What is speculative architecture? FAQ by Liam Young

A theorist of architecture and storytelling explains the topic in 7 points.

Photo: Strelka Institute

Liam Young is a major figure in the speculative architecture movement. This discipline investigates scenarios for the future of cities and how technology influences urban landscapes. The founder of the Fiction and Entertainment MA programme at the Sci-Arc architecture school, the  Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today think tank, and the Unknown Fields Division studio, in 2017, he is teaching at The New Normal programme at Strelka. Together with his team, he travels to unusual places all over the world, from the Galapagos to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, to better understand how humanity changes the planet. He is one of few architects who think not only in spatial, but also in temporal terms. Combining his knowledge of urban studies with methods from literature, video games, and cinema, Young and his colleagues vividly portray the influence of science and technology on human behaviour in cities. Strelka Magazine asked Mr. Young what speculative architecture is, how storytelling is used in the discourse about the future of the cities, and why an architect should think about the planet as a whole.

Further: quoted speech of Liam Young

HOW DOES SPECULATIVE ARCHITECTURE DIFFER FROM ORDINARY ARCHITECTURE?

As a speculative architect, I don’t design buildings as endpoints or outputs, but I would still argue that what I do is architectural, or at least it’s architecture in some form. Instead of creating buildings themselves, I tell stories about cities. The dominant forces of the past that shaped our cities, buildings, and public spaces are now being displaced by technologies, systems, networks, and stacks. Thus, the architect needs to change their model of practice in order to remain relevant. The architect now needs to intervene in these systems beyond shaping the physical building. And that is really about telling stories about how they operate. Speculative architects mostly create narratives about how new technologies and networks influence space, culture, and community. They try to imagine where new forms of agency exist within the cities changed by these new processes.


IS SPECULATIVE ARCHITECTURE SOMETHING RADICALLY NEW?

Most architects, whether they call themselves that or not, have been speculative architects for much of their careers. For example, most competition entries remain unbuilt, and the client never pays for them. These are speculative projects that have never been legitimized within the profession. But architecture has a long history of unbuilt projects. Take a group like Archigram, which was active in the 1960’s. I think that they had a bigger say in post-war British architecture than any single building ever did. They were involved in an entire cultural shift that moved from thinking of architecture as something massive, big, and permanent, to something that could be flexible, disposable, and temporary. They didn't need to make a single building to do that. So, I think the claim in speculative architecture is actually not to say that it's a new discipline, but to legitimize it and formalize it in a way that it hasn't been before. I set up a new Master’s programme on speculative architecture at Sci-Arc to try to establish it as a clear genre of architecture and a clear career path, not being something that you fall into because no one will pay you to build anything, but something that is really meaningful — and also critical.

Illustration: Archigram
Illustration: Archigram
Illustration: Archigram
Illustration: Archigram

WHY SHOULD SPECULATIVE ARCHITECTS TELL STORIES?

Architects have an innate ability to explore, synthesize, and to present complexity in visually evocative and powerful mediums. But speculative architecture revolves more around storytelling. A speculative architect should know how to tell stories about cities and spaces to launch these narratives into the world with such force that they find traction. An architectural mode of visual expression should be stitched together with the mediums that film, video games, and documentaries work within. And, in that way, we can start to hijack these forms of popular culture, and, like Trojan horses, insert within them really critical ideas about architecture and open space. That’s how we can disseminate these ideas to much wider audiences. This type of communication with people outside the discipline is what the traditional profession does extraordinarily badly. Fiction is a shared language that helps to disseminate ideas.

WHAT KIND OF FICTION DO SPECULATIVE ARCHITECTS USE AND WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT?

Fiction can present simple ideas in ways that ordinary people can start to connect with. By doing that, they are able to make active choices about enacting the futures that they want to live in. In traditional architecture, you spend years developing the fluency in reading and constructing sections and plans, but the rest of the world doesn’t know how to work with such media. So, speculative architecture moves beyond these codified languages into one of fiction because of people’s extraordinary ability to understand the ideas embedded within it. We need to play with the fluency of language that comes from storytelling and use these stories not just as things to entertain us, or dull our mind, or just to give something to do on Friday night when we’re out on a date. We should use them to say really important things.

Film frame from "Where the City Can't See"
Film frame from "Where the City Can't See"
Film frame from "In the Robot Skies"
Film frame from "In the Robot Skies"
Film frame from "In the Robot Skies"
Film frame from "Where the City Can't See"

IN WHAT WAY CAN STORYTELLING BE USED IN SPECULATIVE ARCHITECTURE?

We have just finished a film called “Where the City Can’t See”. It is a project about a new form of city that is managed and optimized by urban algorithms. The film is told from the perspective of a driverless taxi drifting through that city. What we are doing is exploring what happens when humans are no longer the dominant subjects through which a city is designed. Instead, it is formed by things like autonomous automobiles, drones, and the machine vision systems that they operate on. So we shot the film entirely using lidar scanners, which is the technology through which these entities see and understand the world. We explore how architects, designers, and inhabitants of this city remake themselves when the dominant system of viewing the city has changed. The film follows a network of young factory workers that travel through the city over the course of one night. Moving through a network of stealth buildings, glitch architectures, shadows, sprites, and anomalies, they are searching for the cracks in these machine vision systems. These cracks generate a new way of thinking about architecture. These are, essentially, the new type of shadows that emerge in our cities. And these kids inhabit these shadows to have a party, what we used to do out in industrial urban areas and abandoned warehouses, where there was no one to turn the music down, or there were no police because there was nothing to protect. These were once the spaces of exception, where you could do drugs, have sex, and listen to music. But in a city where technology sees everything, where do those spaces exist? Precisely in the cracks, which are the contradictions of these technological systems.


WHAT ARE MEGASTRUCTURES?

An important notion in speculative architecture is “megastructure”. It differs from the same notion in traditional architecture, where it means a big, continuous, massive building. Here, a megastructure is a planetary-scale network. It is a discontinuous structure that connects a place like, for example, a bar in Moscow, all the way across to the other side of the world where the sand was mined to produce a glass you drink from in that bar. To really understand a space and our place within it, we need to understand the megastructure, which stretches and connects disperse landscapes. We have to consider it to realize the conditions that construct our experience in the modern city. In order to truly understand a site in a contemporary sense, we should no longer think only about a point on a map, but about network conditions. That is a new form of site. So, an architect making something now needs to site their work within these megastructures and start to design within them. It is a designing relationship that occurs across multiple sites and multiple temporalities.

WHAT ARE THE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN SPECULATIVE ARCHITECTS AND OTHER INDUSTRIES?

The irony is that the industry that most rejects speculative architects is architecture. All the others are craving our skills. Speculative architects’ storytelling abilities combine temporal modes with spatial ones, and we are some of the only practitioners that are able to think in those terms. Some of the biggest and most well-paid jobs I have had in recent years have been with the car industry, who have invested lots of money in autonomous driving technologies, but have no idea about the changes that this is going to make in cities. What does it mean for public space and for roads? What will it mean to commute from one place to another? If you're an architect and you're not interested in the changes that driverless cars are going to force upon cities, then you have your head in the sand. I could say the same thing about mobile technologies. Smartphones serve so many of the functions we used to associate with architecture and public spaces. A critical consultant sitting next to Jonathan Ives who designed the iPhone should be an architect thinking about what functions the smartphone should have and the consequences it will have on the way that we communicate and relate to each other across space. The great tragedy of the last couple of decades is that we haven't been in the room when those decisions have been made.

Text: Sergey Babkin