All Possible Worlds: Liam Young on Dreaming Future Cities
Somewhere out there, a machine meanders down a warehouse aisle, a car with mechanical eyes roams a downtown avenue, drone propellers hum to the tune of a city street. These scenes playing out in cities and laboratories across the globe are quietly shaping how we live, imagine space, and construct our world—long before we’ve even begun to understand their full implications.
Following his lecture at Archigram Cities, architect and film director Liam Young sat down with M+ to explore how his practice of ‘speculative architecture’—building fictional worlds to prototype the impact of changing technologies—could be considered a continuation of the Archigram project, an antidote to uncertainty, and a source of hope in an age ‘measured in apocalypses’.
Tell us about the background of your work: what is ‘speculative architecture’?
I trained as an architect in Australia, and I still describe myself, for the most part, as an architect. But I don’t make buildings as physical objects; rather, I tell stories about the ways that technology is changing our relationship to spaces, cities, and architecture.
Architecture in a traditional sense is a discipline on fire. Many of the forces that effect change across cities and spaces are no longer within the realms of the physical building and physical infrastructure. Now the forces of change in cities are access to the network, systems of AI governance, mobile technologies—things that the traditional architect is only grasping at.
Speculative architecture is about visualising stories about space, often by co-opting mediums of popular culture—music videos, film, graphic novels, video games. I call it ‘speculative architecture’—not just world-building or production design—because it is still asking specifically architectural and urban questions.
When I argue for speculative architecture, it’s really a call to arms. It’s shaking traditional architects and saying, ‘Why can’t we be doing things that are more socially impactful?’
Traditionally, when we talk about architecture, we relate it to the economy and urbanism. How does speculative architecture expand this view?
In a way, you can’t separate technology from culture. Whether it be buildings, global supply chains, network infrastructure, machines—all of these technologies both produce culture and are produced by culture.
Drones, driverless cars, and artificial intelligence are what I would describe as ‘before culture’ technologies; that is to say, they’ve arrived faster than our cultural or legal capacity to understand what they might mean. So, we started to treat fiction and film as sites in which to prototype the implications of these technologies and imagine cultural responses to them. What happens when they hit the ground and start to be used for unintended purposes?
Drones, for example, were originally objects of the military–industrial complex. Now, I could walk down the street and buy a 4K resolution camera drone for a few hundred dollars and, in the space of about half an hour, learn to fly it professionally. That drone could be used for extraordinary things, but it could also be used to fly to the building opposite and spy through the window of someone getting changed. What does it mean to talk about all of those possible uses, not just the ones that are attractive and being sold?
If the future generated by these technologies is an unknowable landscape, then each speculative project acts like a torchlight to illuminate part of that landscape in front of us. The more torch beams that shine on that landscape, the easier we’re able to navigate a pathway through it.
A significant part of your work is film production. To what extent are your films influenced by existing science fiction tropes?
There are two sides to my film practice. One is a speculative form of practice that I do out of my studio here in Los Angeles, Tomorrows Thoughts Today, where we make fiction—or perhaps a better word is science fiction—film projects. The other part of my practice is a documentary practice, from a studio called Unknown Fields that I run from London with architect Kate Davies.
William Gibson, the cyberpunk and science-fiction author, has this much-used quote in futures theory (which is almost a cliché now): ‘The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.’ We take that quite literally. Unknown Fields looks at that and says, ‘Well, it must be possible then to jump on a plane or a train—or at least it used to be, before the pandemic—and travel to these pockets of the future that exist in the present tense. To document them and report back to a world that maybe hasn’t seen them yet.’
A large part of Unknown Fields is travelling around to mega-scaled energy infrastructure projects: the world’s largest solar field, the world’s largest data centre, the world’s richest lithium deposit. In the before times, I was in Dubai visiting the site of what will become the world's tallest vertical farm, a collaboration between a California company and Emirates Airlines. Currently, huge amounts of resources are expended on flying in produce for passengers' meals, so they are developing systems to grow crops in indoor tower stacks in the desert.
These mega-scale infrastructure projects then informed the development of our most recent project, Planet City, an imaginary, closed-loop urban system for ten billion people built entirely on renewable energy systems and indoor farming ecologies.
We speak to the scientists and technologists who are developing these systems that lack the cultural investment or the political will to roll out on a large scale. Then we take them back to the studio and imagine what would happen if the oil lobby was nullified, or if our anxieties around nuclear energy or genetic modification were measured against the need to fundamentally change what we do now . . . what would that city look like?
The influences we draw upon are not cinematic or filmic; we draw from technology, science, and a deep engagement with the present moment. We then use the mechanisms of Hollywood—costume designers and CG artists—as a means to tell these critical stories.
Another influence you’ve mentioned is Archigram, who were considered as ‘agitators’ in the architectural community during their time. How does Archigram’s work relate to your practice?
I first encountered Archigram as a student of architecture in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Then, their work was the sort of thing that you would find and read in a back corner of a library, akin to a kid reading comic books with a torchlight under blankets at night. It’s not the sort of thing that was talked about at a pretty conservative architecture school, but these were my heroes in many ways because they were practising the sort of architecture that I thought was valuable.
I would describe Archigram as speculative architects. Ultimately, the iconic projects of Archigram weren’t ever designed to be buildings. The site for those projects were the pages of Archigram’s series of pamphlets and zines that were disseminated to audiences, not some physical site in the United Kingdom.
