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Beyond speculative architecture

Beyond No.1: Scenarios and Speculations is a ‘bookzine’ edited by Pedro Gadanho and published by SUN. It is an unusual publication mostly full of stories written by architects, with a few photoshops and essays thrown in.

The idea seems to be that architecture’s tradition of speculation has been neglected recently in the face of ‘reality’ (too many commissions, no new Eisenman). The real-estate bubbles of the last ten years favoured physical architecture over the paper kind: theory and idealism were diluted by a money flood, and so on. Beyond is well-timed, it anticipates a return to paper as the utopias emerge from the waters of a global inundation of debt.

It is clever to use fiction and not depiction as a tool. Certainly architects are more used to drawing and now Photoshopping possible futures, so forcing them to think verbally should be a good exercise. The results aren’t always pleasant to read but I think that’s a little bit the point.

The flood/recession model is similar to that of the avant-garde, and Architectural history seen in this way conceives of progress as the lurches between crises and the theoretical work they engender. The next wave of building cannibalizes the best theory of the dry years and we stagger forward between dreams and disappointment. This is heroic stuff, managable because architects remain the only public figures who are permitted to imagine themselves as heroes.

Sci-fi behemoth Bruce Sterling’s piece “White Fungus” is the first story in the book and it wholeheartedly takes up a macho, heroic flag, something like McCarthy’s The Road if Cormac had a sense of humor and the main character was an architect. In Sterling’s story, a nameless recent graduate is drawn back to the “edge-city” where he was born to take up the mantle of “regional architect”, a cleverly inverted pejorative that tells us who will really save the world. There he tells the story of the “formative times, my heroic times” when “the new architectural order” emerged from his solitary virility (he produces two sons in thirteen pages.)

He needs to solve local problems because they are his family’s problems too. But the “locals” are only a source of frustration and sweat equity. “Naturally, no one in White Fungus wanted this logical solution”, he sighs, heavy with the responsibility. The solution is paternalism, “to make the defeat of our hunger look like fun”, though his “coldly logical scheme” is “keenly resented” until “other parents grasped this reality.” He has the fortitude to press on. He has no partners and no equals. His wife abandons him with a child because “unfortunately, my brilliant theoretical framing could not assuage her primal fears.”

The first female character is a caricature of emotional instability and the second, Lillian, is an embodiment of practical indifference. Lillian is not really human, she is “White Fungus in its mushroom flesh”; an “uncanny female creature” he compares to a stray cat before she leaves his second son in a basket with a note, “my work here is done.”

Then Sterling tell us that Lillian “was the worst lover I ever had.”

“White Fungus” only has merit as a short story because it is being framed by Beyond. Sterling’s work is now architectural thinking, all the stories are. They represent the speculations of a dozen architects. As architectural thinking, “White Fungus” is more troublesome than just bad writing, it is a compass marking of a particular imagination. One that pretends to be anti-hierarchical and rebellious, in the post-modern sense of its active ignorance of the state, but contains the DNA for a new state, a competent one this time, but built as before. It would be ruled by “the resident intellectual”, the architect.

This combination of radical posture and reactionary reality is dangerous and a bit boring. The future described by Sterling is based on the crumbling post-oil cliché invented by an economist, and Great and Necessary Ideas are still generated by architects. I was disappointed that the other stories in this volume didn’t go much further. Why didn’t anybody speculate that starving architects will wander the wastes in bewilderment?

I think the difficulty in identifying new foundations might be a problem inherent to the avant-garde model and speculation around crises in general, an issue of contrast. Crisis is a distraction, an increase in noise that reduces the spectrum of our vision and makes it more difficult to identify subtle problems and generate subtle proposals; the catch being that originality tends to come from simple concepts, and not those that require explanation or training. I would like to read a story where nothing economically disastrous happens at all, but humanity rejects architects anyway and a few million have to organize themselves to convince the planet of their usefulness.

Otherwise it seems we are stuck in the pattern described by Beyond: too busy building to care much about the direction of the discipline or describing futures that have nothing to do with real problems. The mode we are in depends on whether or not there is a crisis, and at the end of 2009 we seemed poised for a period of exciting and empty speculation.

Breaking out might be possible, though it requires introspective ability and courage rarely exhibited by the architects we idealize. It requires us to ignore the temporary crisis and take time to consider the practices that remained essentially continuous from the last one. These are the attitudes, the methods, and the tools that shape architecture in subtle and important ways, and it is these practices that need reassessment if architects want to remain socially significant.

Architects need to stop trying to be heroes if they want to be good people.