Something In The Air

If Modernism had to be prefixed with the word Post in order to finally kill off the idea of something being perpetually Of The Moment no matter when it was built, then perhaps we could cut a bit closer to the roots and use the term Post Futurism to kill off the idea that The Future will always be better? Just take a quick look at Now – as opposed to what once Was Now – and you’ll see little to suggest that Not (Yet) Now will be an improvement for all its driverless cars and 3D-printed houses. I’m all for incremental improvements to something that already exists but I think we should probe extraordinary visions of the future a bit more thoroughly than we do. Post Futurism denotes a state of mind where working towards a better future means focussing on the realities of the present. Sadly, we’re nowhere near. Whether it’s the improbable cantilevers of Isozaki’s 1962 Clusters in the Air or the improbable cantilevers of Archigram’s 1964 Plug-In City,

whether it’s the blue-sky pretensions of Monsanto’s [ ! ] 1957 House of the Future or the noir pretensions of Frederick Kiesler’s 1950 Endless House,

the extreme performance of materials in tension in Buckminster Fuller’s 1944 Dymaxion House or the extreme performance of materials in tension in MIT’s 2000 Carbon Prototype,

or the soft-focus utopias of Jacque Fresco or the hard-edged dystopias of Lebbeus Woods, we’re still not over the future, and continue to applaud those with visions for it.

All the above visions were predicated on people no longer having to work because machines would make whatever needed making, thus freeing up humans for leisure or even for cultural production if they were that way inclined. None of these futures turned out to be. Instead, leisure became work and humans became machines. And who builds all these new cities anyway? It’s not that the building industry doesn’t appreciate economies of scale and the virtues of prefabrication, it’s just that as long as humans are cheaper at using manual labour, wet processes and multiple trades to produce buildings, there’s no incentive for the construction industry to invest in mechanical production. Keeping those costs down means that construction workers in a deregulated construction industry have no more labour rights than machines. The fear one and a half centuries ago was that machines would dehumanise us. On the whole I’d say they have but, apart from art production and craft production, probably no more than the systems they replaced.

We’re probably drifting towards Post Futurism anyway as, with the notable exception of Vincent Callebut, our image makers can’t muster levels of blind faith equalling those of the 1960s that were the heyday of the future.

One of those 1960s futures that keeps getting fed back to us intermittently is New Babylon. This particular future began in an Amsterdam museum at 8:15PM on the 20th of December, 1960 when an artist, Constant Nieuwenhuys, presented his critique of the modern city along with his alternative proposal called New Babylon, a name that chimes with multiple connotations that still hold today.

In the one presentation one evening of about 100 drawings, images and some accompanying words, New Babylon was constructed in people’s minds. In one of the lead-in articles to AD’s New Babylonians, from June 2000, here’s what Mark Wigley said about some of those words.

Let’s have a look. New Babylon is sited up in the air, the traditional place for amorphous stuff that floats around and reorganises itself into various shapes that, on a good day, may or may not remind us of other things. All the physically boring bits such as transportation are on the ground where it doesn’t get in the way while the conceptually inconvenient bits like factories and (presumably) food production are underground where it (and whoever is responsible for it) can be forgotten about. Separating industry and agricultural production from the centres of cultural production is something this new proposal shares with more picturesque utopias of the past. This out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality is nothing new.

Not for New Babylonians the oppressive rigidity and lowered expectations of Superstudio’s 1971 Megaton City, Archizoom’s 1971 No Stop City or, for that matter, yours truly’s 2017 Negative Space City or Plāce-Mat City. New Babylon is different in that there is no infinite repetition of a single unit resolved for ventilation and light but it is the same in solving access for whatever activities are valued by that particular system. It’s on the urban carpet side of the scale. [c.f. Urban Carpet vs. Mat City]

The disposition of the superstructure of New Babylon‘s various sectors appears ad-hoc and unconstrained by any overriding aesthetic or expression of logic or function. We never find out why it has to be in the air.

It’s possibly a throwback to the idea of a flying city that has been around since oh 1927.

The overriding conceit of New Babylon is that buildings are where they are wanted to be but the implication is that some new user-generated force is making them do that. This is more of a new spin on an existing idea rather than any new idea in itself. Archigram’s Ron Herron was to later walk with the idea of inhabitants (“in “theory””) influencing the position and alignment of city-sized units.

Entire moving cities never caught on funny that but Herron’s 1964 Walking City proposal continues to bewitch later generations as long as it’s presented as a colour photorealistic image at 300dpi min.