Think about the context in which Archigram was making work. At the time, post-war British housing was monumental and permanent as an antidote to the upheaval and anxiety of war. Their projects embraced mass manufacturing and lightweight materials like plastics; they were ephemeral and temporary, mobile and of the moment. You have to see how radical that would have been against the massive concrete and brick structures of the day. It was introducing an entire generation of architects to new ideas about what architecture could be without ever building a thing.
Archigram’s fictions are so powerful because of their reach and accessibility. They embraced the mediums of popular culture; they were embedded in the music, art, and design scenes of the day.
Within the narrow corridors of the discipline, ‘accessible’ is often a derogatory term. I think a better term is ‘generous’: we’re generous with our audiences, we make work that doesn’t require studying for six or seven years to understand. Ever since we could sit up, we’ve been stuck in front of a TV or fall asleep in the pages of a novel. Fiction is an extraordinary shared language, and it’s a valuable vessel within which to encode architectural and urban ideas.
Some people have described Archigram as ‘prescient’, but there are many aspects of their projects, such as their enthusiasm for disposability and consumerism, that just wouldn’t work today. What’s your take on that?
I think one of the great misunderstandings of science fiction or speculative architecture is that its value is in prediction. Ultimately, Archigram was not trying to imagine what the future would look like and do a bunch of drawings about it. They were entirely concerned, I think, with the present moment in the context of post-war British architecture.
If you take a project like the Electronic Tomato or David Greene’s Log-Plug, this idea of being able to plug into technology from anywhere could be described as a precursor of the global internet infrastructure. But it was really about challenging the preconceptions of the moment. The fact that we now can log on to the internet while sitting under a tree in the park is just a coincidence.
It’s the sort of thing that we see happening all the time in science fiction. Everyone talks about the prophecies of Blade Runner, for instance. I’m in LA now just a block away from the Bradbury Building, the film’s iconic location. The film was set in November 2019, but today in March 2021, flying cars aren’t zipping past my window, and fleshy replicants aren’t chasing me down the street.
But that’s not to say Blade Runner was some kind of failed speculation, in the same way that Archigram’s Walking City is not a failed speculation because cities aren’t rumbling across the planet on giant legs. Blade Runner was not about 2019 at all; it was about 1982. All of the science fiction of the day—what we would talk about now as cyberpunk—stand as chronicles of the moments in which they were made.
And that’s what I think the Archigrams are. They are extraordinarily insightful documents of the conversations, discourses, hopes, dreams, and wonders of the 1960s and 1970s in Europe. I’m deeply fond of all those projects, not because some of them played out, but rather the opposite: because they were provocative, antagonistic, and challenging the moment in which they were created.
Archigram has described themselves as being ‘optimistic’ about the situation in post-war Europe. How do you feel towards your own work? When you’re dealing with technologies that can be both wonderful and terrible, are you optimistic for the future?
A critical role of the world-builder and the speculative architect is to create alternative stories to the ones that are in the popular discourse. Archigram’s projects were optimistic because they came at a time when the necessary stories were ones of hope; the future had become a project again after the war.
A lot of our work comes at a time when the dominant discourse around technologies is already one of techno-solutionism and optimism—you know, the Elon Musks of the world. We’re routinely presented solutions dressed up in an app or marketed to us: they’re going to make our lives better, make us more connected, more content, give us better orgasms, connect us better to our mother.
We’ve been taking these technologies of convenience, of optimism and complicating them, saying: it’s not as simple as that. The driverless car that everyone is trying to rush to market is going to fundamentally change the nature of the street; it’s going to fundamentally change the discourse between centre and periphery; it’s going to lead to large-scale lifestyle and job transitions.
Yes, driverless cars will help us commute to work and liberate us from behind the wheel, but at the same time, they work based on complex surveillance systems that map the world in very particular ways; they have embedded biases. There are coders right now working on the software systems that will run them, making ethical choices about what a car chooses to do in a moment of an accident, how it maps and understands a person crossing the road. These fundamental philosophical questions are not the sort of questions that get talked about at a car launch. So we use our fictions to introduce those into the conversation.
A lot of our projects over the last decade could be described as ‘dystopian’, because we’ve been trying to put counter-narratives around technology out into the world. But I think Planet City signifies a shift in that tone.
In many ways, we’re living out a live-action dystopia. We now measure our age in apocalypses. Our counter-narratives necessarily have to shift in tone because the dominant discourse is the doom-scrolling that we do every day, looking at why the future is broken, what the pandemic has meant to us, what the revelations of people waking up to systemic racism are.
Planet City is a much more optimistic project, but I wouldn’t describe it as utopian; I think those terms utopian/dystopian and other binary opposites are decidedly problematic and un-useful. It’s about narrating and visualising a future that is somehow hopeful and positive, or a future that at least will engender some of the necessary changes required to sustain human life on the planet—and present those changes not as sacrifices, but as opportunities.
As told to Gloria Furness (Editor, Web Content) and Noel Cheung (Curatorial Assistant). The above interview has been edited for clarity. All Archigram images: © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.
Liam Young is a speculative architect and director who operates in the spaces between design, fiction, and futures. He is cofounder of Tomorrows Thoughts Today, an urban futures think tank exploring the local and global implications of new technologies, and Unknown fields, a nomadic research studio that chronicles these emerging conditions as they occur on the ground. His fictional work is informed by his academic research. He has held guest professorships at Princeton University, MIT, AA, and Cambridge and now runs the Masters in Fiction and Entertainment at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles.