Thrilling Wonder Stories
Last Friday, at the Architectural Association in central London, I attended a symposium called Thrilling Wonder Stories. It was a series of talks arranged by Liam Young and Geoff Manaugh, and attended by a whole bunch of people from a range of disciplines. (I was listed on the billing, but didn’t actually have a presentation and contributed little of interest. Not that my tiny mind was needed, because there was a colossal array of speaking talent in attendance.) Brief impressions follow.
Introduction by the director of the Architectural Association, then Liam Young, and then Geoff Manaugh. The BLDGBLOG author instantly started connecting science fiction, speculation and narrative with architecture, leaping from one idea to the next. He values this kind of collision of ideas, and wants everyone else to. I suspect we could all have listened to this for another hour or two, but it was onward to the first speaker.
Peter Cook, seventy-something Archigram founder and working architect, was full of energy. He stood up to talk about “Weird Shit International” as a much-needed movement in architecture across the decades. He cast off layers of t-shirts, each one seeming to show his association with weird shit in building design across forty years, while narrating a series of architectural pictures – near-abstract things that connected disparate ideas from robotics to kitchenware. He lamented “up and down” building design philosophy, and laughed that the Oslo school of architecture was pumping out such boring graduates of that philosophy, when a solar-powered autonomous robot was mowing the grass-lawn roof above their heads. A situational joke that they did not seem to get.
Viktor Antonov was next. The Citadel from Half-Life 2 is probably the most famed of his creations, at least among my people, and he discussed some of his angles on design production. He talked about rendering impressionistic, low-detail cities to bring forward psychological aspects – the most intense the situation, the less of the environment you see – as will be demonstrated in the forthcoming animated film, The Prodigies. Calm scenes mean painterly but detailed environments, and action reduces the rendering to mere pencil-form sketchiness. Then he showed us how altering a couple of architectural parameters – increasing the height of the ground floors of Paris, and the monumental size of the smokestacks – could instantly render a real city in a science fiction oeuvre. It’s fascinating to see some one as artistically accomplished as Antonov precisely pinpointing the theory that underlies how he goes about creating stuff. The Paris he was designing looked phenomenal, but will never likely be unveiled, as it was for The Crossing. The game was recently frozen by its developers, Arkane Studios.
Lunch was weird: a side room full of speakers eating roasted vegetables and creme caramel, discussing the importance of JG Ballard. “Do you have to be dead to be taken seriously?” asked one of the speakers. Visions of undead lich-architects taking the podium. What do architecture commentators talk about when confined to lunch? Tombs, death, other writers.
Then we returned to hear from Iain MacLeod, the science fiction author. He spoke, somewhat distressingly, of the way in which British schoolchildren writing science fiction almost inevitably write about dark futures. The rocketship wonder of earlier decades is gone, and our children write dystopias by default: a fascinating, terrifying realisation. He seemed rather earthy and upbeat, and talked of how problems mean invention, and creativity, but I couldn’t help think about a generation of kids for whom there is no bright imagined future: only Bladerunner, eco-death, the Drowned World, apocalypse. MacLeod talked about the problems for idealistic sci-fi now, and I wonder if there was something about the hip nihilism of modern fantasy, combined with relentless terror-cancer newsmedia shit, that really will stop future generations bothering to climb out of their doomed shrug. I wondered whether we needed to send some idealists into schools, give Chris Anderson’s essay on optimism an outing. “Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes? Approximately 1%. Trends for violent deaths so far in the 21st century? Falling. Sharply.” And so on.
Next up: Nic Clear. A lecturer at The Bartlett School of Architecture, Clear was focused on discussing how cross media influences of a kind that weren’t given the nod by the core architectural profession could be valuable. Film making, novels, were important to architectural education too, he claimed. I felt like his message got a bit lost. It was basically: JG Ballard should be on reading lists, and architects are educated people who don’t have one clear portfolio. That rather got swamped by oppressive student films that he played as the second part of his presentation. Clear wanted architects to step back and think, and not to buy into pre-packaged positive thinking of capitalist sales speak, something like that. Big downers are good for you, it seems.
Then a design firm called Squint Opera took the stage. They were a fun kind of antidote to the proceedings up this point, playing a glossy, colourful show reel in which giant pins fell from the sky into microcosm living-blueprints, and UFO-stadiums hovered amid blizzards of ticker-tape – these were the staple of their architectural energy. Before that they showed slides of “Flooded London“, which presented the submerged, ruined capital as actually rather playful: an opportunity to turn the city into a watery paradise. They seemed to have a kind of cut-and-paste notion of how architecture should be sold and discussed, and they mentioned later that how they pictured the Olympic stadium, and how it turned out, were rather different. There was some kind of antagonism between their angle and that of Clear: they were operating on the kind of bright optimism of epic cashflows that Clear was unhappy about, prescribing to some coffee-on-the-terrace decadence that he saw as unrealistic. Nevertheless they were at the heart of the symposium: science fiction as part the real, day-to-day business of making buildings.
Then the most extraordinary storm of science-madness came from Francois Roche (of architects R&Sie) whose thick accent masked incredible phrases: “strategies of sickness”, “protocolising the witch in the forest”, “the necrosis of the building”, “the penis of the wall”… he talked about feeding death and traditional fairy tales into design, and about creating a machine that would build an un-navigable glass maze in the courtyard between buildings, into which people would wander, and then die, unable to escape without GPS. “They die to become part of the building,” he said, grinning, and propping expensive sunglasses on his styled bonce. He talked about a building in which would be constructed from vast, moulded versions of bullet holes on wet clay, covered in rotting vegetation collected from the Korean de-militarized zone by a purpose-built “witch” robot, referencing Tarkovsky’s Stalker on the way. Oh and this electrified hairy skyscraper that would suck pollution from the Thai atmosphere, and only be a little bit dangerous. Roche’s firm seems like one of the world’s most valuable imaginative resources: technically accomplished, with a healthy streak of insanity. He would be the guy the evil genius would go to for the Volcano base plans. “Ten billion in blood money, what can you build me?” “A death-maze constructed from recycled local materials and plutonium!” Something like that.
Finally Warren Ellis took the stage and told the audience that science fiction wasn’t – and had never been – about predicting the future. He explained, in no uncertain terms, that it was – from War of the Worlds to Transmetropolitan – always about dealing with the present. Then he shouted at a passing ice-cream van and quoted Heinlein creating context for the new and unknown: “SF operates language differently than most other forms of literature. What SF does, which annoys most people, is subvert the sentence. Changing one word can put you in a new place. The usual example is from Robert Heinlein: ‘As the door dilated…’ Suddenly you’re in an entirely different place.” He also revealed a new project, which he called Electrograd. A city which had been a testbed for futures of the past, and is now being torn down to make way for futures of the present. And murder, of course, because it needs a good story. I can’t wait to see how that one unfolds.
In retrospect the entire event reminded me of a rather more lively version of the kinds of things my lecturers were trying to arrange during my philosophy degree: a cross pollination of ideas that told the students that what they were doing was about education, not vocation, and that mad, beautiful ideas were worth pursuing for their own sakes, because – damn! – all the people up on that stage were living them.
The whole thing was stamped, perhaps imperceptibly to everyone else, with a motto I come back to – paraphrasing Richard Rorty – which is: “anything can be redescribed”. Sometimes a new description is all you need.