Learning to Live with Visionary Architecture

Photograph of Walter Jonas’s 1960’s “Intrapolis” proposal

Last week, the online edition of Forbes published an article with the headline: “Funnel Cities And Towns On Feet? How To Live With The Visionary Architecture Of Walter Jonas And Archigram.” Read in isolation, the title’s first segment exudes the standard degree of sensationalism coursing through the Internet today (Funnel Cities? Towns on Feet? The Pope on Twitter? Yes, click here!). The second component, however, diverges from the Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not formula endemic to most blog offerings. In fact, “How To Live With…Visionary Architecture” outlines an attempt to digest the volumes of design spectacles inundating our material and virtual realities. In other words, the article raises the question: how do we know when NOT to build?

“If built architecture must be judged by practical criteria — such as whether it leaks or drives people crazy,” writes author Jonathan Keats, “speculative architecture should be valued for its outrageous impracticality.” Keats looks to examples from the 20th century to give historical weight to his argument, first citing Swiss-German painter Walter Jonas’s 1960’s proposal for funnel-shaped housing units in West Germany: “Jonas believed that the inward orientation of his Intrapolis would make people more community-focused, and he argued that his cities’ minimal contact with the ground would save valuable soil,” explains Keats, giving context to the unbuilt bauble.

True to his headline, Keats then pivots to a discussion on Archigram, the 1960’s and 1970’s British architecture collective renowned for its repackaging of social criticisms into consumable architectural graphics. Archigram’s imagery was famously outlandish, often dyed in the garish, primary-color palette of pop culture. Keats make a specific allusion to “The Walking City,” a series of graphics (one pictured right) illustrating a metropolis rendered mobile to resist potential future depopulation. Archigram’s Walking City “rejected the standard notion that a city is a location, instead construing it as a superorganism,” says Keats. Super as it may be, the submarine-like urbanity is a hostile image, one that sardonically condenses the city into a steel-fortified vessel without a humanist pulse.

To Keats, the merit of projects like the conical and walking cities of the 1970’s is their ability to articulate an “alternate reality that we can visit to escape the built-in assumptions of our everyday environment.” Such projects encourage contemplation; their blatant impracticality does not so much push the limits of material structure as it does challenge the immaterial dogmas of the cultural status quo. Keats is right to give a nod to Italian Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia (one drawing pictured bottom left) and American architect Lebbeus Woods, both of whom are regarded as influential figures in the discipline despite their preoccupation with the unbuilt. He could extend his argument further back to Enlightenment architects Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude Nicholas Ledoux, and even further to Piranesi.

While the practice of designing the unbuildable dates back to the 18th century, Keats seems to suggest that there is a problematic ambiguity between the “built” and the “speculative” categories. This hazy bifurcation, says Keats, has resulted in some unfortunate additions to the built environment. The author points to Berlin’s Autobahnüberbauung Schlangenbader Straße, a 1971 project that straddled the Autobahn with apartment complexes. “As might be expected, the philosophical dimensions of the project — such as the idea that cities might flow like rivers — were steamrolled and buried in concrete.”

But if speculative architecture can and should be properly distinguished from the built, within it exist further divisions to be considered. Keats’s two leading examples illustrate one such separation: while Walter Jonas attempted to outline the conditions of an improved “alternate reality,” namely the strengthened communities and respect for the environment facilitated by his funnel-shaped complexes, Archigram’s mobile city presented a jaundiced critique of progress, a deliberately perverse hypothesis of the future. In essence, Jonas’s speculation was aspirational, while Archigram’s was cautionary. The former continued the initiative of Boullée and Ledoux’s rationally (and spiritually) programmed forms, while the latter drew from the dissected ruins of Piranesi.

“Cénotaphe dont la pyramide est ronde” by Étienne-Louis Boullée

West Germany in the 1970’s could not afford to realize Jonas’s proposal. Archigram’s Walking City, meanwhile, was never considered for construction. The fates of these two schemes reveal another important point of distinction: the ways in which projects are presented — or, more accurately, represented (as project proposals precede their resultant buildings). It is the representation of architecture that carries an idea from conception to realization — and, after that, reception. If an architect intends for his vision not to be constructed literally, there are ways to represent his ideas (whether they are utopian or dystopian in nature) without communicating the wrong objectives. For example, Archigram’s Walking City, a nebulous collage of flat polygons, strayed far from any visual notations of empiricism.

The problem, then, is that for both architect and client, it is easy to mistake what can be done for what should be done. The visibly outlandish is becoming less and less technically outlandish; technology can render almost any form into a tectonic construction. While some speculative architectures continue to resist realization, the progeny of Jonas’s “Funnel Cities” and Archigram’s “Towns on Feet” also includes the now-possible computer-modeled forms that curve and fold and attempt literal translations of abstract ideas. With contemporary software, Archigram’s Walking City could be extruded into three dimensions, but what started as an outlandish scheme to provoke discussion might result in a thoroughly unproductive construction in the shape of a frightening eight-legged blimp.

This confusion is not a new phenomenon. At no point was the separation between built and speculative architecture ever complete. Their relationship has always been dialectical: built architecture is not judged on practical criteria alone; speculative architecture is only effective if it possesses a modicum of believability. The uncertainty that Keats points to arises from an insistence that reality can be rendered immediately visible, that the problems architecture attempts to confront exist at face value and can be solved accordingly. So how can we learn to live with visionary architecture? How can we know when and when not to build? It begins with learning to let the invisible stay invisible.

Photograph of Zaha Hadid’s Galaxy Soho in Beijing, China. Photo: Hufton + Crow

- Kelly Chan