Architecting Transparency: Back to the Roots – and Forward to the Future?

Paper by Dieter Zinnbauer: “Where to go next in research and practice on information disclosure and institutional transparency? Where to learn and draw inspiration from? How about if we go back to the roots and embrace an original, material notion of transparency as the quality of a substance or element to be see-through? How about, if we then explore how the deliberate use and assemblage of such physical transparency strategies in architecture and design connects to – or could productively connect to – the institutional, political notions of transparency that we are concerned with in our area of institutional or political transparency? Or put more simply and zooming in on one core aspect of the conversation: what have the arrival of glass and its siblings done for democracy and what can we still hope they will do for open, transparent governance now and in the future?

This paper embarks upon this exploratory journey in four steps. It starts out (section 2.1) by revisiting the historic relationship between architecture, design and the build environment on the one side and institutional ambitions for democracy, openness, transparency and collective governance on the other side. Quite surprisingly it finds a very close and ancient relationship between the two. Physical and political transparency have through the centuries been joined at the hip and this relationship – overlooked as it is typically is – has persisted in very important ways in our contemporary institutions of governance. As a second step I seek to trace the major currents in the architectural debate and practice on transparency over the last century and ask three principal questions:

– How have architects as the master-designers of the built environment in theory, criticism and practice historically grappled with the concept of transparency? To what extent have they linked material notions and building strategies of transparency to political and social notions of transparency as tools for emancipation and empowerment? (section 2.2.)

– What is the status of transparency in architecture today and what is the degree of cross-fertilisation between physical and institutional/political transparency? (section 3)

– Where could a closer connect between material and political transparency lead us in terms of inspiring fresh experimentation and action in order to broaden the scope of available transparency tools and spawn fresh ideas and innovation? (section 4).

Along the way I will scan the fragmented empirical evidence base for the actual impact of physical transparency strategies and also flag interesting areas for future research. As it turns out, an obsession with material transparency in architecture and the built environment has evolved in parallel and in many ways predates the rising popularity of transparency in political science and governance studies. There are surprising parallels in the hype-and-skepticism curve, common challenges, interesting learning experiences and a rich repertoire of ideas for cross-fertilisation and joint ideation that is waiting to be tapped. However, this will require to find ways to bridge the current disconnect between the physical and institutional transparency professions and move beyond the current pessimism about an actual potential of physical transparency beyond empty gestures or deployment for surveillance, notions that seems to linger on both sides. But the analysis shows that this bridge-building could be an extremely worthwhile endeavor. Both the available empirical data, as well as the ideas that even just this first brief excursion into physical transparency has yielded bode well for embarking on this cross-disciplinary conversation about transparency. And as the essay also shows, help from three very unexpected corners might be on the way to re-ignite the spark for taking the physical dimension of transparency seriously again. Back to the roots has a bright future….(More)