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Fashioning the future

Review: Future Systems by Marcus Field.Phaidon,1999.208pp.£35

Lots ofpeople like Future Systems,especially non-architects. Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete's drawings and models,and to a lesser extent their built work,express unbridled optimism about technology - an attitude that is now fashionable again.Their proposals over the years have been consistent with this,in that they seem determined to exploit improved materials to restore excitement to the design ofurban buildings.Outside ofthe drawings,they also claim an intention to be greener-than-thou and to ameliorate conditions for the poor and dispossessed.

Unfortunately,judged on the evidence of Marcus Field's new book,the world doesn't yet want the radical agenda;it just wants the wacky shapes.Acordingly,Future Systems' schemes express more ofan interest in the perfectibility ofform than the perfectibility ofhumankind.

The book is laid out as an undergraduate workbook,opening with a collection of images - advertising,industrial pollution, military hardware,nomads - which Kaplicky and Levete have found inspiring.It continues with 100 juvenile epigrams (eg 'Beauty - poetry - people:three critical and essential words for the future') and moves on to a selection ofprojects,all in an unsettled format which neither matches nor flatters the work but is,at least,free ofthe tiresome typographical dogmatism usually found in architectural monographs.

The projects arouse one's suspicions about the extent ofthe practice's social and formal agenda.As Field says,the practice takes as its role models 'the highly finished products ofthe marine,aviation and space travel industries',none ofwhich are wellknown for their contribution to social and ecological causes.There is a constant,and admirable,attempt not to become disillusioned,a consistent youthfulness and willingness to be fashionable and to make that fashionability central to the work.

A practice which commits itselfto an idea to the extent ofcalling itselfFuture Sytems clearly indicates that it has an appreciation ofthe power offashion and technology combined.'There's an obligation for us to keep abreast ofwhat's happening,'says Levete ofthe practice's current interests in prefabricated schools,green issues and glass technology - but its buildings suggest that it takes 1960s fashion and product design as the apogee ofeffective political agitation.

Architects,especially those ofa certain age,feel obliged to cite social concerns in claiming intellectual credibility,and in Blair's Britain this is not the handicap to commercial success it might have been in the recent past.Everyone says they want to do social housing,because it is seen as the most difficult and worthwhile challenge in architecture;but really,Future Systems' appeal and,one cannot help thinking,its future lies in continuing to provide luxury products for the privileged.

Richard Rogers (for whom Jan Kaplicky worked and with whom Future Systems has since collaborated) has a similar interest in machines,but grounds this in the actually existing technology ofthe pre-Walkman 1960s,when machines still visibly appeared to function.In Rogers'work an appreciation ofthe beauty and craftsmanship in assembled objects takes over from the need to represent functionality,and over the course ofhis career his buildings have been embroidered with unlikely technical motifs.

Less productively,Future Systems appears to look for inspiration to the imaginary and implausible technology of Barbarella:'an architecture ofsleek surfaces and slender forms - ofefficiency and elegance,even excitement.'Unfortunately, applied technology in the building industry is in a retarded state and Barbarella is not deliverable.Future Systems'failure to acknowledge that fact brings results as exciting as Joe 90 or Blake's Seven,and this book shows the same misfit between product and apparent intent.

Gery McLean is an architect in London

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