Last Friday, London’s Architectural Association was taken hostage by the future. Not that this institution is unfamiliar with the speculative or unknown, but the particular futures on offer came from a far more radical place for this venerable academy; beyond architecture.
Thrilling Wonder Stories 2, the second event of a trilogy coordinated by Liam Young of Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today and Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, brought together design provocateurs, futurist/magicians, countercultural heroes, digital dream-makers, psychogeographic flaneurs, the former leader of a dystopic free state, amongst others (full list of speakers here) – none of whom are architects in the traditional sense. What links these design radicals together is an intensive focus on the future as a project, each deploying the tool of fiction to scratch out new spaces outside of our current reality.
I spoke to organisers Geoff and Liam in a noisy Italian restaurant following the nine-hour marathon day of presentations to explore further their vision of the future for architecture, and what architects can stand to learn from exposing themselves to an expanded scope of references.
Rory Hyde: I wanted to start by asking about the title, it’s clearly not ‘the post-digital city in the neo-liberal landscape’ or something, in fact it doesn’t seem to have an explicit theme at all, but simply to be pulling together all things interesting, thrilling or wondrous. What version of architecture are we talking about here?
Liam Young: The title actually comes from a pulp science fiction magazine launched in 1929 and which ran all the way through the golden era of sci-fi up until 1955. Our interest in that a publication was that it catalogued a series of visions of the future that are very iconic of the age of which they come from. Nothing dates like images of the future I suppose, but in that dating you can see the consequences and the context of which they were made much more clearly. So these Thrilling Wonder Stories are emotive, full of whimsy, they explore speculative fictions as a design enterprise, and in doing so they both project what things could be, and at the same time they talk about the way things are now in a really unique and interesting way.
RH: This idea of the ‘now’ seems to connect to your work Geoff. Liam introduced you as an ‘archaeologist of the present’””a title I like very much””and you presented rats as a way of understanding the architectural history of New York; fossilised Playstation controllers as a projected discovery of today by a future race; and the idea of ‘animal printheads,’ or bees that can create concrete honey. Many of these ideas have their source in truth, as read (or mis-read) in the newspaper or scientific journals. Is truth stranger than what we can invent, and somehow more interesting?
Geoff Manaugh: Well, one of the many things we were trying to do with this event was to look at fictions which are stranger than truth, but also to leave open the possibility that truth can be stranger than fiction. After all, they both feed into one another. The imagination of new storylines, plots and fictional cities can often produce extraordinary things, as if out-doing reality, but then something comes along and you learn something absolutely wonderful about an archaeological site, or you learn about a new project underway somewhere in the real world today, or you learn about what Nicola Twilley was presenting in her talk, about the smell of the moon being accidentally discovered by the Apollo astronauts only to be lost on their return to Earth. These stories have something by virtue of the fact that they are real””they have a particular kind of relationship to the truth, precisely because they are historical, not mythological. So, again, it works both ways.
RH: The other term that kept popping up today is ‘narrative.’ I guess that for myself coming from the more professional world of architecture, it’s not really a term that comes up in the office for instance. Of course today we’ve had presentations from comic book artist Antony Johnson, computer games writer Edward Stern, and the author Will Self; all people who think about plot and narrative experience in a very intimate way. Do you think that narrative is something which is overlooked in the professional architectural world?
LY: I think narrative has always been a part of architecture, as has fiction, the critical thing is though that there are certain points in history within the canon of architecture that it has made more sense than others. The original magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories comes from a point in time when we were intoxicated with potentials of the technologies of war, before the horrors of war onset, but then postwar America killed narrative, and it became about rationalism. A similar thing happened in Germany where German Expressionism and the narrative impulse was killed by Mies and German rationalism. And then it pops up again with Archigram and Ant Farm in the 60s, where there’s a speculation about new technologies and embracing them to see where they could take us, but then that kind of dies off again in the 70s with Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, who’s work is more about a fantasy of the imagination, not so much about narrative.
I think there’s something about where we are now that fiction and narrative starts to make sense again. Just the scale of support for BLDGBLOG and other genres of architectural discussion suggest that right now is a moment when narrative, fiction, speculation and the future can again become a project.
RH: I guess that leads onto the question which is that you guys both teach””Geoff more sporadically all over the world, and Liam here at the AA””what kind of architects are you training, and what kind of architects do you think we need today? In the background of this question I’m thinking of the recent debate over the legitimacy of the architectural blog and what’s presented on these blogs, as opposed to traditional architectural criticism, which may look at capital ‘A’ architecture, or architects who have large practices who build large public buildings. It doesn’t seem to me like you guys are interested in that, but also suggests that there might be space for architects who can exist outside of this system.
