Author : William Gowland

University : Architectural Association

Status : RIBA II, 2013

Advisors : Liam Young, Kate Davies

Title : OFF GRID

Holding a 90% monopoly on telecommunications in Mexico, Carlos Slim is the world’s richest man. Operating an ageing centralized system, his network is a symbol of corporate greed, that is now beginning to show its cracks. Borrowing from the cartels radio communication network, a self organizing decentralized infrastructure emerges around the streets and markets of the Barrios that undermines and subverts this monopoly. Exploring the city as an interactive installation at the scale of a room, an open source laser line of sight communication system is revealed that is local, ad hoc, resilient and most importantly, our own. Evolving into a DIY city of calibration graffiti, carved and sculpted building surfaces, reflectivity, absorbance and deregulated laser light conversations, communities soon develop their own constellation of transceivers and mirror relays, cultures, practices and procedures. Hacked together, it may not be perfect, as the system comes with a whole load of its own charming nuisances and problems of overheard conversations, drop outs and bad lines. As communications broadcasted live over the laser beams on one route break, a new connection is instantaneously made on another; creating a performative urban landscape.


The thesis involved developing a working 1:1 prototype for a laser communication system, with each component of the network eventually becoming live props to be filmed in the narrative film. Each node in the network acts as a transceiver such that it can both send and receive information when promoted. The system sends data (pre recorded conversations during a research trip to Mexico City) stored on micro SD cards over the lasers beams using pulse-width modulation via an audio transformer. Light dependent receivers connected to a small amp and speaker then broadcast the conversations being received. When one transceiver receives a signal, it automatically returns a signal creating a two way communication in the form of a conversation. If the beam is broken and the signal is dropped, both transceivers relay their signals on an alternative route in order to maintain transmissions. Mirror relays are used to guide the laser network via theses alternative routes specified routes. Built on the principles of mesh networking, the thesis aims to create a network that is not drifting 1,000 miles above our heads or in cables buried deep beneath the earth, but an open source infrastructure that is infinitely re-wirable, reorganising itself as the city moves around it.


S//A : What’s the most important aspect of this project that we should be aware of?
William Gowland_ Based on the principles of mesh networking, the infrastructure is a real working prototype for a laser communication system using pulse width modulation. Data stored on a series of micro SD cards is sent over the laser beams autonomously between each transceiver. The network embodies a growing interest in flexible responsive infrastructures that dissolve the sole authorship model of our failing centralised systems.

S//A : What other fields outside of architecture interest you?
WG_ I’m really interested in the interactive and reactive nature of technology in allowing buildings and objects to communicate with the world around them – If it moves, I’m probably into it!

S//A : Most important thing you learned in architecture school?
WG_ Two things – The first is, at all costs never settle for scale models and representations through drawing – Make it real and make it work at 1:1! That's when you really learn things. Secondly, at architecture school there are certain assumed and imposed objectives and outcomes for a project – Never let yours be shoe horned into these building shaped objects, the solution isn’t always a building, let them find their own natural end.

S//A : Describe your dream project
WG_ Although I’ve become hugely fascinated by exploring the contemporary edges of architecture, having grown up on a small farm in rural England I’m never happier than when out in the woods getting my hands dirty building small shelters, sheds, treehouses and so on… At some point the two are going to come together!