Can a playful atitude towards research become a creative mean for design?
Jules Verne’s novel, The Purchase of the North Pole, 1889, summarised at the end of James R Fleming’s essay, ‘The Climate Engineers’ in Landscape Futures, tells of a group of American investors who pay two cents per acre, promising to melt the ice for the benefit of the world’s climate and extract the mineral resources. This being fiction, they fail and the world carries on, although with hindsight, the reality appears to be catching up fast.
A great deal of this book, produced as the retrospective catalogue of an exhibition held at the Nevada Museum of Art between August 2011 and February 2012, joins Verne in his speculation about climate and technology in places that are largely uninhabitable. Situated on the boundary between conceptual art and architecture, this familiar space is approaching self-parody unawares. The opening pages of the book are populated by period photographs of old-fashioned scientists under open skies standing awkwardly with their spindly tripods and arcane measuring devices.
These were not ‘philosophical toys’ in origin, but have been co-opted as such. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy conjures their world − the sinister but enthralling quality of remote scientific outposts on Svalbard, hot-air balloons manned by obsessional men wearing clothing made from dun-coloured natural fibres whose equipment involves wood, leather and lots of dials. Student projects involving climatic devices, drawn in meticulous detail but axiomatically unworkable, situated in an extremity of climate or geology, have become the equivalent of the 1920s joke about the self-evident uselessness of the recurrent Beaux-Arts project of ‘A house for an admiral on a rocky promontory’.
Archigram were responsible for cutting a doorway into this parallel universe. When Michael Webb made beautiful drawings of a mini submarine approaching Temple Island on the Thames, and when David Greene proposed a wired log in a field, foundational acts duly acknowledged in Landscape Futures, they started a global movement, distinguishable by sly humour with a straight face, the use of catchy reverse-engineered acronyms as project descriptions, and, above all, the absence of anything resembling a conventional idea of a building. That theoretical explorations of the nature-culture divide continue to follow these rules of cool is a tribute to the imaginative power of that original act.
Smout Allen’s ‘envirographic’ architecture projects with students form the core of the book. In Lanzarote, for example, rising sea levels and temperature, and winds from the Sahara bringing quantities of sand, genuinely threaten the future of inhabitation. The background research covers history and the possible application of technology in search of solutions, and provides ‘a context for understanding works of architecture as ecological systems that can function through principles of sustainability and the future of urban and rural environments’. The piquancy of the proposals comes from the perversity of their art-gallery context that shapes the form and content of the product and requires that they should not qualify for a museum of technology.
Houses for admirals on rocky promontories were discredited in the 1930s when the real problems of society could no longer be excluded from the curricula of architecture schools. It was not long before they returned in altered guise and the question raised by Landscape Futures is whether an equivalent playfulness retains its value as pedagogy, creative art or even applicable technology. Right at the end of the book − which until this point evades the issue − Cassim Shepard claims that the immediate goal for your design is to provoke amazement while simultaneously inspiring new understandings of worldly processes and physical phenomena’.
The premise that the definition of architectural activity is changing and expanding is not contentious, but the rules of its game are. Out there, the speculators have defeated the green campaigners and the North Pole will melt all the faster, while the sound of the bell ringing for the end of playtime is mistaken for a dance tune. We may save something from the wreckage, but is it better to engage with this immeasurable disaster with a knowing grin of denial, or to acknowledge the new reality? If the former, then Landscape Futures performs excellently. If the latter, it is yet another portent of doom.
Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions
Author: Geoff Manaugh (ed)
Publisher: Actar, Barcelona and New York