“Yesterday’s Future”: Remembering utopian architecture

“Yesterday’s Future”: Remembering utopian architecture

In these apocalyptic times, utopian architecture has fallen out of favor. Why design for the future when the planet is burning up and you’re one election away from a constitutional crisis?

Of course, even when utopian architecture was in favor, its products that were actually built tended to be distinctly unlovely — vast concrete edifices without ornament, or boxlike shopping malls. Daring tends to come with a hefty price tag, as the groups Archigram and Future Systems discovered in the second half of the 20th century. Few of their designs left the drafting table, but the ideas had such fascinating life there that they’ve just been celebrated with an exhibit at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum; the catalog, Yesterday’s Future, is now available from Prestel.

Archigram was founded in 1961 in London, and remained active until the mid-1970s. Future Systems picked up the baton, and generated ideas until principal Jan Kaplicky died in 2009. Archigram functioned more as a generator of concepts than an actual creator of buildings, but Kaplicky managed to get some things built – most spectacularly the globulous Selfridges Department Store in Birmingham.

Both groups saw the future of architecture as modular, portable, and flexible. The architects were inspired by space exploration, and imagined how ideas being developed for life on the moon could inform life on Earth. Archigram dreamt of inflatable tents on trailers (1966), “plug-in cities” with living capsules mounted on vertiginous poles (1962-65), and most famously the “Instant City” (1968-70).

An Instant City envisioned a municipality as a happening: a portable urban center that “moves through the countryside like a travelling circus,” writes Sunna Gailhofer. It “occupies a provincial town parasitically for a limited time and offers its inhabitants a shock-like, immediate big-city experience with cultural activities, amusements, and leisure time.”

Archigram illustrated their designs with highly conceptual collages that aimed to capture the feeling of a place more than its literal appearance. For example, if you visited a university building proposed for Norway, a giant body-painted naked woman — or something along those lines — would grab your attention in a theater-like central space. I can only imagine what the board of trustees made of that.

Kaplicky’s designs were also often illustrated with collages, but collages that came somewhat closer to conveying an idea of how his designs would actually function. Several of his early designs were for living spaces meant to perch in their environments like moon landers, and the collages offer seductive glimpses of what it might have meant to get away from it all circa the Space Age.

A “House for a Helicopter Pilot” (1979) squats on a lakeshore: a three-story cube where you land your helicopter and then go downstairs to make dinner. A “45-Degree House” (1981) hugs an incline (you’d seemingly have to find one that was exactly 45 degrees) with a chain of bedrooms sliding down the slope. The “Peanut” (1984) was a ovoid unit at the end of a long crane arm — you could steer the crane to lift it into the sky, or cantilever it out over a lake.

A “Bubble” living unit (1983) was so visionary, it’s the kind of thing you might be tempted to build if you had a hundred million dollars — just to see if you actually could. A circular unit with completely transparent convex walls, the Bubble was actually meant to be suspended in the air above, say, a picturesque mountain stream (as illustrated in the catalog), anchored by four cables.

At larger scale, Kaplicky’s designs got truly science-fictional. Plans for a tower called “Coexistence” (1984) posited a 2,100-foot tower of, essentially, stackable terrariums that would loom over the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Each of the seven saucer-like units would have a center core of, say, offices looking out over a disc of enclosed parkland — more apartments would be contained under the grass.

Future Systems’ less ostentatious designs fared better, with a house in Wales (1994-98), cut into the contour of a hill atop a seaside bluff, was actually built — and must be a stunning place to live. The group also saw the construction of what might be the world’s coolest press box: a two-story white-shelled enclosure that overlooks London’s Lord’s Cricket Ground.

Yesterday’s Future is both inspiring and sad: gone are the days when we looked to the skies and expected to see flying cars zipping to and from glorious monuments to our mastery of materials. The irony is that some of these architects’ ideas are needed more than ever: adaptability, sustainability, and most of all the idea that architecture should remind us of our highest aspirations.

Jay Gabler