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ADS9 Institutional Forms and Urban Logics

Alison Crawshaw & Sam Chermayeff

ADS9 was initiated as an on-going project based around the study of institutions. The research is founded upon the question of institutions in relation to the urban, explored through a new lens each year. As our cities continue to grow at unprecedented rates, from fantastical branded enclaves to deregulated sprawl, their relentless proliferation outpaces our capacity to plan them. Institutions are our means to critique and intervene in this condition. In the context of the unfurling forces of planetary urbanisation, we explore the operation and agency of institutions in relation to the urbe and will test the spatial consequences of this.

Landmass redrawn as relative GDP
Landmass redrawn as relative GDP
The Ghost in The Machine 2014/15

In its first year, The Ghost in the Machine asked what institutions were and where they came from, exploring ideas of fragility, obsolescence and redundancy. Our analysis and reading of the city deliberately identified the traditional link between institutional organisation and architectural edifice, the recent slippage between these two, and the reading of the city through networks of architecture. Projects explored topics such as IGO’s, the labour/leisure dichotomy and family.

New Subjectivities 2015/16

Last year New Subjectivities focused on institutions looking forward. Institutions are invented, consolidated and then instrumentalised as a positive or palliative solution to an ideological crisis – a way in which to preserve and propagate a collective ideology. We explored the role of institutions in the production of new subjectivities emerging out of new movements, conditions and trends. Projects explored topics such as happiness, tech accountability and the housing crisis.

Right: Taking the net out of the gross, Arno Brandlhuber, Berlin. Left: The Nilometer, Cairo
Right: Taking the net out of the gross, Arno Brandlhuber, Berlin. Left: The Nilometer, Cairo

Units, Scales and Measures 2016/17

While the previous two years have taken historic and future explorations respectively, this year Units, Scales and Measures carves a trajectory across time. While we understand institutions as physical edifices that mark the character of our cities and as organisations that shape the interactions of our society (subjectivity) the consequences and physical impacts of our institutions seem, at first glance, more intangible and abstract. ADS9 starts this year with the claim that in fact every detail in our lives and the physical environment around us is the accumulated result of the myriad of institutions that inform our existence. Most specifically, we claim that our built environment is a direct and specific response to a series of institutional imperatives. We seek to understand this through a precise line of enquiry; measure.

The human tendency to categorise and define everything, from metric systems and DIN standard, to the Gregorian calendar, prosperity, currency, tatami mats and shipping containers, carbon bonds and census data, are as much political project as they are forms of relative comparison and methods of efficiency. These systems, borne out of institutional constructs, form and shape our daily activity and manifest across scales. These shared languages of size, organisation and value, are the syntax of our environment, from carparking grids to euros to the working week, we live amongst and through them.

Used to describe subjects as varied as Olympic events, property and pizza, the metre is a unit of measure so commonly exchanged and accepted today, that few question the metric project as an urge to abstraction, a 19th century effort to liberate space from the body and to relate it instead to a family of base units that was embedded in the enlightenment movement. It is a self contained system that was conceived “for all people, and all time” but has been repeatedly adjusted through international congresses who strive for a perfect definition of its length, removed from any tangible reality. Yet the metre is part of our everyday lives.

The Marble Metre, Paris
The Marble Metre, Paris, The Marble Metre, Paris
Units of measure harden in the landscape, in civic administration and in design disciplines and inscript our surroundings with lines of demarcation and division. Milestones mark paces from a capital of empire whose roads stretched through continents controlled from its centre. Enclosures seized acres, laid out in strips to the ox’s turn and mat covered floors extend through palaces and apartment alike. These systems of measure drawn from defunct actions, once tied space to the body, and the body to a project, and are still in use today although our world is increasingly decentred and incorporeal. 

Extrusions, sheets and sections are units of industrialised processes that have resonated with modernists and Toyota homes alike. In the aftermath of trauma, in the early 20th century, mass production gained momentum and standardised units proffered universal solutions, assurance and a democratic distribution of quality. An array of regulatory bodies emerged, DIN and RAL among them, which have since grown to international predominance. Undaunted by the immensity of their task, to categorise such phenomena as colour, to catalogue such a multitude of things as plugs and screws, these institutes take a clear approach that is driven by supply. Their codes claim to protect the consumer and facilitate trade and are now embedded in digital modelling programmes, so that the specification and fabrication of standardised components unfolds with unprecedented ease.

Counter Terrorism Measures, Washington DC
Counter Terrorism Measures, Washington DC
Our governments’ fortunes rise and fall with percentile shifts in our GDP, a measure of growth so widely sanctioned that its premise is rarely discussed. This opaque abstraction indiscriminately counts the totality of goods and services we produce and propagates the pursuit of endless activity as a means of defining well being and success. Cities shrink and boom in its wake. And here in London, viability has come to the fore, as a measure that determines what gets built. Net to gross ratios are squeezed and profit and amenity go head to head in an assessment that happens behind closed doors but has an unrivalled impact on public space and provision.

