Neo-Futurism

I never knew Neo-Fururism had been a thing since 2007 so I had some catching up to do. [c.f. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-futurism] I did know that Futurism V1.0 had been an early 20th century artistic movement that wanted to do away with everything old and create only things that were new. The original Futurists were particularly fascinated by machines, especially those that moved forward. Here’s Gino Severini’s 1915 painting Armoured Train. It’s no chocolate box, but I like it.

Never too removed from dodgy politics, The Futurists saw war as a cleansing thing but, times being the times, this may have been opportunistic sensationalism suiting the tenor of their manifesto that admittedly was also a product of its times. All the same, some fine painting was produced in its name. I have a soft spot for “Lunar Prisms” by Fortunato Depero in 1932. [c.f. Architecture Misfits #5: The Futurists]

Futurism’s lasting contribution to 20th century architecture was the idea of making a complete break from the past, of beginning afresh and producing new things that would be better simply because they were new. It was a powerful idea in the aftermath of WWI but to treat this idea now as some outdated artistic notion is to either deny or wilfully forget how it continues to colour our attitudes towards most everything.

This is no ordinary artistic concept but the defining concept of the past century.

  • The notion that newer is better drives all consumer production as well as all advertising that is its extension
  • It drives the subset of artistic production as well as the publicity that is its extension.
  • It pervades the information economy not just in terms of newer research being somehow of more value, but in newer news being superior to news for which any time has passed since its generation or its receipt.
  • Social media prove that being newest is sufficient for any event or information to be newsworthy. The newest is at the top and we’ve come to accept this. It’s called a News-Feed.

Futurism refuses to die because, no matter what the era, there will never be anything newer than something that appears to have just dropped out of the future and into the present. Buildings can’t compete with something as ephemeral, fleeting, and pervasive as information. They’re old long before they’re completed [Point: This is why visualisations have more news value than completions or openings]. We’ve come to prefer the unbuilt promise to any built reality that, at best can only represent a dated image of the future. [c.f. The Venus Project]

The idea of new being better is embedded in the name Modern-ism when it refers to a style but is absent from the contemporaneous Functionalism when it (correctly) refers to an approach to building. Modernism and Functionalism exist in different dimensions and this is why functional buildings aren’t necessarily modern and modern ones not necessarily functional.

Douglas Haskell would have said Neo-Futurism really began in the 1950s back when atomic energy was regarded as a good thing, when the words “automatic” or “electric” were terms of highest praise, and when automation was going to make everything better [c.f.  Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell].

It was also the era in which imminent threat of atomic war was articulated and alleviated and heightened at the same time by horror sci-fi movies objectifying anything external as “the other” and as something to be feared.

Harking back to the Arts & Crafts distrust of industrialization and machines, even technology was presented as something to be feared. Evil robots from outer space were added to the objectification template.

Futuristic buildings known as Googie were invented to reassure people there would not only still be a future but that it would be fabulous. Stylistically, Futurism V2.0 did this by smoothing over the messy realities of materials and construction that were tell-tale signs of being stuck in the present. Haskell noted that Googie buildings were concentrated along roadsides and boldly designed to have unconventional geometries and colours to attract the limited and fleeting attention of people speeding by. Hmm.

Googie was an early example of the commercial possibilities of eye-catching buildings being created not by architects for the conventional reasons of corporate prestige, but by designers more attuned to popular culture for businesses more attuned to its purchasing power. Googie was the original Look-at-me! architecture and the concept was soon appropriated by approved architecture and its history writers.

The 1958 building now known as the LAX Theme Building was still on the popular side of the divide between popular Googie and Architecture, but Eero Saarinen’s 1960 TWA Building was on the other even though it is pure Googie in signifying the future by being swooshy, by not having anything that could be seen as a structure with any kind of precedent, and by showing no evidence of the materials, construction or labour that went into its making. White in colour because materiality was a thing of the past, these two airport buildings identified themselves as serious architecture by referring back to Post-Futurist Modernist precedents. It’s not as complicated as it sounds.

