Jose Sanchez is an Architect / Programmer / Game Designer based in Los Angeles, California. He is the director of the Plethora Project, a research and learning project investing in the future of online open-source knowledge. He is also the creator of Block’hood, a city simulator video game exploring notions of crowdsourced urbanism named by the Guardian one of the most anticipated games of 2016.
He has taught and guest lectured in several renowned institutions across the world, including the Architectural Association in London, the University of Applied Arts (Angewandte) in Vienna, ETH Zurich, The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, and theEcole Nationale Supérieure D'Architecture in Paris.
Today, he is an Assistant Professor at USC School of Architecture in Los Angeles. His research ‘Gamescapes’, explores generative interfaces in the form of video games, speculating in modes of intelligence augmentation, combinatorics and open systems as a design medium. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Jose's unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect and indie game developer
My architecture career took a turn once I decided to leave my home country, Chile, to go and do a master degree in London. I was part of the AA DRL, a master degree focused on technology and processes. I knew I wanted to learn how to code and engage with procedural geometry. The skills that I acquired there were essential to start thinking of architecture not as one building but rather as a process or a system that could have different outcomes. All the theories and techniques in this field were derived from nature, and I specialized in self-organizing systems, and how behaviors can emerge out of simple rules.
For several years, I was able to work for the firm Biothing with Alisa Andrasek learning more about computation and getting more comfortable at writing software.
In 2014, I was offered to teach a studio and was encouraged to find my own voice, not just replicate what I had been taught in school. For quite some time I had been thinking of the relation between self-organizing systems and gaming, and how I could write software that could be more interactive and would guide the user through a specific narrative. I realized that childhood’s interest had always been linked to games and simulations, and was finally able to connect the dots between an academic speculation and a personal gut feeling.
Gaming in architecture became a very personal agenda that I dedicated a great deal of time to develop a theoretical infrastructure and a technical workflow to be able to teach over the years to come. In the back of my mind, was always the intention to develop my own video game, but It would take some time to develop the skills to do so.
On discovering his voice as a designer
I was always a big fan of Simcity and games by Will Wright, but this was something I forgot once I went into architecture. The Minecraft phenomena started while I was doing my master in London, and that certainly played a big influence on me. I had the luck to meet Karsten Schmidt, who became a kind of mentor in terms of developing code. I feel I ended up moving away and becoming critical of all the teaching I received in London. In a way, my personal intuition was going in the opposite direction from what I was taught, so it was really difficult to leave some things behind. I was very influenced by Object Oriented Ontology in particular by Ian Bogost and Timothy Morton. Bogost was perhaps the most influential and became a central figure in my syllabus, connecting philosophy and gaming and turning the page from a process driven paradigm. Other figures like Casey Reas and Daniel Shiffman were a great inspiration regarding the contribution to a larger community.
On starting Plethora-Project
The Plethora Project started as a series of video tutorials showing viewers how to code. I was hoping to contribute back to the community that allowed me to learn how to code with great free content available online. The Processing community, in particular, was incredibly helpful and influential at the moment of defining the ethos of my practice.
The site slowly started growing and I was able to post my own work alongside all the teaching material. I felt that the community needed to get better, so any contribution was precious. The name of the project, ‘Plethora’ reflects on the search for an abundance of access and knowledge that we can generate as a community.
For a few years of having the site as a side project, I decided to start my own design studio in 2012 under the same name. I decided to make the turn towards architecture and games research, thinking that gaming would be an important medium for the communication of architectural ideas.
On specific principles he strives to adhere to
I have come to realized that most of the projects I work on have a social component to them. My first project Bloom, in collaboration with Alisa Andrasek, was a take on crowdsourcing the fabrication of an installation. The project was conceived as a game and would use the players as a form of adaptation. This social aspect became a central role, understanding the challenge and uncertainty of working with an unpredictable system. It provided fresh energy to the very deterministic computation that I had been dealing with for several years. Future projects like Block’hood, would take this challenge to a whole new level.
