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Future Tense

An Introduction to ADS4 for the Royal College of Art Architecture Annual 2015

[Annual design by Jonas Berthod & Andrew Brash]

In a recent article for Medium.com[i], Joanne McNeil asks: 'In the future, what will the future mean for the future of the future? In the future, will futures create new futures for futures? What future might the future bring?' It's clearly intended as a statement rather than a series of questions, the statement being that nothing sounds more like the past than talking about 'THE FUTURE'.

We have reached a point where titling something 'The Future of' looks antiquated, a blast from internet culture's recent past. But this fatigue with the future isn't something new. According to Svetlana Boym,'optimistic belief in the future was discarded like an outmoded spaceship sometime in the 1960s' [ii]. Since then, culture has been beset by what Franco Berardi describes as the 'slow cancellation of the future'[iii], where linear progression has given way to a strange simultaneity and where the present only exists with respect to the past. We now live in what Berardi terms a 'post-progressive' era, where the jumbling up of time and the montaging of earlier styles has ceased to be worthy of comment; it is now so prevalent that it is no longer even noticed. While the twentieth century may have begun with futuristic utopia, it ended with nostalgia.

As a culture, we currently adore nostalgia. It has become part of the ambient background to 21st century life. From branding and the digital world to graphics and architecture, contemporary design is drowning in it. While previous eras may have borrowed and repurposed visuals from past generations, design recycling today has reached a new high. In fact, the reliance of current artists, designers and architects on styles that were established long ago suggests that the current moment is in the grip of a 'formal nostalgia' [iv]. As substantiation of this, the former coalition government's recently published Starter Homes Design guidance cites housing in Poundbury, the Prince of Wales' model village in Dorset, as an exemplar. The design guidance includes the suggestion that, 'windows can have flat arches, gentle arches or full arches', as well as the helpful advice that, 'materials can vary from a more generic render (which can be plain or coloured to give variety), or locally found materials or bricks can be used'. The prioritisation of the external appearance rather than focusing on density, space standards or internal layout effectively claims the housing issue as one of (traditional versus modern) taste rather than policy. 

For those not in the traditionalist camp, a different sort of nostalgic tendency pervades - the adherence to a nostalgic form of Futurism, the 20th century movement in which Modernism had its roots. This, as Simon Reynolds has written, relates to an obsession with 'the spirit of technocratic utopianism that flourished in post-war Britain, a wistful harking back to the optimistic, forward-looking, benignly bureaucratic Britain of new towns and garden cities, comprehensive schools and polytechnics'[v]. Perhaps not so much nostalgia for the past as for a forgotten future. 

The fetishisation of nostalgic artefacts, processes and representations has led to a crisis of subjectivity that is affecting both the design and production of buildings as well as the critical evaluation of architecture. This year, ADS4 set out to question whether this resurgence of nostalgia in design can create a progressive architectural culture or whether it impedes real progress. Has nostalgia become a toxic force in design?

Technological Enlightenment

The current state of political turbulence, technological acceleration and increasing complexity is having a tremendous impact on our lives, which is hard to overestimate. In the last 15-years alone the internet and mobile telecommunications technology have altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition. Social networks transverse continents, memes[vi] are the new universal language and biological evolution has been augmented by 'Internet Selection'[vii]. Yet, perhaps because of all this, there's an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present. As a result, we now often cloak the new in the forms of yesterday, even when these forms no longer serve any functional purpose. This has been facilitated, in part, by the endless archives of the internet, which allow us to review and mine the past with great ease. The 'nostalgia mode'[viii] has subordinated technology to the task of refurbishing the old; the internet has become a 'nostalgia machine'[ix]. The effect has been to disguise the disappearance of the future as the very opposite. 

ADS4 is concerned with interrogating this 21st century condition. This year we have continued to address the singularity of British culture, the power of language, as well as the ever-pervasive presence of technology in everyday life. Through our projects we have interrogated the current trends that are also facilitating 'technological enlightenment', and explored what this might mean for the built environment. Our intention has been to discover whether real newness, or at least a radical nostalgia, might emerge at the intersection of technology and history. 

World Building

Crossrail is slowly drawing a new cross section through London, from Berkshire to Essex. As it does so it brings inflated land value, new demographics and rapid changes in local identity. Addressing this cross section as both an emerging spatial condition and nascent socioeconomic phenomenon, each student has chosen a segment of the line to investigate. Popping up along its path, we have imagined the new worlds and highly specific local communities that might soon exist. Within these new worlds we are able to challenge current preconceptions and to test new ideas outside of the constructs of our own world. We don't build these worlds for the purpose of fantasy; we build new worlds for our projects in order to suggest alternatives. Our future, Berardi argues, has come and gone; the concept has lost its usefulness. Now it's our responsibility to decide what comes next.

Embracing the freedom offered by their final year thesis project, many in ADS4 have challenged the expected outcome of a student project, choosing to begin investigations that will provide a context their future careers rather than conclude their student portfolio. From a feasibility study for a new stadium and the design of an alternative political party, to a distribution strategy for construction materials and the design of ground works that will enable the development of a future mile-high city, these projects are encouragingly works in progress. Behind these constructed visions of the future lies an interrogation of the failings and fears of the present. They should raise awareness, expose assumptions and spark debate about issues that affect contemporary society. And this is where their value lies. 



© Thomas Greenall