Disney’s 1957 House of Tomorrow was a popular Disneyland attraction yet Peter and Alison Smithson’s contemporaneous and equally plastic House of Tomorrow did exactly the same thing but the latter has always been regarded as having architectural importance. I’ve never understood why.

It’s all history now, but everyone was happy with their futurisms until the newer new idea of learning from the past came along. Post-modernism was never billed as a return to pre-Modernism. It was billed as moving on from (i.e. rejecting) what went immediately before. Anything that rejects the immediate past and claims to fix what was seen as its failings is a futurism even if disguised as a new past. In terms of how we were expected to engage with it, Post Modernism was just another modernism – V3.0 by my reckoning.

Futurism V3.0 came along at more or less the same time Post Modernism V1.0 was at last consigned to the past. We’ve since suffered far shakier stylistic notions than Neo Futurism so we should at least try to pin down how this new one is different from the old one, the mid-century Futurism V2.0 Revival, late 20th century Mannerist Modernism, and early 21st century Structural Baroque. If the selection of buildings below is anything to go by, not much. All but one follow the usual rules of being white, having complex geometries and being more than a little swooshy.

One World Trade Center is the odd one out by not having curves, implied curves or implied motion. It presumably made the list for articulating the idea the future will be better but it does so with a gesture of resolve rather than a gesture of optimism, and does so using mass and size rather than the preferred Neo-Futurist attributes of colour and shape.

Of the twenty-six buildings, three are airports, two are office buildings and fifteen or so supposedly relate to arts and culture. Housing is represented by one mixed-use building. Our new future for sustainable low-cost rental housing doesn’t look great.

Floors 2-12 of Twisting Torso have 4,200m² of office space above which are 147 rental apartments of floor areas of 45–190m². Covering those areas of floor with a mixture of polished limestone (entrances), oak (elsewhere) and heated granite (bathrooms) redefines the notion of “sustainable tower” for the future.

For obvious reasons, Zaha Hadid buildings now represent a past representation of the future and nothing dates more quickly than one of those.

Without Zaha Hadid on the Neo Futurist stage, guys Santiago Calatrava and Norman Foster are reverting to type as our main neo-futurists, Calatrava with his Dubai Creek Observation Tower and Norman Foster with Tulip Tower – a building with three ferris wheels embedded in its façades.

Calatrava and Foster may beg to differ but we’re definitely looking at a style here and one that seems one peculiar to early twenty-first century neoliberalism. If we’ve never been allowed to escape Futurism then it follows that we’re not wanted to. Sure it’s okay to embrace the past but never for its own sake. It always has to be reinvented, reinterpreted or reimagined for our times. Whether fashion, food, or cocktails, anything “classic” (i.e. in need of updating) has to be given a modern twist. We’re constantly being primed to anticipate what the next new thing might be. It’s as if looking forward to the future is more important than how we live in the present and this of course is why futurisms exist. They are easy diversions for troubled times.

I ended last week’s post with the sentence “most highly evolved are the starchitects keen to deliver the architecture wanted by the economic system that rewards them, while dutifully avoiding addressing any problems created by that economic system.” It’s difficult to see the problem for which the above two buildings are the solution. This is because we’re looking for the wrong kind of problem. Whether it’s the size of Calatrava’s Shaft or the sensation of Foster’s Tickler, our future architecture seems devoid of any function other than pleasuring those willing and able to pay for the experience. I can’t imagine those who don’t or can’t pay feeling any kind of national or civic pride, or any joy in the future of architecture. Perhaps their real purpose of these structures is not to generate hope for the future but, in the guise of doing so, to destroy all expectation of an architecture that is relevant to anything? From observation it seems like a reasonable conclusion.

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1 thought on “Neo-Futurism

  1. Patrick Webb

    I’ve especially enjoyed your last two essays Graham!
    This reminds me of the Back to the Future series, the first one had all the novel excitement that comes with a new concept, the second a disappointment, by the third go round definitely faced with a tired old idea we’re not interested to ever see again.

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