As the forces shaping our built environment have shifted, engaging technology, networks, and complex systems, architects need to envision more than the physical space but produce narratives on how to best operate within this new societal landscape. In this context, speculative architecture seems to have never been more critical; therefore this article takes a closer look at the mediums that currently question the existing conditions of the built environment and explore new architectural possibilities.
Speculative architecture investigates scenarios for the future, creating narratives around how different forms of agency shape space and culture. It relates, overlaps with or is synonym to several other concepts from architecture fiction, design futures, to radical architecture. Nonetheless, it is a discursive activity rooted in critical thinking, questioning the practice and different aspects of society and the built environment. When looking at the works of practices such as OMA, MVRDV, Diller Scofidio+Renfro, FOA, it is clear that the influence of radical architecture and its capacity to imagine different futures can generate architectural innovation. However, there is a historical transformation of speculative architecture discourse, with sustainability and technology as the main subjects for contemporary radical explorations.
It seems that in the conditions of contemporary society, utopian, speculative thinking has become more formalized. Explaining what speculative architecture can contribute to the practice, architect Liam Young references how Archigram has been a trigger for a significant cultural shift in architecture thinking, all through ideas expressed in a thought-provoking manner. He also argues that the Master’s program he initiated at Sci-Arc is a form of establishing speculative architecture as a “genre” and “career path”, which is telling for why modern-day equivalents of architecture collectives like Archigram or Superstudio have now moved to academia. Young stresses the invaluable role of storytelling, saying “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.” In Liam Young’s work, the narratives transcend architectural design thinking and work within the realm of fiction, engaging with frameworks that operate at a global scale.
Further proof of the inclusion of speculative thinking into the formal structures of academia is the New Normal Speculative Urbanism think tank at Strelka Institute. Led by design theorist and author Benjamin Bratton, the scope of the program is to advance architecture so that it operates within a new paradigm, in tune with the new context set in motion by “global computation, data analytics and algorithmic governance”.
The proliferation of biennales and exhibitions created an outlet for architectural speculations outside of the day to day practice. However, architecture competitions and calls to imagine the future gather a myriad of visions that often get lost in this abundance of designs and submissions. It is perhaps a question of finding the right medium to disseminate ideas to a broader audience, escaping the echo chamber of the architecture profession. What is radical in contemporary architecture, what are the conventions architects try to unseat in today’s rapidly changing world? This is precisely the set of questions that 40 emerging and established architects were invited to answer within the What is Radical Today exhibition organized by the Architecture Studio of the Royal Academy of Arts last year. Looking at the works presented in the exhibition, radical architecture today seems to be about raising awareness on certain topics like climate change as well as a redefinition of the role of the architect, alongside the apparent interest in techno-utopia.
What can be seen across all these contemporary manifestations of speculative architecture is that more than their historical precedents, they come accompanied by an array of evidence, data, and additional findings to back-up and validate the proposed scenario, no matter how feasible. As Lola Sheppard from Lateral Office revealed, the speculative architecture process begins “with expansive research with the intent of uncovering hidden truths[…]and much of (our) initial research originates outside the field”. The Canadian experimental practice operates at the intersection of architecture, landscape, and urbanism using “design as a research vehicle to pose and respond to complex, urgent questions in the built environment’’. The projects and subjects the studio chooses to pursue outside of commissions entail a different kind of operation and have the purpose of expanding the agency of the profession, as well as the spectrum of issues architecture engages with. Sheppard, one of the studio’s founders, admits that decision-makers and society at large undervalue the transformative role of architecture and explains their work as a fearless questioning of the mechanisms of today’s world.
Other architecture firms have further developed parallel research branches, to satisfy the need for investigating new architectural paradigms. Running alongside the conventional architecture practice, OMA has developed its own research unit, AMO, an outlet for advancing architectural knowledge and interacting with other disciplines. The think tank has also produced commercial work, but it has generally served as a means to define a personal agenda and pursue different interests independently. Capturing the array of forces shaping society and investigating responses to certain conditions, AMO develops what Koolhaas and Reinier de Graaf refer to as “fieldwork”, embodying the studio’s concern with facts, statistics, and data. The work of AMO usually culminates with a somewhat ironic visual and textual output, as the office is recognized for producing strong narratives.
As recent events have underlined the need for architecture to expand its agency, it is worth looking at speculative architecture as a means to embrace broader issues. The proposals that flirt with the utopian traditions of the past century, drawing from strong speculative resources represent a step towards reinventing urban environments and everyday life.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Young Practices. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.