Using creativity to push back the boundaries of technology
The great science fiction writers used to anticipate not only technological developments but also sociological trends.
Asimov was deeply concerned with scientific enquiry, and many of his speculations on robots and the laws of robotics are turning out to be fact. Arthur C Clarke, similarly, was a serious futurologist who wove his research into stories of the imagination. John Brunner foresaw car gridlock and the omnipotence of the traffic engineer. New science fiction is more concerned with fantasy and imagination of a very different order.
In architecture, there was also a tradition of working beyond what was technically possible at the time. BoullÚe's monument to Newton foresaw the possibility of making very large spheres, but at the time when his extraordinary project was illustrated, it could never have been constructed - the materials and techniques did not exist, although the principles did. If they had tried to build it, it would have been a true memorial to Newton, by succumbing to the laws of gravity.
Mike Webb explored the idea of wearing a house as an expanding version of a spacesuit.
With the evolution of new materials, this idea is not beyond the realms of possibility. David Greene anticipated the automatic lawnmower with his Mobot, which is available today, and Plug-in City was destined to become the ubiquitous recreational vehicle that populates the US.
I always enjoyed the fact that the base of the Duomo in Florence was built to such a proportion that it could not be completed until Brunelleschi worked out a method of constructing a capping that would span such a distance. Leonardo also created projects for structures and buildings that would have severely stretched the technology of the day, as well as the social order. Is there an equivalent order of activity among architects today? At first sight, it would appear not.
Gone are the days of beautiful concepts, where spectacular buildings are dreamt of in graphic form. Wright's Mile High Tower would today seem like a waste of time, not because we could construct it (we cannot yet), but because the technology that is changing society is developing at a faster pace than we can imagine, and much of it is not concerned with that which can be drawn (or built).
Today, architecture has many faces, and this makes it more difficult for anyone to project and illustrate in a new and surprising way.
There is little to react against, apart from the vast numbers of second-rate buildings that are produced. Generally speaking, there is no longer any healthy appetite for ideas. Our architectural magazines do not publish speculations any more - they are more intent on publishing built work, or work that will be built. Indeed, in more recent years they have tended to import the Fleet Street concept of the 'scoop'and, in doing so, often omit to publish interesting material because some other publication has already carried it.
Neuro-technology, communications, biomechanics and the world of the virtual, are all areas which concentrate the mind and offer vast possibilities for changing our lives - in a way that would appear to make architecture superfluous (architecture absorbs technology very slowly).
I urge readers of The Architects'Journal to indulge themselves in architectural flights of fancy which address technology, lifestyle, aesthetics and social responsibility. Purely stylistic debates on stripped-down Modernism change nothing. I implore you to send works, drawn or written, to the AJ, in an attempt to move forward a debate. DO IT NOW!
WA, from my desk in my institute, Vienna