Newcastle Station Clock

Newcastle Station Clock

Monday, 30 April 2012

Why I'm Unhappy About the Direction We're Going Through Time

First off, let me say that I wasn't sure where to write this. At first I had planned to write it on my own website alongside other serious architectural theory (plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug plug). And certainly, much of the thought behind it is quite serious. On the other hand, as I thought it through I realised that I wouldn't be able to refrain from a ridiculously opinionated conclusion. So I decided it probably belongs here instead - particularly seeing as the conclusion has a nasty habit of being the part that people remember about a piece of writing. Anyway, onwards...

So this post is about so called 'futuristic' architecture. Why it's bad, and why through a process of implication and extrapolation 'old fashioned' buildings are therefore good.

As much as Archiendo hates to acknowledge it, futuristic design is very popular with a huge number of people. I believe this is a result of a steadfast belief in 'progress'. It's easy to see why most people are convinced by the notion of progress, particularly in the 21st century as technology and science race towards better understanding and higher efficiency. It may still be true that certain strings of philosophy maintain that no matter the developments in science, progress in important social conditions is not possible - however ever since it was shown that human happiness can be measured in megapixels (1) proponents of this thought have become rare.*

So futuristic design, usually most notable for its displays of as-yet unrealised (or at least recently realised) technology, is inevitably linked by this optimism to social change. Buildings like the one at the top of this article - whose main expressive element is an ostentatious display of modern technology - become symbolic of utopia, dreams of what is destined to eventually come. If you don't believe me, have a look at what you get for the following Google Image searches:

"Futuristic Utopia"

"Futuristic Dystopia"

Apart from the colour pallette, the key difference between these sets of images is that the utopias would be incredibly difficult to construct with today's technology; the dystopias share the same characteristics of scale, lack of ornament and materiality (with the exception of plant life), but are structurally very achievable. It seems that the key architectural difference between a utopia and a dystopia is cantilevers.

Problems arise in futuristic design however, when science outstrips our imaginations, but social progress falls short. The design of the future is almost always much more easily realised than the society of the future. What's more, technology never stands still, it always goes on to do bigger (or smaller) and better. If the design is lucky, cultural amnesia is enough to strip it of its symbolic significance, and over time it will simply come to look dated. But if not, the building in question becomes an icon of social failure; a symbol of every optimism which never came to pass; a constant reminder of the suffering and injustice which is embedded in all human experience. Plus it looks dated.**

'Old Fashioned' architecture on the other hand, cannot rely on hope for the future as its main hook. It must rely on something else, something not 'future', something that is already existent and established; in short, it must rely on something more reliable. Strangely, it seems that the qualities which architects so often refer to as 'timeless' belong in the past and not the future. I may be oversimplifying issues here, but it seems obvious to me which strategy is better.

That is, until we live in bubbles on sticks and drive flying cars. Then even with social injustice and lack of progress, people will be too excited to even care.

*On a personal note, I myself am undecided on the issue of progress. Certainly it is difficult to imagine that modern technology is completely incapable of initiating social progress, but another part of me does feel that its capabilities are exaggerated by most. At any rate, I believe perception is always relative - if you eliminate poverty, people will simply redefine what it means to be impoverished.

** NB. In a recent study 53% of architects did not know which of these two design problems was the greater crime.(2)

(1) - Apple Inc., Why the iPad 3 is Better than Prozac; Issue 78, Arsehole's Digest (Cupertino, California: Jobs Digital Publishing, 2012) pp. 7-77
(2) - Jackson, Samuel L., Portraits of the Professions; Issue 99, Journal of Reinforcing Negative Stereotypes (Cambridge, UK: Massive Snobs Publishing, 1996) p. 24

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