In Defense of Architecture (Fiction)

Over at HTC Experiments, David Gissen is the latest to tackle architecture fiction. I like David's writing quite a bit, but this time I'm moved to the defense of architecture and to expand the concept further in the direction I would like to see it go. I won't rehash the idea of architecture fiction again as I've written about it here and here while Bruce Sterling originated the concept here. Go read those if you're unfamiliar with the idea.  

David is puzzled by how Bruce is fascinated with Archigram and sees it ironic that I understand architecture fiction as a way beyond green architecture since the language of Archigram informs much of green architecture today . Somehow (I'm not quite sure how), David understands that irony as fatal. If there's a fatal irony, i would say that's its in the contradiction that the green design movement is appropriating Archigram's imagery. After all, by the late 1960s, Archigram was detested throughout schools of architecture worldwide for their commitment to technology, in particular their commitment to planned obsolescence and building. This was anathema for the young radicals of the early 1970s. I remember teaching Archigram in the mid-1990s and they were still thought of as retardataire, and that was at SCI-Arc! So, although Archigram conveys the message well, it's an originary work not without its problems.

Second, David notes that Beatriz Colomina demonstrated that all forms of modernism relied on fictional devices. This is a more serious charge since he feels that if architecture is by nature fictional, it means that architecture fiction is nothing new and therefore boring. In its stead, he suggests his own re-definition of the term: "architectural fiction as a form of writing on buildings." 

I have to admit that this prospect scares me. It seems like a perpetuation of starchitecture, which I would like to bury as fast as possible. If a novelist is moved to write about a work of architecture, then more power to them. I'm certainly glad to see that Bruce is inspired by Greg Lynn's work, although I think if an shoe inspired Bruce, he could cook up something equally smart, witty, and literary. I think the last thing we need is our favorite starchitect bothering a novelist to say "Hey, since I can't get on the front page of the New York Times anymore [the NYT having gone under in this fictional scenario], I need you to write a novel about me."  Moreover, if we're trying to judge by novelty, then what about Victor Hugo? This interpretation of architecture fiction has been going on for a while now.

But I'm grateful to David for prodding me on with regard to this topic. I'm interested in something very specific, narrower than anybody else's interest here. Let me try to articulate it. 

Instead of being Utopian or imaginative, might it be possible for architecture to shape our experiences in such ways as to approximate the effects of films or fiction? Or better yet, video games? Please don't take this to mean that architects need to copy Doom or Quake (they've tried that already). But rather, could architecture fiction be something that re-shapes our subjectivity? Yes, this is awfully similar to some of the ideas that Peter Eisenman threw around in the past, but substitute the theoretical armature, which he seemed willing to discard with predictable regularity with deliberate invention? And yes, this is similar to what Koolhaas and Tschumi suggested in the 1970s, but would that be a bad starting point for the present day?

If I'm coming to architecture's defense, then you've guessed that there's probably a catch. I firmly believe that there's a huge opportunity for architects—particularly during the coming protracted recession—to think about what is possible with the built environment (as it already stands) and pervasive technologies (as they already exist). In other words, if architects are such experts at shaping space, who is to say they always need to work with the building trades? The Eameses made furniture and films. If they were around today, I think they'd be out in the city, finding ways to shape the environment through existing forms of locative media. Look at the work Mark Shepard does for example. He's one of the few people who've got it figured out. 

Anticipating protests about architects not being in the software business, I'll ask what, if anything, are architects doing in studios today besides using (and even writing!) software? Those aren't drafting boards on the desks anymore. And there's a caution: if architects don't do it, others will. There are plenty of super-intelligent people already working on this kind of material, such as the good folks at area/code, and I fully expect magic from that group, but there's lots of room spectrum out there for everyone to play. Will architects take up this challenge? 

Instead of writing novels on a cell phone, why shouldn't we be reading the city on our cell phones? 


A Provocation ....

Anout this "finding ways to shape the environment through existing forms of locative media" ... is this architecture fiction, or just phenomenology in "new clothes"?

Not phenomenology. No

Not phenomenology. No mumbo-jumbo, as Mark Jarzombek would call it.  But you were on last semester's mid-review. The work we were doing there is what I'm thinking about, but more of that. 


might it be possible for architecture to shape our experiences in such ways as to approximate the effects of films or fiction? Or better yet, video games?

this sounds a bit like a theme restaurant to me. what is TGIFriday's but a space carefully crafted to give its visitors an excuse to engage an alternate subjectivity: the post work flair-wearing drunkard?

it comes off sounding sarcastic, but I'm serious. (it's also interesting to note that those sports bar type restaurants were amongst the first to start issuing guests pager/coasters while they wait for a table, a brutal and peculiar form of locative media.)

at any rate, the point is that novels, films, video games, and theme restaurants invoke immersive environments by issuing rich descriptions *and* story line. "saving energy" is a boring story (green arch). so are "this is a really crazy space" (Liebeskind) and "Oh, shiny curvy" (DS+R) etc, etc. The story line of contemporary architecture is like jumble spam: poetry without reason. unfortunately, spam filters are not so easy to develop for a world without absolutes. If there's something that excites me about "fiction" (I think of them as fables), it's that we may feel comfortable making judgments again. we might actually be able to discuss whether a project was a good idea or if it actually does anything rather than going on and on about the techniques used to produce it. if I had a nickel for every time I heard the word voronoi...

I appreciate the interest in architects making things besides buildings, but it's also the easy way out. perhaps at the moment these other projects are more appealing, but that does not alleviate the burden to create buildings that contribute meaningfully to our world (in whatever definition you want to use for meaningful). although you may have a point about newspapers being in the deadpool, it will be a while before we evolve beyond the idea of constructed shelters that humans dwell in.

