The History and Potential of Architecture Fiction

Multiscapes, by Pim Palsgraaf, via Junkculture

Architecture Fiction is topic that has been directly and indirectly addressed many times here on D-Build, but is still a topic with which many people are not entirely familiar.  Similar to the way that science fiction looks at he potential ways that science and technology could effect our lives in the future, architecture fiction looks at the implications of different ideas in architecture, urban planning, and the built environment told through narrative.  It is still a fairly esoteric genera, and only recently named, it has been developing over the last fifty plus years, and seems to really be coming of age now.  Rob Walker, whose Significant Objects project is a large inspiration for D-Build, recently wrote about his Hypothetical Development Organization project (which we have covered here before) from the prospective of architecture fiction, and at the same time has created an amazing introduction and history of the genera as well.

Definitions of the term seem to vary, but the coinage belongs to Bruce Sterling. He introduced it in 2006, after reading an imaginative and insightful essay by J.G. Ballard, published in The Guardian, about modernist architecture. “Now there’s some top-end sci-fi architecture criticism,” Sterling observed, adding this thought: “It’s entirely possible to write ‘architecture fiction‘ instead of ‘science fiction.’ Like, say, Archigram did in the 60s.”

Archigram came to life as an “architecture telegram” (a publication, basically) put together by a group of young architects in London in 1961. Its contributors specialized in hypothetical projects. In their publications, the architects involved, including Peter Cook and Ron Herron among others, would propose fantastic schemes for completely re-imagining buildings and urban spaces, which they would illustrate in equally fantastic styles. Cook’s Plug-In City was not made up of buildings, but was a single structure with standardized cells that could be fitted in or removed, here and there — the structure, the city, was meant to be in charge of the people, rather than the other way around. Herron’s Walking City, a cluster of urban-ness mounted on four legs, was said to be an extension of Le Corbusier’s dictum that a house is a “machine for living in.” In 1963 there was a big Archigram show called “Living Cities” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and since then the group’s work has remained highly influential in certain quarters of the architecture world.

Maybe one can say that “architecture fiction” refers to stories inspired by, or imposed upon, buildings and the built environment. And since Sterling cites Archigram, I take him to mean that those buildings or environments don’t have to be real, and the stories don’t have to be a series of words: They can exist as plans, schematics, models, renderings.

If Archigram is the core historical reference point for the idea of architecture fiction, then the core contemporary reference point, and resource, is BLDG BLOG, the popular website run by Geoff Manaugh, a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. Mark Dery has called him “the acknowledged auteur of architecture fiction,” adding: “On BLDG BLOG, Manaugh reads our built — and unbuilt — environments like a cultural radiologist, scanning them for evidence of social pathologies, symptoms of the post-apocalyptic.” As it happens, Manaugh was actually auditing a class about Archigram, and reading a lot of J.G. Ballard, in 2004, when he started his site.

This is just a small taste of the article, and I recommend reading it in full over on Design Observer, as it is the best introduction to architecture fiction I have come across.

Via Design Observer, image from Junkculture

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