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14 May 2021 / by Liam Young

All Possible Worlds: Liam Young on Dreaming Future Cities

Illustration of a cityscape. Four large cylindrical earth forms rise up from a field of pink rows. On each earth form is a cluster of suburban-style houses, tenement-style apartment blocks, and greenery. The windows of the buildings are lit.

Still from Planet City (2021), dir. Liam Young, VFX Supervisor Alexey Marfin

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.

Photograph of a factory interior. Four workers stand in a row with their backs to the camera, each servicing a metal cylinder hanging from a mechanical arm. Below the cylinders is an automated belt. This scene repeats indefinitely into the background.

Young's animated installation New City stitches together exaggerated images of real urban phenomena. Still from New City: Machines of Post Human Production (2016), dir. Liam Young

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?

Film still showing a taxi cab driving down a city street. The air above the street is crowded with neon signs hanging from drones.

In Seoul City Machine (2018, dir. Liam Young and Alexey Marfin), an artificially intelligent chatbot narrates images of drone-driven advertisements hovering over contemporary Seoul

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.

Film still showing a drone flying through tall buildings.

In the Robot Skies (2016, dir. Liam Young), shot entirely with pre-programmed drones, explores subcultures generated by teenage hacktivists in response to the smart city infrastructure of surveillance drones

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.’

Photograph showing a large green, rectangular expanse. At the far end are three metal silos. The area is surrounded by desert, with low mountains and clear blue sky in the distance.

Unknown Fields travelled to the world’s largest salt flat, Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia, to research the mining of lithium—the substance that powers our computers and smartphones. Still from Breastmilk of Volcanoes (2019), dir. Unknown Fields

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.

Illustration of a large, well-manicured field. Long rows of short pink and green plants stretch into the distance. Above each row is a single line of bright light. In the distance, two automated tractors plow through the field. Large earth forms dotted with buildings rise up at intervals through the field.

Planet City imagines a functional hyper-dense metropolis that houses the entire world population. Residents are sustained by mega indoor farms and vertical orchards. Still from Planet City (2021), dir. Liam Young, VFX Supervisor Alexey Marfin

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.

Photograph of two costumed figures inside a laundromat. The one in the foreground has a hand on a washing machine door and is wearing a woven blue dragon-shaped mask, blue and red patched cape, and golden trousers. The other one stands idly in the background, wearing a yellow woven mask and long yellow garment.

Planet City's costumes, such as these recycled woven fabrics, were designed under the supervision of Hollywood costume director Ane Crabtree (The Handmaid’s Tale). Image of the 'Zero Waste Weavers' from Planet City (2021), dir. Liam Young; Costume Artists Holly McQuillian, Karin Peterson, Kathryn Walters, Zac Monday. Photo: Driely S.

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.

Collage of images of buildings woven through with text. The line of text that extends from the left margin to the right reads: 'A new generation of architecture must arise – with forms and spaces which seem to reject the precepts of "Modern" / REJECT — curtains – design – history – graphpaper / first issue THIS IS ARCHIGRAM – PAPER ONE – A STATEMENT'

Archigram Paper One (1961) opens with a collage of buildings and space objects, woven through with this swirling manifesto: ‘A new generation of architecture must arise—with forms and spaces which seem to reject the precepts of “Modern”.’

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.

Collage of magazine cut-outs of human figures, building illustrations, abstract floor plans, and text. The top of the page is labelled 'Mercury unleashes RENT-A-WALL'. In the bottom margin 'MIKE WEBB' is written prominently. On the left side is a large circular seal that reads 'ARCHIGRAM/BLACKSBUGRAM' with the number seven in the centre.

Many of Archigram's designs were mobile: walking, floating, pop-up, plugged-in. Mike Webb's Rent-a-Wall from Archigram Seven – Beyond Architecture (1966) applied a drive-in principle to a customisable private home with moveable wall panels.

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.

Detail of a comic strip titled 'ZOOM! SPACE PROBE!'. The first panel shows a red flying object moving through a ringed circular structure. The second panel shows a man in a space suit yelling. The third panel shows a blonde woman with a large speech bubble. Each cel is accompanied by text.

Amazing Archigram 4 – Zoom! (1964) pays tribute to the architectural language of space comics and existing science fiction-esque structures, like rockets, silos, and hydraulic domes. Detail from page one

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.

Collage showing a magazine cut-out of a dancing woman with a short bob haircut. Her arm, shoulder, and chest are connected by dotted lines to a giant tomato in the bottom right corner of the page. Above her head and the uppermost line is written 'the electronic tomato'. In smaller print, along her leg, is written 'WARREN CHALK + DAVID GREENE 1969'.

Warren Chalk and David Greene's Electronic Tomato (1969) came with this compelling pitch: 'Get instant vegetable therapy from the new Electronic Tomato—a groove gizmo that connects to every nerve end to give you the wildest buzz'

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.

Film still showing a man with a gun running over the tops of two large yellow taxi cabs. In the foreground, two people wearing yellow, hooded robes are walking on the street, followed by two men wearing sunglasses, leather jackets, and spiked hair. The background is smoky with large neon signs, one of which reads 'The Snake Pit'.

Bounty hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) tracking down bioengineered replicants in the 1982 classic Blade Runner. Photo: Warner Bros via Getty Images

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.

Film still showing an abandoned city street. There is a road block in the centre of the frame. The image quality is grainy.

Where the City Can’t See (2017, dir. Liam Young) is a film produced using the cameras of navigational devices, like the optical instruments that driverless cars use to understand the world

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.

Image capture showing two figures in motion. The figures are wearing baggy clothes, and parts of their hair and clothing extend outwards in jagged planes or dissolve into the background. They appear to be floating. A forest is visible in the background. The image has a grainy quality.

In Where the City Can’t See, young workers travel to a secret location to join a rave, wearing camouflage costumes that make them appear as a glitch to the city’s surveillance devices. Still from Where the City Can't See (2017), dir. Liam Young

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.

This article is part of a series digging deeper into the talks from the Archigram Cities Online Symposium. Watch Liam Young’s full talk, ‘Worlds Less Travelled’ from Zoom 1: Inhabitations.

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.

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