Science fiction and crystal balls: crucial tools of the trade
Looking into the future is an important and necessary activity for architects. If part of our job is to anticipate, we must indulge in speculation about times to come.Looking into the crystal ball divides into two categories.The first is looking at a way forward based on current evidence of bad practice and proposing new courses of action, which can become policy.
The recommendations of the Urban Task Force fall into this category. Its thoughts of greater density, brownfield sites, improved infrastructure, reduced car reliance etc, all make sense in terms of rectifying current problems - which makes it all the more surprising that little of it has filtered through into actions by central government. In fact, some designs in the development of the Thames corridor are a step backwards. With regard to our rail infrastructure nothing has happened at all; we edge towards a complete renationalisation, relying on PFI deals to deliver even a half-decent, extended system.
I seem to enjoy catching trains in Spain, Italy, France, Holland, India et al. Why not here?
The second falls into the realms of science fiction, where the word fiction undermines the seriousness of the subject. The importance of this activity lies in the fact that it goes beyond political correctness into issues that will most probably exist with or without government policy, and allows a multiple view of the medium- to long-term future.
This used to be more popular, but since the media feels it can only deal with facts (sic), this useful form of allowing the imagination to expand is denied and this level of debate does not exist. For example, it allows us to think about all those who, as a result of city house prices, decentralisation and the activities of volume housebuilders, already live in semirural locations due to former government policy. What will happen to these people if the Urban Task Force succeeds?
I am often asked to outline the 'house of the future'. This is extremely difficult as architecture in itself does not determine the future, but merely reflects possible change in other areas of life. So what are these other areas? Esther Dyson, chair of EDventure Holdings, has outlined possible news items for 2023: Micrintel inserts the chips allowing pharmaceutical dosages to be adjusted to the needs of individual patients; controversy continues over online artificial playmates for children; the Nobel Prize Committee holds a meeting to consider a lawsuit filed against Peace Prize winner Henryk Alyon by the man who cloned him, Pygg M Alyon; and thousands of handy RF users are lost for several days in Cairo when their audio frequency implants malfunction.
Imagine the items that could occur in the next 20 years if: pan-European pension regulators announce that workers will have to stay on the job until the age of 75 to access the personal pension plans they hold in government accounts; the UK decides to adopt the euro; Nokia launches a handset designed to allow users to send holograms.
In 1983, newspapers reported that: an erasable optical disc able to record and store data and images would be introduced by Matsushita Electric; Thatcher planned to denationalise more state-owned industries, reduce trade union power and increase police powers; striking Welsh miners shut down 33 mines; and Tennessee Williams died of asphyxiation in New York at the age of 71.
The future looks bright, but if we neglect to reflect on the future we stagnate. But please don't ask me to design anything for the future because once I have done it, it is the present.
WA, from my Norfolk garden hut