Manufactured Landscapes

Interview: Liam Young on Speculative Architecture and Engineering the Future

Liam Young is a speculative architect who, in his own words, “operates in the spaces between design, fiction and futures”. With his London-based design think tank, Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, he explores the future implications of emerging urban developments. Named by Blueprint magazine as one of 25 people who will change architecture and design, Young uses fiction and film to discuss probable futures. He has also co-founded Unknown Fields Division with Kate Davies, an award winning nomadic workshop that travels on annual expeditions to the ends of the Earth, investigating unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and industrial ecologies. Unknown Fields have developed projects through expeditions from the Ecuadorian Amazon and the Galapagos Islands to North Alaska, the mining landscapes of the Australian Outback, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Recently, Young gave an interesting lecture at the Sonic Acts Festival 2015 in Amsterdam. His visually engaging storytelling took the audience on a virtual trip with the infamous celebrity Kim Kardashian, whose derriere broke the internet recently. During his talk, he meditated on the emergence of virtual landscapes and hinted at new futures originated by developing technologies. On that occasion, we talked to Liam Young about his work in speculative architecture, the future, and our role as humans in relation to the nature.

Why are you a speculative architect? What drives you in visualizing fictional near-future scenarios?

There is a shift in the spatial experience in cities, from metropolis shaped by physical buildings to digital networks

I was originally trained as a very traditional architect. I come from Australia, where there is a real fascination with the conventional ideas of making space. For a while, I worked in that classic form of practice, before I began to see that dominant forces shaping cities were starting to exist outside the traditional domain of architecture. Cities used to be formed by permanent networks of infrastructure, roads, public spaces, buildings. But now, emerging technologies are shifting the active agents of the city beyond the physical spectrum. So, architects that define that practice around the traditional ideas of making static and physical buildings are becoming increasingly marginalized.

Speculative architectural practice is really just an attempt to stay relevant in the context of a city that is always changing. I use this type of work to think about how, as designers, we could engage with emerging technologies in a much more critical and urgent way. Traditional architecture exists at the wrong end of the technology transfer line. Technology always happens to us rather than being shaped by us. With this type of work we are speculating and acting on the potentials of technology, and being active agents in shaping the development of where it could go and what we could use it for. So, I thought that operating with networks, software, stories and fiction within other cultural forms was a timely and legitimate form of architectural practice.

So, it is a way of being up to date with the developments in architecture.

I think somehow we all want to be able to effect change at some scale. I don’t think the traditional role of architects is going to disappear, but classic architects are going to become a form of luxury item. Louis Vuitton handbags still exist in the world, they serve no real purpose, but we all kind of like to have them. And the role of architects designing crafted physical buildings is going to operate in a similar way. The architectural profession will have to diversify. A speculative architect will tell stories about possible futures, and there will be architects as politicians, urban planners, tech company executives, researchers, writers and performers. The change is just an expanding role of the discipline.

You use the illustration of fictional scenarios as imaginative tools to explore the implications and consequences of emerging trends, technologies and ecological conditions. Which recent developments do you consider the most significant for the future?

I think there is a shift in the spatial experience in cities, from metropolis shaped by physical buildings and objects to digital networks, which are fundamentally in shaping the futures we are all racing toward. What the network has done to the planet is utterly radical. It defines new forms of communities, and even new forms of cities. We can imagine new cities organized around satellite sight lines, or inversion of property values as getting a good mobile phone signal becomes more important than having access to natural light. We navigate cities in a very different way from the ways we were used to. I look at my phone, in the maps interface I follow the pulsing blue dot of Google around the city. City form could become infinitely complex, intricate and labyrinthine because I always know where I am. Cities used to be organized based on human modes of perception and scaled according to the measurements of the body. Now cities are designed to be inhabited by the algorithms and technologies that have been tasked with reading and managing them.

The traditional role of architects is not going to disappear, but they are going to become luxury items

This shift of the dominant species inhabiting our cities, from human to machine, is changing every aspect of our lives. The city as imagined within the post-anthropocene suggests that designers build structures with a digital footprint, that cast shadows across both the physical and the digital spectrum. I am no longer just my physical self, I am defined by my social media footprint, by the media I create and the media created about me. I do not know who my physical neighbor is, but I speak to a network of 300 people from all over the world almost every minute, that is the city I inhabit. We are all straddling this spectrum from the physical to the digital.

You use drones for many of your projects. Do you think drones occupy an important position in the technology of the future?

I think drones are important for a speculative architect right now, because they are at an interesting point in their technological development. They just moved from being expensive and elite militarized technologies to being utterly accessible to everybody. Last year was supposedly the Christmas of the Drone, when everyone would wake up to a toy drone under the tree. In the development of all technologies, the moment we start to see interesting things happening is generally the point where it becomes democratized and people take the technology and misuse it. Sometimes this misuse has horrific consequences but sometimes it creates the conditions for the emergence of Web 2.0, or extraordinary ways of sharing information. My role has been to take the technology and speculate on what alternative applications it could be used for, beyond its original purpose of destruction and surveillance.

What the network has done to the planet is utterly radical

This point when technology is democratized and accessible is when we need to be speculating on its possibilities. If we are going to see drones increasingly entering into everyday life then what could be other applications for them? Could they become cultural objects, how could we re-imagine them outside of their original military applications? That is what we have been trying to do with the Drone Orchestra or the Electronic Counter Measures projects.

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