, he was friends with many of the composers of his time, including Beethoven, so we can presume he understood music. So why did he make this apparently stupid remark?

I’ll put that on one side for a while.

We live in an age when notions of authorship and ownership are rapidly changing. Interestingly, this parallels changes that happened in Goethe’s lifetime, but going in the opposite direction. Then it moved from a situation where authorial ‘ownership’ or ‘intellectual property rights’ (whatever they are) didn’t exist, to the development, in the early 19th century, of the concept of the author as having inalienable rights. Now it’s going the other way. On the one hand the music and film industries are fighting a rearguard action to protect their rights, on the other hand downloading is rife, even politicised in the Swedish Pirate Party. Meanwhile, practitioners get on with their own solutions: the open source community flourishes, musicians release their tracks for free and make their money by performing (which is effectively how it worked in the eighteenth century). Now, with Web 2.0 long standing, the notion of ownership and authorship is to all intents and purposes a side issue – in the world of user generated content, mixing and mashing, individuals can decide how much they want to be ‘authors’ as a question of style, ego, politics or philosophy.

What has this to do with dance or architecture (let alone Goethe)?

There is a debate that has rumbled on for decades in the dance world which boils down to ‘where is the dance - in the choreographer’s instructions or the dancers’ bodies?’ This issue of where the ‘authorship’ dwells becomes even more complicated when there are media and interactive elements, and improvisation, in the dance as performed. The debate is given point and poignancy by the recent deaths of two great choreographers, Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham. In some discussions since, it has been questioned whether their work can authentically survive their deaths – it has been suggested that it will gradually fade and corrupt in their absence, presumably from some absolute, Platonic originals which their presence guaranteed the authenticity of. This takes no account of the fact that the dance only exists in performance, and that each performance, even by the same dancers in the same space, will be different; that choreography only assumes the possibility of meaning as it is embodied through the understanding and physical intelligence of dancers; that choreographers usually devise and develop their choreography with particular dancers who have particular ways of dancing. And that therefore the choreographic work has no definitive, absolute form. I recently saw Pina Bausch’s version of The Rite of Spring; I doubt that she would have said this was the same piece she originally devised in the 70s. Merce Cunningham, whose choreography has been more elaborately notated and recorded than most, and who proposed that his company should only survive him by two years, said shortly before his death “…dancing is a process that never stops, and should not stop if it is to stay alive and fresh."

This ephemeral, processual nature of dance is reflected in the fact that the major part of the corpus only exists in performance - this choreographer’s work with these dancers to embody these ideas exists at this moment in this performance to this audience. Enter the audience - it’s not just that the word performance implies an audience, or that performance is a social act, but that, as any performer will tell you, having an audience, no matter how small, makes a difference to how they act, and that the mood of the audience affects them. Whether or not people remain rooted in their seats, the audience participates in the making of the performance, and, actually, in the making of the meaning, as meaning only comes into being through transmission, and takes form through the understanding of the audience members as individuals and perhaps as a collective. It should be understood that this form will inevitably differ from that which existed in the ‘author’s’ conception. Some would say that the work exists in as many versions as there are minds to grasp it.

An architect might ask “All very interesting, but what has this to do with buildings? They’re fixed; details might change, use might change, but the building remains what it is, its structure, its materials.” Of course architects are aware of process, that the first phase of a building’s existence, where the architect works with clients, planners, engineers, designers, builders, artisans, tradesmen etc etc to devise and build it, is a project that evolves, and that the second phase, where the building is moved through, lived in, used, enjoyed, hated, understood, modified by an unknown array of actors, will inevitably change it. However, somehow our (and Goethe’s) picture of the building remains static. As Bruno Latour puts it:

Everybody knows—and especially architects, of course—that a building is not a static object but a moving project, and that even once it is has been built, it ages, it is transformed by its users, modified by all of what happens inside and out side, and that it will pass or be renovated, adulterated and transformed beyond recognition. We know this, but the problem is that […] when we picture a building, it is always as a fixed, stolid structure that is there in four colours in the glossy magazines that customers flip through in architects’ waiting rooms.5

This static picture, even if it admits the inevitable changes that come with use, does not help us to understand that use as a dynamic process. This is problematic because phase two (use) is going to work better if its dynamics, systems, processes and actors are well understood and anticipated in phase one (making). I can analogise with dance: phase two equates to the performance, phase one to the conception and rehearsals. Now dancers, being performers, well understand the dynamics of phase two and take account of them in phase one; choreographers are almost always dancers too and therefore share this understanding with the dancers. Architects, however, rarely have much to do with phase two, except on an abstract level. And those who ‘perform’ the building – its inhabitants, rarely have anything to do with phase one. It’s as if the dancers met the choreographer and the piece at the first performance.

