Future Systems

‘Future Systems’ by Deyan Sudjic; Phaidon Press, 2006. 238pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams | 9  July 2006

At an Architecture Week event a few years ago, Amanda Levete, discussing Future Systems’ place in the modern architectural pantheon, announced that there were two types of people: ‘there are those who love our work and there are those who are stuck in the past.’ Ironically, this piece of vanity publishing encourages the view that maybe it is they who are stuck in the past. This is quite an achievement because there is clearly an interesting story to be told. As Sudjic says, Future Systems ‘have had the courage to explore startlingly new forms and geometries ahead of the field.’ If only the content of Levete and Kaplicky’s work could, for once, take precedence over the form.

The book skirts through Future Systems’ back catalogue in product design, commercial projects, bridges, ‘landmarks’ civic projects and skyscrapers.

Seeing the 1985 Trafalgar Square competition entry reproduced as the Bibliotheque de France competition entry in 1989 and finally as the Selfridges building was an unintentional object lesson in reuse and recycling.

Unfortunately, editorial haste – combined with the preference for appearances over intellectual rigour – has resulted in the themed essay frequently being out of sync with the images that it is supposed to accompany. It is irritating but after a while it becomes clear that this is symbolic: Sudjic’s occasionally high-minded words are out of step with the flimsy premise of this book.

Levete almost admits as much. ‘We don’t protect ourselves with theory,’ she says, ‘for me, architecture is more about feeling and emotional responses.’ Tired of flogging a dead horse, Sudjic gives up his half-hearted analysis half way through the book and falls back on client-pleasers. Praising their range, he says ‘Future Systems’ work is based on a kind of intuitive search for formal perfection.’

Actually, on first impressions, it seems as if Future Systems’ work is based on the iconic grainy 1933 photograph of the Loch Ness monster. The bulbous head, the elongated neck, the part-submerged body is replicated time after time in grainy pictures of lamp stands, tables, cutlery, concept villas, museums and churches. To vary it a little, there are the protuberances and orifices, beans, blobs and penises for which Future Systems is famed. But what it is trying to achieve, why it is trying to achieve it, what its philosophy might be, how it reaches decisions, why it thinks they never build anything, etc, are just some of the many questions ignored in this book.

By refusing to engage intellectually with the architectural debate, when they do venture an opinion it can seem slightly unworldly (although Kaplicky’s blithe insistence that museums should sanctify the artefact is refreshing).

I would love to recommend this book simply for the line: ‘if a building is an epic novel… a spoon is a haiku’. But all things considered, this book not only tells us nothing new about Future Systems, it actually tells us absolutely nothing at all.


Author: AlastairDonald

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