A journey through utopian landscapes: Last Futures – review

Ruth Lorimer reviews Douglas Murphy’s new book Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecture

Photo: Amy Gilligan

Photo: Amy Gilligan

Douglas Murphy’s Last Futures is a fascinating journey through the utopian landscapes of radical modernist architecture. Delving into plans for futuristic megastructures, plug-in cities and lunar colonies, he traces the connections between the hopes and fears of the late twentieth century – from the terror of nuclear apocalypse to the new possibilities of cybernetics – and their expression in the built environment. He describes the trajectories, and the surprising legacies, of visionary eccentrics like Buckminster Fuller, creator of the geodesic dome in 1967 that has become a clichéd symbol of ‘the future’ as we imagined it back then. Fuller was just one of a whole generation of architects who believed that utopia was ‘possible now, for the first time in history,’ but that humanity might just as easily be on a course for ecological or nuclear disaster.

Much of the excitement of the post-war period came from new advances in technology – this was the space age, and architects and planners designed full scale space colonies that weren’t just seen as flights of fantasy, but actually received support from government agencies. The sense that anything was possible, and that big changes were necessary, was shared by the establishment as well as the radical fringes and the counterculture.

Some of the most far-fetched schemes that Murphy describes never left the drawing board, of course – such as Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon, or Archigram’s plug-in city that could be taken apart and rearranged completely, allowing its inhabitants complete freedom and control over their environment. At the time, architects were asking fundamental questions about how people should live – and the desire for greater personal freedom was paramount. Flexible, modular housing was designed for a future nomadic society, who, freed from the drudgery of labour by new technology, would have plenty of leisure time and no need (or, it was presumed, desire) to stay in one place.

Sadly, many of those that did get built were later demolished and derided as failed experiments (John Grindrod’s Concretopia provides a brilliant and sympathetic account of this process in post-war Britain – a book worth reading alongside Last Futures). Somewhat disturbingly, some of the most radical designs were later taken up by corporate capitalism – such as megastructures, now used to create flexible interiors for airports and supermarkets, but originally intended to enable us to build entire cities in which there would be ‘no concept of ownership or employment’.

What really shines through the book is the sense that the future was just around the corner, there for the taking. Visionary architects were not on the fringes of their profession, but often employed by the establishment. It was taken for granted that society was changing, so our cities had to change too, despite intense debates about which direction we should be headed in. But after all this optimism, Last Futures ends on a slightly depressing note. Murphy charts the growing rejection of the notion that architecture could be a tool for social change – explicit in an essay from a 1971 exhibition:

Most of us now understand that architecture is the least suitable instrument with which to achieve social justice … we might wish to concentrate on what architecture and architecture alone can provide, leaving reform or revolution to those better equipped.

Murphy suggests that there was an abandonment of the realm of physical, urban space in favour of cyberspace as the setting for personal freedom, as part of the general rise of individualism towards the end of the twentieth century.

This is probably true, but I think the question of urban space is coming back into political focus today. The ‘urban age’ we are apparently in comes with all kinds of problems – slums, climate change, the privatisation of space, and social polarisation. Suddenly questions about how we build the world around us seem important again – but the current buzzwords of architecture and urbanism are ‘smart’, ‘resilient’ and ‘sustainable’. In other words, there is a sense that the future is something we will have to withstand, rather than something that we can create.

It seems to me that (just as it was in the 1960s) this reflects the political movements of its time. Campaigns against austerity, neoliberalism, or climate change all share the characteristic that they are against certain aspects of the status quo – and transformative, revolutionary movements for a completely different kind of society are small and rare. Perhaps this book therefore points towards a challenge for political radicals (as well as architects) today to start thinking again about the kind of future we want to build.

• Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecture by Douglas Murphy is published by Verso Books

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