Architecture after Cyberspace—an extract from Douglas Murphy's Last Futures

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Douglas Murphy's Last Futures, a cultural history of the last avant-garde, excavates the lost archaeology of the present day. In this extract from the book, Murphy suggests that the Internet has replaced architecture. These networks find their material kin in Buckminster Fuller's US pavilion at Expo 67 (pictured below), but are without the need for an architectural frame at all; composed of electronic infrastructures alone.


On 8 February 1996, a document entitled A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace was published online. The Declaration demanded, in stirring prose worthy of its namesake, that the ‘Governments of the Industrial World’ were to ‘leave us alone’. ‘Us’ in this instance meant the denizens of cyberspace, the online communities forged in the early days of the Internet, who were increasingly being brought under government and corporate control. The declaration claimed, in true libertarian fashion, that:

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here. 

The declaration was written by John Perry Barlow, an erstwhile lyricist for the Grateful Dead and a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation [EFF], an activist organisation that had been set up in 1990 to defend civil liberties online. The EFF grew out of an early online community called the WELL, or the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, which itself had been started in 1985 by Stewart Brand. The declaration was both a statement of intent about the future of the online world, but it was also a blast from the countercultural past.

A great number of the communalists who fled back to the cities from the Midwest in the 1970s moved to California. This migration was part of a larger shift in power in the United States, one that was to have a profound effect on the shape and scale of the future. Where traditionally the source of economic power in the US had been the manufacturing heartlands of the North, in Michigan and surrounding states, centred on industries such as steel and motoring, there was now a drift towards the Southwest, the oil economy and California.

Many at the vanguard of this movement were exhausted hippies who made their home in what would later be known as Silicon Valley. What they found offered a beguiling mix of post-Fordist mode of capitalism, alongside the utopian hopes of a world rebuilt with computers.

The counterculture had been obsessed with computing from the outset. The pages of the World Earth Catalog and subsequent publications regularly juxtaposed mathematics, advanced structural engineering, electronics and programming with drugs, free love and ‘back to the land’ sentimentality.

When, in the 1980s, the environmentalist movement lost the ear of the establishment and was pursuing what appeared to be a rejectionist course, the banner of the future was picked up by the apostles of cyberspace, the hackers and the new entrepreneurial class of the digital world. Thus many of the political dreams of freedom from bureaucracy and oppression that had defined the counterculture became defining characteristics of this new world. But these outsiders were mixing and working with the powerful worlds of scientific research and industry; they were returning to the establishment.

As this new arrangement became ever more comfortable, the sense of dread that had imbued this culture began to vanish. Apocalypse fatigue set in by the end of the 1970s. Stewart Brand (who in more recent years has written extensively about climate change) later recounted the sense of futility and exhaustion that he and others had experienced: 

We were completely apocalyptic. The sky was falling, the population was exploding, people were starving, yet we went on. When the energy crisis finally happened in ’73, we said, ‘Aha, it’s here, the end of the world.’ It turned out we were wrong again.

The sense of imminent doom was largely dissipated by the rise of the new conservatism, of the drop in oil prices and the ’80s financial boom. Environmentalism was, at least in political discourse, largely taken off the agenda. The new future that evolved out of this process was focused on the development of and access to information. The hacker attitude, a strange form of libertarian communism, held that all information should be completely available to all at any point, creating a new communality within the realm of the digital, one that found its ideal medium with the growth of the Internet in the 1990s.

 Here was an optimistic, possibly even utopian world forming, which saw the prospect of a genuine kind of freedom, perhaps embodied in the legendary Apple ‘1984’ advertisement, where the personal computer itself was portrayed as a tool against tyranny. For a while, the breathless optimism of the technologically enhanced future was dominant. 

With this transition towards a positive politics of cyberspace, space itself no longer seemed to be the terrain upon which new political ideas were to be played out. The digital world brought into being a utopian dream of the potential for anyone in the world to communicate and interact with anyone else in the world, regardless of where or who they might be. In cyberspace, there was no reason to be fixed to one’s gender, race, wealth or any other identity.

This tendency held within it the promise of a dramatic flattening of human hierarchies and structures of dominance. The earlier retreat back into the cities from the communes was also a retreat away from the spatial sphere into the ‘smooth’ space of the digital world. The communes may have failed as models for new kinds of life and new kinds of spatial organisation, but embedded back into the city some of their innovations could still flourish.

