The book Future City: Experiment and Utopia in Architecture 1956-2006 accompanied an exhibition of the same name at the Barbican in London which took place in 2006:
“What would it be like to live in a hairy house, a floating city, or an inflatable pod? Pure fantasy or the shape of things to come? From extraordinary houses and incredible towers, to fantasy cityscapes and inhabitable sculptures, Future City showcases the most radical and experimental architecture to have emerged in the past 50 years.” (Quoted from text which accompanied the book and exhibition.)
Some of the most intriguing images in the book are from the 1960s and contain an exploratory sense of a space age future and viewed now can be seen as “the shape of the future’s past” or a form of what, if used for design today, would be likely to be called retro futurism.
They could be considered part of a cultural trend which envisioned the possibility that in the future much of the population would be living in the above mentioned futuristic pods or floating cities, probably while wearing plastic and/ or silver foil clothing and travelling to work by jetpack (!), that high-rise blocks of apartments would be designed in unusual and experimental ways and so on. (Aspects of which can be seen in the image above in the book of The House of the Future, which was featured in the Ideal Home Exhibition that took place in London in 1956.)
(As an aside I suppose people today do often wear clothing made from variations of plastic, as thermal fleece material is often made from recycled plastic and a percentage of the population do live in high-rise housing. However both generally are much more prosaic than the experimental, at times flamboyant and often possibly impractical or uncomfortable looking clothing and housing that featured in that once imagined space age future which is showcased in Future City.)
The projects in the book often seem to be nearer to art projects or, as the book’s subtitle suggests, experimental design projects, perhaps from which some elements would become part of or influence future real world design. Alongside which as the book’s subtitle also suggests a number of the projects are utopian in character, i.e. they represent an imagined possible perfect future.
The experimental and art project-like nature of the design in the book brings to mind a passage in A Year In The Country: Straying From The Pathways where I wrote about Peter Chadwick’s book This Brutal World in which he photographed Brutalist architecture from around the world and some related topics:
“The variety and experimentation of much of the architecture in [Peter Chadwick’s This Brutal World] indicates the degree to which the use of concrete as a building material allows for freedom and expression in terms of architectural shape and form. It could be compared to the use of rubber as a fabric with which to make clothes; there have been a number of fantastical outfits created using rubber but while they may be structurally explorative and very striking as extreme club and fashion wear and/or as futuristic outlandish costume in film and television, for day-to-day use it is more than a little impractical. Along which lines I once visited an undergraduate degree show and viewed the scale models for buildings designed by architecture students. A number of them were so intricate, experimental and avant-garde in design that they could only be viably created via contemporary digital 3D printing techniques – something which is analogous to the malleability of concrete as a building material. The designs for buildings were often intriguing and beautiful but as with the images in This Brutal World they often appeared closer to abstract art projects than places to live and work. Connected to which, while the structures pictured in This Brutal World may indeed have been perfectly practical in real world terms, the non-conventional and at times almost science fiction-like aspects of their design sometimes imparts a similar sense of seeming nearer to projects that have allowed for the creative expression of their architects rather than having day-to-day human needs in mind.”
UN Studio’s Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos’ The Ziggurat design from 2006 is decidedly utopian in intention and accompanying text describes it as a place which is intended to create a balance between culture and commerce and that it is intended a Mediatheque which stores and preserves information of all types, alongside which it would form part of a network of community “centers dedicated to learning and culture” and provide a “playground” safe haven for its participants.
The design is striking in a number of ways, not least its attempt to bring nature, plant life and green open public spaces to urban and high-rise locations.
Although possibly not the designers’ intention, the mention in the accompanying text that the building would act as a “safe haven” implies that the future which The Ziggurat would be part of is in some way dysfunctional, dystopic or threatening.
The Ziggurat could be considered to represent a version of the aforementioned “shape of the future’s past” in its centralised institutional physical storing of information etc and it being a location which people must physically visit to access that information; a science fiction-esque trope which still frequently appears in future based films and television.
In the contemporary world there are still physical stores of information and culture in libraries and museums etc which people must visit to access but in terms of amount of usage and ease of access, information storage and access is today largely decentralised. It still must be physically stored somewhere – often in digital server farms – but these are generally anonymous places and not places which the general public visit and the information stored in them is normally accessed remotely via the internet.
The text which accompanies The Ziggurat and its description or hope that it would be “a place for meeting and exchange” could be considered prescient in terms of contemporary concerns about the potentially isolating effects of technology and the internet, where people are digitally connected and interact with others but there is debate around whether those connections have real substance and if concentrating on digital connections may in fact be a cause of social isolation.
The image above left of Arthur Quarmby’s design for a tower block and its organic shapes notably contrast with much of real world high-rise structures, which are often more likely to feature straight lines and be considerably less intricate.
(Quarmby’s design also wouldn’t look out-of-place in the vast high-rise Mega City One future city that featured in the Judge Dredd stories in 1980s issues of comic anthology 2000 AD.)
And while on the subject of comic book stories, Walter Pichler’s Compact City design above and it’s not so much transparent dome but rather bottle or jar-like enclosure is reminiscent of the shrunken and bottled city of Kandor from the Superman comics.
Peter Cook and Ron Herron’s design for an instant floating city which would attach itself to a more conventional ground city seems almost Victorian or possibly steampunk-esque in its design.
Although more officially sanctioned seeming it brings to mind science fiction author William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy of books, in which the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge that has been abandoned becomes a shantytown where its inhabitants have improvised and strapped their homes on top of one another, to the bridge’s towers and so on.
David Greene’s design and model for a Living Pod also very much connects with science fiction, seeming closer to a concept model for a science fiction film than something intended for real world use.
Occasionally futuristic and science fiction-esque visions do appear in the real world; above is the design for the Selfridges department store in Birmingham’s city centre. In amongst the more traditional architecture which surrounds the building it looks not so much to have been built but rather to be some alien Quatermass-esque structure which has descended on the city.
- The Future City: Experiment and Utopia in Architecture 1956-2006 exhibition at the Barbican’s site
- The Future City: Experiment and Utopia in Architecture 1956-2006 book
Elsewhere at A Year In The Country:
- Reflections on Brutalism Part 1 – This Brutal World and a Study of The Shape of the Future’s Past
- Reflections on Brutalism Part 4 – A Return to the Experimentations and Aesthetics of This Brutal World and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology