The Unbuilding Complete: Review of Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture edited by Attlee, Harper, and Smith

The Unbuilding Complete: Review of Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture edited by Attlee, Harper, and Smith

Amy Butt

Under Review:

Edwina Attlee, Phineas Harper, and Maria Smith, editors. Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture. The Architecture Foundation, 2019

Architecture is experiencing an existential crisis. As a design practice, architecture has always been driven by a deep desire both to make and to make better. As a profession, architecture is haunted by the techno-utopian belief that better things can always mitigate the cost of their making. So what happens when architecture acknowledges its role, its responsibility, and its agency in our unfolding climate crisis? When the raw materials, labour, and energy involved in each brick laid is truly weighed up and each act of creation is understood as an act of using-up, a foreclosure of potentialities? How, then, do we design? And what can we possibly build?

In response to this fraught and fragile moment, Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture suggests that we might turn to science fiction to explore alternative architectural futures. This collection of short stories, illustrated text, and poetry develops out of last year’s Oslo Architecture Triennale titled “Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth.” Edited by Edwina Atlee, along with Triennale curators Maria Smith and Phineas Harper, Gross Ideas challenges us to imagine new possibilities for architecture in an age of degrowth, climate emergency, and social division, and asks what futures we might make when confronted by a crisis of our own making.

The question is perhaps most directly addressed by Mill and Jones’ “Exile’s Letter,” a short comic or series of illustrations framed as a letter to a lost friend. Each page is reminiscent of Antonello da Messina’s painting of Saint Jerome in his study, the architectural space framing the figures it contains while also providing commentary on its inhabitants’ inner lives. As the text winds its way through these spaces, we follow our narrator’s struggle with the tensions within degrowth architecture. Structures and infrastructures are raised and erased, exploring perils and promises of being a creator “in love with the image” of their “own absence.” “Exile’s Letter” scrolls through the architectural tropes of science fiction with a light touch: the bunker city, the floating fortress, the dispersed commune. Rather than settling on a singular vision, it presents a process of continual remaking and destruction, of ideas tested and found wanting. In doing so it unfixes a single idea of architectural futurity and suggests instead a continual process of “unbuilding,” a “slowly unwinding process.” This layering of futures is echoed in Will Self’s “Ungovernable Cities”—a playful homage to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities that explores the plenitude of stories embedded within place—and in Camilla Grudova’s “Deliberate Ruins,” which uses the slippery temporality of ruins to examine ideas of civilization and the materials of the built. But it is the theme of choice within Mill and Jones’s work—the choice of which futures we test, the sacrifices that we might be prepared to make economically, socially, and personally to test them—which most appositely captures the collection’s focus and tone.

Sacrifice is also the central theme of Sophie Mackintosh’s “Placation,” the story that opens the collection. “Placation” revisits the moral complexity of Ursula Le Guin’s classic 1973 “The Ones who Walk Away From Omelas,” about a child forced to suffer so that those around them can continue to enjoy plenty. In Mackintosh’s retelling, we stay close to the scapegoat’s perspective. Every year one chosen individual must offer some part of themselves—perhaps a finger, a braid, perhaps much more—to hold back the wrath of the earth. “Placation” recasts our contemporary moment in a mythical light, asking why we begrudge being asked to relinquish trivial comforts when the narrative of sacrifice seems so easy to comprehend.

It’s a question answered in part by Lesley Lokko’s “Willing Choice?” which mingles fiction with non-fiction about economic geographies of labour. This story focuses on a family distanced by geography and economic status but linked by tangled webs of financial remittances and mutual support. Here, the physical distance between those who choose the life of comfort and those asked to make the sacrifice is collapsed by the reality of our interconnected and interwoven existence, making visible the uneven impact of climate catastrophe and the abject cost of capitalist growth.

Other stories are more optimistic, focusing on sustainable technologies like low energy transportation systems and improved solar panels and wind farms. They offer a glimpse into plausible sustainable futures, and valuable insight into how significant a shift in social and economic policy is necessary for even these modest visions to become reality. However, they also present recognizable versions of ourselves in worlds comparatively unscathed by climate crisis. In doing so, they highlight the danger that sustainable technologies are deployed to prolong existing lifestyle and consumer behaviour, avoiding more substantive self-critical assessment. As the architect Jeremy Till writes elsewhere, “the assumption that the object should meet a standard of sustainability works to distract us from the more fundamental question of whether the object is needed in the first place.” Just because something is sustainable does not mean that it is right for it to exist. Across the collection, we see how sustainability might correlate with a diverse range of social possibilities: how attentiveness towards a specific resource might just as easily lead to the collective valuing of non-human life, as in Joel Blackledge’s “Fountainwood,” where a grove of trees becomes a source of community, or to the commodification of survival, as in Maria Smith’s “Lay Low,” where the conservation of resources results in the privatisation of the right to conscious existence.

