Rose-Colored Glasses

Paul Goldberger on Predictions

The last time I searched the words architecture and future on Amazon.com, 923 books popped up. Some of these were literal predictions of what kind of architecture we’d see in the next five, ten, twenty, and even fifty years. Others interpreted the notion of the future more loosely, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Future of Architecture, its title a reminder that Wright was almost as good a marketer as he was a designer, since the book is really a collection of essays that explain his own work. Put those four magic words on the cover, however, and the book takes on a whole other meaning.

I’m not sure whether anyone noticed that Wright never directly addressed the question of the future, but the point of the title was to make you assume that Wright’s ideas would surely represent it. Ed Stone once titled a book Edward Durell Stone: Recent and Future Architecture, which has hubris of its own. It all but declared that Stone’s unbuilt designs were sure to happen—or maybe the point was to give readers a hint that they were getting an inside look at the gestation process of his ideas. Either way, linking architecture to the future gives it a powerful aura, which is why so many books have titles or subtitles like “Designs for the Future,” a phrase that manages to be at once alluring and banal. What architecture is not designed for the future? All architecture, by its very nature, looks ahead. You don’t build for the past.

No one writes novels, paints pictures, or composes music for the past, either, but there isn’t quite the obsession in those realms about what form things will eventually take. “Literature of the Future” and “Music of the Future” aren’t sexy the way “Architecture of the Future” is. Why does architecture, which has never had the strongest hold on public consciousness, only seem to come alive in many people’s minds in terms of where it’s going?

Futurism in architecture usually has two—or three or five—parts fantasy to one part reality. It’s pretty much all make-believe. Looking into the future involves none of the unpleasant facts that can make architecture, for all its power, a mundane pursuit. Reality for architecture, unlike reality for, say, painting, is full of boring problems like program and site and zoning and money. None of this stuff exists in the world of the future, or if it does, the futurist makes the assumption that it is magically solved, so that imagination—which is always what gets squeezed in the present—can flourish unchallenged. When we look at make-believe buildings of the future, they’re exciting and exotic, yet we feel oddly connected to them. We wonder what it would be like to gaze at a skyline full of them or even live in one of them. Paradoxically, a lot of people who are held in thrall by fantasy images of futuristic buildings tend to attribute to architecture a power over their lives that they’re almost never willing to grant it in real life.

Still, my real issue with obsessing over the future of architecture isn’t the notion of unbridled imagination, of which we can never have enough; it’s accuracy. These visions are almost always wrong. Sometimes they’re slightly wrong; sometimes they’re wildly, utterly, madly off base. Of course, they can be funny, clever, entertaining, and sobering, but they’re rarely right, since they’re based on vast conceptual leaps, like the certainty in the 1920s that skyscrapers would continue to get taller and taller, and that elevators would get more and more efficient and air travel faster and faster—not wrong assumptions by themselves—and that all of these things would somehow combine to make the city into a smoothly functioning megamachine.

In New York: The Wonder City, published in 1932, W. Parker Chase offered his prediction of what Manhattan would be like “fifty years hence.” “In 1982,” he wrote, the “East River will have been filled in, and hundreds of acres of the Hudson River bed reclaimed. Buildings will possibly be from 200 to 250 stories in height. Triple-deck elevators, vacuum-tube escalators, and other vertical travel will be so improved as to whisk tenants upwards at a speed surpassing all imagination.” Chase was also quite certain that there would be “several tiers of elevated roadways and noiseless railways—built on extended balconies flanking the enormous skyscrapers, or passing directly through them … so as to keep the streets cleared for ‘air taxi’ ships.”

Such faith that technology would render obsolete the city’s form as we know it was not merely the province of jazz-age enthusiasm. George Gilder, writing in Forbes as late as 1995, argued that urbanism as we have traditionally defined it would disappear altogether. The city, he said, was nothing but a tired relic of the industrial age. If you didn’t have to be there in an age of electronic communication, why would you want to? It’s dark, dirty, noisy, and crowded. New York, he predicted, would give way to places where people could sit in their houses and look out at trees. Gilder was right in seeing that technology would be transformative—silly conceptual leaps almost always start with a rational and correct observation—but Gilder was dead wrong on how the effects of technology would manifest themselves. We could say a similar thing about the more recent, if entirely opposite, predictions of Richard Florida that the city would flourish as a result of the influx of the new “creative class.” With a correct observation as his basis, Florida ignored other factors and so exaggerated the one that interested him that he ended up with a wildly simplistic, and ultimately misguided, view of the future.

When it comes to what buildings will look like, predictions tend to be even less reliable. Never mind all the portentous claims of the early modernists that we would never see another molding, column, pediment, or gable again, or the belief of postwar architects, often uttered more in sadness than in triumph, that craftsmanship was gone forever, or the promises that prefabricated-building systems would solve our housing problems. None of these things happened, in part because people, particularly those who are fond of predictions, tend to forget that the new rarely crowds out the old entirely. Older ways continue alongside newer ones, less prevalent than they once were but rarely gone altogether. As for prefabrication, there are plenty of reasons it has never lived up to its hopes, but neither its advocates nor its detractors predicted that in the last decade, long after it had failed to fulfill its early promise, there would be a wave of sophisticated, modernist prefabricated-building systems. And sustainability? At the beginning of the first energy crisis, in the 1970s, almost everyone (other than people who denied the problem altogether) was absolutely sure that the need to make energy-efficient buildings would mean the end of glass as a building material. How could it be otherwise? Glass, after all, was the least energy-efficient material around. The green-building movement grew, far more than anyone 30 years ago dreamed it would—those who predicted that energy issues would have a major impact on architecture were on to something—but today we have more glass buildings than ever. Almost nobody foresaw the extent to which glass manufacturers would effectively reengineer their product, turning it into something with entirely different performance standards.

We’re already past the time when it was predicted that civilization would come to a halt unless everyone moved into vast structures like Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, as Soleri, or at least his most ardent followers, suggested back in the 1970s, when he was starting to construct his utopia in the Arizona desert. Today, Arcosanti plods along, a vision of the future that now has taken on the quaint aura of the past. And we’re now familiar enough with computer-assisted designs to know that while digital technology is having a vast effect on the process of architecture, it’s not affecting the shape of buildings quite as much as some people had thought it would. Everybody’s architecture, in other words, does not look like Zaha Hadid’s.

What intrigues me is how little real curiosity about the present most futurists seem to possess. They miss its nuance and complexity. They seem to grasp none of the richness, not to mention the subtlety, of the way in which a vast range of social, political, technological, and aesthetic forces continually collide, collude, and play against one another to shape the direction of architecture. It’s harder to follow that complex process, of course, than to spin a fantasy out of a single aspect of the richly layered present. But the real allure of the future is in the very fact of its unpredictability, since we can never truly know how the multiplicity of forces at play today will interact with one another. Understanding the present is always the greatest challenge. When we can meet that, the future will take care of itself.

Categories: Arts + Culture

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