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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NelsonC said on 9 Thursday 2011 am30 11:26 am:
Oh jeez. What is with the future h8ing? It's one of the few things some folks on the left and right have in common, the belief that the civilization is always on the verge of collapsing. On either side, the collapse happens for entirely different reasons, but neither seem to believe we'll last another hundred years. And I just don't get it. I mean, we're humans. Sure we screw up, and we usually only respond to problems at the last possible minute, but we're also pretty freakin awesome. 10,000 BC - The Ice Age? Our ancestors pwned it. 1300's - The Black Death? Nice try bacteria. But no. 1600's - The Great Plague? Apparently not great enough. We're still standing, mutha?!*#er. 1800's - Dudes. I think we can use boiling water to propel a boat. No, I'm not high. 1900's - Hey, see that moon up there? Let's go to it. With science! We can be pretty impressive when we try. Are we gonna have problems in the future? Oh hell yes. We'll always have problems. We'll have big future problems that would blow our tiny 21st century minds if we could wrap our heads around them (any better than a Victorian era fop could comprehend the problem of landfills covered in discarded cell phones). But I'm optimistic. Why? Because why not? The future ain't gonna be made better by glumly predicting it will be nothing but a smoldering pit. It will be made better by those Jetson-lovin freaks in
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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