Although I can find no mention of it, I hope the Australian pavilion at the 2010 Venice Biennale has a snack bar. I’ve only got the catalogue by which to gauge the architecture exhibition, but it certainly looks like Jaffas and choc bombs would be the ideal accompaniments. Now + When: Australian Urbanism is projected (literally) by its creative directors, Ivan Rijavec and John Gollings, as a technologically dazzling display of 3D stereographic images and animation, augmented by an immersive soundscape. Australia’s last biennale outing was about impressing through an “abundance” of architectural models and thinking; this time it’s about overwhelming through “visceral spectacle”.
The image on page six of the Now catalogue sums up the approach. It shows a group of architectural illuminati gathered at a preview screening, 3D goggles on; their faces are tilted upward toward the projection out of shot to the right. Something in that combination of the distinctive glasses and posture reminds me of a well-known image of a 1950s cinema audience, all wearing 3D glasses. I’m particularly familiar with its use on the paperback cover to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. The resonance points me to the most obvious criticism that might be levelled against Now + When: that it is focused on the spectacular, on a distracting, seductive entertainment that works against critically engaging with the issues faced by urban Australia. The suspicion on this count isn’t eased by Gollings’ attempts, on the one hand, to claim a new, revelatory role for the thrilling stereoscopic views he has harnessed and his admission, on the other hand, that such images “lie” – concealing many problems in their distance and sheen.
Nonetheless, it’s hard not to be swayed by Gollings’ enthusiastic and beguiling recounting of the production process (the catalogue essay on this having already been published in AA May/June 2010).
I’m also cautious about pre-empting the experience of the pavilion, based only on the catalogue material available to me. In any case, I’m more interested and concerned with the When material. The speculative architectural imaginary, the utopian impulse that it draws on, seems a pertinent field to engage at this point in history.
When 2050+ was developed through competition, from images and drawings submitted by Australian architects. “Visionary and theoretical approaches, expressing directions and aims beyond current imaginations of the future” were encouraged, and the results are deliberately provocative, even utopian. The catalogue puts it: “The result has been a cyberspace of creative speculation that oscillates from theoretical approaches to pure fantasy, exploding the urban debate into a visceral spectacle that defies rational analysis.” Beyond the hyperbole, there is a serious and worthwhile impulse at work here. The utopian project is an important means of modelling alternatives to the way things are, in order to force some sort of engagement with them. Ernst Bloch described it elegantly: “Utopian consciousness wants to look far into the distance, but ultimately only in order to penetrate the darkness so near it.”1
So, do the speculative urban scenarios developed and gathered in the catalogue have the power to conjure different worlds? Are they radical in modelling other ways of being, in the face of Australia’s current demographic, environmental, economic, social and political tensions? Yes and no. In his When catalogue essay Craig Bremner suggests the scenarios featured “do not demand new cities or new urban scenarios. Rather, they ask us to design new living models, new ways of being together.” I would argue that they do the opposite. Overwhelmingly, the catalogue’s collected visions depict urban projects – city structures, technologies and forms – that leave social and political transformation, the critical question of structuring how we live together, aside. The images are provocative but the scenarios are often underwhelming.
The seventeen “graphic predictions” presented in the catalogue, curated by the creative directors from 129 competition submissions, form an all too familiar ecology of contemporary future-visioning. Like the crowded evolutionary trees for architecture that Charles Jencks created in Architecture 2000 and Beyond, these predictions form a swirling, homeostatic system from the same constituent parts. In various combinations and permutations, we can find: “organic”, algorithmic structures; large-scale public movement systems that negate the car; compact urban forms (typically dense and vertical); urban agriculture; infrastructural mega-structures; renewable energy systems and environmental technologies (for example, solar power and rainwater harvesting); form driven by demographic and environmental modelling; and recognizable tropes of architectural futurism (Lebbeus Woods parasites, Yona Friedman mega-structures, floating cities). Dramatic though the images might be, I find it disconcerting that, if the fantastical forms and airships were stripped away, most of the scenarios would please the average New Urbanist. Is this as radical as Australia’s architecture gets?
Some of the visions are simply dull – tired Arcadian images or hoary clichés that seem neither to offer incisive meditations on Australia’s urban future nor to come close to “visceral spectacle”. Alternatively, some of the scenarios offer more evocative, open-ended and productive imagery, but only if their scenarios are set aside. For instance, Saturation City’s waterlogged urban enclaves are captured in simultaneously intriguing and disturbing images. These perhaps depict a wildly extrapolated outcome of the fragmentation and privatization already at work in our metropolises. Multiplicity’s evocative topographical layers, floating over Melbourne’s city centre, might be populated by all sorts of unforetold, parallel societies. However, the scenario text is corralled in an imaginary assembled this year’s concerns: media screens, mass transit, urban agriculture renewable energy.
As Aaron Betsky has put it: “Architecture is a fiction … Some of the most powerful pieces of architecture do not exist in buildings. We inhabit them through stories, whether they are myths, fiction or poetry.”2 The problem for Now + When is that, for all the elaborate drama of the presentation techniques, the narratives are too often leaden. Why is this, and what is the significance? It may be worth considering that what is often most revealing about utopian vision is not what is said (or shown) but what cannot be said – “what does not register on the narrative apparatus”.3 For an exhibition at an international biennale, which aims to represent the very best of Australia’s architectural thinking (and, presumably, a distinctively Australian mode of thinking), it is telling that the suburb is largely absent from the scenarios. Despite Australia’s essentially suburban (rather than urban) quality, the focus is almost entirely on city centres. The suburb is quietly sidelined in these visions; it is ignored, superseded by dense urban form or replaced by verdant landscape. It is a lacuna in the overall discussion that points to the most contentious, and undoubtedly important, urban debate Australia must have.
One scenario that does offer something like a suburban vision for Australia’s future is Symbiotic City. Tellingly, it draws on the writing of William Gibson, adapting it to elucidate the continuous carpet of intertwined rural and urban that makes up “New Hobart”.4 This is the most evocative and exciting text in the catalogue:
“Swift had walked slowly forward, into that neon maw and all that patchwork carnival of scavenged surfaces, in perfect awe. Fairyland. Rain-silvered plywood, broken marble from forgotten banks, corrugated plastic, polished brass, sequins, painted canvas, mirrors, chrome gone dull and peeling in the salt air. So many things, too much for the reeling eye … A becoming-familiar juxtaposition […] In the distance a wingless carcass of a 747 housed the kitchens of nine Thai restaurants.”5
Gibson’s work demonstrates the power of speculative fiction to extrapolate from current conditions and hypothesize new ways of being together. The recent tradition of urban re-imagining that Gibson sits within (J. G. Ballard probably its most well known figure) has also had a powerful influence on the way architects speculate about future urban landscapes. This relationship points to what I anticipate is the best way (should any of us get the chance) to view the Now + When exhibition in all its 3D stereoscopic glory: accompanied by some serious speculative fiction. Don the active shutter goggles to enjoy the thrill and dynamism of the When projections, but read some Ballard, Gibson or Neal Stephenson in parallel. My suspicion is that the juxtapositions will be more inspiring and the experience more provocative.
Lee Stickells is a senior lecturer in architecture and urban design at the University of Sydney.
1. Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (1954–59), (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995).
2. Aaron Betsky, “The Alpha and the Omega”, BEYOND, No. 1, 2009, p. 125.
3. Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).
4. Specifically, Gibson’s novel Virtual Light (London: Viking, 1993).
5. The text in italics is an insertion into Gibson’s text made by the Symbiotic City team.
5. Interestingly, a whole Unit at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture is devoted to exploring the .implications of J. G. Ballard’s writing.