Future Space: Architecture, Science Fiction, and Critical Geopolitics

Some interesting recent commentary on architectural futures, revolving around the writing of J.G. Ballard,  the associated scholarly research of University College London’s Nic Clear, and teaching and work being done at Clear’s Unit 15 at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

In a recent conversation with UCL geographer Alan Ingram about critical geopolitics, I mentioned my frustration with conventional spatial thinking in international relations and international security. I was critical of references by conflict analysts to “spatial turns” and “cultural turns” in thinking about the landscapes of war, when there’s really little to differentiate the two – or rather, that space and culture overlap to such an extent that articulating a clear separation between them is challenging, to say the least.

What interests me about these recent web exchanges (noted below) is the argument for spatial interdisciplinarity, cross-pollination, and creative reconceptualization. Many of my colleagues in the social sciences are quick to sneer at such things, dismissing the use of pop culture and fiction (especially science-fiction) and descriptive narrative as gravenly un-empirical. Worse, to borrow from the late historian Carl Bridenbaugh, they worship uncritically at the altar of “that bitch-goddess, QUANTIFICATION“[original caps]. They should take note, or fall behind (if they haven’t already).

Simon Sellars interviews Clear at Ballardian here. Snippets from Clear’s responses:

…Within academia and architectural criticism, if such a thing still exists, there is a general disdain for ‘popular’ fiction — writing on, and about, architecture is still very elitist — and I have met quite a bit of resistance when discussing Ballard as a serious subject. However, I think that there is a desire to face up to a future that deals with a system in crisis, which Ballard articulates so brilliantly.

…Synthetic space is the merging of the actual and virtual; writers like Ballard and Burroughs have been describing synthetic space for years. Within architectural terms, I see it as the inability to differentiate between spaces and their representations — where spatial representations are increasingly becoming spatial propositions.

…I started my postgraduate dissertation in 1989 with a quote from Frederic Jameson: ‘Of all the arts, architecture is the closest constitutively to the economic, with which, in the form of commissions and land values, it has a virtually unmediated relationship.’ Little has changed since; in fact, things have got worse. Architecture is now synonymous with the architectural profession (or Corporate Architectural Complex), speculation is financial rather than intellectual, and architects have been complicit with the kind of greedy thinking and acting that has got us into the current global financial crisis. We have to stop thinking about architecture simply in terms of building buildings — that’s why I am so interested in looking at other models and disciplines to draw inspiration from.

…It seems everyone’s a psychogeographer nowadays. Psychogeography was originally articulated by the Situationists as an experimental form of urbanism that attempted a critique of the hegemonic values of urban planning and zoning by emphasising the ‘transience’ of the urban experience. The political aspect of psychogeography has been diminished in favour of a ‘poetics’ of the city. I think Ballard in some of his writing retains a lot more of that political conception of psychogeography than many who have fashionably co-opted that term.

…I have taken this particular position for two reasons: to engage with a critique of contemporary architecture, and because it’ s fun. The filmic analysis was just a starting point; out of all the films we watched, Jonathan Weiss’s Atrocity Exhibition and Sinclair and Petit’s London Orbital were the most influential. Architecture should not be left to architects — the whole discourse needs opening up. The reason why I earlier questioned whether architectural criticism exists is simply because architecture is an incredibly insular and hermetic discipline — no one dares criticise the Rems, the Dannys or the Zahas for fear of being locked out. Magazines need content and they publish pretty much anything and everything without questioning it; if they did question it, then the content would dry up.

Geoff Manaugh, a long-time devotee of Ballard’s writing and a past commentator on Clear’s work, suggests, in response to the interview, that there’s a progressive affinity between architecture and science fiction, and that scholars such as Clear have a serious role to play. “What I like about Clear,” he writes, “is that he’s 100% comfortable with – and seemingly relentless about pursuing – architecture not as a system of codified ornament or as a closed universe of citational conformity open only to grad students, but as a resource for ideas of every kind, whether or not they apply to your own local building codes or will ever lead to an act of construction.”


Want to write a novel? A screenplay? An essay about landscape and climate change? Want to direct a music video? Start a blog? Architecture offers fuel – and amazing visuals – for all of these things.

The field becomes almost infinitely more exciting when you realize that architectural projects, by definition, entail the reimagination of how humans might inhabit the earth – how they organize themselves spatially and give shape to their everyday lives. Architecture is, within mere instants of discussing any idea or project, real or imagined, something with anthropological, economic, legal, libidinal, seismic, and even planetary implications.

In fact, if architecture can be viewed as the material alteration of the earth’s surface, then it is not a stretch to say that architecture has astronomical consequences: it can alter the very shape of a planet.

Little wonder, then, if we do decide to go in this direction, that there appears to be a growing cross-over of interests between architecture and science fiction – as in, for instance, the work produced by Nic Clear’s Unit 15.

Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling comments, in his Wired Magazine blog Beyond the Beyond, in response to both Geoff’s piece and to Archinect’s Predictions for 2009: “This is getting close to an open, blatant manifesto for architecture-fiction. You want a warm, affirmative feeling about th
e creative prospects for 2009? Read this. Then think about it, and what you might do and think in that context. Then read it again. Click on all the links.”

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