(...and this is coming from someone who still writes software on a regular basis)

Getting back to the comments

Getting back to the comments after being slammed by work … Apologies! 

I think the theme restaurant analogy is apt. Isn't architecture one big theme restaurant? 

Re: making things besides buildings. In principle, I agree that architecture fiction is more interesting and richer in buildings. That's why the studio I taught this fall involved making architecture fiction through buildings. But this recession is going to be long and hard. The jobs that architecture is shedding are not coming back, at least not in memory. Nobody is going to fund another boom like this one until the people who got burned in it die out, literally. That's a good 30 or 40 years down the road. 

So when it comes down to it, there are going to be precious few buildings built. Humans do need constructed shelters to dwell in, but the greenest thing to say is that there is such an overproduction of these that there should be a moratorium on building for a good twenty years (which is why green architecture is so suspect to me). All of the ludicrously Malthusian arguments about the near-future growth of global cities are based on migration from shrinking cities. At most, young architects are going to literally be making theme restaurants (think Gehry at Rebecca's).  

This is why, I think, architects need to think more broadly about what their practice is going to be in this condition. 

Some clarification


Thanks for the close read of my review of architecture fiction (AF). Reviewing”this idea is a bit like reviewing a building without seeing it, as there is so little recent architectural fictional work to see and discuss. My intention was not to kill a new movement, not that I could have (or necessarily want) such power. But I want to clarify some points, relative to your critique of my critique:

I agree that the green appropriation of Archigram is curious. I would go one step further and say that the problem with using Archigram as the technological language of green architecture (eg. Foster, Arup, Grimshaw) is that it is the most literal interpretation of the technological narrative imagery of Archigram. But here’s where we disagree: The irony (if there is one) is that this literal/realist take is the same problem with a potential AF use of Archigram (or Tschumi's or Koolhaas’ early collages).

I must admit, I wished you viewed my excitement about architectural fiction as a form of writing/interpretation as something positive. As you have noted so well, architectural writing (history, theory and criticism) is in big trouble, even though there are more architecture writers than ever! By finding a history of fiction in architectural representation (my comments on Colomina), I certainly did not intend to say that AF “was boring.” Rather, the point was to understand AF as the latest form of a type of representational interpretation done by architects in concert with writers, photographers, draftsmen, etc. I certainly don’t think such efforts are boring, and by having a history, they only become more interesting.

Thanks again for the close read — much appreciated.

Oh, I don't see you as trying

Oh, I don't see you as trying to kill the ideas at all, I think discussing them is absolutely worthwhile. Many thanks!

Another approach, which may have more similarities to what you are after is the architectural non-fiction that Robert and take on with AUDC. Blue Monday is very much an attempt to read the contemporary world (not merely any one building) through a form of architectural writing. Whether we have any followers or whether our method is in any ways legible as indebted to architecture in the end is another story, but the intent, at least, was there. 


hmm. i'm a little disappointed now to hear something that seemed as potent as architectural fiction deposited in locative media. Don't get me wrong i do understand the architectural/urban potentials of that type of discourse. The visual or operative manifestation of the massive invisible data cloud that surrounds used to fictionalize or even narrate the urban experience. Fine, but . . .

I was looking for a way out (or forward) something that might be more operative in method. Possibly the co-opting of the syntax of science fiction as our contemporary utopian or possible dystopian drive. The thesis projects coming from Rice that BLDGBLG chronicled a few weeks ago seemed to be the clearest manifestation of this. The extrapolation of geo-politics, territorial agreements, environmental destruction and even psychogeography as drivers pushing a larger less encapsulating world view. This also seemed to have the potential of pushing us past the current problematic of the post-critical. The collapsing of the architect and critique with the fictionalization of the work. Along the lines of where David Gissen was with the "architectural fiction is a form of appropriation that rethinks the relation between writing and building. "

Oh Will, sorry to have

Oh Will, sorry to have disappointed you! 

I do think that architecture fiction has the capability of pushing us beyond the post-critical although that movement seems to have exhausted itself under its own inertia. But as I mentioned above, one of the reasons I suggest that architects turn to locative-media-like ideas is that they at least help us occupy our time during a period in which building is going to be in short supply.

Moreover—and this is why I run the Netlab—I can't help but think that no architectural innovation in my lifetime has had the same effect on my sense of space as my mobile phone or my wireless-enabled laptop. There's nothing close. Heck, google maps on the iPhone alone is more revolutionary to me than anything in architecture in my lifetime. So maybe what I'm after is to call for architects to inhabit these spaces during this down town rather than, say, just graphic design or furniture design.  

nor either/or, but both/and!

i agree locative media has a powerful effect in our lives right now, and that further research is due- but it doesn't need to be the only one. as i see it, architecture right now is turning its back on autonomy and self-critical- endless navel gazing, and turning towards a critique of outside conditions. not that this hasn't been done before [yes i would include superstudio in there]. but its becoming a stronger common thread right now. this critique can be done in several ways- through locative media, through more literal fiction such as the project shown in bldg blog, through blog writing. i think it can also be done through 'actual,' building designing and constructing, architecture. granted there's a whole lot of building out there, but there's a whole lot of housing needed in other parts of the world, and lots of room for improvement on how this could be done. no reason why social housing cannot be speculative and critical also.

one additional point- i say turning its back on autonomy referring to script writing, starchitecture for form and marketing's sake, and several more groups- a recent turn of events commented on right here on this blog.

Absolutely. I totally agree.

Absolutely. I totally agree. In the case of social housing, you are so right. Why does it have to be so uninventive?