Multiple Discovery, Idea Theft, or Tweaking?

Having an original idea is everything in architecture. Its history is one of innovations and breakthroughs; of new ideas, materials, and applications. Originality is what distinguishes architecture from ordinary building construction, where the ad nauseam repetition of sameness is business-as-usual. Builders can copy with impunity, but architects must always innovate.

Of course, it’s difficult to be innovative all the time; to make a new architecture every Monday morning. Somebody else’s idea can sometimes be too good to resist being ‘inspired’ by, or to ‘tweak’ à la Steve Jobs. But where, exactly, does the line between a tweaked and a stolen idea lie? Just how much does an idea need to be tweaked so it’s not considered a facsimile anymore? And how much must ideas resemble one another before we have to judge between ‘idea theft’ versus ‘multiple discovery’?

A case in point is the ‘Elastic Dwelling’, an invention patented by the Viennese architect Angelo Roventa in 2008.  It’s a small dwelling that allows space to be used more flexibly and efficiently through the use of a mechanism used in high-density archival storage systems, allowing the spatial configuration of a dwelling to be modified according to need. Ever since Roventa exhibited a prototype of his invention at the MAK Museum in Vienna in 2009, similar designs by other architects have begun to appear. An especially striking example is the ‘All I Own House’ by PKMN Pac-Man Arquitectura (Madrid). Neither the architects’ website nor the El País blog in which it was recently published acknowledge any precedent. Is it because PKMN architects genuinely had the same idea without any awareness of somebody else having already had the idea six years earlier? Could be. Multiple discoveries have been known to have been made throughout history by persons separated by immense physical distances. But in the era of internet communication and the publication of nearly everything, multiple discovery becomes somewhat of an anachronism. If we compare the plans carefully, the resemblance is uncanny: the bathroom and kitchen are in the exact same position, and the mobile units, although made of different materials, perform exactly the same functions. Coincidence? Possibly, but a little hard to believe.

Left: Elastic Dwelling by Angelo Roventa Right: All I Own House by PKMN
Left: Elastic Dwelling by Angelo Roventa, 2008 (courtesy Angelo Roventa). Right: All I Own House by PKMN, 2014 (courtesy PKMN)

The irony is, of course, that Angelo Roventa’s system is itself ‘tweaked’ –or perhaps ‘hacked’ is a better word– from the commercially available, industrially mass-produced high-density archival storage system it employs. But it’s one thing to tweak an idea for a new use, acknowledging the precedent, and quite another to clone it, changing only a few materials.

We’ll probably never know for sure if this is a case of ‘multiple discovery’ or ‘idea theft’. But one thing we do know, fortunately, is which of these architects had this idea first.


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