Books

Imagining the Architecture of Our Futures

Paul Dobraszczyk’s Future Cities surveys the multitudinous ways creatives have imagined how humans might build their living spaces in the future.

Future Cities: Architecture and the Imagination by Paul Dobraszczyk (courtesy Reaktion Books)

Paul Dobraszczyk’s Future Cities isn’t the usual sort of book on architecture. The structures and locations it discusses are wholly speculative. The book is a survey of the sheer number of ways creatives have imagined how humans might build their living spaces in the future. In his introduction, Dobraszczyk explains that “Imagination can be said to prepare the ground for the ‘real’ and is always at work trying to transform it. Here, what is real and what is imagined are not two separate worlds, but ones that are always informing and transforming each other.”

To that end, Dobraszczyk has embarked on an impressively in-depth inquiry. The book references hundreds of works, ranging from literature to movies, to comics, to TV shows, to video games, to conceptual art projects. Its scope also reaches farther than one might expect, not merely sticking to contemporary science fiction but going back centuries. One of its first images is of Gustave Doré’s 1872 engraving “The New Zealander,” depicting a future traveler looking over the ruins of a flooded London. As fin de siècle visualizations of dirigible cities or trains running through skyscrapers demonstrate, the impulse to conjure both the grimmest and most optimistic possibilities for the future has long been around.

WWII-era sea forts at Maunsell off the UK coast, used as the site of projects by artist Stephen Turner (courtesy Reaktion Books)

The book is divided into sections based around different categories of fictional cities — floating utopias, post-apocalyptic survival scenarios, adapting to shifting weather, etc. The consistent throughline is the need for more imagination to combat the existential threat to humanity’s living spaces posed by climate change. Imagined cities are contrasted against real experiments in new ways of design and living, such as the Biodome project or the Buckminster Fuller-inspired wave of desert communes in the ’70s. In some cases, such as the emergence of supertall skyscrapers in the 21st century, our real capabilities have proven to outmatch what we once hypothesized for ourselves.

The give and take between the popular imagination and reality forms the core of some of the book’s most intriguing segments. One great example is seasteading. Originally conceptualized as a way to combat rising sea levels and expand living room for common folk, over time the idea of forming societies on the water was co-opted by social libertarians and the rich and powerful, who saw it as an ideal way to escape the restrictions (and taxes) of society. Now, however, the pendulum may be swinging back, with the reality of diminishing shorelines hitting many close to home.

Michael Kerbow, “Their Refinement of the Decline” (2014), oil on canvas (courtesy Reaktion Books)

Especially noteworthy is the book’s accessibility. Dobraszczyk recognizes that the art he’s discussing often comes from mass media, that fantasy world-building has a special pull on the public imagination, and that it’s best to discuss its implications in easy-to-grasp terms. That he does this while still providing insightful analysis is laudable. Never would I have thought that I’d see China Miéville, Bioshock, High Rise, Blade Runner, Renzo Piano, and Anish Kapoor all in one reference and treated with equal levels of respect and rigor. Future Cities is impressively nerdy for an art and social issue text and will add a lot of titles to your to-read and to-watch lists, in addition to making you think about the futures we project for ourselves.

Future Cities by Paul Dobraszczyk is now available from Amazon and other booksellers.

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