The 1926 sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis by Fritz Lang opens with a stunning sequence of machinery in motion, followed by an anonymous workers' crowd descending into the underground. Inspired by the iconic NY skyline, Lang's 2026 fictional city is an architectural allegory of verticality, hierarchy and layers. Its landscape of endless repetitive towers, elevated highways and murky streets where social status ascends the higher you go would turn into a cinematic cliché for the rest of the century. Roads would be dumped, cars would hang on cables or simply buzz around, the dehumanized workers' class would be replaced by robots and the capitalists inhabiting the top floors would employ the virtual weapons of information, surveillance and control.
Cinema's long-dated infatuation with architecture recognizes its potential to express the social order and spirit of the times, enabling it to visualize futures both utopic and dystopic. In his article "Metropolis Now", A. O. Scott elaborates on this ambivalence:
That the urban future should be at once repellent and seductive is hardly surprising, since actual cities have always cast their own double spell. Their crowded streets and cramped habitations induce claustrophobia but also promise new forms of intimacy. The alienation and loneliness that blossom in the midst of crowds are romantic and agonizing in equal measure. City life is subject to all kinds of planning, scheduling, surveillance and regulation, which makes it both efficient and dehumanizing. Its buzzing disorder holds the threat of violence and the promise of vitality.
20th century "paper" architecture - that is, architecture whose priority is more visualizing and exploring a concept rather than its actual implementation - played an important role in the development of those ideas and their corresponding imagery. It is notable that in 1995's Batman Forever Jim Carrey agonizes in black-and-green tights in front of a tower-like rotating structure which is an exact replica of The Monument of Columbus, designed by the Russian constructivist K.Melnikov in 1929.
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Walking City imagines a future of modern nomads and fast-paced lifestyle. Although radical in itself, it anticipated a lot of the architectural and social trends related to mobility, change and adaptation. See more on Open Buildings. Image: Archigram
Superstudio's provocative series of collages and illustrations is a critique of globalization and the resulting uniformity. Overlaying everyday landscapes and their still vivid diversity with the monotonous gridded structure, their vision is an anticipation and a warning of a future where local cultures and nuances will be erased for the sake of an expanding, depersonalized ahyperrationality. See more on Open Buildings. Image: Superstudio
Fun Palace is Cedric Price’s most celebrated work. Whether characterised as a giant toy or as a building-sized transformable machine, the project’s interest resides in its radical reliance on structure and technology, its exemplification of notions of time-based and anticipatory architecture. With Fun Palace, Price addressed social and political issues that go far beyond the typical bounds of architecture. See more on Open Buildings. Text and Image: http://www.cca.qc.ca/en/collection/283-cedric-price-fun-palace
Woods' High Houses are proposed as a part of reconstruction of Sarajevo after the siege lasting until 1995. In his own words, The concept of the project is simple. The houses rise up high into the airspace once occupied by falling mortar and artillery shells fired by the city’s besiegers in the surrounding mountains. By occupying the airspace, the High Houses reclaim it for the people of the city. ...they are spaces of a new beginning for Sarajevo, one that challenges—in physical terms—the city’s past and present, aiming at a future uniquely Sarajevan. See more on Open Buildings. Image: Lebbeus Woods
In 100 years, water will be the world’s most valuable resource: the new oil. UrbanLab’s project envisions Chicago evolving into a model city for “growing water” by creating a series of Eco-Boulevards spread democratically throughout the city. Eco-Boulevards will connect and expand Chicago’s existing parks and waterways. See more on Open Buildings. Text and Image: http://www.urbanlab.com/entry.php?id=70
Created for the History Channel's "City of the Future" competition, ARO's proposal envisions New York in 2106. The water levels has risen, according to present prognosis and the city responds through accomodating a new type of mixed-use building, the vane. In the words of the architects: With the city starved for square-footage, architects built directly upon the flooded public streets. Vanes feather upwards and outwards through the streets of the Inundation Zones, creating homes, offices and shopping arcades but also parks and gardens. ... From airships overhead, vanes look as if New York’s grid of streets has taken on a life of its own, making the city, in 2106, more like itself than ever before. See more on Open Buildings Image: ARO
