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Architecture 1999

Oxford School of Architecture, MArchD graduate considers the potential for both success and failure in predicting future trends of technology and their impact on architecture.

I spoke to some people in a pub beer garden recently. After the usual introductions, and revealing myself to be an architecture student, one of the group made a comment ‘oh, haven’t you heard you’re out of a job?’, and proceeded to tell me how we as a profession are to be replaced with 3D printing.

Now the conversation that followed could make an article on its own – suffice to say I don’t see a 3D printer doing that dodgy conversion and infill job in Cambridge town centre, or meeting the client to discuss their latest change of heart three months into the build. But it did start me thinking about a topic I often come back to – as architects, should we be attempting to predict the future? Is it even possible? There are two avenues in which we often explore the future of architecture:

1. An unfolding of events, situations, disasters, or changes in culture, society.

2. Assumed development of new technologies or building materials, sometimes creating or fitting new typologies, and the sort of functions users will be requiring, expecting and desiring.

These can be taken on a scale ranging from the near future/almost certain (a worsening housing crisis, global warming) to the possible (3D printed housing on Mars) and eventually the unlikely (a floating cloud city for members of an alien race who are allergic to bees and ambient jazz). But where do we draw the line? Clearly as young architects, we must react to the changing circumstances of the world around us. How do we decide between the serious and the ridiculous – what is a legitimate provocation, and what is a waste of time and energy?

Traditionally, people have never been very good at predicting the rise of technology. There are simply too many variables and unknowns – for a relatively recent example think of the rapid rise and fall of the mini-disk, embarrassingly cut down by the mp3 player and iPod in its infancy. This inability to map future trends afflicts tech giants and futurologists alike, a now familiar failure that we have come to accept, and a risk of looking into the crystal ball. Yet sometimes there is success too. Practices such as Archigram and OMA/AMO have drawn from possible futures in very different ways, using two key skills from the architectural repertoire – creativity and strategy respectively. Think walking cities (fanciful fun) versus European renewable energy networks (perhaps to be taken seriously).

They can encourage people to think about different possible futures, and make us question where we would like to be in 10, 20 or 50 years time. Clearly somebody has to explore new avenues of thinking, and this investigative probing of the future is good for creativity. The danger is believing too much in our creations – as we immerse ourselves in a world where our own predictions rule, we may forget to cater for the realities of our own current very real problems. Our effective ability to create useful tangible solutions becomes lost.We must continue to push boundaries and explore, and to enjoy doing so. But beware ever taking our own (sometimes pretentious?) whims too seriously. Every future will be tampered with by a thousand other changes which we will never be able to foresee, and create a reality that may not unfold quite as we imagine.

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