Review: Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture

Edwina Attlee, Maria Smith, and Phineas Harper, eds.  Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture (London: The Architecture Foundation and Oslo Architecture Triennale, 2019)

Reviewed by Carl Abbott

Cover of Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow's Architecture. Stairs and columns against a backdrop of mountains, under a huge sun or moon, everything soaked in bloody light

To understand Gross Ideas, start with the Oslo Architecture Triennale to which this book is a companion. The Triennale is “a member organization that unites the major architecture and urban planning networks in Norway” for conversations and public programs about the role of architecture in society. Participants and supporters include national associations of design professionals, architecture schools, Norwegian government agencies, and international architecture firms with Norwegian roots. The 2019 Triennale in the fall of 2019, was the seventh iteration.

Some of the contributors identify as writers and some as architects, and a few work both sides. There are two poems, one graphic narrative, and fourteen prose narratives of widely differing character …

The book itself is a miscellany of contributions that is more a curated exhibit in verbal form than a tightly edited collection, a characterization that I suspect the curator-editors would find quite acceptable. Some of the contributors identify as writers and some as architects, and a few work both sides. There are two poems, one graphic narrative, and fourteen prose narratives of widely differing character. Some of these latter are stories that could easily find homes in science fiction magazines. Others range from Will Self’s takeoff on Invisible Cities to Lesley Lokko’s essay on women and transnational remittances that includes a fictional vignette, a short factual summary, and scholarly endnotes (it is quite effective). 

Architects have long delighted to imagine grand buildings and building schemes—Arturo Soria y Mata’s Ciudad Lineal, the arcologies of Paolo Soleri, Walking City and other thought experiments of the Archigram group, a linear supercity from Michael Graves, the mile-high skyscraper of Frank Lloyd Wright (even Burj Khalifa gets only halfway there). Science fiction has appropriated the taste for the grandiose from Trantor and Coruscant to countless artists’ depictions of imagined urban futures full of soaring towers in shimmering color. 

What naïve readers might expect from the “architecture” in the subtitle is often absent …

There is no such here. What naïve readers might expect from the “architecture” in the subtitle is often absent. Instead we get one story in which the largest building is a village house (Sophie Mackintosh, “Placation”), a second set in a caricature of a dusty, unchanging town of the old American Southwest (Joel Blackledge, “Fountainwood”), and another in derelict and abandoned Edinburgh (Camilla Grudova, “Deliberate Ruins’). The only story to center a single building uses an unfinished and abandoned Persian Gulf skyscraper (Deepak Unnikrishnan, “Cat”). The other entry in which architecture is the explicit focus is the graphic narrative “Exile’s Letter” by Mill + Jones, which chronicles efforts to build in a low-technology future (temple, town, giant fishing pier) that are laid low by fire and flood and end with the triumph of unbuilding in a sort of Nature-driven  version of the Tower of Babel. 

Some of the entries posit future engineering rather than architecture—a distinction that the curators and the Triennale folks would likely disregard anyway. For example, Robin Nicholson projects the green retrofitting of London in 2039. I had the most fun with “The Aqueduct,” which presents a scenario for replacing Britain’s rail and road transportation with a set of canals. It is a fascinating think-piece that painlessly introduces elementary physics to extrapolate from Britain’s current restored canals. If he hasn’t, author Steve Webb should look up Railroads and American Economic Growth by my old graduate professor Robert Fogel, which includes a long counterfactual to test whether the United States might have had the same robust economic growth had it invested in canals and river improvements rather than railroads in the nineteenth century.  

As she starts work and experiments on her own small house, she finds herself slowly absorbed by the microbes …

The contributors took to heart the theme of the 2019 Triennale—“Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth.” Some stories imagine the built world in decay (Grudova, Unnikrishnan), others the natural world actively triumphant (Mackintosh).  Lev Bratishenko, “You Wanted This,” reports a future United Nations conference at which national representatives offer their own favored ways to drastically reduce the world population—the Russians want to use thermonuclear bombs, the Japanese want to weaponize the Internet of Things, the Americans want to drug everyone to euphoric death (cue up Serenity). One of the most powerful stories is Rachel Armstrong’s “Bittersweet Building.” A new architecture graduate in desperate need of a job catches on with a Norwegian firm that is trying to incorporate bacteria as part of a building’s metabolism (waste into clean water, heat, oxygen). As she starts work and experiments on her own small house, she finds herself slowly absorbed by the microbes into their own complex world and finally merging fully into the “metabolic community of the landscape.” It is both a chilling and a comforting variation on the natural process of bodily decay. For the theme of degrowth, score a big one for the Earth.

Having considered the “architecture” half of “tales of tomorrow’s architecture,” what about the “tales” part? To no surprise, the pieces run a wide span from interesting but undramatic speculation to engaging story. For an example from the didactic side, Edward Davey, “Oli Away,” uses the mechanism of a report on a gap year journey to explicate some favored energy and transportation options. The entries by Nicholson, Bratishenko, and Webb are additional examples of scenario-building rather than storytelling. They have a lot of information without much surrounding story, which is not to say that we should not think about the ideas they present. After all, nobody read Looking Backward for its compelling characters and plot, but it had enormous influence. 

