OSA Graduate and 1st Year tutor Will Fisher argues that for architecture to remain relevant, it must engage with the present instead of looking to the future.
First published in OSA Vol 1 Issue 1: Frontiers
50 years ago it was 1964, which was a somewhat eventful year. Mohammed Ali hit a man on the head, Mary Poppins stepped on some chalk, and a much younger Mick Jagger told everyone that time was on his side.
Time, if it even exists, is a bit of a tricky one, partly due to our overly simplified perception of it. We have the "past", the "present" and the perpetual antagonist that is the "future". Past Jagger wrote a song whereby the then present Jagger postulated that time was on his side. We can assume that time, in the context of the song, refers to future time; therefore we witness either a man passing comment on the nature of his own existence through song, or if you're feeling particularly imaginative, Mystic Mick's prediction of the future. Today, if we so wish, we can listen to past Jagger's lyrical forecast, in our present, as a recording of the past. Pause the song half way through and promise to start it again and not die, and you could accurately state that in the future you will hear the end of the song. You prophet.
Contrast, if you will, a mental picture of the fresh faced Stone with a more recent version. Was he right?
To understand if time is on your side, first we need to think about what time actually is and its relationship to reality. There are three competing schools of thought on the realities of existence in relation to time: 'Presentists' say that only present objects and present experiences are real. To take my previous example, 20-year-old Jagger no longer exists because we cannot go back in time and give him a stern talking to about a music video he is yet to make for 'Dancing in the Street' with David Bowie. However, according to 'Growing-past' theory, the past and present are both real, but the future is not. This is because the future hasn't happened. So 20-year-old Jagger is real because we can see low quality videos of him on the internet, and present Jagger exists because he's still alive and still grooving about on the telly. The third theory is that there are no objective ontological differences between past, present, and future because the differences are simply subjective. This third theory is called “Eternalism”. So one would say, viewed from the position of eternity... Mick Jagger.
Most of us, if pushed would probably casually align to either the presentist or growing-past view as doing so is a damn sight easier than trying to live one's life from the unbiased perspectiveless position of eternity, but we also get into trouble by doing so as we prejudice our decisions on notions of history. It's easy to argue that history is useful; we learn from our mistakes, or so we say, but perhaps we also default to them as an unconscious safety mechanism. We may not repeat catastrophic failings, at least not in the short term, but sometimes to simply adjust or modify can be far easier than to totally rethink, and even if we do this, it is hard to rethink without simply applying our acquired, usually flawed methodologies in new ways. Nietzsche describes this as the 'eternal return', where in infinite time and space, events will recur again and again. As Heidegger describes, this is 'the most burdensome thought'.
I mention all of this following a project I recently worked on called 'Designing the Future’, which involved workshops with secondary school children where they spent a few days doing just that. Over the course of the week I spent about half of my time discussing new forms of urbanism, the causes and consequences of ecological disaster and why you shouldn't touch the hot end of a glue gun. The other half was spent saying the words 'in the future' on repeat like a scratched record. My retrospective and growing discomfort with this term has led me to question our attitude as designers with regards to the future.
Is it possible that to speak of the future is simply laziness, or at least a blasé stance from which to try to design from, in that it can often become detached from our daily view of reality? That is not to say that we can't comprehend the future, its importance, or potential issues related to it, but is it garnished with a layer of intangibility that disconnects us from its importance, particularly when discussing or pondering the distant future?
Much like the distant past, the distant future is too far away to matter, or so it feels now anyway, and the presentist or growing-past views state that the future is categorically not real, which makes prediction hard to justify, or at least open to 'it might never happen' style arguments; and herein lies a problem that I feel we need to get over pretty much immediately.
The workshop I ran with another member of PUG and the ReachOutRCA team, was entitled 'Survi-ville' and focused 50 years in the future where all the climate change worst-case-scenarios we all don't like thinking about have happened at once. We discussed and described these issues, and the kids set about dealing with them from an architectural standpoint. Needless to say they produced fantastic and charming work.
So in the world of Survi-ville in 2064, 50 years from now and 100 from 1964, how would these hypothetical inhabitants look back on today? They may adopt the presentist view and disregard 2014 as mere figment, a non-reality. They may say, 2014 was a pretty eventful year. George Groves hit a man on the head, David Cameron took a selfie at a funeral, and Justin Beiber sang a song about nothing at all and looked like a dick. They may simply accept the mistakes we made and our lack of foresight, but view them as untouchable accounts from a past they will never experience. Or, in the growing-past mentality, in the same way that we can read history books detailing terrible atrocities, they may understand the importance of our mistakes and accept them as a reality, but one that they cannot alter but rather make effort not to repeat. Or, they will wish they could travel back to the immaterial past and punch us all hard and repeatedly in the face for our blind-sighted and lazy refusal to adopt an eternalist viewpoint with regards to the ecology of our planet.
It is our job as designers to think about things in different ways and I believe that in some instances this needs to be extended to our understanding of time. Sure, as artists it is often crucial to consider the past, as we rely on tradition, tropes and existing typologies in order to engage with culture and our received and rehearsed appreciation of quality, entertainment or whatever else. But there are issues that are too important to let such things get in the way.
The Greek proverb goes, 'Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in'. Is this is the eternalist view of time in a nutshell? What world could we create if we were to reject the common notions of past, present and future, and instead adopted this view of time as not just an integral feature of our design approach, but also the way we behave, operate as a society and live on a daily basis? And what if we were to apply such thinking to our planet and our ecology?
Well these are difficult issues, and as such to attempt to tackle them requires great upheaval and great risk; it requires money, is pretty much guaranteed to cause stress (which is bad for your health), courage and personal sacrifice. Let's ask however, does truth lie on the side of the difficult or the easy?
In his 'letter to his sister', Nietzsche says:
"…is it really so difficult simply to accept everything that one has been brought up on and that has gradually struck deep roots - what is considered truth in the circle of one's relatives and of many good men? Is that more difficult than to strike new paths, fighting the habitual, experiencing the insecurity of independence and the frequent wavering of one's feelings and even one's conscience, proceeding often without any consolation, but ever with the eternal goal of the true, the beautiful, and the good?"
People are scared of revolution because it requires us to change the present state of things; from the position of eternity, this is no longer a concern.
Will Fisher graduated from the BA (Hons) Architecture programme in
2010 before taking his MA at the RCA. He is one third of PUG, whose work
can be found at www.whatispug.com