While the earlier counterculture had its metaphor of Fuller’s dome, symbolising the fragility of the world’s natural environment and humanity’s attempt to find a proper place within it, the new cyberculture reduced the scale of that shell down to the level of the individual and their device. This alone connected them to the long-desired universal freedom and fraternity.

Where did this leave architecture as a place of spatial speculation and social interaction? The megastructural developments showed that, as the scope for architecture became larger, in the eyes of designers the actual architecture itself began to recede to become an infrastructural network designed to service the whims and needs of the leisured populace. Architecture was becoming larger but less dense, less detailed and, significantly, less permanent. As a result, indeterminacy became an ever more significant concern.

It’s almost as though the ultimate building of the era would have been a perfect bubble, of almost infinitesimal thinness, but which nonetheless defined a boundary forming an internal space. The high-tech city promised to banish the shadows, to allow people to encounter their world without the fog of history that had led to so much suffering and exploitation before. And the dream that, within this glass bubble, the house itself would become an industrially produced dwelling unit was not just a reflection of the disposable objects of consumer capitalism, but a dream that humans would not be tied to their own contingent situation, their own history. 

While this was occurring, the development of digital and media technologies were apparently eroding the need for an architectural frame at all. At its furthest limit, architecture attempted to vanish, the electronic infrastructure becoming invisible at any scale above that of the individual and their connection into the network.

We are surrounded by a network of satellites creating an information shell around the world, and all around us, mostly out of sight, are the power stations and distribution points that actually service the lives around us. Meanwhile we still live in spaces whose forms and arrangements, both spatial and political, were established long before the world of electronics began to change daily life.

This invisible network is clearly not the consummation of that architectural promise of indeterminacy and freedom. Indeed, the way that the digital world seems to have bypassed the limits of architecture makes it appear almost impossible to imagine significant change in the world as it is. There seems to be a fundamental political boundary that has opened up between the hard world which continues to exist, seemingly unchanged, and the networked computer world that we can only ever peer into and never truly inhabit.

From megastructures to Small Is Beautiful, from space colonies to cyberspace, what is the appropriate scale for change to occur in architecture? Time and again, small experiments in new forms of architecture or social arrangements completely failed to make the difference necessary to have large social effects. Meanwhile at the other scale, the attempts of the establishment to encourage deliberate action to keep up with technological and social change frequently failed to achieve their goals – indeed, they sometimes appeared to exacerbate the very problems they intended to ameliorate. 

The exposition as a model for the future of urbanism had mixed fortunes. We saw how certain predictions made in expo culture were remarkably prescient, especially those that foresaw the car-dominated Cold War city, or the city of high-rise living. But even when supported by the political weight of nation states with a point to prove, the future worlds predicted by the post-war expositions were frequently wiped out themselves by the crises of the 1970s.

The dome from Expo 67 remains as a ghostly shell in its island park, while the world depicted in the Osaka expo almost completely failed to arrive. Expo culture suffered from the same problems of dematerialisation as the architecture of the counterculture – indeed it was apparent all along, as the spectacle of screens and media began to overshadow the brute weight of the buildings that held them. And the gradual reduction in size of new technology, the shrinking from displays of moon rockets to mobile telephones, also helped to render redundant the expos and their spectacular and expensive spatial display of new technology.

Other model-forms of the future city, however, are still tantalisingly with us. The university campuses of the post-war boom, especially in the UK, remain archetypes of a new form of urbanism, three-dimensional, collegiate, reminiscent of geological formations across the landscape. In almost no other place was it possible to try out the new architecture and planning ideas which were percolating at the time with such favourable conditions: fresh communities of students, a new experimental culture of education, rural landscapes without existing urban formations. They still appear to us as the model for a new way of living in cities, more technologically sophisticated, more integrated with the natural environment, one possible urban resolution of the questions posed by industrial modernity.

Indeed, during that era the universities served as some of the primary incubators of political innovation, the massive growth of higher education creating an environment of anguished optimism and demand for further change. But of course, a university, no matter how much it might model itself on one, is not a city, not even a town. For that reason they can stand only as metaphors for what the city could have been, dreams of a certain form and character of world modernity.

At the larger scale, where entire communities and cities were indeed built along new principles, the picture is mixed. In some parts of the world, such as the Soviet Union or Southeast Asia, millions of people were housed “in settlements of what were at that point innovative, high-tech buildings. Reaction against such methods largely occurred in countries whose political ideologies were predisposed towards corporate rather than state power. In such places the house has become the physical form that embodies the great conservative traditions – the family unit, the individual’s ownership of property, rather than a method of social organisation.

