Our Fascinations with the Future: How Architecture can learn from Science Fiction

Last week I broached the topic of the field of architecture's current fascination with the internet, Web 2.0, and virtual, networked space. Studio Wikitecture's interface project in Second Life is a yet another project among many that attempts to fuse the physical space of architecture with virtual space. The book Space, Time, Play comments on the similarities that architecture and urbanism share with video gaming. Kas Oosterhuis and ONL's hyperarchitecture conceives of architecture as a portal into virtual space. Asymptote has proposed a virtual Guggenheim museum as well as a virtual New York Stock Exchange.

As architecture journeys into the unknown, experimentation and imagination is vital. Progress often results from trials, errors, revisions, and often unrealized projects that serve simply as examples. Traditionally, architectural competitions are the outlets that allow for experimentation and projection into the future, but they are only beginning to suffice.

Looking further into current and recent architectural competitions, I have come to notice a parallel between architectural competitions and Science Fiction, which has begun to lead architectural competitions in the right direction. For example, the City of the Future design competition, which is currently in the selection process, is much less concerned with present or near future issues and speculates into the more distant future. Initiated by The History Channel, the competition challenges designers from across the country to project and propose what the city they live in might look like in 100 years. Two weeks ago, IwamotoScott Architecture won the San Francisco region of the competition with their proposal for a Hydro-Net (above), described as an inhabitable, infrastructural network that facilitates the traffic and flows of power, water, fuel, and residents for the entire San Francisco Bay Area. The proposals for these future cities are rendered in the same fantastical and imaginative nature as the imagery in science fiction works, such as the depiction of Washington D.C. in 2054 (below) in the film Minority Report.

Science Fiction and architecture have much more in common than fantastical imagery however, and I believe that each respective field would benefit by incorporating aspects of the other into its own field. Specifically, I believe that architecture could learn from Science Fiction works' abilities to reach a broad audience and consider all aspects of society in its projections as well as its always fantastical and imaginative mindset.

To find out what others feel, I have commented on two architectural blogs that have recently touched on architectural experimentation; relaying my own opinions and asking questions in hopes to start a dialogue. I responded to a recent post from the City of Sound blog, in which Dan Hill comments on the organization, success, and creativity behind Archigram, a group of thinkers formed in the 1960's who produced a publication and later formed an architecture firm. Despite not having produced any physically built work, Archigram is widely respected as having revolutionary, ahead-of-its-time ideas and a vast influence in architecture and design. I also commented on recent entry from BldgBlog that reports an idea and proposal for an underground "labyrinth city" composed of spaces for sports, leisure, shopping, and parking in Amsterdam. The design envisions this mixed-use network to be built underground, beneath Amsterdam's many canals. My comments are posted below as well.

On the "Archigram-what-organization-you-must-be-joking-mate"

I agree that the dynamic and fluctuating organization of Archigram had a lot to do with the group's success. The individuals of Archigram were able put their minds together and conceive of revolutionary ideas that still hold great influence today because of the informal, disorganized, free-spirited and spontaneous nature of the group. These characteristics maintained interest and allotted for group chemistry, allowing the group to last as long as it did. I would like to add though, that while the organization and character of the organization allowed the group to maintain its brilliance, it was still the consummate brilliance behind the individuals as a whole that resulted in the group's unmatched success, even to this day. The key to Archigram's success was their ability to fantasize and imagine, something that is too often overshadowed by building and construction- and the economic business and benefits that comes with it.

In addition to following the example of the organization (or disorganization) of Archigram, I think that creative groups today should also, and perhaps more importantly, follow the visionary way in which Archigram thought and imagined. At its core, Archigram was a group devoted simply to ideas, concepts, and narratives- and nothing more. Do you think that Archigram can perhaps be classified more as a group conceptualizing in the field of Science Fiction because of these ideals? After all, while architecture and building was a core theme of their work, the group initially and most famously dedicated itself to its written publications, not buildings.

However you or anyone decides to categorize Archigram, I think that creative groups today, especially those in architecture, should begin to follow the way that Archigram and Science Fiction authors think. By definition, thinking freely and truly imagining in a fictional, unrestrained context would only further creativity in projects. Conceiving of projects as societal fictions rather than buildings or architectural projects would also force architects to think more comprehensively. Instead of conceiving of and designing only buildings, architects could then begin to apply their often unmatched brilliance towards all societal issues in the form of fictional suggestions and proposals.

Amsterdam Subcity

Thank you for sharing this project, without the convenience of the internet, I probably would never have discovered it. Whether or not it actually gets built, I think it is very innovative and inspiring. The concepts of this proposal are absolutely worthy of great contribution toward larger running forums in society concerning urbanism and utopias. While this project is easily discussed among the architecture industry, projects of this scope and social relevance should be accessible to debate amongst the greater common society.

