Whatever Happened to the Future?

By David WittenbergJuly 11, 2016

Whatever Happened to the Future?

Last Futures by Douglas Murphy

IF YOU SPEND some time around architects, you may discover that the word “architecture” doesn’t mean exactly what you thought. Architects often use the term defensively, as a name for something much more special than the glut of generic structures crowding the space of modern life. In this usage, “architecture” is chiefly a thing that is not, or at least not mere — not merely design, not merely the distinction between interior and exterior, not mere construction or engineering, and decidedly not mere housing or commercial development. It’s something like the way other professional intellectuals distinguish, in grumpy moments, between art and mere painting, hard and soft sciences, or literature and mere fiction. Such a defensive usage helps clarify why, although we live in a time when more buildings, cities, and development “platforms” are erected than ever before, Douglas Murphy can still suggest, in the subtitle of his book, that “architecture” may have already come to an end.

To be more precise, what has come to an end is a strain of ambitious utopian thinking that runs through the theory and practice of modern architecture up until the 1960s, a freedom or privilege to “imagine the future in terms of visually striking advanced technology of a massive scale,” and to design houses, offices, train stations, shopping malls, and whole cities in the faith that architects are in a unique position to offer concrete answers to intractable social and political questions. Such utopianism wanes, along with many other cultural aspirations, around the late 1960s and early 1970s, which is one of the major epochs of sociopolitical failure. In an apt phrase, Murphy refers to the 1970s as “the great giving-up of architecture as a vector for change.” It became rather more difficult to believe that architects, of all folks, might be in a position to redesign society itself — to propose gargantuan structures that could house millions and renovate the very nature of human habitation. Murphy’s critique is aligned with a familiar narrative about the political indifference of architectural postmodernism, a style of design that began to coalesce into a movement around the same time that architectural utopianism went out of fashion, and that is well suited to the neoliberal, global-corporate milieu in which we currently abide. Given all this feeling of loss, “architecture” may indeed have ended — but architecture, like every other cultural gambit that can be monetized, traded, or generally detached from its use value in a “free market,” survives a great deal longer, of course.

If there is one figure who represents “architecture” in the bravura sense Murphy intends the term, it would be R. Buckminster Fuller. The space frames and geodesic domes that Fuller designed through the honeycomb-like assemblage of interlocked triangular pieces are as evocative of a 20th-century conception of the “future” (with its inevitable tinge of the “retro”) as any emblem or silhouette of modernism. Fuller was one of the last archetypes of what Roger Luckhurst calls “the inventor mythos,” a large-scale thinker par excellence, envisioning links between the smallest elements of nature and the biggest technological devices humans could conceive. His miraculously peripatetic theory and practice were perfectly suited to what Murphy calls the “last futures era” — even Fuller’s most quixotic prophesying did not necessarily impede the elegance and efficiency of his designs. Nowadays, bits and pieces of Fuller’s legacy are traceable in everything from sports stadiums to children’s toys, and his modular, quasi-organic style of engineering is so integral to the look of “the modern” that we scarcely see it.

Like many prominent architectural modernists, Fuller was a severe critic of contemporary political institutions and a great believer that science and technology could liberate us from them. Architecture was not only a medium for social evolution — more fundamentally, it was a technological expression of nature’s own inherently progressive agenda, an art form that would, if unshackled from shortsighted pragmatism and provincialism, eventually free humankind from drudgery, inequality, and even labor itself. With a bravado remarkable even among architects, Fuller affirmed a natural chain of being from the molecular to the cosmic, into which his designs would seamlessly fit: “intrinsically based on the very fundamental building units of nature, […] their deployment at human scale was part of a universal strategy for expanding consciousness of structure and space.”

In retrospect, it is easier for us to mock such grandiose holism than to observe the real influence of Fuller’s and others’ technologically inclined prophesying on contemporary housing, urban design, and cultural theory. A handful of great built projects testify — if we look past the superficial derision often directed at large-scale modernist architecture (“blaming buildings for social problems,” as Murphy tersely puts it) — to the ambition with which futurists like Fuller conceived both the architect’s social responsibility and the vast technological and environmental resources that he (it was usually “he”) believed he was sanctioned to exploit. Murphy discusses a number of examples: the multi-use town center of Cumbernauld, Scotland; Denys Lasdun’s brilliant, ziggurat-shaped complexes at the University of East Anglia; Moshe Safdie’s extraordinary Habitat 67 apartments in Montreal; Kenzō Tange’s gargantuan semi-open structure for the 1970 Osaka Exposition; Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris; and several others. Murphy also describes some more equivocal projects, such as the Thamesmead council housing development near London, Robert Moses’s infamous Trans-Manhattan Expressway, and even the abortive Biosphere 2 project in Arizona, an enormous “closed ecological system” that succumbed to the vicissitudes of environmental unpredictability and petty bureaucracy. However, not surprisingly, many more vital large-scale modernist projects were conceived only on paper, and some of the grandest works of 20th-century architecture are hardly more than sketches: Archigram’s “Plug-In City,” Kenzō Tange’s plan for bridge-buildings spanning the entire Tokyo Bay, Frei Otto’s domed Arctic city, and even Gerard K. O’Neill’s proposals for permanent orbital space colonies, taken at least half-seriously by NASA.

Probably the most essential component of such large-scale architectural thinking is the motif of the frame. As a theoretical tool, frames are exceptionally versatile and capacious, permitting architects to design very small and very big at the same time, and enabling innovative compromises between the most powerful forces of nature and specific technical strategies. In 1976, Reyner Banham named such architecture “megastucture,” appropriating a term from the Japanese Metabolist architect Fumihiko Maki. As a megastructural frame, architecture is gigantic, empty, modular, and improvisatory — left unfinished for the individuals or communities who will come to inhabit and complete it.

