Nicholas Negroponte and Architecture Machine Group MIT

Eliza Pertigkiozoglou
4 min readFeb 20, 2017

Urban 5

URBAN 5’s overlay and the IBM 2250 model 1 cathode ray-tube used for URBAN 5 (source: openarchitectures.com)

Nicholas Negroponte (1943) founded in 1967, together with Leon Groisser, the Architecture Machine Group (Arch Mac) at MIT, which later in 1985 transformed to MIT Media Lab. Negroponte’s vision was an architecture machine that would turn the design process into a dialogue, altering the traditional human-machine dynamics. His approach was significantly influenced by recent discussion on artificial intelligence, cybernetics, conversation theory, technologies for learning, sketch recognition and representation. Arch Mac laboratory combined architecture, engineering and computing to develop architectural applications and artificially intelligent interfaces that question the design process and the role of its actors.

The Architecture Machine’s computer and interface installation.( source:radical-pedagogies.com)

Urban 5 was the first research project of the lab developed in 1973, as an improved version of Urban 2. Interestingly, in his book “Architecture Machine” Negroponte explains, evaluate and criticize Urban5, contemplating on the successes and insufficiencies of the program that aimed to serve as a “toy” for experimentation rather than a tool to handle real design problems. It was “a system that could monitor design procedures” and not design tool by itself. As explained in the book, Urban’s 5 original goal was to “study the desirability and feasibility of conversing with a machine about environmental design project… using the computer as an objective mirror of the user’s own design criteria and form decisions; reflecting formed from a larger information base than the user’s personal experience”.

Urban 5 communicated with the architect-user first by giving him instructions, then by learning from him and eventually by dialoguing with him. Two languages were employed for that communication: graphic language and English language. The graphic language was using the abstract representation of cubes (nouns). The English language was text appearing on the screen (verbs). The cubes could be added incrementally and had qualities, such as sunlight, visual and acoustical privacy, which could be explicitly assigned by the user or implicitly by the machine. When the user was first introduced to the software, the software was providing instructions. Then the user could could explicitly assign criteria or generate forms graphically in different contexts. What Negroponte called context was defined by mode, which referred to different display modes that allow the designer different kinds of operations. For example, in the TOPO mode the architect can manipulate topography in plan, while in the DRAW mode he/she can manipulate the viewing mode and the physical elements. In the final stage of this human-machine relationship there was a dialogue between designer and the computer :when there was an inconsistency between the assigned criteria and the generated form, the computer informed the architect and he/she could choose the next step: ignore, postpone, and alter the criterion or the form.

source: The Architecture Machine, Negroponte

Negreponte’s criticism give an insight of Arch Mac’s explorations, goals and self-reflection on the research project. To Negroponte, Urban 5 insufficiency was summarized in four main points. First, it was based on assumptions of the design process that can be denuded: architecture is additive(accumulation of cubes), labels are symbols and design is non-deterministic. Also, it offered specific and predetermined design services. Although different combinations could produce numerous results, they were still finite. The designer has always to decide what should be the next step in the cross-reference between the contexts/modes, without any suggestion or feedback from the computer. Last point of his criticism was that Urban 5 interacts with only one designer and the interaction is strictly mediated through “a meager selection of communication artifacts”, meaning the keyboard and the screen. The medium and the language itself.

Although Urban 5 is a simple program with limited options, the points that are addressed are basically the constraints of current CAD programs. This is, up to an extent, expected, given the medium and the language frames the interaction between man and the machine.“The world view of culture is limited by the structure of the language which that culture uses.”(Whorf, 1956) The world view of a machine is similarly marked by linguistic structure”(1). Nevertheless, it seems that Negroponte’s and Arch Mac explorations were ahead of their time, offered an insight in human-machine design interactions, suggesting “true dialogue”. “Urban 5 suggests an evolutionary system, an intelligent system — but, in itself , is none of them”(2).


(1),(2): Quotes of Negroponte from “The Architecture Machine” book -see below

  • Negroponte, Nicholas. The Architecture Machine: Towards a more human environment, MIT Press, 1970
  • Vardouli, Theodora. Nicholas Negroponte: an interview, 2011. Accessed through: https://openarchitectures.com/2011/10/27/an-interview-with-nicholas-negroponte/
  • Wright Steenson, Molly. Architectures of Information:Christofer Alexander, Cedric Price and Nicholas Negroponte & MIT’s Architecture Machine Group, Phd Thesis, Princeton, April 2014



Eliza Pertigkiozoglou

Architect, Computational Designer, PhD student at McGill University