Several of the contributions that are strong as stories are, not surprisingly, by people with lots of writing experience who know how to create engaging characters. For many Vector readers, the biggest name in the collection is Cory Dotorow, who contributes an interesting variation on his Disneyland obsession with “Materiality.”  He posits a theme park in which high school classes spend a week inhabiting reconstructed towns from different eras. Think Main Street USA meets the living displays of colonial “savages” found at early twentieth century world’s fairs (also see the living diorama in Colson Whitehead’s fantastic alternative view of American history in The Underground Railroad). The theme park contrasts with a present in which recycling and three-dimensional printed make the objects of everyday life ephemeral if not immaterial. Doctorow’s teenaged protagonist indirectly confronts the lasting imprint that seriously stupid Old Timey People left on the landscape by considering whether his favorite old tee shirt is still cool (it is). 

… architecture as a practice of designing individual buildings should be and is being swallowed up by the all-consuming impacts of climate change and necessary transformations in global energy systems.

Maria Smith in “Lay Low” uses the familiar frame of singles gossiping in a bar to introduce a society of scarcity in which everyone has monetized allowances for necessities like water, food, and electricity.  Her variation on a familiar science fiction future is a new way to get ahead on your budget—perhaps—by going into hibernation for a few months to lower your consumption levels and build up points. The women in the bar, who are just learning about the new option, don’t think that monetizing unconsciousness is going to go well.

Jo Lindsay Walton contributed the longest, most complex, and perhaps most readable story (no, there was collusion with your book review editor).  “In Arms” is cleverly constructed with two parallel threads—a woman waiting for a date to show up and an ecoterrorist launching an operation—that slowly grow more complex and intertwine in unexpected ways. Radical changes in building styles are slipped in as background, including the cool idea that rising seas have forced the seat of British government to shift to a mobile seastead platform nicknamed Wetminster.  

Without the subtitle and the wraparound material describing the Triennale, someone who casually reads through Gross Ideas would think it is about economic transition and “degrowth” in general, with architecture one of many avenues of exploration. The overall message is that architecture as a practice of designing individual buildings should be and is being swallowed up by the all-consuming impacts of climate change and necessary transformations in global energy systems. Some contributors see a complete devolution to a nonindustrial future, others a society of scarcity, and still others an adapting world. Tomorrow’s architecture, the book suggests, will be valuable to the extent that it is subordinated not just to social needs—an architectural truism, if not always heeded—but rather to fundamental institutional and social transformation. 

Carl Abbott is author of The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West, The New Urban America: Growth and Politics in Sunbelt Cities, and Political Terrain: Washington, D.C., from Tidewater Town to Global Metropolis.

Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren: Mapping economic landscapes in science fiction

By Josephine Wideman.

In this academic article, Josephine Wideman explores themes of temporality and capital accumulation in Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975). As Fredric Jameson suggests, we must find new methods of spatial and social mapping in order to navigate the geographical and cultural landscapes of late capitalism. Delany’s Dhalgren is deeply concerned with the fate of US hegemony, and with the uncertainty that capitalism has produced: the duality of its unsustainability and seeming inevitability. Bellona is a cityscape which has been devastated by the cycle of accumulation and taken off the map. Delany’s creation ultimately should not be read as a prophecy of what will come of late US capitalism, but it gives insight into the complex historical and apocalyptic consciousness that has been cultivated.



Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany’s 1975 novel Dhalgren is lengthy, hallucinatory, and at times unnavigable science fiction. Its form is as dense and as wavering as the urban landscape it depicts, where Delany’s protagonist, Kid, can wonder whether ‘there isn’t a chasm in front of me I’ve hallucinated into plain concrete.’1 Bellona – the fictional city where events take place – is a space ‘fixed in the layered landscape, red, brass, and blue, but […] distorted as distance itself,’ a place where ‘the real’ is ‘all masked by pale diffraction.’2 Although the scenery and scenarios of Bellona may be fictional, and perhaps even fantastic, they are also true representations of real experience. The unfixed landscape we live in becomes ‘fixed’ before us in Delany’s book. The distortions and diffractions by which it is fictionalised only increase its representational precision. The gaps in our experience, usually masked, are made visible. For although it takes an unusual form, we can recognise

this timeless city […] this spaceless preserve where any slippage can occur, these closing walls, laced with fire-escapes, gates, and crenellations are too unfixed to hold it in so that, from me as a moving node, it seems to spread, by flood and seepage, over the whole uneasy scape.3