There seem to be three ways of dealing with this issue. The first two are related: in one, the way that the building is to be inhabited is highly prescribed, either through tradition, client demands or through the top-down voice of the all-knowing architect. In this case the results are often lamentable from the inhabitant point of view, in spite of the fact that the architect may have had the best of intentions. In the second, the architect either takes account, through research, of users’ needs and patterns (for example, methodologies of user centred design, much employed in experience and 3D design, are being increasingly adopted in architecture); or the architect deliberately does not prescribe, but creates the building in an open way which allows people to perform their own narratives of occupation. This requires confidence, determination and a lot of intuition.

An example of this high level of creativity in taking account of phase two is Bruno Scarpa’s Brion Vega Cemetery6 .

Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Vega Cemetery, 2 views. Photographs © Nicola Stradiotto

In this complex of buildings, open spaces and passages, everything is considered as the visitor’s journey. The buildings are meaningless as static objects; it is only as we move through them that they sing to us. And I mean sing literally: sound is an intrinsic part of these buildings, from different textures sounding underfoot, through paving stones that resonate when you walk on them, sounds of water, of metal on stone, changes of acoustic, even a ‘borrowed soundscape’, all experienced as we move through, or come to rest in, a series of enclosed spaces, passageways, courtyards both enclosed and open to include ‘borrowed landscape’. This architecture has to be performed. It prescribes neither the narrative nor the performance – rather it invites us to perform a narrative we construct from its elements, but it remains closed to us until we do perform it.

Of course, very few of us get to create something on the scale of Brion Vega, but even a single intervention can completely change a space. In my own practice, I was invited to make a sound installation in the interior garden of the Biosphére, Montreal, to (I quote) “bring it to life”. I made a piece called …upon the seas to which it eventually flows7 (a quote from Fuller).

The Biosphére Interior Garden, from either end. Photographs © Alex Martin

The Biosphére was built by Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao as the US Pavilion at Expo ‘67 and is the largest existent geodesic dome. It currently houses a research centre and museum dedicated to the study of water use and conservation. Given Fuller’s internationalism and wide ranging thought, and the current use of the building, I decided to use voices reading his texts in various languages, and recordings of water that I had made all over the world.

The garden was pretty barren and looked rather neglected. It consisted mostly of rocks, in a long, narrow space with a boardwalk on one side for the public, and a small stream running through it parallel with the boardwalk, which flowed under a bridge into a pool in a wider courtyard at the right hand end. I used the stream as the focus for the piece, having all sounds flowing into and along it. On the horizontal axis sounds of water – trickles, streams, rivers and lakes – moved left to right along the stream and ended up disappearing into the sound of the sea at the far side of the pool. Meanwhile, the sounds of the voices ‘trickled’ down the wall opposite the boardwalk, gradually transforming into water sounds and eventually ‘dissolving’ in the stream.

Although, of course, the piece had narratives of its own, what it mostly did was fill the space with myriad small, ever-changing sounds which did not clamour for your attention, but provided you with material to explore and thread together as you chose. They could be listened to in any way or order, spatially and temporally. Because they were so embedded in the garden, as people scrutinised, puzzled over, ignored, bathed in the sounds, they moved into an intimacy with the space which, I hope, was full of life, a liveliness that they brought themselves.

…upon the seas to which it eventually flows speaker layout (not to scale) – anticlockwise from top: plan, elevation view from boardwalk, elevation view from entrance end (showing voices speakers only). Diagrams © Damien Borowik

The third approach supposes that the best way of making something for others to use is to involve them in the making of it. Almost exactly a hundred years after Goethe made his remark about frozen music, Buckminster Fuller proposed a very different way of thinking about architecture: ‘A room should not be fixed, should not create a static mood, but should lend itself to change so that its occupants may play upon it as they would upon a piano’8 . This approach to architecture, proposing a different level of participation and performance on the part of people, and architecture as something malleable and flexible, remained largely theoretical (e,g. Constant’s Babylon9 ) until recently. However, increased computing capability, developments in interaction design and various models of pervasive, ubiquitous or embedded computing have opened up enormous possibilities for the humans present to not just be inhabitants or denizens, but participants, even co-makers of the buildings they inhabit.

