Dan Dare, or Dan Daren't

‘Future Visions: Future Cities’ Conference, London School of Economics, 6 December 2003

Reviewed by Dave Clements | 11 December 2003

The Future Visions: Future Cities conference,  supported by the Architects Journal, examined the role of the city through the prism of politics, culture and economics. 

Future Visions: Future Cities (FV: FC) was billed as an exploration of ‘city visions: past and present’, taking on the precautionary principle, sustainability and the low horizons that frustrate a future-oriented urbanism. One reviewer said it tried to do too much. Perhaps, but the event was in part a response to the belief that others haven’t done enough to tackle such orthodoxies. Ambitious? Yes… but about time.

The opening plenary, Dan Dare or Dan Daren’t? asked ‘Have we lost our vision or are we just more sensible?’ Sean Topham, young enough to have an impressionistic take on the sixties, professed to feeling ‘let down’ by the promises of yesteryear. His fascinating book, Where’s My Space Age? instead of concerning itself with the technical wonders of space exploration, demonstrates how the excitement of the times permeated popular culture and profoundly influenced designers and architects alike: ‘Architects envisaged pods, megastructures, and whole cities that moved and transformed in response to the wishes of their inhabitants’. But, as he elaborated, it eventually gave way to a failure of confidence as the 70s burned themselves out. The billowing outfits, flared trousers and platform shoes that seemed to root their occupiers to the spot were symptomatic of an ebbing dynamism, he added.

But were the sixties really as bold and future-orientated as we like to think, anyway? Alphaville (1965), Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal filmic depiction of a Parisian future populated by servile automatons and governened by a supercomputer, expressed an anti-rationalist sentiment that persists to this day. Its cityscapes punctuated with E=MC2 and bold arrows displayed in neon parodied already problematic notions of scientific advance and progress. In ‘From Dystopia to Myopia’, a session examining changing cinematic visions of the futuristic city suggested that this dislocation from the idea of progress can be traced back further. However, Xan Brooks, film editor at The Guardian Online, noted that Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), in its commanding modernist representation of an ordered city, portrayed a society with a clear trajectory, however dark. In contrast, he said, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) worked more as a post-modern collage indifferent to the architect or city planner’s brief. Consequently, Lang’s was a more familiar metropolis, sympathetic to its times in as far as it was polluted, overcrowded, and on reflection, less at ease with itself.

Spaceship Earth

According to Marina Benjamin, speaking at the session ‘To Boldly Go…’ the space age from its beginnings was tainted. The author of Rocket Dreams: How the Space Age Shaped Our Vision of a World Beyond, articulates well the growing influence of eco-mysticism over the decades, and even how it shaped perceptions of the1969 moon landing itself as the God-fearing missionaries met the fragile Earth outlook, that would eventually be formulated by former NASA scientist, James Lovelock in his Gaia thesis. At the same time, for all its apparent hedonistic optimism, the counter-culture betrayed a profound underlying conservatism. Timothy Leary, spaced-out figurehead, and space colony enthusiast, was apparently enthralled by the thought that we may ‘once again, think noble thoughts about the future’. However, he described this future as a ‘return to the village life and pastoral style for which we all long’. For Leary, as Benjamin neatly put it, parodying Leary’s famous aphorism, it was ‘onwards, upwards and backwards’.

A yearning for the ‘urban-village’ also found its way into an afternoon session. Victoria Nash, co-author ‘Making Sense of Communities’ for the Institute of Public Policy Research, argued that local authorities must cultivate a new civic pride in dislocated communities. However, the example she cited, engagement through anti-litter awareness, wasn’t the most persuasive. Her co-panelist, Miranda Sawyer, of BBC’s Late Review and author, ‘Park and Ride’, thought more priority should be given to ‘the boring stuff’, that is public services and infrastructure.

Sawyer made an often personal yet compelling case for a positive urbanism. ‘Cities are a bit rough’, she acknowledged, but ‘people should be told to be braver’. She was nostalgic for a time when kids ‘worked things out’ hanging about in parks, but by qualifying her appeal for the revival of ‘neutral spaces’, with ‘safe’, undermined her argument. Spaces so designated, after all, cease to become conducive to unregulated goings on. But at least Sawyer’s focus on growing up in the city, and ended up advocating the autonomy of the young urbanite. Nash, on the other hand, seemed to see us all as impressionable kids subject to the destructive influence of peer pressure, or what she called ‘network poverty’.

And now, the time has come…

According to Jeremy Newton, chief executive of the National Endowment for Science and Technology in the Arts (NESTA), transport policy today is hostage to the heritage industry. Instead of promoting better, faster means of getting from A to B, it is bent on reviving trams and bicycles, the ‘cutting edged technologies of the 19th Century!’ he joked at the final plenary, ‘Tomorrow’s World’.

This session, cunnningly named after the recently retired BBC science flagship, wondered where our modern-day future vision would lead us. Vaguely remembered promises of jet packs, domestic robots, and long-haul space flights, were by-passed as Martin Wright, editor in chief, Green Futures began warning of globalised threats to humanity, from migrating viruses, and the dangers of dependence on the oil reserves of unstable regimes, to post 9/11 attacks on nuclear energy plants closer to home. His sentiments echoed an earlier discussion on ‘dense cities’ exposing the unfounded paranoia of population growth. Little wonder, as co-panelist Kevin McCullagh put it, that we look to the optimism of the sixties or Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to recapture a sense of awe in what humanity might achieve. McCullagh, director of Foresight, Seymour Powell, went on to describe the thinking behind such gloomy speculations as a ‘barrier to innovation’.

As Wright illustrated with his scattergun projections, it is the low esteem in which human intervention is now held that turns the past into a lesson in humility, and the future, a terrain from which we recoil. Claire Fox, director, Institute of Ideas, argued that we couldn’t design ourselves out of the problem either, as some of the futurists present on the day might have hoped. The creative professions and technologists are just as prone to internalize what she described as a pervasive culture of limits, an outlook by which ‘future generations will be ill-served’. We are alienated from the past as much as the future, said Fox, and subject to a stifling ‘presentism’ that can only narrow the creative impulses of innovators.

The overriding temper of our times, risk-averse, bounded by limits and sustainable projections, is not insurmountable. It is one thing to be practical, and quite another to be practically unable to conceive of a future that transcends the present. Idealism too, from some speakers, was less than inspiring on closer inspection. But that only makes the case for a more thoroughgoing critique of the current discontent of modernity. This underlines the recognition by a number of speakers, and summed up by conference organiser Austin Williams of the AJ, that what holds us back are not natural limits to growth or progress, but political lines in the sand. Interrogating the projections of eco-doom, ‘better safe than sorry’ and misplaced allegations of hubris are a priority. There is overwhelming historical precedent for challenging diminished expectations, and little to be gained through the privileging of caution over bold ideas. Thinking big has never been more important and this conference was the most dynamic of starting points.


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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