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.
CITY OF HOPE
EDMOND & CORRIGAN
This is a City of Hope – seven hectares for 50,000, located on the eastern boundary of the Little Desert National Park in the Wimmera, north-west Victoria. It is a small, specialist city, intended to immediately reassure through repetition and rhythm. The design emphasizes an eclectic range of ideas: the desert tent, the dressmaker’s toile, the chemise.
JOHN WARDLE ARCHITECTS AND STEFANO BOSCUTTI
The new city appears to float above the old like a cloud. It draws life into the centre rather than spreading further and further out to the periphery. By bringing people together, it maximizes resources. Solar cell microfibre edges convert prevailing winds and sunlight into power.
MCGAURAN GIANNINI SOON (MGS), BILD + DYKSORS & MATERIAL THINKING
Four flooded domains are presented in radical renegotiations of critical issues in contemporary urbanism: i) unsustainable sprawl (the suburb), ii) urban preservation (gardens/parks), iii) adaptive reuse and iv) coastal interface. All are informed by the physics and psychology of catastrophic natural events and allowed a critical evaluation of urban value.
NHARCHITECTURE WITH ANDREW MACKENZIE
Our urban future is driven by rapid population growth, volatile weather patterns and the source of all life – water. Terraforming, a practice as old as the settlement of Queensland’s Gold Coast, is rapidly expanded to allow large-scale population growth to continue unabated.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
BILLARD LEECE PARTNERSHIP
A virtual model floats above the city, guiding its consumption and renewal. This doppelganger, visible as a hologram high above the city, audits and guides development. Aspiration, virtual model, rule of law and talisman, it is bound to the real. Serving as analytical laboratory, it receives design proposals for buildings, infrastructure and industry.
IMPLEMENTING THE RHETORIC
HARRISON AND WHITE WITH NANO LANGENHEIM
Implementing the Rhetoric imagines – with great optimism – that by the year 2050, politicians and planning authorities will have the power, conviction and know-how to realize design strategies that decisively address critical urban issues. Using Dr White’s defragmented design techniques, the proposal interrogates key objectives for sustainable urbanism – solar amenity, density increase, walkable cities – and visualizes their literal, undiluted execution.
BRIT ANDRESEN & MARA FRANCIS (UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND)
Sedimentary City of Brisbane is layered city-on-city, its layers existing in time and in space. New layers carry the trace of past cities with catalyst landscape fragments for change. Sedimentary City Time Slice. Following a process of spatial and temporal review of the city, the project speculates on alternative futures.
Image constructed from parts reproduced with permission or acknowledgment to the following works: Sidney Nolan, Death of Sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek, 1946, National Gallery of Australia; Arthur Boyd, Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall, 1966–68, Bundanon Trust; Above Photography, South-Brisbane-004825; John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 185828; State Archives QLD, QSA item 714302; BCC eBIMAP, Biodiversity Heritage Library; Ian Smith, Hometown; Peter Cook, Sleek Tower, Verandah Tower, Brisbane 1984; Andresen O’Gorman, Mt. NeboHouse and Rosebery House; Norman Lindsay Female Figure Holding her Breasts, Norman Lindsay Gallery and Museum.
FEAR FREE CITY
JUSTYNA KARAKIEWICZ, TOM KVAN & STEVE HATZELLIS, MELBOURNE SCHOOL OF DESIGN (UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE)
We propose a different movement through the city – one that activates the elevation and returns the surface experience of the traditional city. With narrow streets and plazas, this experience of the plane is brought to vertical opportunities, bio-development instead of techno-carbon production.
SURVIVAL VS RESILIENCE
BKK ARCHITECTS, VILLAGE WELL, CHARTER KECK CRAMER & DANIEL PIKER
The city is conceived as a continually active system rather than a static construct, eschewing the detrimentally deterministic model that is bound by a singular approach. Embedded within these explorations are notions of an adaptable city, responsive to the changing parameters of demographics, climate and technology.
HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL?
BEN STATKUS (STATKUS ARCHITECTURE), DANIEL AGDAD, MELANIE ETCHELL, WILLIAM GOLDING, ANNA NGUYEN & JOEL NG
The project conceives of a future that embraces immigration and integration – the new blended with the old. Cloud cities hover above the historic city below, tattooing the obsolete infrastructural grid, which now forms bush landscapes and tracks among the Victorian, postwar and postmodern buildings.
COLONY COLLECTIVE, MELBOURNE SCHOOL OF DESIGN (UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE)
Mould Urbanism is a system which reconfigures the relationship between humans, shelter and collective settlements. It proposes that the garlands of the Vitruvian primitive hut offer a new beginning for exhausted cities made from inanimate materials … The urbanists of the future will be indistinguishable from gardeners.
TERRA FORM AUSTRALIS
HASSELL, HOLOPOINT & THE ENVIRONMENT INSTITUTE
Built around an interior coastline, new sustainable cities are powered by clean energy that supplants current coal-based supply. Australia’s clean energy sources are located in the interior, optimizing efficiency. A new population of 20 million occupies cities that are in balance with native biodiversity – as well as being globally networked, diverse and inclusive.
ISLAND PROPOSITION 2100
SCOTT LLOYD, AARON ROBERTS (ROOM 11) & KATRINA STOLL
Connecting Melbourne and Hobart, an infrastructural spine carries physical and virtual flows of exchange, allocates stocks, transforms processes and demarcates future urban development along its linear axis … A balanced system – exchanging population, information, material, energy, water and capital – will flow along the spine. High-speed magnetic levitation and other emerging technologies will transport people and stocks along the spine and adjoining subsystems.
RAG URBANISM, RICHARD GOODWIN (RICHARD GOODWIN ART/ARCHITECTURE); ANDREW BENJAMIN & GERARD REINMUTH (TERROIR)
Within Sydney, lines of intensity and connection knot and fray to produce a mapping of potentialities. The city uses its existing structure as an armature for increased densities and programs. Modes of urban agriculture link across urban renewal programs in housing and commercial development.
THE OCEANIC CITY
ARUP: ALANNA HOWE & ALEXANDER HESPE
The city of Siph, built on biomimetic practices, gives Australians an opportunity to expand into (and integrate with) an oceanic environment. The city is based on a mobility lacking in many land-based structures. As such, it is able to respond to its surroundings with a sensitivity that allows a co-existence with the natural ecosystem. The city is powered by sustainable oceanic resources. Pods utilize deep-sea currents, extending tentacles fitted with hydro-turbines into the depths.
PECK DUNIN SIMPSON ARCHITECTS
The city is an evolving organism. In tracing a trajectory from 1968 to 2009 and projecting beyond to 2050, we draw on our urban history and collective experience. Our design is intended less as “solution” and more as “working method”: a synthesis of analysis, speculation and cautionary argument that echoes the complexities and contradictions of the city fabric.
STEVE WHITFORD (UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE) AND JAMES BREARLEY (BAU BREARLEY ARCHITECTS AND URBANISTS, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR RMIT)
Symbiotic City emerges from layered networks of urban and rural systems. The intersection of these varied and continuous networks produces a rhythm of purely urban and purely rural cells, interspersed with hybrid cells that are both urban and rural, converting prevailing winds and sunlight into power.