As we move through the city amongst an internet of things we are monitored in ways inconceivable before. Today, we possess an unprecedented capacity to record our actions, movements, consumption and concerns. Data is amassed at an exponential rate and the question of what to measure is open to infinite possibilities. From Bilasphur to Songdo, authorities have embraced the possibility of fully automated cities whose intelligent systems promise perfect knowledge of users’ behaviour. Rats in

Chicago and cars in Singapore are controlled through predictive technology that is being used to address urban issues such as public health, traffic congestion and density. Whilst some are spellbound by the potential of a technological grid that claims to level inequality and eliminate CO2 emissions, others are wary of prescriptive responses and anarchic feedback loops. 

A Centurion's Foot
A Centurion's Foot
Even scale, a form of measure, a way of reading something’s size or relation to reality, has been co-opted as tech corporates chase the cosmic view. The rapid advancement of satellite technology has enabled an instantaneous shift, albeit in increments, between the intimate and the planetary, that has rapidly enlarged our geospatial knowledge.

The notion of performing to a set of criteria, is embedded in architecture and urbanism today. These measures are the tools through which institutions enact themselves. They reveal our collective values and concerns. Our town squares are de-risked against terror and play, our colleges cannot underperform, we monitor our carbon footprint and protect views of our heritage. Through international standards on climate change we demonstrate our commitment to address global issues. Through a split vote on Europe, we unravel a bureaucracy, decades in the making and unleash a cascade of retro-retro-fitting. The agency of architecture lies in these overlaps and contradictions.

Far from being concrete elements, standard units of measure are institutional forms, subjective products of our imagination and instinct that we use to construct and to analyse our environment. Students will work across an extremity of scales allowing conflicting and disparate ideas to coexist within the same body of research. Working from the scale of furniture, tools, or chips for example (the unit) up to the scale of the masterplan, the city and beyond we will investigate how institutional decisions influence at either end of the spectrum and replicate themselves throughout our lives, informing very real, tangible and material spatial forms. Projects will investigate the tactics and spatial innovations latent in institutions and deploy them for new speculations on the potential and instrumentality of architecture and its role in the city.

Carmen, Manuela, Mayor of Madrid, questions smart cities
Carmen, Manuela, Mayor of Madrid, questions smart cities

The Methodology


Our multiple readings of the institution, from the assured to the fragile, creative to the repressive, the antagonistic to the functional, are brought to the table for debate and discussion in a weekly evening event in term one; the ADS9 Salon. This collective research platform forms the foundation of our proposals and frames ADS9’s discussions and research. It is an opportunity for the studio to come together. The salons range in format from group discussions, to interviews, in conversations, and presentations by invited guests whose work overlays institutional and architectural critique. Over the past two years we have been delighted and privileged to host distinguished guests; Ingrid Schroeder Olly Wainwright, Shumi Bose and Jack Self, Rhys Williams, Frederick Wiseman and Paul Mason. This year, the salon series will be published in The Journal of Architecture.


Weekly minibriefs will be issued at the beginning of the first term. This work will be presented at tutorials, salons and uploaded onto the blog. Students will take a unit of measure, explore it, spatialise it, define the institutional imperatives behind it and define their critical response. This intensive period of research will culminate in the first of our workshops.


Curated workshops promote spatial and material experimentation from the outset. These workshops are programmed to shift modes of production and enquiry, to loosen assumptions and provoke intuition, to assert a reciprocal relation between research and design. ADS9 deliberately opens the thematic fram of Institution up to broad interpretation and interrogation and we hope to be surprised by what we discover. The first of the workshops promotes research through drawing. Drawings is understood to be a dynamic activity, a device that students can use to unpack and articulate their concerns. It will take place in November and will be led by Adam Kassa and Sayan Skandarajah. The outcome will be an article and representation. In December, as in previous years, we will be joined by Ryan Neiheiser whose model workshop is set up as a Disruption to promote intuitive spatial experimentation. This workshop overlays structural logics and institutional attitudes. The models that are produced as part of this workshop disrupt and enrich the critique developed over the course of the first term. Together they form a critical and material basis for proposals moving forward. In February, the last of our workshops will focus on Iteration. Students will use this as an opportunity to intensively iterate their design and to frame their projects typologically. The article, representation and (extreme version of) model will form the baseline content for the Work in Progress show in February. The show will be a collection of units of measure a.k.a. institutional forms.


The first studio day is conceived as an intensive salon with that will be distributed across a number of sites in London each with a particular relation to the brief and intended to open up the discussion to multiple interpretations. Our field trip will be within Europe, potentially travelling from Germany to Italy. We intend to discuss the trip with studio as we would everyone to be able to join in.


The studio will occupy itself with 3 scales: territory, urban, architecture. Projects will readily move between these scales throughout the year – it is not a linear process. We will consider architecture through details, plans, and networks in the city. A series of briefs working alternately through these scales, switching between research and design, will ensure that the two disciplines and all operative gauges of architecture, intimately inform one another.

There is no specified program or site for the thesis project although it should be generated from explorations and research into institutions, the mechanisms behind them and their occupation of the territory. Projects will investigate the tactics and spatial innovations latent in institutions and deploy them for new speculations on the potential and instrumentality of architecture and its role in the city.


For our live project, we will be registering a DIN standard.

ADS9 is taught by Sam Chermayeff, Alison Crawshaw and Rhys Williams

The studio was founded by Beth Hughes and Alison Crawshaw

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