In looking at Dhalgren, I have borrowed from the political theorist and sociologist Giovanni Arrighi in order to trace the presence and effects of capitalist accumulation in Delany’s fiction. Arrighi, in The Long Twentieth Century, describes the ‘interpretative scheme’ of capitalism as a ‘recurrent phenomena.’4 Drawing on work by the historian Fernand Braudel, Arrighi follows the Genoese, the Dutch, and the British cycles of accumulation to the current North American cycle. By examining past economic patterns and anomalies, he suggests that we may be able to gesture at the fate of our current cycle. Arrighi sets out to demonstrate that the rise and fall of these hegemonies, while never identical, tend to follow a set of stages that begin ‘to look familiar.’5 To make his argument, he proposes a new use for Marx’s ‘general formula of capital’:

Marx’s general formula of capital (MCM’) can therefore be interpreted as depicting not just the logic of individual capitalist investments, but also a recurrent pattern of historical capitalism as world system. The central aspect of this pattern is the alternation of epochs of material expansion (MC phases of capital accumulation) with phases of financial rebirth and expansion (CM’ phases).6

In Das Kapital, Marx initially proposes the formula CMC to theorise how capital functions. This theory begins with the assumption that people have needs and desires they can’t satisfy by themselves. Thus we create the commodities we know how to make (C), which are sold for money (M), which allows us to buy the commodities we want (C). As this cycle repeats, those who are skilled presumably accrue more value than others, being able to sell their commodities for a greater profit. This theory centres around the individual and his role in a capitalist system. But Marx then sets CMC aside in favour of another formula – the formula borrowed by Arrighi in The Long Twentieth Century – MCM’. In MCM’, circulation does not begin with the dissatisfied individual, but with capital itself. Money is invested (M) into the materials and labour necessary to produce a commodity (C), which is then sold for money (M). The difference between CMC and MCM’ is subtle but crucial. The first formula implies that capitalism recurs, and things are made and exchanged, in order to satisfy human desire and need. The second formula implies that money is in charge, that production and exchange are ultimately subservient to profit, and that money begets more money. For Marx, what drives capitalism is not only MCM, but MCM’ – the apostrophe signifying ‘prime’ – or the concept that money increases in value through circulation. The source of this additional, or ‘surplus’ value, is where capital really loses its lustre. This value is gained within labour – in the time spent on the creation and production of a commodity from raw material – and for Marx, its appropriation by capitalists is inherently exploitative.

Continue reading “Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren: Mapping economic landscapes in science fiction”

Living on Borrowed Time

By Erin Horáková

TimeCity

This academic article explores Diana Wynne Jones’s A Tale of Time City, focusing on worldbuilding and in particular the economic arrangements, overt and implied, of Time City’s peculiar temporalities. How might time travel ask us to reimagine the horizons of economic possibility? What lacunae and anomalies do we encounter in the economic life of a city unbound by linear time? Jones has offered up a mechanism with which to approach issues, and to pose large questions: how do we negotiate power to ethically interact with others economically?


  • Review: This article underwent editorial review by two editors.
  • License: Copyright Erin Horáková, all rights reserved.
  • Citation: Horáková, E. 2018. Living on Borrowed Time. Vector #288. https://vector-bsfa.com/2019/02/01/living-on-borrowed-time/
  • Keywords: Diana Wynne Jones, speculative economics, temporality, worldbuilding

The narrative suggests that the smooth running of history is a quantifiable, scientific question, but in addition to science’s being quite vulnerable to subjective, self-advantaging perspectives, Time City also has economic reason to keep the development of technology going ‘how it’s supposed to go.’ They have reason, too, to keep intact the stable eras with which they trade, and on whose tourism they rely. If helping the wrong bit of the human race might jeopardise that, Time City-zens are clearly willing to watch a few eggs break in order to wait for the omelette they want. We know almost nothing, really, about the laws or moral codes that govern Time City’s interactions with history.

Jones is less interested in the SFnal potentialities of creating a place out of and adjacent to all of time than she is in the social ramifications of such a place’s existence. She understands colonialism and can deal with it startlingly deftly, as in Dark Lord of Derkholm [6], illuminating the social fallout of unequal power structures in a way that can vex post-colonial scholars. Here Jones sees her world (or worlds—both the one she occupies and the one she’s written) clearly enough to make this aspect of its infrastructure its key problem. And yet she simultaneously doesn’t seem to understand the dimensions of that problem quite well enough to grasp its whole shape, much less know how to rigorously answer the question she’s posed.

More than anything else, Diana Wynne Jones’ children’s science-fantasy novel A Tale of Time City (1987) is about the eponymous micro-civilisation: a city-state outside of time. Time City monitors the events of the whole anthropocene, trades with sufficiently advanced civilisations, and partakes of the best of every era. This article conducts a ‘world factbook’ style survey of this economy, to the extent that’s possible based on the information the book gives us (and with markedly less dodgy CIA involvement). We’ll look at the state’s sources of income, labour within it, economic immigration to the city, and finally the ultimate effects of Time City’s colonial trade relations with what its citizens call ‘history.’ Via this case study, I hope to provide a way into thinking about time travellers and other agents outside of time as economic actors.

Continue reading “Living on Borrowed Time”