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.

liam young at virgin spaceport_by jono gales
Liam Young at Virgin Spaceport by Jono Gales

How can design play a role in developing new cultural relationships with the anthropocenic world?

What I am doing with Kate Davies in our nomadic research studio Unknown Fields is travel around the world to explore the landscapes our contemporary technologies set in motion. I use the phrase “our luminous screens cast shadows that stretch across the planet”. We have spent around five or six years, traveling through those shadows, looking at the world that our technology has made for us. That includes rare earth landscapes, the mega-ports of the shipping industry, logistics infrastructure, gold mines or the lithium fields in Bolivia where our batteries are coming from. All of these vast landscapes are fundamental to the technologies we consider ephemeral or light.  The cloud, MacBook Air, wireless and so on are all terms that suggest invisibility, but they are in fact massive geological instruments.

We are all straddling the spectrum from the physical to the digital

By travelling and mapping these shadows, then perhaps we can actually begin to design the shadows themselves, how we might design the supply chains not the objects. We could think about the design of an iPhone not in terms of how it feels in the hand, or slides into the pocket, but how its material language would speak of the landscape from where it came from or set in motion a series of positive supply chain landscapes. We could choose certain materials, we could design certain functions that would actually enable dispersed, outsourced populations across the world to do things differently. The idea of designing a singular object that sits in your pocket or a singular building that sits on a discrete site is dead. We need to think about designing systems, networks, for a global context as opposed to discrete objects and buildings. Armed with a knowledge of these distant landscapes and systems then perhaps we can begin to engender new relationships to the infrastructural territories that we so often forget about, or ignore.

Then it is more about designing the human condition instead of designing an object and placing it outside the human context.

Yes, I would say an object is not only an object but also a geological entity or a supply chain network. If we design the system then perhaps our objects can just coalesce like a cloud, formed out of the systems of engineered flows and networks. I am intrigued by the question of whether or not the material used in my laptop would connect to the ground it came from. It would not look as slick, glossy and seamless, it would have other qualities. I think it is an intriguing aesthetic investigation we need to carry out.

It seems technological change is speeding up. Do you feel that this is the case? And where will this go?

What is critical is that our technologies are developing faster than our cultural capacity to understand them. You could see this happening with the controversy about file sharing and piracy. If I buy and read a book and then give it to you when I am finished then that is an act of sharing. But if I listen to an album and give you a copy of it, it is an act of piracy. This same struggle to develop cultural or legal protocols is happening with drones, the freedoms of the internet or the fact that I can pick up my phone and swipe left or right to get a date in a matter of minutes. All of the futures that technology promise are in equal measure desirable and shocking. We still don’t know whether we should be running in the opposite direction, banning certain technologies or throwing millions of dollars into others. We have not yet developed a cultural understanding of what all these stuff means but tech companies are already producing them. They are not waiting for the lawyers to figure out how to regulate them they are just making the tools and launching them into the world. I am not sure whether, across the broad timeline, technology is developing faster. That is why the speculative project is important. You can prototype an idea really quickly and launch a fiction with such force that it finds traction. We can start to experiment with the technologies we might want and those that perhaps we should be scared of.

the city in the sea_Liam Young_low res
The city in the sea

An example would be the new craze about smart watches. We didn’t know that we needed them before they were invented and the need seems to develop after the invention in most cases.

Nature is a moving target that is purely defined based on arbitrary myths and beliefs

We are great at creating needs where there were none. I think that is one of our generation’s defining characteristics. All these things are in some way enabling though. I am not an advocate of running to the hills, going off the grid, living in the trees, eating nuts and berries. I am interested in how the technology can facilitate new kinds of intimate relationships with the nature. How technology can be an active agent in, not only creating new natures, but also reconditioning our relationship to old concepts.

Technology has always been a driver in evolutionary change, it has always been shaping our planet at scales we could never imagine. The ideal of a pristine, untouched nature is just a cultural construction. Nature doesn’t exist anymore and perhaps it never really did. Nature is a moving target that is purely defined based on myth and belief. I think we need a new word for nature that actually talks about technology as an implicit force within it. We have to get away from the binary oppositions of nature and technology in order to start thinking about how technology can facilitate new opportunities for ecology. I think that even new nature or next nature is a phrase that privileges nature as a concept. We should use a totally new word that is not loaded with the cultural baggage that comes with nature, where new implies something better and improved. Talking about nature as something that never existed at all is potentially more productive.

The problem is this romantic idea of putting the nature up on a pedestal and admiring it. That kind of thinking gets in the way of technological developments.

We can trace back the evolution of terms such as wilderness. We can talk about the Amazon rainforest as an iconic wilderness, but it is not a wilderness at all it is actually a large cultivated garden that has been managed across thousands of years. The Amazon has become an icon of untouched nature not because it has always uninhabited but because the Europeans that first discovered it didn’t recognize any form of land ownership as they understood it. So, terms like nature and wilderness have their roots in this very singular worldview. We have just been building upon these inaccuracies and biases from the very start. We need to explore new relationships to the anthropocenic condition that we have all existed in for as long as we can remember.

We need a new word for nature that talks about technology as an implicit concept

With your nomadic research studio the Unknown Fields Division you travel to extreme landscapes exploring the idea of what is natural. Which answers did you find during this research?