In Cory Doctorow’s “Materiality,” degrowth is specifically approached through the theme of resource usage. This story presupposes starch-fibre manufacturing and bacterial recycling technology that allow for the near-perfect reclamation of materials used to make most consumer goods. Having spent some time in a historical school and grown accustomed to the materials of our own time, the protagonist returns home to find himself “overhandling everything, ready for it to weigh more.” The insubstantial materials of this future are reflected in its temporary architectures, with rooms that can be dialed up as necessary and clothing that can be printed on demand. The disposable clothing echoes the “flimsies” of Marge Piercy’s 1976 feminist classic Woman on the Edge of Time, where printed outfits for single-day extravagance are complimented by permanent objects made by hand and carefully passed between community members. But while Piercy uses this dualism to exemplify how Mattapoisett reconciles communal ownership principles with the creation of art, Doctorow’s “Materiality” does not address questions of the just distribution of durability. There is a silence here, a silence around the social structure of this post-scarcity future. Readers can read what they like into this silence, but it could imply a continued complacency towards material availability, and deeper change merely deferred and disguised by advances in sustainable technologies.

The unspoken faith in tech enabling our continued existence is radically challenged in Lev Bratishenko’s “You Wanted This.” Here, the other-worldly space of the conference room gets played to great effect, as the most objective minds in the UN gather round to present their incisive research into the method of humanity’s collective suicide: the bleeding-edge of technological development deployed to bring about the painless erasure of human life. It’s a simultaneously bleak and illuminating story, complete with flashes of dark surrealism resonant with Stanisław Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and it pits the logical plausibility of such a debate against the reader’s own desperate desire to read it as an extravagant satire. In the windowless room of the conference hall, the discussion of humanity’s legacy gets turned inward. Deep within the ideology of human exceptionalism, there is embedded a hunch that what really makes us special is how much better off the world would be without us. “You Wanted This” ruthlessly pursues and reveals this anxiety, via disturbingly lucid debate about what constitutes a “good death” for our species.

If Bratishenko is a bit harsh, and Doctorow a little easy-going, what options remain? Rachel Armstrong’s “Bittersweet Building” considers the possibility of technological development that will enable humanity’s continued survival—but in a radically altered form. In a story which explores how the individual self might dissolve into a collaboratively constructed and sentient place, those who undergo such transformation establish a new form of life, subtly disrupting the distinctions between human and environment which underpin narratives of anthropocentric apocalypse. In doing so, Armstrong’s work makes visceral the social production of architecture, the mutual construction of place which posits that as we change the built environment we inhabit, so we are shaped by the spaces we have created. In its complex consideration of the relationships within the built world, this story asks what an organic or metabolic architecture might mean for our understanding of human life and our embeddedness within the built environment, exploring the boundaries of the self through a fluid and bodily engagement with place. 

The final story in the collection, Jo Lindsay Walton’s “In Arms,” brings together these critical questions of individual and mutual responsibility, and the collective construction of both identity and architecture. In a fractured narrative told through extracts of conversation and memory, “In Arms” follows the actions of a radical political agent who storms the governmental “Palace of Wetminster,” recounted amid a discussion about new economic systems and patterns of labour. This is a future where the principles of degrowth have been embraced, but the terminology of degrowth is fraught and contested, creating slippery definitions of value which divide and define political factions. “In Arms” intricately and astutely explores the complex interplay between the economic and the spatial: the ways in which work patterns shift according to the measures we use to understand ourselves and the world, and how that shifting reshapes landscapes, both physical and mental. Here, the development of AI technology solidifies and enforces patterns of decision-making, making tangible the potentially totalitarian repercussions of enforced sustainability when the question of what, exactly, we are hoping to sustain remains uncertain. This final story is a reminder that while the architectures of sustainability, of scarcity, and of degrowth might support alternate socio-economic systems, questions of agency arise across all such systems. When presented with the futures of our own making, we must, like the protagonists of “In Arms’ take responsibility for our individual and collective roles in their creation.

“Did we order these?”

“Oh. I guess we must have. Oh”

Walton, “In Arms”

So how can we build, perhaps literally build, a better future? While each story in Gross Ideas dwells within the architectures of degrowth, they present wildly various stances regarding the role and form of future architectures. Perhaps a reflection of the diverse professional backgrounds of the authors themselves, it is a multiplicity of worlds that marks the complexity of this debate. With its myriad worlds of possibility, Gross Ideas can revel in both the opportunity and the responsibility of design, and open up an invaluable space to stage debates around degrowth, imaginatively investigating its widest implications. It implicitly demands the careful consideration of the placement of each brick, lest we wall ourselves in.

Amy Butt (she/her) is a practising architect and a lecturer in architecture at the University of Reading with a specialisation in architectural representation and communication. Her research explores the way the fictional worlds we construct influence and reflect the world we inhabit, writing about utopian thought and the imaginary in architecture through science fiction literature and film. Recent publications include: ‘‘‘Endless forms, vistas and hues’: Why Architects Should Read Science Fiction” in ARQ and “City Limits: Boundary Conditions and the Building-Cities of Science Fiction” in Open Library of the Humanities. You can find her on Twitter @Amy_Butt_.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes on October 25, 2020. The submission was shared by an editor from another journal, with permission from the author, after the editor recognized a piece written by him was discussed in the review. The author and editor are mutual acquaintances through shared scholarly networks. No review copy was arranged by ARB.

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