Architecture fiction — a short review of a young concept

Installation by Los Carpinteros at the Hayward Gallery, London  Installation by Los Carpinteros at the Hayward Gallery, London

I am intrigued by the recent coinage “architecture fiction.” If you don’t know the term, you can read a little about the idea here, here and here. I am using this post to help me define the term, its uses, history, and to come to grips with its possibilities as a form of practice, especially a form of experimental practice in architectural writing.

First, let’s consider some brief quotes by Kazys Varnelis that try to describe, and in some cases define, architecture fiction:

“Instead of absorbing into itself, a Dada Capitalist architecture would look out into the world, creating architecture fiction, a term that Bruce Sterling coined after reading this brilliant piece on modernism by J. G. Ballard, to suggest that it is possible to write fiction with architecture.”

“So let’s dump the idea of reworking performance architecture into green building and turn to architecture fiction instead. Let’s find creative ways to live in what we already have. I’m fascinated by Bruce Sterling’s concept of “architecture fiction.”

From the above quotes we can speculate that 1. Architecture fiction is against concepts of architectural autonomy; 2. It’s an alternative to green building and parametrics; and 3. Its definition lies within writing by Bruce Sterling, particularly this post.

And this is Bruce Sterling’s definition of architecture fiction from that post:

“It’s entirely possible to write ‘architecture fiction’ instead of ‘science fiction.’ Like, say, Archigram did in the 60s. ‘Plug-in City’, ‘Living Pod’, ‘Instant City’ and ‘Ad Hoc’. ‘Manzak’, ‘Suitaloon’, ‘Cushicle’, ‘Blow out Village’, ‘Gasket Homes’ and the ‘Walking City.’ You read this wayout Archigram stuff nowadays and it’s surprising how thoughtful, humane and sensible it seems.”

the post that started it all....For Sterling, architecture fiction seems to be something that uses buildings (versus the language of science?) to articulate possible worlds and, as yet unrealized, realities.

But I see two problems if we collapse the different definitions by the above authors together: One, a turn toward Archigram would be an ironic alternative to contemporary “green” and “parametric” architecture, considering that Archigram’s work fuels much of the visual language of green, parametric architecture (eg. Richard Rogers or Norman Foster). Two, although one of the projects used by Varnelis to illustrate his idea is fantastic (and inspiring), the case can be made that all architecture is architecture fiction.

As the decades-old research of Beatriz Colomina demonstrates, the imagery produced of modernist buildings (non-fiction?) involved forms of stage-craft and fiction. For me the idea that one form of architecture is more “fictional” than another is not particularly satisfying and can be dismantled with some historical and critical distance.

But, that’s ok.

Sterling’s piece offers another possibility for an architecture fiction that is less about reviving earlier practices and more about forms of architectural writing. He writes “I even wrote some architecture fiction myself, once.” and links to this piece — “Grow thing” (2003) — inspired by the work of Greg Lynn. riffing off the bio-morphicism of Lynn’s architecture, Sterling imagines a scenario played out in a bio-technical world: 

“I gotta admit, when Monsanto went into architecture, they really did it up brown. They’ve got it going on with that enigmatic spatial fluidity.” It broke his heart when she stood there bravely on the Facility’s windblown rubber launchpad, tethered to a kite and clutching her overstuffed pack. The passing zeppelin snagged her with a wire retrieval. Gretel shot into the sapphire Texas sky as if packed in a mime’s invisible elevator. Goodbye, till the next time he got custody. Milton pulled off his thick black glasses and rubbed both hands all over his close-cropped hair and beard. My God, reproduction is such a fantastic, terrifying business.”

If we take the above essay as a truly alternative form of architectural writing practice (a claim btw, that Sterling does not explicitly make) then this form of architecture fiction might have some problems too. Like architectural drawing and photography, numerous forms of critical writing on architecture contain fictional propositions and speculations — eg. the writing of Lewis Mumford, Rem Koolhaas, Michael Sorkin, and Keller Easterling. But clearly, Sterling’s form of architectural fiction takes the speculations of these authors to an entirely different level.

This latter definition — architectural fiction as a form of writing on buildings — seems a bit more durable to me, and potentially more influential. Contemporary architectural criticism by Geoff Manaugh of BldgBlog is the latest iteration of this idea. In this recent piece, Manaugh critiques a building through a more fictional voice, and the speculative nature of the writing suggests some new possibilities for architectural criticism. Last week, Manaugh wrote (tweeted) that “Instead of monographs, architecture firms should commission and publish novels. A novel by Ian McEwan… set in buildings by Richard Rogers.” Here we see architectural fiction as something truly new and experimental.

the tweet that launched 1000 lulu booksTo conclude all this: at its best, architectural fiction is a form of appropriation that rethinks the relation between writing and building. It gets us past the problems of modernity (“the critic” reacting against “the work”) and into new territory, by rethinking the very foundation through which the reception of a work and the work relate. Architectural fiction will neither involve “criticism” or “theory” in the traditional sense — like the writing of Doug Haskell or Ada Louise Huxtable on the Pan-Am Building or Sanford Kwinter and the parametricists he inspires. Rather, architectural fiction will involve some new closure between the written and the built that remains to be staged.

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  1. pfitism

    interesting essay! we have a slightly different read on architecture fiction, which you can find here:

    http://pfitism.wordpress.com/

    -Phyllis Fit

  2. dlgissen

    Hi Pfit:

    I don’t know your magazine, but I wish I did — sounds great. Please send me a copy to California College of the Arts, 1111 Eighth Street, San Francisco, CA, 94107. I look forward to it. I’m glad my def. of architecture fiction escapes your critique! David

  3. You may find it interesting to know that, yes, there is yet another bookazine coming out that quite directly addresses the issue of architecture fiction… Check out Beyond, Short Stories on the Post-Contemporary at http://www.sunarchitecture.nl/catalogue/categori/architecture/beyond_9789085066958.html?sort=ti&lang=en

  4. dlgissen

    Thanks Pedro:
    I will check this out; or you could send me a copy. Also, I have another post lined-up on this subject: I found an earlier use of the “architecture fiction” term, directly tied to how it is used today, completely uncredited in the scant commentary on AF, and within a book referenced (nonetheless) in contemporary architectural thought. Mystery ends in a few days.

    • I’ll be waiting.
      Anyway, I may be passing through NY from 5 till 7 May and maybe this could be an opportunity to go deeper (and live) into the subject. It also happens I am organising an symposium on Architecture & Fiction in Lisbon sometime next year…

      • dlgissen

        Dear Pedro:
        Sounds like fantastic work. Perhaps we/you can stage something here in San Francisco (?), as we have a vibrant history of innovative literary fiction, Bldgblog was/is here (sort of), Wired, Javier, et al.

  5. Dear David, I would be very happy to engage in something like that. I’ll ask the publisher to send you a copy. Be in touch: pedrogadanho @ gmail.

  6. PB

    You may find it interesting to know that, yes, there is yet another bookazine coming out that quite directly addresses the issue of architecture fiction… Check out Beyond, Short Stories on the Post-Contemporary at http://www.sunarchitecture.nl/catalogue/categori/architecture/beyond_9789085066958.html?sort=ti&lang=en

  7. As many posters before me said, this is verry worrying. ,

  8. What is really happening here? ,




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