There is a great tagline on the original Easy Rider movie poster: “Two men went in search for America and never found it”. With Unknown Fields we have gone to some of the most extreme places on the planet in search of wilderness but still haven’t found it. We travelled to the middle of outback Australia, one of the driest and deadliest places on the planet to meet a guy leading a fairly normal life. He said to us: “These ‘unknown fields’ you speak of is just my backyard mate”. We have not yet found a place on the planet that is truly untouched or that is truly natural. This is very scary, but it is also exciting because we are a generation privileged enough to understand the role we have played in the world. That is a powerful place to be: being on the cutting edge of the potential of a change. It is both a true tragedy, but it also should be totally enabling.

Samsung City_Night_still image_low res
Samsung City Night

What might help us get over the fear of not finding something natural is to accept that the human trace can be found anywhere, even on the moon. We cannot escape that.

Yes, and on the way to the moon, we are going to bump into the outer space junk that we have left there. I think the first step is to give up this illusion of opposites, of nature versus technology, and see them as being just two ends of a continuous spectrum. Then we can start imaging how we could form new relationships to industry and technology. It is naive to think that someday we are going to give up this world of technologies that we made for ourselves. It is naive to think that we are going to go back to living off the land, raising crops and hunting animals. How can we continue the life that we want to lead in a way that is sustainable and positive? So much of the world that we explore with Unknown Fields exists purely in the service of our cities and the technologies they contain. We must start to bring these resource and production landscapes, which we so want to ignore, to the front of our minds. We must take ownership over these landscapes and become accountable for them as well. We need to think about how we can actually embrace them in a way that brings them to the front of the discussion.

Talking about nature as something that never existed at all is potentially more productive

Nowadays, technology is not indivisible from culture. How do you bring people in this conversation?

What we are trying to do with our projects is explore the actual and messy implications of technologies. When I give lectures, I tell stories about technology. I don’t give a how-to-do lecture about how we built a bespoke tracking system for the Drone Orchestra or how we made the animations for New City, a series of digital skylines. I don’t describe the technicalities of a project, but the cultural implications of them as a means of reiterating the idea that we cannot separate technology from culture. I am much more interested in exploring what a technology means rather than how it operates.

I want to create a platform for discussion and to prototype possible alternatives. I am really interested in this idea of prototyping new forms of culture as a way of engaging with new forms of technologies.

The future is beginning to become a project again

Why do you think are we having this discussion now, and not 100 years ago or in 100 years?

It is interesting to look at the development of science fiction novels across the last 30 years. In the 80s, science fiction novels were generally describing 30-40 years into the future. Then in the last couple of decades, that time frame of when the future is set has been shrinking. We are now at a point when the most interesting science fiction books are actually set in the immediate present; what we could call the ‘visionary present’.

You could say that this is because, in this moment, there are so many unknowns in play, whether it be economic collapse, catastrophic climate change, new forms of ubiquitous technology or biotechnology and we just don’t know how any of them will play out. Any one of these things could fundamentally change what it means to be human, to live on this planet and relate with one another. We are seeing the emergence of future projects, speculative projects, because this is our way of coping with a reality that is extraordinarily uncertain.

The future is beginning to become a project again. The future as a project is not something new, we have always regaled ourselves with tales of a day soon to come but it is just that at certain moments the speculative project makes more sense than others. I think right now is the time when we need to be making the future again.

I am not interested in the future at all. I am interested in futures

How futurism can investigate and affect the social, cultural, political and ethical aspects of the way we live?

I like the phrase “Exaggerating the present” when talking about the projects we create. Futurists use the future as a way of developing, testing and prototyping a series of possibilities, designed to inform, shape and change the way we live now. The future project is always about the present. What we are trying to do is tell stories and exaggerate and extrapolate the present so that certain forces, tendencies or cultural idiosyncrasies become more legible, apparent and visible. The role of the future project is to critically engage with the present in a really meaningful way and put in place scaffolds for the futures we want.

What are your big plans for the future?

Conceptually, my plans for the future are inevitably my plans for the present. I am not interested in a single future, but many possible futures. It is only when a future is plural that it starts to be meaningful, because then you can start to make judgements about which one is better than the other. I am not interested in the future at all. I am interested in futures.

In terms of projects, now I’m focusing on works that involve storytelling, fiction and film because these are the dominant mediums through which our cultures share ideas. We all spend our Friday nights watching a terrible film, eating popcorn or falling asleep in the pages of a novel. This is how we discuss, debate and put ideas out into the world. These are powerful mediums and I am interested in how designers, architects and urban planners can co-opt and hijack these forms of fiction and popular culture to broadcast ideas to the broadest public possible. People from my discipline spend far too long in dark rooms talking to one another. What they should do is think about ways to disseminate their ideas to a wider audience capable of making a difference. This is where my work is starting.

Thanks Liam for sharing your work and viewpoints with us!
Interview by Yunus Emre Duyar and Alessia Andreotti.

More interviews: Bruce SterlingJason SilvaRachel ArmstrongAlexandra Daisy GinsbergFloris KaaykArne HendriksChloé Rutzerveld

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