GM: Speaking only for myself, with my background as the author of BLDGBLOG and with the kind of ideas that I tend to cover there, it might come as something of a surprise to learn that, when I’m teaching, I actually tend not to push my students down a path where they’re all suddenly forced to write science fiction novels, or they all have comic books coming out instead of buildings. I guess I see it as my responsibility as an educator to find ways to bring outside ideas and influences into the classroom, things that my students might not otherwise be looking for””but, at the end of the day, they are in an architecture department and they are looking for a certain kind of spatial education.
For me to pretend that they’re actually enrolled in the English department, and that they’re actually here to write short stories or to design video game environments or to work on films””I think that would be a misunderstanding of my role as their teacher. In other words, I think my role is to be a kind of conduit between the inside and the outside, and to show up in class every morning with recommendations for things that might give my students cool ideas, whether that be a film or an ancient myth or an archaeological report or a science fiction novel. In fact, I think this is a really important aspect of architectural education today: to show how advanced spatial ideas and design concepts exist outside of the academy, outside of the architectural press, and outside of built forms altogether. At the end of the day, though, I don’t think I’m trying to train architects who are incapable of putting buildings together, where all they can do is sit around reading comic books all day. That’s definitely not my goal.
RH: Certainly the symposium today wasn’t just about pure speculation, it wasn’t an abandonment of the real world. There was even a lot of talk about market realities; Matt Webb from BERG London spoke about ‘making magic’, but he’s also interested in the way people will use it, and interested in appealing to people’s human senses because there’s a market in that. Edward Stern also discussed a similar ambition to create a unique experience, while acknowledging his obligation to sell computer games. Do you think that architects can apply this same logic in the professional world, to find the gaps inside their traditional commission to insert some kind of extra layer of interest, or an extra layer of criticality, or a bigger idea?
GM: I think there is a way to do that. In fact, a lot of architects are already inserting these sorts of Thrilling Wonder Stories-like, non-traditional ideas into their projects; they just aren’t necessarily being academically recognised for their work. You mentioned the idea of the market, and I think you would simply be catering to a different market, a different clientele. And what they want from architecture is pretty profoundly different from what the academy wants from architecture””and it’s not nearly as dumb as the academy makes it out to be.
I guess if you’re trying to do a kind of trigonometric extension of the canon into the future, and to imagine where might we be in fifteen years based on how the canon currently exists, then you’re going to produce a very referentially limited type of architecture. But if you pursue a line of design that might have some narrative in it, and it might even have some kitschy or gamey elements in it, then it might not sit well with Mies van der Rohe, but it would still be a really exciting direction for architecture to go in.
LY: I think for us there’s also a very big difference between fantasy and speculative fiction. Fantasy is about removing oneself from context and disappearing into another world, whereas speculative fiction involves some kind of relationship with something familiar and from that point you project beyond. I think that in terms of operationalising that within architectural practice it actually becomes a really interesting territory for architects to start to work in, because architects traditional field of operation often takes so long for an idea to become reality.
For the sole output of an architect to be built form, for the sole practice of an architect to involve excel spreadsheets, talking to consultants, builders, all those sorts of things, really limits the nature of how we can operate within the world. But by dealing with a fictional project””not a fanciful project””but one that is actually engaging with emerging conditions or emerging technologies, we’re able to engage with it much more immediately than we could if we waited for those technologies to filter down into the market to the point where we’re actually building objects. I think it means we can operate with much more dexterity if we open up the gamut of what an architectural practice is, and not constantly see things as being solely about the means towards an endpoint that relies on a physical object produced.
RH: I guess just to wrap up with one final thought on this ‘expanded discipline’ or expanded range of sources for the discipline, is that what’s always surprised me working in practice is that clients don’t bring with them the baggage of architectural training or architectural history, so to work outside of that is nothing shocking to them, and actually to work inside of that canon, to bring that baggage of references””of the seemingly arcane history lectures that are fed to us at school””is unusual in the real world. So to me the agenda you are both promoting through events like Thrilling Wonder Stories feels both at once like a challenge to the architectural tradition, but more like a correction.
LY: Architects are amazing self-censors. We put the parameters around our profession much more than anybody else does. Part of my teaching practice, when I get students in their final year of study, is very often about unlearning all the things they expect from their architecture degree, and opening up the possibilities of what it could be. And that’s part of the game, to try and subvert the idea of what they think they’re supposed to be doing, which is a culturally constructed form of what the architect is, and actually thinking on a project by project basis or thinking completely within a set of interests that the student might have to determine where they want to take their practice as an outcome of their own world view.
RH: Well I think it’s an exciting time for redefining what the architect and what the profession is, so congratulations on a successful day and on pulling together such a great range of speakers, and I’ll let you get back to your dinner!
Thrilling Wonder Stories 2 was held at the Architecture Association on Friday the 26th of November, 2010. If you missed it, a video archive of the presentations is available in four parts (1, 2, 3, 4) on the AA website. A big thanks to Geoff and Liam for their time.Posted: December 1st, 2010
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