New Babylon may have been going nowhere but the sector components still promised the ability to reconfigure one’s social space. “Inhabitants are given [Given? GIVEN?!] access to powerful, ambience-creating resources to construct their own spaces whenever and wherever they desire.” In pre-post-Modern 1960, construct must surely be construed as “construct” and that, spatially, we’re talking about those things called rooms. As long as that was to be the case, architectural culture was unthreatened by notions of flexibility and adaptability. Buildings couldn’t move but partitions could and moving them around was big in the 1960s even though their value as representations of freedom was greater than any actual freedom derived from pushing them around. This next is Richard & Su Rogers’ 1967 Zip-up House. It provided occupants the freedom to fold and unfold as many doors as they like within a factory-made enclosing shell supported on many slender columns that could benefit from some cross bracing.

The main takeaway from New Babylon was the idea that things such as functions and activities and spaces no longer needed fixed boundaries. Despite having some very detailed graphics and models, the original proposal was short on concrete ways this would be achieved.

As an idea however, New Babylon keeps getting dug up and the 2000 AD book New Babylonians was an attempt to give it a new life by bringing together architects whose recent work may or (as neo-Situationists were prone to saying) may not have been influenced by New Babylon. One example was Adrian Gauze and West 8’s 1998 Schouwburgplein (park) in central Rotterdam. Rather than define areas for specific activities or just for the sake of it, spaces that might (or might not) suggest certain activities were created for things to happen. Boundaries were defined but they could be ignored. Moveable lighting units added to the fun. It seems to work as intended and indeed, as any open space outside a theatre in a middle of a prosperous European city might be expected to.

I seem to remember OMA winning some competition around the same time with a proposal that didn’t proscribe a set future but created spaces in which unspecified things could happen. This may be a false memory and I may be falsely accusing OMA. I only make the association because it makes a sort of sense and sounds clever. It’s also convenient because when architects say they make spaces in which unspecified things can happen, they can’t later be accused of making decisions that turned out to have been the wrong ones. Overdetermining spatial use as per radical functionalism was criticised for no less than a century for architects assuming too much responsibility but might not the underdetermination of spatial use be justification for architects not assuming enough responsibility?

Zoo Architects’ 1999 Fruit Street Millennium Space in Possilpark, Glasgow was an “unusual” and “challenging” park/playground designed to appeal to “dangerous kids” in an area with a reputation for trouble. But were “intentional contrasts and tensions challenging the ideas of traditional play spaces” really the way to go? This intriguing piece of text is from a 2001 that is beginning to seem a long time ago. Thankfully.

It’s not unfair to say now that it didn’t work for, in May 2018 the park had been mostly deconfigured, most likely as part of a 2016 refurbishment program.

If designing for the non-specific activities that take place in public parks anyway is a hit-or-miss affair, then what does New Babylonianism have to offer other types of space where the activities are defined but their boundaries not? Shared space is a useful and successful invention (or perhaps more accurately, a reinvention) but I don’t think it’s what Constant Nieuwenhuys had in mind. As a new type of ordinary that works, shared space is not the type of idea artists and architects typically want to be seen coming up with. The attractiveness of New Babylon as an idea that exists in architecture mediaspace lies elsewhere.

In 1964, Nieuwenhuys refined his idea to give the notion of “play” more weight. Below are the words of the artist. They’re worth reading and making up your own mind about which ideas have come to pass and which haven’t some fifty-five years on. Green indicates the ones I think have come true to some extent and in some form, and yellow the ones I think not. Blue is things I think were true anyway, and red is for things I think weren’t true even then.

The penultimate paragraph suggests all this glorious flexibility is enabled by continual reconfiguration of standardised construction elements such as walls, floors and staircases. Walls, floors and staircases eh? Who’d have thought? It just so happens that I have a proposal for achieving much the same by simply opening and closing a few doors. [c.f. Streets In The Sky, The Universal Apartment] Moreover, mine recognises a consciousness of ownership that’s lacking in all these other future utopia/dystopia proposals.

If we’re all going to be creative urban nomads resting in private rooms for the night or “for a while” then I’d like to know who’s responsible for the place and who’s cooking me breakfast and bringing it. That last paragraph is in green because we’re halfway there. Short-stay accommodation doesn’t require a concierge although someone still has to clean and prepare the rooms, and eating doesn’t necessarily imply domestic kitchens or public restaurants but food will still need to be prepared and brought by somebody or something. Even though we currently have dark kitchens preparing meals to be delivered by drones and bikes, I’m going to stay skeptical about future visions until I see one that asks the questions of who owns what and how do people eat. Any vision of the future that neglects these serves to promote an “out of sight out of mind” attitude towards exploitation of the middle by the top, cascading down to the bottom where a small army of servant workers keeps the whole thing running. Such was the case with Victorian mansions and is still the case with cruise liners and, I suspect, more than we care to admit today.

