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Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecture

Whatever happened to the last utopian dreams of the city?
In the late 1960s the world was faced with impending disaster: the height of the Cold War, the end of oil and the decline of great cities throughout the world. Out of this crisis came a new generation that hoped to build a better future, influenced by visions of geodesic domes, walking cities and a meaningful connection with nature. In this brilliant work of cultural history, architect Douglas Murphy traces the lost archeology of the present day through the works of thinkers and designers such as Buckminster Fuller, the ecological pioneer Stewart Brand, the Archigram architects who envisioned the Plug-In City in the ’60s, as well as co-operatives in Vienna, communes in the Californian desert and protesters on the streets of Paris. In this mind-bending account of the last avant-garde, we see not just the source of our current problems but also some powerful alternative futures.

Reviews

  • “No one warns you that when you get old eras that you lived through are, to the next generation, history. And it is salutory to have one of the wilder fringes of that history recounted with the acuity, sympathy and fluency Douglas Murphy brings to it. The cast is extraordinary: oddballs, philosophers, seers—and a few frauds.”
  • “In Last Futures, such one-time commonplaces as three day weeks, the elimination of labour, geodesic domes, walking cities, space colonies and industrialised housing are removed from dimwitted ‘where’s my jetpack’ nostalgia and put back into history. In so doing, Douglas Murphy performs the useful service of making clear when the ideas of the unrealised futures of the 1960s and 1970s were stupid and wasteful, and when they were exceptionally smart—serious solutions to problems we still haven’t solved, and problems we seem intent on making considerably worse. Last Futures is the Silent Running to contemporary architecture’s The Fountainhead.”
  • “Murphy’s chief virtue is the faculty with which he connects the dots between various, seemingly unconnected developments in architecture and theory with the ecological, financial, and military crises of an earlier era, holding a mirror onto our own anxious epoch of globalized precarity labor and anthropogenic climate change.”
  • “A fluent, chronological narrative in which oddities from the recent past form sequences in an unfolding drama … Murphy deploys his storytelling with great effect.”
  • “Murphy tells the story of this counter-revolution pithily and well. . . A fresh and haunting way of explaining what happened to the radical 60s and 70s as a whole, in Murphy’s view quite possibly the last chance the west had of creating a decent and environmentally sustainable society.”
  • “Murphy outlines both some well known and some intriguingly novel suggestions for why the enthusiasm for ‘omni-infrastructural’ utopian frames went away…[Last Futures’s] motley quality is in no way a fault of Murphy’s approach, but rather a real advantage of his method as a cultural historian. A strength of Murphy’s book is that he depicts both the general outlines and some of the juiciest details of these complex historical moments without distilling them into a deceptively linear chronology or a progression of mere styles.”
  • “Provocative and compelling.”

Blog

  • Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance


    Demolition of "The Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, October 2016. 

    In late October 2016, I packed my bags for a short trip abroad, leaving a region raw with struggle over the racial and colonial violence of infrastructure. In places like Standing Rock, Flint, Muskrat Falls, Toronto, and Baltimore, conflicts raged over the targeted violence of energy, water, border, and policing systems. Movements for Black lives, for migrants’ rights, for indigenous sovereignty, and for economic and environmental justice were increasingly mapping violent infrastructure systems with their direct actions and analyses. The water protectors’ camps at Standing Rock were large and growing, animated by spirit, ceremony, and unprecedented gathering as they halted the Dakota Access Pipeline. The largest prison strike in history, 45 years after the Attica uprising, was calling out the inhumanity of American carceral infrastructure. Black organizers were denouncing infrastructure crises like the one poisoning Flint, Michigan, suggesting these would be the defining struggles for Black communities to come. More than 50 Indigenous Nations from across Turtle Island had just signed the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion, with the goal of protecting Indigenous lands and waters from all proposed pipeline, tanker, and rail projects. In my hometown of Toronto, Black Lives Matter members were making claims for the protection of “Black Infrastructure.” Blockades of damns, ports, highways, and rail infrastructure had become frequent news virtually everywhere, except for in the reporting of the mainstream media.

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  • What can Star Wars and Star Trek really tell us about the future?

    In an excerpt from his new book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, Peter Frase discusses how science fiction can help us understand the future.

    One way of differentiating social science from science fiction is that the first is about describing the world that is, while the second speculates about a world that might be. But really, both are a mixture of imagination and empirical investigation, put together in different ways. Both attempt to understand empirical facts and lived experience as something that is shaped by abstract—and not directly perceptible—structural forces.



    Certain types of speculative fiction are more attuned than others to the particularities of social structure and political economy. In Star Wars, you don’t really care about the details of the galactic political economy. And when the author tries to flesh them out, as George Lucas did in his widely derided Star Wars prequel movies, it only gums up the story. In a world like Star Trek, on the other hand, these details actually matter. Even though Star Wars and Star Trek might superficially look like similar tales of space travel and swashbuckling, they are fundamentally different types of fiction. The former exists only for its characters and its mythic narrative, while the latter wants to root its characters in a richly and logically structured social world.

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  • Emerging Futures: A Bookshelf



    In this moment of wide-scale rejection of establishment politics and the global rise of a right wing populist movement, we need utopian and radical visions of society more than ever.

    This is not escapist wishful thinking but a reimagining of society as one that values people over profits, that rules democratically and collectively, that provides for the needs of all citizens. In this calamitous time, utopian thinking can inform our social movements and our strategies for building a better future.

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