urbnfutr interview with liam young – mammoth // building nothing out of something

urbnfutr interview with liam young

In an interview with URBNFUTR, Liam Young describes how he sees the relationship between his training as an architect and his current work as the head of “urban futures think tank” Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today:

As architects we span the gulf between the cultural and the technological, we are in a unique position to synthesize complex factors – social, technical, cultural, political, environmental – and to pose alternate scenarios. Architecture is typically such a slow medium, however, and we wanted to develop alternative strategies for how a designer may operate and alternative forms of projects that could play out with much more immediacy. So we have gravitated to the discipline of futures as we explore the idea of a think tank as a legitimate model for an architectural practice – a practice not built on buildings as endpoints but on speculations, research and futures as products in themselves [emphasis mine].

Should this be the only model for architectural practice? Of course not (and I do not read Young as suggesting that it should be). It does, however, strike me as an important option among possible directions that the expansion of the field of architecture can and should take, particularly given the quantity of historical precedent that can be found for this role for the architect. (One of the more interesting challenges for this model — which I’m going to avoid exploring here — is how it can be financially self-sustaining.)

I was also intrigued by his thoughts on the importance of Hertzian space to the future role of the architect, because they remind me that this is, as far as I am aware, essentially unexplored terrain for landscape architecture — which seems slightly odd, given that it could easily be argued that Hertzian space is more akin to landscapes than buildings, as it is composed of fields and wavelengths and held together by networked infrastructures in fluctuating communication. Having noted that, it seems entirely natural that Young — whose work is deeply entangled with landscape — would be asking these questions:

One of the critical questions we are asking ourselves at the moment is what do we do as architects in a near future where the dominant building material exists outside the physical spectrum. The infrastructure that drove the development of the city was once large permanent networks of roads, plumbing and park spaces but are now nomadic digital networks, orbiting GPS satellites and cloud computing connections. Cities are being planned around the speed of electrons, satellite sight lines and big data. Connection to wifi is more critical than connection to light. The city must be planned around the mobile phone not the automobile. Today we are much closer to our virtual community than we are to our real neighbours. This death of distance has created new forms of city based around ephemeral digital connections rather than physical geography.

These changes mean we must rethink the very core of what our profession is. It is true that there will still be physical objects and spaces that some sort of architect like character will have to engage with but this window of operation is becoming increasing narrow.

While this seems perhaps a bit oppositional — I’d argue that both the mobile phone and the automobile are critical to the construction of the contemporary city (and I suspect Young is at least in part producing the opposition for rhetorical effect) — I think Young is entirely correct in tying issues like the rise of Hertzian space and disappearance of wild nature in favor of anthropogenic nature to the need for an expanded “window of operation”.

2 Responses to “urbnfutr interview with liam young”

  1. MM Jones says:

    Just based on the included excerpt of Mr. Young’s interview, I disagree with his statement and find it mostly apocryphal. While trying to be generous in understanding his word usage, its difficult to accept his assertion that the dominant building material of the soon-to-be-present will cease to be physical, unless we’re willing to hollow-out the standard definition of the term “building material.” Perhaps I am being unimaginative but do know what “new forms of city” based around “ephemeral digital connections” Young is referring to. What is an example of this? I suppose Young’s statements are not to be taken literally, otherwise he seems to suggest that buildings and urban spaces will cease to be produced, or their importance will be so narrow that there will be no building profession, which echoes some of the hype of the early internet of more than a decade ago, when some architects considered bandwidth more stylish to discuss than concrete. I feel like I’m missing the point of his comments but don’t get what else Young could be talking about.

    • rholmes says:

      Well, I feel as though I’ve done enough speaking for Young already, so I’ll avoid any further interpretation, and speak only for myself:

      I do not expect buildings, building architects, or the things usually meant by “building materials” to respectively cease to be produced, disappear, or become irrelevant but I do think that there is a strong argument to be made that, as far as contributions to the overall human experience of the urban environment are concerned, the importance of building buildings is declining relative to the importance of designing Hertzian space. (This argument does not, for me, imply that building buildings is unimportant, only relatively less important — and I would expect that architects might find the most fertile territory for their talents within Hertzian space at its point of intersection with the art of building buildings.)

      That argument would rest on at least two assumptions. First, that cities can be defined as things which are not purely spatial (traditional approaches to defining cities that are not purely spatial would include cities as economic entities (e.g. Walter Christaller) and cities as cultural agglomerations (e.g Louis Wirth) — and those approaches are themselves increasingly being questioned). If that is the case, then an app like Foursquare (which, by the way, I don’t use) might do more to alter “the city” than a whole block of new buildings, and it would not be wildly implausible to say that Facebook literally constitutes a new form of city. I say this with the hopefully implicit understanding that Stephen and I have always defended the importance of matter (Stephen likes to say “matter matters”), and typically our interest in the non-spatial city is seeing how it manifests in or warps the spatial city.

      Second, that, for a variety of reasons, the “window of operation” for building buildings is, in fact, narrowing, suggesting that it would be worthwhile for architects to consider alternate ways to deploy their talents and intelligence. Perhaps this is controversial (and I’m happy to talk at further length about it), but it seems like a rather non-hypothetical point to me.