Indeed, despite the obvious failures of much of the new technology, and the rapid obsolescence of much of the housing produced at the time, it was the convergence of practice between the West and the East, the very internationalism of the methods of building that served to turn the tide of opinion against such innovation. From the very early appearance of the cliché that Western housing projects and estates resembled something from Eastern Europe, it is clear that anti-communism was nourishing soil that fed anti-modernism. That a city such as Brasilia could be rejected in such vague anti-utopian language as that of Robert Hughes, and that specious nonsense such as Utopia on Trial could find such a willing ear in the early years of Thatcherism, shows just how much the ideological battles of the Cold War influenced the public reception of the architecture of the future.

There is a certain irony that the most recent global building booms – the brand new cities of the oil-rich Arab countries and the vast Chinese urbanisation of the early twenty-first century, despite their often outlandish formal innovations and unprecedented scale, have taken as their ultimate model the dissipated, car-dominated suburbia already established in the US and across the world. Dubai may have built islands on the sea, but they are covered in low-rise villas, sold to investors, part of an ongoing global transformation of the home into an asset class, a bubble of an entirely different kind.

 

In all of its defeats, the architecture of the future failed to see any of the changes in day-to-day life that it was supposed to assist. The city maintained its old forms in the end. High technology vanished and became invisible, either in the sky, hidden behind historical masks or kept well away from the city that it serves.

In the end it seems that the fundamental object of change all along was the home, and that the crucial factor was the social relationships embodied in it. The architecture of the last futures raised or gave form to fundamental challenges to these relationships, beginning with the project of mass housing challenging traditional property relations all over the world. But then the drive towards the indeterminate, mobile dwelling unit – and its implied limit of the air-conditioned nomadic subject in an infinite interior – promised to completely redefine not only the social relationships of the city, but also the technological relationship between the people, the city and the natural environment.

Very few changes in ways of dwelling ended up taking place, and the consensus seems to be now that the ambitions themselves were suspect, and that much of what was realised was inherently doomed. But the failure of previous generations to follow through with these changes appears with great clarity in the problems the world now faces today, and humanity might not be in quite such a predicament if they had been more successful.

In 2005, Frei Otto, by then seventy-nine years old, was awarded the gold medal for a lifetime’s achievements by the Royal Institute of British Architects. In an interview conducted at the time, he was dismissive of his earlier extravagances. Asked about the world of mass-produced social housing, he explained that ‘my generation had a big task after the war and of course we thought we could do it better. Today, 60 years [later], we can’t be proud of what we have done. But we tried; we tried to go a new way.’16 In the intervening decades, Otto’s career had first faltered, after postmodernism began to reject overtly technological design, but then had been recognised as a great influence on the high-tech architects who had grown up and out of that era. Otto’s attitude to his own more ambitious earlier projects reflects his struggles and the chastened attitudes of later times: 

I was a close friend of Bucky Fuller, and we debated the idea of large domes. But why should we build very large spaces when they are not necessary? We can build houses which are two or three kilometers high and we can design halls spanning several kilometers and covering a whole city, but we have to ask what does it really make? What does society really need?

This is a far cry from the confidence and excitement with which these very same ambitious proposals were “greeted at the time, when they appeared to be the logical next development:

In the future the main concern of architecture will no longer be the individual building, but the overall system comprising integrated building complexes. Giant envelopes exist as an idea; the prerequisites for their construction are fulfilled in principle. It will probably not be very long before present day society formulates specific structural problems which can best, or exclusively be solved by the construction of vast enclosing structures of this kind.

But now some strange developments have been occurring, emanating from the technology companies of the American West. Until recently, the industries of Silicon Valley treated architecture with almost total indifference, housing their workers in massive suburban campuses of little or no architectural interest or import, taking on the cast-off shells of earlier industries. Recently, however, they have begun to look to prestige architecture to help fulfil their missions. Facebook has hired global superstar Frank Gehry to design their headquarters, and Apple is currently constructing a massive new building designed by Norman “Foster, a gigantic ring-shaped office, a slick technocratic doughnut. More remarkably, Amazon are building themselves a new headquarters in Seattle, the centrepiece of which is to be a set of interlocking glazed domes which hark back directly to the iconography of Buckminster Fuller.

