Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

3 minute read

Why Architects Make Such Great Futurists

The radical architects of Archigram and Future Systems were planning for a vividly imagined future.

In designing structures that will likely long outlast them, architects are in the interesting position of having to envision the future: what will the next years, decades, and even centuries hold? And how might it affect their buildings?

Some look further afield than others. As detailed in a new book from Prestel, Yesterday's Future, the radical architecture groups Archigram and Future Systems both had visions of the future that resulted in immense, fantastical structures, most merely conceptual, that they rendered in beautiful architectural collages. Though both were based in London, the two groups came into prominence during different decades: Archigram was formed in the 1960s, while Future Systems came up in the '80s.

Yet both groups took stock of the current cultural and political climate and looked, with both inventiveness and trepidation, at what was to come—in a way only architects can.

Archigram, Walking City (Project 064), 1964 [Image: © Deutsches Architekturmuseum]

Founded by Peter Cook, Ron Herron, Dennis Crompton, and others, Archigram was both an architectural practice and a publication. It was 1960, Soviet astronauts had just landed in on the moon, and the public's optimism for future technologies was mixed with the anxiety of the Space Race and general cultural upheaval of the time. Archigram's response was a series of visionary and technological utopias that reflected a spirit of excitement and unease. This manifested itself in mainly organic structures located in potentially inhospitable environments.

Ron Herron and Warren Chalk's Walking City, for example, was a mobile structure that was self-sufficient and could be placed in environments that were no longer livable. Resembling a giant insect, the idea is a playful city fantasy, but it also had firm roots in the cultural activity of the time. According to Yesterday's Future, the British artist Peter Blake once called it a theoretical development for the construction of Cape Canaveral rocket builders.

Similarly, Archigram's Instant City was essentially a traveling circus that packaged up the exciting elements of big city life and brought them to the countryside. In England, as in much of Europe, the '60s saw a significant cultural divide between the city and country. This project was meant to help bridge that divide and make city life seem more accessible to people who viewed the big metropolis with a mix of curiosity and fear.

Archigram wasn't alone; many architects in the '60s were designing structures that were socially and politically conscious: Buckminster Fuller's spectacular Dome over Manhattan is one well-known example; the geodesic roof, which would have stretched from the Hudson to the East River, was meant to protect the city from nuclear threat. In 1971, the Austrian atelier Haus-Rucker-Co constructed an inflatable rood over Mies van der Rohe's Haus Lange in Krefeld as a response to environmental pollution.

Archigram (Ron Herron), Instant City – Local parts, 1970[Image: © Deutsches Architekturmuseum]

Future Systems, founded by Czech architect Jan Kaplický, focused on more starkly technical designs. This was the height of the Cold War, and attitudes toward world affairs and technology were considerably bleaker. Those attitudes can be glimpsed in the group's Coexistence skyscraper, which responded to the explosion in population growth by providing living and working space for 10,000 people. Then there's Shelter, an emergency shelter shaped like a giant umbrella. Inspired by the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 and 1985, the aluminum and polyester film structure could fit 190 people and be used for housing, storage, a clinic, or food distribution. In a time when fears about nuclear warfare were mounting, Future Systems' designs were less fantasy than Archigrams', with a special mind to engineering and systems that could rationally, plausibly be produced.

As Jetsonian and fantastical as these ideas may seen to us today, they actually were designed to be built, even if most of them never were. "I don't believe in science fiction," Archigram's Cook said in an 2013 interview included in the book. "I just thought that the projects that we did were possible. You may think that's naive, but I always saw them as connected to the world I knew. I never thought of them as utopian, we thought of them as an extension of the known territory."

Though most of the structures from Future Systems and Archigram were never realized, taken together they offer a glimpse into the collective hopes and fear of the future during the times in which they were conceived.

As for our time? One only needs to look at the designs for sustainable wooden skyscrapers and refugee housing to see how architects are preparing for the future by looking at the climate and immigration crises today.

The Fast Company Innovation Festival