Architecture Machine Group MIT

Eliza Pertigkiozoglou
4 min readApr 14, 2017

Architecture by Yourself: An Experiment with Computer Graphics for House Design

Graph processing from linkages to space bubbles, source: Vardouli

Between 1975 and 1977, the Architecture Machine Group(AMG) at MIT, was conducting a research project called “Architecture by Yourself: An Experiment with Computer Graphics for House Design”, headed by Nicholas Negroponte and Guy Weinzapfel. The research was in close cooperation with the French architect Yona Friedman, who was constantly visiting AMG to review the project and discuss with them about future improvements. Part of the larger research effort of the group “Machine Recognition and Inference Making in Computer Aids to Design”, the project was about creating a computer program (named YONA as a homage to Friedman’s ideas) that would assist users — non architects- to design their own apartments. In the brief summary submitted in the Siggraph Conference in Pennsylvania in 1976, Negroponte and Weiznapfel described their project as following:

“Architecture-by-Yourself is an experiment in computer-aided design that applies the medium of computer graphics, used by a general populace.”

The challenge of the project laid in its participatory promise and the engagement of non-specialist in the design process. It involved experimentation with a young couple that was using the computer program to design their apartment. The couple was meeting for 8 weeks the AMG Staff in an unconventional manner: the staff was observing the couple’s design efforts with the computer program. The difficulty of the couple to the next steps led to the assumption that it should be a clear step-by-step process. This observation made the AMG consider the experiment as very informative on man-computer interaction: it could “exercise input and visualization techniques in a relentless setting, relentless in the sense that the user is demanding, the problem is hard, and the product is a personal, one-of-a-kind design. […] The machine must be simultaneously understanding, helpful and non paternalistic.”

The goals were therefore multiple: AMG was questing how architectural relationships that can be given mathematical description. Also, how to guide the user in a non-indicative manner and help them through the process. AMG embraced Yona Friedman’s ideas found in Flatwriter and his book “Towards a scientific architecture” and represented the rooms of the house and the linkages between them as a graph. The graph enables the designer to see simple difficulties in his linkages. It also permits an observer to monitor the designer’s progress and to use graph theory to spot troubles early on. These “troubles” might be, for instance, enclosed spaces (implying size and window limitations), impossible access between groups of spaces.

The way that the research group was working is that the program was split in smaller programs and the difficulties were faced independently.The process- steps of the program were the following:

steps of the design interface, source: “ARCHITECTURE-BY-YOURSELF, An Experiment with Computer Graphics for House Design”, Siggraph 1976

1) MAKE SPACES: the user identifies which spaces he wishes to include in his home. He/she determines size and cost was calculated immediately “to avoid later disappointments”.

2) LINK SPACES: The user determines the association between spaces.

3) ARRANGE GRAPH. An initial graph configuration of the specified “home” is displayed.

4) MOVE SPACES: the user can rearrange the graph.

4) PRE-SHAPE SPACES: After a satisfactory arrangement is achieved, “bubbles” of the appropriate areas are displayed over each node/space.

5) SKETCH SPACES: the user can use the area-bubbles as guides to make further adjustments.

“By determining first a graph, then bubbles over the graph, then shapes over the bubbles, this approach introduces completeness to the design without undue complexity. After the user has learned to deal with one component of design with confidence, the next concept is brought forth.”

The interface was totally the user-machine communication was entirely graphical (using IMLAC dynamic displays and a Touch Sensitive). Users could point on the screen with their fingers. According to the group this is more accurate and intuitive that the “unpractical light pen” and thus was eliminating “one of the more serious barriers between naive users and the machine”.

YONA’s interface, source: “ARCHITECTURE-BY-YOURSELF, An Experiment with Computer Graphics for House Design”, Siggraph 1976

AMG conceived this project as an instance of the designer-machine interaction The connections among procedural representations of knowledge, relational forms and graphical representations. They introduced “Graphic Conversation theory” to describe this kind of interaction. The design process can be viewed as a conversation, taking place between different perspectives, which may exist within the mind of one or of several designers. Graphical representations are therefore essential to encourage such externalization and to communicate the relationships involved in design and are crucial to the formation of new relationships or analogies. Since a conversation is a series of understanding the transformations that take place in the interface should be made explicit, they should stay in the user or in the machine. In the communication of human-machine there is no master and slave relationship. Each of the agents changes his standing point and becomes either a student of an expert in the graphical conversation setting, with the expert inscribing information and the student interpreting.


  • -Nicholas Negroponte & Guy Weinzapfel “ARCHITECTURE-BY-YOURSELF, An Experiment with Computer Graphics for House Design”, Siggraph 1976
  • -“Architecture Machinations” weekly journal of Architecture Machine Group MIT, 1975–78
  • -Architectural Design 1969, issue
  • -Theodora Vardouli, “Architecture-by-yourself”: Early studies in computer-aided participatory design, available here: https://openarchitectures.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/literature-review_thvardouli.pdf



Eliza Pertigkiozoglou

Architect, Computational Designer, PhD student at McGill University