In fact high level technology isn’t necessary:

Doors of Perception 8 – workshop. Photograph © Usman Haque

This is a workshop run by Usman Haque, one of the leading protagonists of open and inclusive approaches to architecture. It’s based on his Open Source Architecture10 concept, where architecture provides an 'operating system' within which people write their own ‘programmes’ for spatial interaction. He bases it on the open source model11 : members of the open source community not only offer their software for free, but also, crucially, publish its source code. They do this in the expectation, indeed hope, that others will take their code and develop, modify, improve it. They in their turn will publish, and so on. This process is beautiful, not just for its philosophical underpinning and its political implications, but because it’s so efficient in a Darwinian, memetic sense12 : ideas get taken up and rapidly evolve and proliferate, other ideas wither away or lie dormant until they’re rediscovered further down the line. It’s importance to the development of technology is incalculable; certainly Web 2.0 could not have come into being without it.

Haque’s process in this workshop, as I understand it, is that an originator (in this case himself) proposes some methodological ground rules (part of the operating system) which are themselves open to adaptation and also provide a meta structure in which others can create. In a report on the workshop he says that they considered:

- how to make spaces that can easily be configured/reconfigured/reappropriated.
- how to provide tools that make the exercise open to as many participants as possible.

and that some of the things they learned were:

[…] In an open source environment you can't become too attached to your work.
It is important to negotiate connections to your neighbours and also to understand that your work will be changed by those around you.
It is possible to construct complex, dynamic spaces (i.e. architecture) without being experts (none of the participants was an architect!).
Complexity in design can arise from non-complex units […]13

Haque is against the hegemonies of hi-tech, where control is hidden behind a layer of apparently open possibilities. His answer (in collaboration with Adam Somlai-Fischer and Reorient) was Reconfigurable House:

The Reconfigurable House is an environment constructed from thousands of low tech components that can be "reconfigured" by its occupants. Any sensor/actuator can be connected to any other sensor/actuator -- it is the occupants of the house who determine the systems that run inside it.

Constructed at ICC in Tokyo, Japan, and open to the public until March 2008, the project is a challenge to ubiquitous computing "smart homes", which are based on the idea that technology should be invisible to prevent DIY. Smart homes actually aren't very smart simply because they are pre-wired according to algorithms and decisions made by designers of the systems, rather than the people who occupy the houses.

In contrast to such homes, which are not able to adapt structurally over time, the many sensors and actuators of Reconfigurable House can be reconnected endlessly as people change their minds so that the House can take on completely new behaviours.”14
Photographs © Usman Haque

One thing I find compelling about Haque’s practice (though I don’t know any text where he has explicitly talked about this, so I must take entire responsibility for these reflections) is the way it moves architecture into the sphere of the plastic, performing arts. One of the great benefits of performance is that it acts as a test of the piece in the face of those for whom it was intended. That means that if something doesn’t work it can be thought about and changed. Choreographers, composers, playwrights have all benefited from this provisional nature of their arts, and now architects can leave the prison of their own making and join them. Effectively this means moving much of what is contained in phase one into phase two, as a series of acts of co-making. Apart from the aesthetic, philosophic, social and political questions that this way of practising engages with, it’s also very practical. Anybody who’s put together a Post Occupancy Evaluation report will tell you that!

Haque uses the term ‘participant’ to describe the persons who are actively engaging with his work. I like his use of this term, and I think its meaning needs to be asserted and supported by categorically differentiating it from other terms for persons engaged with architecture and interactive systems, such as ‘inhabitant’ or ‘user’. There are issues of agency here, of power and control, which need to be unpicked. The technological advances which have made reconfigurable house possible also give us surveillance and identity theft; a building which permits you to adjust the local temperature probably won’t let you open the window. We need to understand that in situations where you are the ‘user’ you often (usually) are being used. People frequently talk about ‘control’ but the original meaning of control is ‘to exert authority’. As this paper eschews author-ity, I would question this term. On the other hand, people talk about “being in control”. This is a very important feeling, which is in response to an absence of external control; however, in situations of collaboration or collective endeavour, people will probably need to renounce, to some extent, their need to feel in control. So then: ‘power’, which comes from ‘to be able’; and ‘agency’ which comes from ‘to do, to set in motion’. If we are able to make things happen, to do things, to set things in motion, we don’t need to be in control. It’s noticeable that children, who have very little control over their lives, are usually quite comfortable with this if they feel powerful – that their voices are heard and acknowledged, their autonomy respected. If we are powerful, we don’t need to be in control – we can share control, or hand it to someone else, or accept how fruitful the interventions of accident and chance can be; all in all, we can enjoy change. Now we are being verbs, things are changing, and it is clear that the level of plasticity and responsiveness of our environment affects the extent to which we are verbs with it, instead of through it, past it, in spite of it.

