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Space Merchants

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The Space Merchants is a 1952* science fiction novel by Frederick Poihl and C.M. Kornbluth, depicting a future world in which industry and advertising are completely merged and working to market sham products to a human underclass called “users”.

As I write, industry and advertising aren’t yet the same thing but they may as well be when architecture is the interface that spins development gain into perception management. [c.f. Architecture Myths #23: Architecture].

It’s not a new thing. Walter Gropius’ enthusiasm for factory production was his ticket to the US. A century on, Gropius and The Bauhaus are irrelevant for what they were. Imbuing them with importance is a way of saying “serve industry and you will be rewarded with fame” and that’s never gone out of fashion. [c.f. Bauhaus Fatigue]

The sell:
More and cheaper “designer” stuff for everyone
The tell:
The extinction of craftspersons as builders and manufacturers

Similar divergences between initial promise and ultimate reality occur throughout the twentieth century. When we find out it’s usually too late. It’s predictable.

X (where X is cigarettes, synthetic opoids, …)
The sell:
X is good for you
The tell:
X is bad for you

In my recent ArchDaily marathon [c.f. Misfits’ Trienalle], I noticed certain topics had a disproportionate amount of media coverage of their promise when compared with instances of their actual implementation. This all works to shape how we think about the future. A falsehood repeated often enough doesn’t become true – it just becomes what everyone believes. Everyone in the field of architecture may not be a regular ArchDaily consumer but, since the site is probably the world’s most looked-at website having something to do with architecture, it’s a reliable indicator of ideas being put forward in order to make us familiar with them and accept them as part of our future.

Pre-flatscreen 1985: The Panasonic THG28-DM03 𝛼-tube television.

In 1980s Japan, consumer electronics divisions of the big industrial conglomerates were keen to make a new type of television that, long before it arrived, we knew as a kabekake terebi – a TV you can hang on the wall. In English it came to be known as a “flatscreen”. Around the same time, biotechnology was also a thing and there was speculation that, one day, we would boot up our computer by pouring a bag of sugar into it. This didn’t happen. Nanotechnology came somewhere inbetween but hasn’t yet lived up to early claims made for it. Optical technologies translated far more easily and quickly into consumer goods and so did semiconductor technologies. Computers became personal. Cellular communications technologies translated even faster into products.

Now that the communications and data industries have got us covered, the automobile and data industries are selling us the idea of self-driving cars so they can get on with the business of making them. We’re also being groomed to accept the idea of drone delivery for things we can’t be bothered making – usually things with high profit margins such as clothing and pizza, and that target consumers at the level of the individual. We’re still waiting for real hoverboards, but computers and robots are now no longer part of our future. So what’s coming up? What are we being led to believe will be a part of our future?

Vertical Forests

I recently wrote about vertical forests and the objectification of trees [c.f. Arboreal Angst], suggesting it opens the door for the removal of natural Nature and its replacement with something about as natural and useful as bonsai. Vertical forests solve the problem of horizontal forests taking up too much land that can be better used for other things. This would have been unthinkable had it not been for the PostModern Revolution claiming a representation of something is as good as, if not better, than the real thing.

The sell: They’ll make forests out of cities.
The tell: They’ll make cities out of forests

Automatic Design

Automatic design is morphing quicker than I can keep track of it. Machine manufacture never lived up to its 1920s promise of increased leisure time for all. In the 1950s, nobody ever said all those time and labour-saving devices meant a household would need two incomes to pay for them. The range of things machines and automation are said to be able to do is increasing. And even if they can’t actually do it yet, it’s still worthwhile to have people think they’ll someday be replaced by a machine. It makes them insecure and willing to be underpaid and overworked until they are replaced. So let’s ask the question now. Is automatic design going to be a blessing to us all? Or is it going to reduce the value (or cost) of actual human skill and experience when it comes to simple things such as how to plan an apartment? I recognise that some aspects of design have been fully automated for a couple of decades now. There’s a program that, given a hospital room identifier code, will automatically position all the required equipment on internal plans and elevations. Many design tasks can and will be automated but first, standards will have to drop to lower the threshold of acceptance. This is well underway.

