The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 1 August 2017

Last Futures

Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture

by Douglas Murphy

In 2015, Google unveiled a dramatic plan for a new headquarters to be built on the peninsula south of San Francisco. The building features a vast undulating translucent structure that drapes across an open landscape. Versatile building floors within could be moved about like large trays, rearranging the interior space as needed for Google's various (and increasingly disruptive) projects. Architects and those interested in the history of architecture quickly identified the historical inspiration for this sort of kinetic architecture. In the 1960s, Archigram, a British group of architects, designers and urban theorists, created a series of fanciful plans for large temporary and kinetic structures, a futuristic vision for the "clip-on" city and the nearly-realized London Fun Palace. Much of what they imagined could be said to have been geared toward the leisure culture of homo ludens, humankind relaxed. In a future, three-day work weeks and the advances in convenience technology would make life a pleasant glide. Of course, Google, as much as it likes to coddle and entertain its staff with play rooms and coffee bars, is still a rigorous work environment. One can hardly imagine working there on a three-day-per-week schedule. The architectural fantasy that they proposed in 2015 is not likely to get built as designed, if at all. At the same time, despite its futuristic qualities, it is a bit of an anachronism and a cultural cooptation. Theirs isn't a futuristic, socialistic vision of a relaxed population. It is more a bit of technological showmanship. A ton of money spent to look like they are realizing an architectural fanatasy of the past.

That is pretty much the story of this book. Beginning with the landmark 1851 London exhibition that featured the massive, technologically advanced (for its day) Crystal Palace, Douglas Murphy takes us on a journey of a century and a half of visionary architecture in plan, practice and theory. We journey through many of the World Exhibitions that occurred on an irregular but frequent pattern throughout the 20th Century, petering out in the 1970s, but not vanishing entirely. (Does anyone remember the 1982 Knoxville world's fair? This year's exhibition is in Astana, Kazakhstan.) These fairs were showplaces for the very latest in technology and architecture, often displaying an urban design imagined for the near or distant future. Famously, Moshe Safdie's Habitat from the 1967 Montreal fair still stands as a landmark of dense urban living. There is a long list of innovative designs and theories about how humans should be living. Usually, there was a profound technological optimism in these exhibitions, which was ultimately diluted by the energy and environmental crises that began to arise in the 1970s. Indeed, many of the more recent exhibitions are more about energy and the environment than about invention and futuristic living. (Murphy may have wanted to explore "Better City - Better Life", the theme for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.) In their day, though, these were instructive eruptions of exuberence and, just as often, hubris.

Murphy discusses some of the social theory that went into this kind of visionary thinking. Cybernetics, media theory, socialism, all make their appearance here, but cybernetics more than most. After all, in the 21st century, we may be living within a cybernetic future, despite Google's lurch back to the megastructures of the 1960s. Megastructures, themselves, many in the UK, make up a large part of the book as well, with various successful (University of East Anglia) and less successful (Cumbernauld Town Center) projects to illustrate the comprehensive urban planning that was trendy in their day and vilified today. These led to much more diluted and poorly maintained housing estates that were ambitious but prevented from reaching their potential by neglect, political shifts, and determined individualism. Murphy wants to excuse their somewhat naive notion of accomplishing a comprehensive urban solution and prediction for the social nature of humankind. These are, in any case, sincere discussions of how we live, how we want to live, and how to break free (maybe) from the staid stylistic traditions of historical architecture and destructive forces of sprawl. Despite stating in the introduction that he is basically anti-utopian, Murphy has some sympathy with visionary thinking. We may not be able to build Utopia, he seems to be saying, but we can dream of an architecture that takes us beyond mere simple shell for living. The whole trend of Post-Modernism that tumbled through the late 1970s and into the 1990s was a disappointing diversion that took architecture away from down-to-earth building of ideas to mere symbolism expressed in cartoonish historical forms. He convincingly argues, though, that PoMo is quite naturally rooted in the Beaux-Arts of a century before. But this seems all distraction now.

We may now be living in a cybernetic future. We don't yet live on space stations, but Elon Musk seems pretty determined to get us to cities on Mars. With our addiction to our screens, our devices, our virtual worlds, social media and an electronic second life, how relevant is the space in which we live? Google is betting that it is relevant, even if only in service of its corporate goals. Big cities are building upward again, with residential towers of no particular style (call it Contempo-Modern), but which, in some ways, serve as residential megastructures serving all the basic needs of a tech-oriented resident speeding in a corporate bus between tower and Google office, Apple space ship, or Gehry's Facebook fantasy. Meanwhile, global climate change continues to grow around us. Our architecture and our environmentally oriented world's fairs have failed to turn any of that around, LEED ratings notwithstanding. We are disappointed in our architecture, whether we know that or not. Glitzy towers are fun to look at and to build. Some argue they relieve the crises of housing in our most popular cities. But what do these structures say about our aspirations to make a better world? What do they say about our grand theories of social evolution? And, do they have to say anything at all? Fans of Archigram are excited about Google's new headquarters, should it get built. But we know damn well its meaning has been turned on its head, or is absent entirely. Foster's Apple space ship is no better, itself, than a retrograde suburban corporate campus. It may matter not. We move now, from one place to another, our social environment never any farther away than the smart phone in our pocket. Global warming, it seems, will be left to the engineers of ever finer air conditioning systems.

At any rate, Murphy's book is a sensitive and enjoyable journey through these questions of design and meaning, full of notable characters and visionaries, from Sant'Elia to Stewart Brand, from Mies to Gehry. It is unclear where we end up, but we do seem to be on the cusp of returning from the PoMo drift of the past couple of decades, to seek again some meaning and intent in our architecture. Recommended reading.

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See Also: [Delamotte's Crystal Palace, by Ian Leith]
[Megastructure, by Reyner Banham]
[Droppers, by Mark Matthews]
[The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs]

[Other Urban Studies and Architecture]