One thing that is rather disappointing however, is how low-key and unpublicized this project seems to be. While the internet certainly helps to communicate and network information at exponential rates, projects like these do not reach a broad enough audience with ease by means of the internet and blogosphere alone. In fact, I only found this project through proactive searching and browsing. The fact that I do not live within nor near the immediate physical region of the project site nor architect, and that the architect is not of popular international recognition further limits the project's range and spectrum of influence

Architectural groups, think tanks, and firms could reach a broader audiences and gain more exposure by realizing their ideas in media that is mass produced and widely accessible in the way that popular science fictions works, such as the Matrix, Minority Report, and I, Robot, among others do. These Science Fictions are able to reach vast, international audiences, and after all, they present conceptions of the future in the same way that architectural proposals do. In fact, architectural proposals of cities are often developed in further detail than Science Fictions, which must often sacrifice detailed development of technology and architecture to concentrate on plot and narrative. While the majority of architecture is discussed only within the industry's own circles, the conception of architectural projects as a Science Fiction could project ideas into mainstream society and encourage dialogue.


The Convergence of Web 2.0 and Architecture: How far can we push it?

Websites and web communities such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook and Ebay (among many others) are currently revolutionizing information networking on the internet by allowing its users to produce, share, and manipulate content. Through this participation, users are essentially building and developing the websites and web communities themselves, rendering the actual websites as a mere framework that is expanded upon. Practices like this are archetypal in the current movement in web design and development and are often referred to as Web 2.0, or an improved, more participatory version of the initial World Wide Web.

Last month, Studio Wikitecture, an architecture and urban planning firm, gave a lecture at the annual forum of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) about the studio's aims to apply the decentralized and open-source concepts behind Web 2.0 to the fields of architecture and urban planning. The studio has been using Second Life as a platform for its projects. Inspired by concepts of alternate, digitally connected worlds, such as the matrix in the popularized Matrix Series and the metaverse in Neal Stephenson's Science Fiction cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, Second Life is a public, internet-based software application which is essentially a 3-D, virtual world. For Studio Wikitecture, the use of this program has allowed the studio mass communication and collaboration from audiences worldwide throughout the design process. In their current project, in which they are designing a health clinic in western Nepal, the studio asserts that anyone in the world can help them and participate in the design by means of the internet. By registering and logging in for free on Second Life or by visiting the studio's website, anyone can submit their own design iterations as well as comment and critique on the current status of the project.

Although Studio Wikitecture employs contemporary cutting edge technology that enables for such efficiency, convenience, and outreach, the core manifesto of their studio is very similar to that of preceding, less complex participatory design programs, such as BaSiC Initiative and Rural Studio. Founded in 1995 and 1993 respectively, these programs preceded the likes of Wikipedia and Studio Wikitecture in involving users more in the design and construction of its projects. Both programs stationed themselves in the communities that they were building in, facilitating everyday, hands-on collaboration and dialogue with the actual people that would be using the buildings they designed. Even so, these programs were not even themselves the first to implement the idea. And while a great debate could be sparked arguing over who came up with the idea first, what is more important is the effectiveness of these programs, and which methods of communication are better.

In their lecture, Studio Wikitecture touches on the classic theme of the contrasting pros and cons of big corporations and small businesses. They note that while big corporations can manage at a vast scale with great resources, their services tend to be uniform and detached from the user. Likewise, small businesses often possess the creativity and intimacy that large corporations lack, yet they do not have the resources to reach and administrate a broad audience. Studio Wikitecture claims that through the lowered costs and increased accessibility of communication that information technologies such as the internet provide, it is possible for the first time in human history to have the aforementioned benefits of both large corporations and small businesses, as in their projects and the Wikitecture interface in Second Life (below). However, I would not be so quick to comply. While there is no doubt that the use of Second Life, which has more than 12 million registered accounts, allows for an unprecedented outsourcing of ideas and input because of the sheer quantity of its users, the quality of that input still does not match that which can be gathered from intimate face-to-face meetings. While programs such as Rural Studio physically immerse themselves in the lives of those that will be using their projects, the Wikitecture interface allows only for digital, disengaged immersion. Furthermore, while Second Life is nearly exactly what it's title proclaims (the avatars that users create are truly Second Life users' second lives), those users are human beings first and avatars in Second Life second. As long as we exist as physical human beings, the value of our physical interactions and human senses will always supersede that of their virtual mediations.

While Studio Wikitecture's explorations take great steps in the trying convergence of virtual worlds with the physical world, the internet is simply a tool for creating and designing architecture in the Wikitecture project. It is a super efficient, super accessible, and experiential suggestion box. What if there was a way to further integrate the internet and architecture. How will this be done? In the way that projects such as Wikipedia and Youtube are constantly evolving in real time on the internet, what if the internet was not only a tool, but the essence of a project's existence. Could such a project have a simultaneously evolving real world counterpart? Furthermore, what the internet itself was the entire extents of a project? Could we still call this architecture and moreover, are we still humans at this point of our existence?
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