Another successful entry of History Channel's "City of the Future" competition, Eric Owen Moss Architects' proposal envisions a future strategy for Los Angeles based on the redevelopment of its infrastructural units into multi-purpose zones intertwined in the urban fabric. See more on Open Buildings. Image: Eric Owen Moss Architects
A finalist in the 2011 eVolo Skyscraper Competition, the French team's project proposes the development of a new type of "horizontal" skyscraper. It responds to the high density of traditional skyscrapers by creating a layered structure over the ground penetrated by skylights. See more on Open Buildings. Image: eVolo.us
In the words of the architects, The Daejeon Urban Renaissance Area is an inhabitable urban park with multi-layering of green open spaces and city dwellings. The vision brings together nature and urbanity. The multi-layered green sky gardens provide a quick hop between skyscrapers, while defining new public territories of the city through the reinterpretation of the traditional city square. See more on Open Buildings. Image: CJ Lim Studio 8 Architects
A fun end to the Future Cities slideshow, Raumlabor's original installation Stick On City was featured at the 11. Biennale of Architcture in Venice. In the words of the architects, Stick on city is a responsive drawing, made to be permanently renewed. It is a 12mx2,5m training ground for utopians. Built and unbuilt iconic architectural designs assembled in an imaginary landscape. Visitors can take a tour, then add their own vision by drawing in and simply sticking it into the city! See more on Open Buildings. Image: Raumlabor
One of the most remarkable players on the conceptual scene was the British group Archigram. During the 60s and 70s they produced series of futuristic urban proposals: Walking City, Computer City, Plug City, Instant City, to name a few. Guy Debord's seminal work The Society of Spectacle came out in 1967 and Archigram embraced the world he saw coming, celebrating expendability and transience: aspects of human life were more or less seen as a product which was the choice of the user and was replaceable at a blink. The world becomes a playground, a smart machine for entertainment, consumerism and modern nomads, enabled by portable technologies, where humans do not simply accept their ephemerality, but actually enjoy it. Big time.
However, others saw the underlying danger of what they considered to be lack of ethical vision in architecture. The reinforced notion of everything being transient and replaceable would ultimately destroy all values. Superstudio's Continuous Monument is more of a provocation than a future model proposal: a soulless gridded structure expanding over the entire world. In an article for the Guardian , John Glancey writes:
The point was exaggerated but well made: Superstudio were commenting on the way globalization was swamping the world. Given the way the world was developing, we might as well all live in one anonymous megastructure, with local cultures stripped away.
I chose to elaborate on those examples firstly because they represent two crucial and mostly contradictory directions of visionary architecture: Archigram embraces the future, taking their visions as far as they can go. Their ethics is one of playful and progressive optimism in a transforming world and eagerness to see what's next.
Superstudio's work on the other hand is critical in a very human way: it is a provocation and a warning at the same time. It uses the abstract language of architecture to say: "This is next. Like it?"
Secondly, the strongest impetus for exploring future alternatives appears in times of trouble and change. In an article for Architectural Record, James Murdock ("Drawing, Thinking, and Digitizing: Recession's Modus Operandi," December 2009, 37-38) makes a parallel between the current economic downturn and the one in the seventies when many of the most progressive architectural practices turned towards theory, vision and speculation. He asks: "Will we see a new generation of "paper architects" -- the archetypal figure from the last recession?" And what would their visions look like?
Most likely, we won't celebrate the New Year'sEve of 2026 flying around skyscrapers. However, today's world has turned out even more problematic and complex than Guy Debord could have thought, and the expansion of virtual space over more and more components of human life makes it probably the most accurate analogy of the Continuous Monument. A similar duality in architectural vision is taking shape: one that celebrates the world of tomorrow and another one which remains critical of its problematic. I've selected ten projects which show that the choice among both is not obvious and that the scope of its ideas goes far beyond architecture itself.
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