The sell:
It’ll do your work.
The tell: It’ll do your job.

3-D Printed Houses

The construction of houses has resisted mass production for almost a century. We were never able to imagine things as large as houses ever rolling off a conveyor belt like automobiles, and then delivered to where they were needed. Transportable homes exist but are only viable when there isn’t the labour or materials at the intended location. For urban and suburban areas, it’s easier and cheaper to procure the materials and labour and build the thing in-situ. Many building components are of course manufactured elsewhere and delivered. Windows and trusses aren’t fabricated by joiners and carpenters onsite, or even by joiners and carpenters offsite. The problem with the 3D printing of houses is that a 3D printer bigger than a house needs to be brought to the site and positioned. As ever, the solution is more technology and we get things like robot printers that use their own walls as track as they build them up. We’ve yet to see how this will play itself out but our curvy future will not involve anything as lo-tech as spraying concrete onto shapes made out of chicken wire.

The sell:
Your house, built how you want it.
The tell: Your house, how we want to build it.


Data is a resource that, as with any other resource, is there to be exploited. Data can be mined, gathered, collected or stolen. It can be bought and sold and transferred across borders yet, oddly, there is no tax on its sale or movement. Mostly, we give up our data in exchange for some dubious benefit, and that data is then analysed to see how we can be better manipulated. This we know.

The term data architecture describes the models, policies, rules and standards that govern what data is collected, how it is stored, and how it is put to use. Data is morally neutral but can be collected, stored and used for either universal good or selective gain. The challenge for industry is how to make us believe the former while accomplishing the latter. The challenge for architects is how to make architecture relevant to the needs of the data industry. Corporate headquarters as either tech-temple or tech-garden can only do so much, and not many are required. Data itself has no need of architecture as it’s stored and processed in huge sheds exquisitely engineered for those purposes. The only role left for architecture is to design buildings as bait to have more users contribute their data for further analysis.

A century ago we would never have thought architecture could be reduced to imagery alone yet, here we are evaluating images as architecture. [c.f. Imagery as Architecture] We gave up on three dimensionality and the many other unseen dimensions too easily so we’ll probably give up on two dimensionality without a fuss. The first person to make us think of architecture as equivalent to data will have one very hot product. People are on the case.

The sell:
What you want
The tell:
What we want

Living on Mars

That tedious Disney movie, John Carter, was never going to tell us how fantastic, exciting and heroic living on Mars is going to be. True, this year has seen some negative vibe regarding the difficulty of keeping people alive until they get there. And assuming colonists reach Mars orbit still alive, how they’re going to land is another problem waiting to be solved, along with other ones such as what people are going to breathe and eat. In short, Mars is a hot topic and there’s much to process, most of it breathlessly anticipating the time we can finally say goodbye to what’s left of this planet.

Looking forward is now a standalone activity, detached from any present even though it implies some sort of dissatisfaction with this status quo called Earth. In the here and now, the sole function of all this talk of challenges is to keep us believing Technology will solve all these new problem–challenges. Mars is a convenient distraction while the Amazon burns and the Arctic is drilled. More than ever, I see the truth in the saying “Solutions are the cause of problems”. “Problems are invented to justify solutions” is another way of saying the same thing. Beware of solutions” is what I’m saying.

The sell:
Begin again!
The tell: Nothing left to lose.

• • • 

So my career advice to budding young architects is to go with the flow and sell out as soon as you can. Specialise in one or all of these growth areas. [c.f. Let’s Dance!] Fill your folio with proposals for data-driven automatically-designed and 3D-printed vertical forests for Mars. It’ll get you into Strelka, Berlage, Harvard – definitely MIT – or some equivalent incubator for people eager to be part of the architecture dream machine in the service of global industry.
They need you.

proposal for life on mars


  • Special thanks to André who corrected me, telling me The Space Merchants was first published in 1952, not 1988. This is true, and makes it all the more prescient.