Productive Dystopias

Or... An Architecture of Unintended Consequences


Failed utopias are easy targets for tabloids, cynics and pragmatist alike. Corbusier’s Radiant City, Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, the Amish Village, and the benign dictatorship of Butan – utopias seems more dysfunctional than functional, more flaw than awe. Is it no surprise that we’ve stopped believing in them? Insight is 20/20 vision. “I told you so” - the future critiquing the past. But if we’ve abandoned the utopian project, if so few of us believe in it, than where do we find hope? The failure of utopia, it could have been a trigger for a lack of nerve. But instead of retreating into conservatorism, a moderation of our desires and ingenuity, we ask the question: does dystopia offer a viable alternative? Dystopian visions offer us compelling imagery, from Ballard to Blade Runner, from Brazil to brutalism, the terrifyingly beautiful – the sublime is always more potent than the picturesque. Dystopia is often a utopia, except for one fatal flaw that undermines the whole scenario. That one flaw is a reality check to our most idealistic dreams - a peaceful world where people live blissfully until being exterminated at the age of 30; a perfect world that’s been totally fabricated for primetime TV; a perfect world populated by perfectly compliantly blemish free women that happen to be robots; a perfect world when thought is controlled by a central agency.

Design is always a projection into the future. Always, by its nature, positive, always with a utopian impulse - from the building that will bring joy to it’s employees to a seat that can cushion one’s ass in style. What if we subject that design impulse to one wrong thing, one misfortune, one unintended consequence? What do we learn from a design gone wrong? Wrongness in this sense is not the opposite of right. A dysfunction can take on many colors. An object might not just cease to function, it may indeed permute functions and applications. Piracy offers a radical redistribution of product according to new codes of etiquette, licensing and responsibility. Hacking takes existing systems and subjects them to reprogramming, to novel alternatives and usually subversive ends. Cheating subverts the rules of a given regulatory system to the advantage of those with ingenuity, technique and shear audacity. Rules end up being rewritten as a result of the power of the cheat.

The dystopian world is a compelling setting for literature, not only for its social critique but because it offers a potential setting for conflict, adventure and room for the hero, or the one that’s even more ingenuous than the dystopia itself, who understands that even the most perfect dystopia is not without its flaws, and that those flaws are there to be exploited. She is the one that beats the system in its own game. He is the surprise survivor, the cockroach in the post-nuclear scenario – strange adapters in twisted ecosystem whose strengths are now exacerbated by new environmental conditions.

And so, welcome to the world of Urban Design. Sanitized vision of new urban districts, public space evacuated of all danger or real spectacle. This is the kind of humdrum regenerations offered to through the planning and urban design machines. Urbanity is a psychopath sedated on drugs and reeducated to tell the right anecdotes at the right dinner parties. All the while outside of the radar of the regeneration industries is the blood, guts, sweat, tears, people smiling, spontaneous celebrations, street car drag-racing, squirrel bashing, basement perversions, road vivisectionists and black tie swinger parties that constitute a big part of the real living city.

Superstudio’s polemic warnings of hyper-capitalistic cities, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, flooded visions of London - we want to consider the possibilities of considering urban practice in all its complexities, not only to acknowledge unknowability but to opperationalize it, what form might it take and whether might it spell a truly new urbanism. Is there something in the dystopian that is as usefull to the designer as the utopian? Is it at the level of critique or warning? How far can we push the perverse, the sickly potent, the strangely fantastic, and how might that be something that a client, a local authority, a research organization, a citizen, might actually buy into?


in Tomorrow's Thoughts Today


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