The Future That Is Now – Essay by Stan Allen

This essay, as a history of contemporary architecture and its theoretical base by Stan Allen, is particularly interesting to me as I am currently reading William Gibson’s book of essays “Distrust that particular flavour” – Gibson, who has been one of my seminal influences, is relevant to the discussion of the recent past as his concepts of a futurity rooted in the present, ( “the futures already arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet”) is the inevitable fate of architectural and most built environment design which must fit into the current reality and by the time it is built, designed in the recent past yet its influence will be felt it the near and somewhat more remote future, as it is rather persistent in both its successes and its inevitable and much publicized failures, from this perspective its  “navel gazing”, theorizing,  of its recent past  seems laughable. From The Design Observer

Architecture studios at Harvard University, Princeton University and Cornell University. [Photos by Lou HuangShih-Min Hsu and Adam Kuban]

And it’s always interesting, I think, to see how the future, or rather the forward-looking form of any discipline, always carries within it the seeds of its own triteness.
— William Gibson [1]

Among the participants in the first ANY (Architecture New York) conference, organized by Peter Eisenman and Cynthia Davidson in 1991, was the novelist William Gibson, author of the cyberpunk classic Neuromancer. Published in 1984, Neuromancer captured the anxieties of a dystopian world in which technology has penetrated all aspects of everyday life. In Gibson’s early novels, unprecedented physical mobility and the fluidity of personal identity enabled by digital technologies reshape individual subjectivity and the physical space of the city alike — which is perhaps why the author found himself in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1990s speaking to the group of architects, philosophers, literary critics and architectural theorists assembled by Eisenman and Davidson. Like the film Blade Runner two years earlier, Neuromancer had become an early touchstone for imaginative speculation on the urban and architectural consequences of digital culture.

More recently, Gibson’s keen cultural antennae have detected another shift. In three novels published since the beginning of the 21st century, Gibson has continued to explore similar themes, but now in novels set not in the future but in the present. [2] Fashion, underground marketing, industrial espionage, hacker culture and the shadowy workings of international capital are the subjects of these recent novels. Locations continually shift, from global cities such as London, New York and Vancouver to post-Soviet Russia or the high-octane capitalism of 21st-century Asia. It is possible to say without too much exaggeration that we now inhabit a version of the future Gibson first described 25 years ago. No replicants or time travel, but rather an accumulation of smaller changes, the consequences of which are subtle and all-pervasive as technology has increasingly lodged in unanticipated aspects of our lives. As Gibson has observed, the actual future is often more nuanced and unexpected than the imagined future.

The rapid technological and social changes of the past two decades present complex challenges to architectural practice and education. The 1990s in particular were characterized in part by the rejection of history and the announcement of massive, technology-driven change; these claims need to be examined and placed in context. The introduction of the computer has indeed made the design studio a very different place than it was in 1990s. A new generation of teachers and practitioners has emerged, schooled in the creative use of these advanced technologies, but also marked by the theoretical debates of the 1980s and ’90s. The speed of information exchange, accelerated by digital technology, has made a discipline already international in its scope fully global. The schools and the profession reacted in complex ways to the events of September 11, 2001, reigniting debates about memory, place, politics and the agency of design. Questions provoked by global urbanization, economic instability and increasing awareness of the environmental crisis have spurred a rethinking of design methodologies and the potential of cross-disciplinary work. Architectural historians are reexamining the utopian and speculative projects of the 1960s and ’70s, and in architecture and industrial design a hands-on, activist culture has arisen, often working with a pragmatic mix of simple technology and global distribution networks to enact change in the developing world. The environmentalism of the 1960s has also been revived, now seen through the lens of landscape, ecology and building performance.


Top: William Gibson. [Photo by Fred Armitage] Bottom left: Fall of the Berlin Wall. [Photo via Wikipedia] September 11 attacks, New York. [Photo by Marc AuMarc]

In short, the field continues to adapt and change. As a way to clarify a past that is still too close for complete historical objectivity, this essay will focus on three areas: the impact of digital technologies, the theory/practice debates, and the emergence of new interdisciplinary approaches to urbanism and the environment. As one who was both a participant and observer in these developments, I bring an informed, even insider’s perspective; but there are undoubtedly important developments left out of my account. [3] At a time of ongoing change, my aim is to identify consequential change and cut through the persistent rhetoric of “the new.

Read the Essay

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