On his primary focus at Plethora-Project
To talk about the role is to give the impression that there is a large team with specialized responsibilities. For the past year, Plethora-Project has been a very small studio of 2 people. I believe in crafts of the projects, so everyone I work with needs to contribute at every level. I’m a generalist and enjoy going from technical details to the conception of the larger picture.
I strongly believe that there is a problem of how many architects develop a career within a practice; once someone becomes a project manager, they basically switch roles to do something they know little about (managing) and stop doing what they do best (designing). I believe this one of the central reason for poor time management and the long hours of work we architects are known for. In a way, an architecture career takes an architect away from the crafts of design, into a career in management and directing.
I hope to be able to continue learning and designing as the studio grows, and hopefully, bring people in with expertise in domains we designers lack.
These days my main focus in to understand how design ideas propagate and how to design systems to motivate that growth. This goes from systems design to software development or designing form. All contribute to a larger goal.
On recent projects that represent his unique approach
I do think that Block’hood represents what the studio is looking for; a technological infrastructure that can operate at a planetary scale, using games as a medium for a two-way conversation. The development of a community and the communication of larger architectural ideas, being inclusive and seeking the outliers that provide insight in the blind spot we have as designers.
To do this, the studio has given up physical production for some time, focusing on software infrastructure. This is always a challenge as people expect architecture to be ‘material’, but Block’hood has, in the recent 3 weeks since its release, been able to communicate to a large audience worldwide. The project has also opened the door for a new business model for designers that does not rely on a client, promoting a more entrepreneurial approach to the development of a practice. While unconventional, I think the potential of the project suggests that this strategy is worth pursuing.
On his design toolkit
I do most of my work through code. That is my medium of choice. These days I work within Unity3D writing code in C#. I enjoy thinking on the reusability of code and how a system can be used many different scenarios. In a way, to design with code is not to think of one object but in a multiplicity of objects, all different based on their contingent interactions. I work under a computational paradigm that I call ‘combinatorial design’ which is opposed to ‘parametric design’. Parametric design is based on the variation of variables, altering the intensities of a particular value. This describes a process or network that is deterministic and that has no flexibility outside the variables that have been pre-described. A combinatorial approach, on the other hand, is based on the permutations allowed by discrete entities. This describes patterns or arrangements of elements that can work together. While a parametric model can offer a variation degree, a combinatorial model can offer a variation of kind.
On the state of design software today
We live in an exciting time, as the tools we don’t have, we can build. We are no longer slaves to the features offered by a software package. Some of the most interesting software have come from tools developed by designers addressing a personal need and then developing a tool that could be used my many. Look at examples like Monolith developed by Andy Payne, recently acquired by Autodesk or HAL robotics; these have been architects deciding to do start-ups around the tools they developed for their personal use. I think that architecture firms with continue growing in this direction.
On the future of architecture in the next 5-10 years
As I mentioned, I think architecture will become more entrepreneurial. We will start getting rid of unsustainable models within the practice understanding that are unethical require or expect free labor and exploitative working hours. These practices were born out of a lack of value of design, where hundreds if not thousands of offices need to compete working for free to win a commission.
A younger generation of architects is already showing that there are alternative models for the practice and that you don’t need to be connected or win a competition to start a studio. We will start seeing changes in the university curriculum, with more entrepreneurial support, encouraging young designers to develop their own architectural applications no longer going out of school expecting a job from a firm, but rather seeking self-commissions and investment to make an impact in the discipline.
On the future of Plethora-Project in the next 5-10 years
Plethora-Project has already been working in this domain and will continue exploring different formats to contribute to the field. Those might continue in the medium of games, but we will keep on experimenting with different alternatives. The relations with industry are always a possibility but it’s central to have a level of autonomy to suggest creative applications that might be unexpected by industry partners.
On advice he would give his younger self
The most important piece of advice I have received is: ‘It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon’
I think this is the key once you are starting out, and trying to engage with large territories, it's all about persistence.