At the very least, a human being in the frame is no mere “consumer” of space; nor is the megastructure itself anything like a commodity. Architecture in this mode is intended to be less a part of the social fabric than the very loom on which that fabric will be woven over decades or even centuries. To conceive of an entire polis in a single frame means to relinquish a good portion of the design processes to the long temporalities of resettlement, evolution, and thermodynamics, even as the architect audaciously assumes the task of orchestrating the medium through which these forces will play out. At their largest scales, such frames were often proposed by groups — Archigram in England, the Metabolists in Japan, Ant Farm in the United States, Coop Himmelb(l)au and Haus-Rucker-Co in Austria, Archizoom in Italy. Their theorizations tended to employ governing metaphors like beehives, cell colonies, crystals, or coral reefs — heroic yet quotidian agglomerations, transitional yet teleological, massive yet delicate. And the politics of such schemes were, as a rule, sturdily progressive and anti-capitalist, suited to a vigorous critique of the social status quo even if they were in discordance with the very economic forces required ever to implement them.

So what happened? How did such intrepid architecture come to an end? There’s no single answer, but Murphy outlines both some well known and some intriguingly novel suggestions for why the enthusiasm for “omni-infrastructural” utopian frames went away. For one thing, of course, the end of the 1960s spelled the demise of a number of progressive and countercultural agendas. Political events such as the 1970s oil crisis, the continuing population explosion, several well-publicized disasters blamed on overconfident architects and bureaucrats, and even the invention of the shipping container and the end of NASA lunar missions contributed to pessimism about architectural progressivism. A variety of specific reactions against top-down urban design also gained traction, propelled by critiques of centralized social planning or of government itself: examples include the community-centered activism of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the environmentalism of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the anti-industrialism of Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects, and (less rigorous but no less influential) polemics such as Alice Coleman’s Utopia on Trial, Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, and the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth. By the mid-1970s, modernist style was giving way to the more diverse but less socially committed modes of postmodernism, a miscellany of reactions and recombinations that Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver called “adhocism” and Fredric Jameson “pastiche.” Finally — I believe this is the most provocative of the reasons Murphy offers for the end of architecture — the personal computer, that “plastic box on everyone’s desk,” was becoming a locus of both commercial design and ideology critique. Murphy suggests that we have “abandon[ed] genuinely spatial terrain in favour of conducting battles in the frontier of cyberspace” and, as a result, we have “completely forfeited” the debate over the role of anything so large as the city in shaping social life: “The transfer of utopia into a purely digital world” leaves us, at most, “the stubbornness of the house as a physical, political, and economic form.”

I’m sure this seems like a hodgepodge of critical explanations for the “end of architecture,” but I wish to suggest that its motley quality is in no way a fault of Murphy’s approach, but rather a real advantage of his method as a cultural historian. A strength of Murphy’s book is that he depicts both the general outlines and some of the juiciest details of these complex historical moments without distilling them into a deceptively linear chronology or a progression of mere styles. In practice, this means the book tends not to proceed in good chronological order. As we are reading about, say, the 1970s ecology movement or the sleek 1980s office complexes of Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, suddenly Murphy switches to the 1964 World’s Fair or 1940s cybernetic theorists. At other moments, we return to the same designers or buildings several times, invoked as precedents for very different historical trends, or we discover similar architectural innovations — the ziggurat, say, or the module — emerging well before or after their times or in parallel evolutions. Murphy’s final chapter caps this broad eclecticism by linking the contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s theory of the modern “world interior” to both the 1851 Crystal Palace in London (Sloterdijk’s example) and the new “Googleplex” corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California (Murphy’s own). But a reader’s patience with the quirks of nonlinear history is rewarded by an overall feel for what was gained (and sometimes lost) in the blending of technological creativity with aesthetic audacity that comprises 20th-century architecture in its superbly messy theory and practice. Megastructuralism, in particular, is a site at which human beings, some of them for motives having little do with creating merely efficient spaces or modes of living, experiment extravagantly with other humans’ actual or potential lives. In this sense, architecture is not only political — regardless of what postmodernism has come to signify — but is politics itself.

Indeed, possibly the most disturbing thought emerging from Murphy’s book is that megastructuralism may not have failed at all, but rather succeeded all too well. As he observes periodically, building types that are utterly familiar in the contemporary landscape — the big-box store, the hub airport, the mega-mall — are in many ways exemplars of megastructural thinking, even to the point of parody: they are empty frames into which profit-generating units (among which we should count ourselves) can be plugged indefinitely, and their basic structure can be expanded until its capitalizing potential is exhausted and some new “frame” takes its place. So while we readily perceive the residual iconography of Fuller’s honeycombed space frames and the Metabolists’ modules in the hypermall or urban redevelopment scheme — not to mention in the shiny new office complexes of Google, Apple, or Amazon — what we don’t necessarily see, but perhaps queasily suspect, is the extent to which our whole quotidian existence is increasingly framed — Heidegger might say “enframed” — by the technology of a megastructuralist capitalism that has shown an alarming ability to co-opt speculative futurism for the purpose of mere futures speculation.


David Wittenberg teaches in English, comparative literature, and cinematic arts at the University of Iowa.

LARB Contributor

David Wittenberg teaches in English, comparative literature, and cinematic arts at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative and Philosophy, Revision, Critique: Rereading Practices in Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Emerson. He is currently completing a new book entitled Big Culture: Toward an Aesthetics of Magnitude.


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