• • • 

While writing this post I learned Lebbeus Woods had posted about New Babylon in 2009. Despite the nice pics, I purposely didn’t read it until I finished mine. My concluding thought is above. This is LW’s. He asked many rhetorical questions but answered none.

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2 thoughts on “Something In The Air

  1. Robert Bedner

    Mr. Mckay,

    Another fantastic post .As one of your older readers my generation was in architecture school in the 1980s. Some of us were looking back in the midst of Post modernism to the 50s/60s for inspiration with Louis Kahn or Aldo Van Eyck or Herman Hertzberger and as well everything happening in London at that time.

    In an external way, one of the themes here is the relationship of architecture and the built environment to nature. and the vast majority of the projects covered in this post were created at a time when oil and energy and the use and exploitation of nature were either thought to be limitless or at least issues that did not need to be addressed. I wonder how many of these designers would have reacted to the massive loss of biodiversity and the 6th extinction event that is now happening on the planet – (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/12/what-is-biodiversity-and-why-does-it-matter-to-us).

    In an internal way and a way of how our internal life can be affected by our surroundings and relationship to nature, few of these proposals express a love for nature as much as nature as commodity to be exploited and although there is a beautiful craft to the images in Lebbeus Woods work there is for me an undeniable nihilism and the foregone conclusion that indeed the planet has finally been consumed and nature and our relationship to it completely severed.In any event, I think these designs and images need to be seen in the context of the time they were created in.

    Many times in these images and designs its always the same edge occurring with a wall or form smashing into some placeless landscape. Perhaps it is this edge (for better or for worse) which will ultimately define western culture on this earth.

    Theres a brilliant interview of Frank Lloyd Wright on You Tube at the moment – at the age of 88 – speaking about architecture and nature and culture – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeKzIZAKG3E

    Again, many thanks for the post.

    Robert Bedner

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Dear Robert,

      You raise some good points. It’s true that all those futurisms were just creatures of their time, based on the continuing belief that energy was infinite and that the sidelining of human labour would be a positive thing. I’ve come to think that architects of the visionary ilk are feted for giving an image to social/economic trends that may not necessarily produce benefits for all. Maybe someday they’ll be known as neoliberalism’s yes-men.

      The first oil crisis of 1974 and the second of 1979 did kill off some oil dependent architectures. I can immediately think of two of my formative favourites. The McNulty House of 1974 must have been bitterly cold in winter, and it must have been miserable in Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1978 Pasadena Heights to contemplate a future without the paraffin heaters so common in Japan prior to nuclear power and reverse-cycle air conditioners. But both of these were outliers anyway. Air-conditioned office buildings (wherever they were in the world) survived and they were the main offenders.

      It is so true that some promising ideas were based on the wrong premises and fell by the wayside but it’s also true that alternative proposals that were more in tune with the present were also sidelined. It took a good two decades for Richard “Zip-up” Rogers to come up with “Cities for a Small Planet” and four decades for his office to produce a quasi-serious proposal for low-energy affordable housing but even then its hook was factory production. I’m desperately trying to find proof my “perception management meets development gain” thesis is not true.

      You’re right in that all those futures are products of their times and should be judged in their respective contexts, as our futures will also be one day. Looking at all the proposed futures once again, as you say, there is something amiss in all of them, whether it’s the nihilism and environmental unimportance of Woods or the centralised authoritarianism of Fresco. They all avoid answering the questions of why they should exist, who built them and for what purpose. It seems to be a characteristic of the genre and an important part of how they function in architectural culture. When technology looked like being the answer to everything we have futures fetishising technology. But when the future for oil driven technologies didn’t look great there wasn’t any major paradigm shift towards alternatives. Whatever was proposed was b seen as “counterculture” until it was back to business as usual with High-Tech. Archigram is still thought worth teaching but the low-tech in-tune-with-Nature futures of Paolo Soleri not. Things seem to get remembered on how well they serve the current paradigm and the forces that create it, selectively raising our expectations in some areas and lowering them in others.

      This is all big stuff, and needs some more thought. I’ll try to tidy up my thinking in some upcoming post called The History of The Future. In the meantime, thanks for writing, and also for the link to the FLW interview that I’m halfway through.

      Regards,

      Graham

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