Where’s my Space Age?

‘Where’s my Space Age?’ by Sean Topham; Prestel, 2003, pp160

Review by Austin Williams | 31 July 2003

This fascinating book, written by Seam Topham (who’s recent book ‘Blow Up’ was reviewed in the Architects’ Journal), asks ‘whatever happened to the space age?’ Constructed in three parts, with a two-page conclusion at the end, the book examines the historical moment of space exploration in its own terms; the cultural forms which were generated out of it; and, looking back on that period, it explores contemporary artistic representations of the space age.

The book is aided by a constant flow of beautiful images which compliment the words – rarely is an image mentioned in the text which isn’t replicated in full colour with concise explanatory notes. Even though it is obvious that the book stems from fairly limited source material (so that the opening descriptive chapter in particular has little new to offer), the author’s infectious enthusiasm for his subjects conveyed in well-paced journalistic prose, results in précis chapters that are a pleasure to read.

The problem comes when Topham insists on assessing the past from the standpoint of the present – reading history backwards. With jarring modern references to globalisation and environmentalism, he throws in sneaky criticisms of the throwaway society “the oil crisis deepened and made people aware of how vulnerable the world was in its reliance on technologies fuelled by a limited resource.” This is not exactly the truth of the period.

From Kisho Kirakawa’s dramatic Living Capsules to Archigram’s Cushicle; from Paco Rabanne’s futuristic fashions and Verner Panton’s Phantasy installations, Topham documents the excitement of the period – but his is a strangely paradoxical reflection on it. He is, at once, enthused and appalled at the excesses. He doesn’t seem comfortable with his own explanation.

With 20-20 hindsight, Topham is gratified that what he calls a childish vision of the 60s has been overtaken by a more grown-up, ‘responsible’ attitude to the planet but, he still wishes we could retain a sense of childish wonder.

Apart from reflecting a modern fetish for the childlike, this is a classic Catch 22 situation. He wants the dynamic of the past but is gratified that today’s society has grown out of what he sees as a rejection of the consequences of that dynamic. Another way of looking at it is that nowadays society has effectively lost its belief in vision – the sort of vision for a progressive future that was commonplace in the 60s – and try as we might, we can’t just grab ‘vision’ out of thin air, even though we might wish that we could. When practical actions are assessed in terms of their negative consequences for the planet, all we have left is a nostalgia for the past and a hope that those remaining unconstrained actors in society (artists, designers, sculptors, etc), may be less inhibited in exploring the ‘vision-thing’ primarily because they have less practical or ‘damaging’ impact.

Ultimately Topham sees the space-age in cultural terms reflecting on the period when designers saw the world in a particular way and hoping that a “new generation of artists… are embarking on their own voyage of discovery.” What he misses is the dynamic reality of the 1960s – a period driven by scientific advance, social upheaval, exploration, economic development, conflict, and political polarisations – and today, a period of caution, restraint, risk aversion and lack of authoritative voices. It is no wonder that people look back top the past for a sense of certainty, but governed by the prevalent climate of precaution don’t really know what to make of it.

‘The futuristic style that accompanied the space age,’ Topham says, ‘was at first inspiring, then deemed threatening, and now seems quaint.’ This book reflects the modern malaise: a nostalgia for the past for certainties about the future, while at the same time being horrified about the fact that anyone would dare to be certain about the future.

For another review of this book, read The future was cancelled by Sandy Starr on the Spiked website.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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