I’ve always liked not knowing what the outcome would be, whether because of chance elements in the piece or the unpredictable interventions of others’ autonomy. It was the capacity for change to happen which drew me to interactive systems way back in the early seventies. The first interactive installation I made involved a complex and chaotic array of sound generating circuits and relays, which was wired up to food and drink on a table in a gallery; as people ate the electrical balance in the circuits would change, randomly triggering burst of electronic sound. Later, in the nineties, when I was collaborating with the artist Simon Biggs, I noted how people would perform in interactive works. And that what would start with individual performances would always inevitably move to collective, shared performance, whether oppositional or collaborative. This motion in performing – from performing for an audience of oneself to performing with others for an audience of everybody has informed much of my subsequent work, but here as an example, is an installation made by my students for the Royal Festival Hall, called PLAY.orchestra15

PLAY.orchestra. Photographs © Arlete Castelo

The technology and interaction in this was also very simple and transparent: seats were laid out in the shape of an orchestra. If you sat on a seat, it played that instrument’s part in whatever piece was going on. You might get one person setting off different parts in sequence, or a group making a sort of dub version of the piece, or all the seats occupied and Tchaikovsky’s 4th roaring out. The verb sequence is: “I am doing this. I am doing this with this environment. I am doing this with these other people.”

A different student project was The Sandbox16 , which is a tool which enables people to add things and make changes to a virtual representation of a real space they inhabit.

The Sandbox. Photographs © Karen Yeung

It is envisaged as a new approach to involving people in the design of their urban space. By redesigning the virtual space, they can give guidance to those who will build in the real space. The verb sequence is “I am doing this. I am doing this with this environment. I could affect the environment I live in.”

I’m neither a dancer nor an architect. What I am is someone who loves to do, to create, to dance in the streets, and therefore loves what helps me to do that. In an environment and its embedded technology that can be implacable, alienating, even frightening, I particularly appreciate those systems, artefacts and people offering tools for doing17 , which are out there, open, accessible and transparent. These kinds of means to engage are often thought of as lo-tech, although enormous amounts of ‘techiness’ has gone into them; what they certainly are, due to their evolution, is swift, light on their feet and flexible; easy to access and use, if we’re willing to learn; and lo-cost, both environmentally and financially (they can even be almost no-tech no-cost, as Haque has demonstrated). And let’s sing a song for those who create opportunities and means for us to engage imaginatively, to make the music, whether it’s the contemplative narratives of Carlo Scarpa or the high energy co-creation of Usman Haque.

Let’s dance.


Finally, back to Goethe in the streets and palaces of Weimar.

If he relates architecture to music, he must perceive rhythm, melody and structure-in-time in it. Where do those perceptions come from? I suspect: his eye performs movements from point to point of the articulation of the buildings, traversing the volumes and facades; he perhaps turns as he walks through and past, sometimes he stops a moment; he hears sounds maybe distant, maybe near, located, moving, modified, reflected. His movement, and that of others, is generating a flow in time. In his head these movements, the rhythm of articulations precipitated by his relationship with the architecture, feel like a symphony. It seems he does not realise that this symphony is his reading, his movement in, his performance of the architecture he is with, therefore he ascribes it to the (motionless) architecture alone, and calls it frozen.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is not walking, he is dancing in the streets. He can see the buildings, they surround him. He cannot see the dance – he is in it, but he can see the buildings whirling round him, though they are immobile. He can hear the music. It is liquid.


1 R. Buckminster Fuller, I Seem To Be a Verb (New York: Bantam Books, 1970)

2 Note: the old norse word ‘þing’ from which ‘thing’ derives meant an assembly to debate and make decisions. Similarly the Romance words for ‘thing’ (‘chose’, ‘cosa’ etc) derive from the Latin ‘causa’ which meant ‘judicial lawsuit’. All very verbal.

3 See:

4 Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations of Goethe (1836, 1848 trans. 1906 John Oxenford)

5 Bruno Latour “Give me a Gun and I will Make All Buildings Move : An ANT’s View of Architecture”, in Geiser, Reto (ed.), Explorations in Architecture: Teaching, Design, Research, Basel: Birkhäuser, 2008 (with Albena Yaneva) pp. 80-89.

6 See: Yukio Futagawa, Paolo Portoghesi GA Document 50: Carlo Scarpa Cemetery Brion-Vega, S.Vito, Treviso, Italy. 1970-72 Edited and Photographed by Yukio Futagawa Text by Paolo Portoghesi

7 See: Discussed at some length in space-dis-place (see note 3)

8 Buckminster Fuller, Chronofile, 36/1929, See

9 See:

10 See:

11 See:

12 See: Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976) and Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Simon & Schuster 1995)

13 See

14 See:

15 See:

16 See:

17 Pure Data, Processing and Arduino are good examples. Processing and Arduino were both used in Reconfigurable House (see note 14)