And in early 2015, Google revealed preliminary proposals for a gigantic new campus in Mountain View, California, the first new buildings that they have built for themselves. Jointly designed by the studios of Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, global stars who are both under fifty years old, it promises to be the most experimental of all of the new technology headquarters. Google themselves describe the project in terms which are more than a little familiar:

The idea is simple. Instead of constructing immoveable concrete buildings, we’ll create lightweight block-like structures which can be moved around easily as we invest in new product areas … Large translucent canopies will cover each site, controlling the climate inside yet letting in light and air. With trees, landscaping, cafes, and bike paths weaving through these structures, we aim to blur the distinction between our buildings and nature.19

Images that were released as part of this announcement show buildings remarkably similar to the West German pavilion at Expo 67, with a glazed roof structure draped over a series of giant tent-columns under which various platforms are nestled. Furthermore, along the inside of the skin of the canopies are opening and closing flower-like shading structures, almost identical to those in Buckminster Fuller’s Montreal dome. If Google’s buildings are developed along these lines, they promise to be an unexpected reappearance of all the ideas of the last futures. Giant envelopes, megastructure, indeterminacy, biospheres – it’s almost as if every experimental architectural concept of the late 1960s and ’70s has been dusted off and moulded into one project for the most powerful media company in the world.

But something isn’t quite right. The architect’s images depict the projects in the same simplified diagrammatic way that they would for a contemporary art museum, a block of luxury apartments or an office tower. ‘Envelope’ sits above ‘Human Scale’, a series of jumbled boxes representing the actual offices/workshops/labs, which sits above ‘Nature’, depicted as a green patch with a handful of cartoon trees, reducing the far-reaching concept to architectural cliché. The visualisations for the project, while grasping a little of the spatial qualities of the envelope, are basically no different to the images one would see for a new landscape park, shopping mall or office block; it’s just that they are slightly intermixed. The designers have somehow taken these still-advanced proposals and lost both the futuristic qualities and the possible historic quality that might also have been achieved.

Indeed, other developments in the technology industry are fascinating and troubling. Google’s corporate dominance has allowed them to become ever more ambitious, and their corporate acquisitions and research and development have moved them heavily into fields such as artificial intelligence, military robotics and life-prolongation, and many other areas that had been largely consigned to futures past. Elsewhere the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, born in 1964, and the prominent entrepreneur Elon Musk, born in 1971, are both heavy investors in private space travel, and both have called for the revival of the space-colony project, if only to provide a backup space for humanity if the earth-bound population is finally wiped out. It’s almost as if the last few years have seen an awakening of the potent and ambitious technocracy of the post-war era, including shadows of the military industrial complex, although this time transcending the power of states and, seemingly, politics itself.

This book began with the hypothesis that the landscape of threats in the contemporary world bore a great resemblance to those which were culturally prominent in the last futures era, but with the fundamental difference that half a century ago, there was a boldness of experiment and belief that although such challenges were difficult, they were within the capabilities of a rapidly changing society. The likes of Google may be dusting off the dreams of that era, but with a vision of the world that is fundamentally contradictory.

Back then, automation was seen almost universally as a rising tide that would set people free from drudgery, but now, the mass automation of intellectual work promised by the algorithms of the technology industry seems much more likely to raise the drawbridge between the wealthy and the masses even further. Instead of people working a few days a week and fulfilling themselves with creative leisure at other times, it appears more likely that people will become more tightly squeezed into the last remaining jobs whose empathy and emotional labour the robots cannot synthesise.

Far from the home becoming something as technical and impermanent as an appliance, the house has become an asset class, whose very permanence has allowed it in parts of the world to become a socially ruinous investment, as solid as ever, yet ever more melted into air. Instead of our being housed in bubbles, the monetary value of our housing continues to bubble ever more erratically. And instead of the modern human becoming a nomad, free to roam within their comfort shells, national walls appear to be growing higher again, with anti-immigrant politics on the rise in the wealthy nations and all the grim historical resonances that suggests.

Finally, instead of living in giant structures balancing the energy needs of cities with the natural world around them, it seems more likely that the lack of action on carbon dioxide emissions, combined with rising inequality across human society, will lead instead to the creation of climate enclaves, fortified cities for the super rich, self-sufficient in energy and food yet totally barricaded off from those outside who will be left to fend for themselves – the ultimate in Sloterdijk’s bubbles.

Although there is no question of being able to pick up where the last futures left off, there is clearly a need for more ambitious thinking and action regarding the form of housing and cities, and the very nature of how humans live in space. There is overall a sense that these last futures might have been the final chance to change the world, and even if we see flickers of their reanimation, it will be worth nothing if these new spheres do not include absolutely everyone.

- Edited extract from Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecture by Douglas Murphy

Read more in: An Architecture Reading List

Megastructure Visions—an extract from Last Futures

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