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What an exhibition of fantastical utopias drawn by Bartlett graduates says about urban space

The captivating images of these speculative projects have more in common with art than architecture, but the Urban Tales exhibition nevertheless challenges our view of the city

Hosted at London’s Carousel, Urban Tales explores the role of narrative architecture in expanding the parameters of how we conceptualise fictional futures.

The exhibition comes from three Bartlett graduates whose fantastical utopias aim to engage their inhabitants’ needs in a manner that sharply contrasts the ruinous environments of today. Two are designs for post-disaster futures, though all three look to specific points in the past to satisfy misgivings about the stories that are currently being told by urban space.

Anja Kempa’s Remembering Spring posits the disappearance and subsequent reclamation of spring – a famous and foundational element of Tokyo’s cultural identity. Despite growing to a colossal metropolis, Tokyo has managed to pay due tribute to the spring blossoms in its many public parks and riversides. Kempa’s work reminds us that, despite the arrangement of space to celebrate markers of cultural heritage, those markers themselves cannot necessarily survive macro strategies of energy and growth.

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Anja Kempa’s Remembering Spring

Kempa throws the flat perspectives of traditional Japanese art into luscious sci-fi landscapes of organic libraries and flying koi. Teams of geishas take the lead in cultivating and storing renewable energy in order to secure the future of the new republic. Ultimately spring is saved and celebrated in a triumphant image of crowds coming together beneath falling blossoms for the observance custom hanami.

Ned Scott’s The War Rooms, St James Park is similarly concerned with the future of energy in urban space. His post-Energy War London has repurposed Westminster as a garden city and decentralised hub of renewable power. Vertical farms of bio-energy are held aloft by towers of the project’s own archives, abseiled by dutiful civil servants of the resettled regime. The Mall becomes a gigantic vegetable garden in the ‘dig for victory’ spirit of the Second World War. Framing his work as a project of postwar cooperation, Scott cleverly evokes points of both pride and shame in 20th-century Britain.

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Ned Scott’s The War Rooms

Less subtle are the transparent park residences of MPs, whose lives as ‘model citizens’ are in full view of the public. It’s a design that takes political transparency to a cartoonish scale as an appropriate response to the cartoonish levels of deception at play in the Westminster that we currently suffer.

Scott’s vision is darkly satirical, but it is also essentially hopeful about British political tradition, and places it in an environment crafted specifically to make it function fairly and efficiently. That this environment is a fantastical one brought about by war is perhaps the grim punchline.

Nick Elias’s work is the only one of the three to feature colour; PoohTown is coated in a golden, sugary lacquer reminiscent of the honey favoured by his ‘metaphorical protagonist for happiness’, Winnie the Pooh. Pooh and friends become towering idols in a 1920s Slough designed to prescribe happiness. The result is a nostalgic dreamscape halfway between a nursery and a theme park, all hot-air balloons and giant treasure chests. Elias’s smaller, splendidly rendered sketches include such charming concepts as ‘The Cartboot Sale of Anxiety’, where visitors can trade identities.

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Nick Elias’s PoohTown

The concept of turning the collective energy of a city towards happiness is refreshing in its straightforwardness. Elias suggests that, were our emotional needs satisfied by where we live, then we would demand less from the Earth and its resources. PoohTown invites its denizens to indulge their nostalgia to achieve such a satisfaction, but the quaint and (literally) honeyed sheen of it all hits a sinister note at the suggestion that a city built for our ‘fictional’ selves is bursting with saccharine infantilism.

Name-checked or not, the exhibition contains countless references not only to architects but also to authors, designers and artists. The very value of such fanciful work is the stories that these environments can contain by allusion, and so it perhaps becomes meaningless to separate it from other forms of fictional storytelling. Urban Tales seems to have more in common with cinematic concept art than with practical architectural designs – which in turn have more in common with the comic books of Chris Ware or Richard McGuire than with Urban Tales.

As both production methods and consumer habits change, the boundaries between design, literature, decorative arts and digital media are collapsing into one another, and, if Urban Tales is any indication, not least within narrative architecture. If embraced, this trend will certainly lead to a richer and more holistic storytelling. Emerging architects would do well to highlight their links with the essentially architectural pursuit of worldbuilding in speculative fiction and beyond.

Urban Tales

Where: Carousel, 71 Blandford Street, London, W1U 8AB
When: until Friday 10 April

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