On December 11, 2020, the Swiss Parliament in Berne urgently accepted an initiative to allow congress members (Nationalrat/Conseil national) to vote remotely due to COVID-19, and a few days later, Sophie Michaud Gigon, the Green Party Representative from the Canton Vaud, became the first parliament member in Swiss history to cast a vote virtually, without being physically present in the parliament.
This significant break with a long tradition – the requirement of physical presence in the Swiss parliament dates back to the Landsgemeinde of the Middle ages where the physical assembly of citizens in one public space was of primordial importance for debates and voting – prompted the Swiss parliament to start a reflection on the possible consequences of the virtualization of parliament.
In this studio, we will help the Swiss parliament with this task. We will explore the opportunities and threats of virtualizing the parliament, and design a new type of political infrastructure for “res publica,” ie., for civic engagement, accountability, personhood and direct democracy, that integrates virtual and physical architectures.
Our site will be a combination of virtual reality (VR) and physical interventions (acupunctural or pop-up architectures) in rural/suburban towns in Zurich Vorort.
Inevitable questions we will address in this studio include: What is the value of physical presence in politics? What is the agency of physical architecture in shaping a direct democracy? What role does the typology of parliament play in the process of decision-making? What are the essential elements of existing parliaments in the world? What happens to the informal spaces – the break out rooms, the stairs, the corridors, the cafeteria, etc. where most encounters and debates are happening – when the parliament gets virtualized? What kind of novel interfaces can be envisaged, for individuals and smaller, distributed groups at the peripheries? How can we design a virtual parliament that is empowering, yet just and civic? Is there an opportunity for rethinking and improving the architecture of democracy?
The studio will be organized in three interconnected phases. Phase one will analyze existing typologies of parliament in the world and focus on the relationship between geometric form and political power.
Phase two will tackle the notion of virtualization, and examine the translation of political relations into cyberspace (using Rhino 3D, Grasshopper and Iris 3D). Ordinarily this phase will be conducted entirely in virtual reality using Oculus Quest or equivalent VR headsets.
Phase three will involve the design of a political infrastructure as an interface for citizens in distributed communes to access the virtual parliament and participate in the res publica.
The studio will culminate in a final project that combines results from the three phases: a personal interpretation of the virtual parliament and the design of a political infrastructure on a precise site in the Zurich Vorstadt: a temporary social space to empower citizens at the periphery and enable political engagement, accountability and direct democracy.
Due to the circumstances caused by COVID-19, the studio may be conducted, non-presentially, over zoom, if the situation does not improve, however, we will actively seek to challenge the constraints of video-based collaboration by introducing and experimenting with novel immersive virtual reality (VR) technologies, such as Oculus, Iris VR, etc., and avatarial presence, not only to “walk the talk” and get familiar with the virtual content of the studio, but also for collaboration and presentations of projects. We will also continue to use decentralized 3D digital printing to evoke the tangible dimension of design, which we deem especially important in a virtual studio.
This Spring studio 2021 “Virtual Parliament” is related to the topics of our Fall studio 2020 “Deep Zurich,” however, the studio is conceived as a separate, autonomous studio and can be taken independently. (In contrast to the fall studio, where we investigated the potential of artificial intelligence and deep learning to generate urban housing in the Zurich Altstadt, this studio will expand upon and shift the focus: from machine intelligence to collective intelligence, from Zurich Altstadt to Zurich Vorstadt, and from private housing (res privata) to public infrastructure (res publica).