Ljubljana, January 2017

SONIC.ARCHITECTURES: Douglas Murphy

Douglas Murphy is an architect and writer, author of the books ‘The Architecture of Failure’ and ‘Last Futures’. The latter was the starting point of the Sonic.architectures symposium’s second day at the 2016 Sonica Festival in Ljubljana. The symposium explored the links between sound and architecture, focusing mainly on the modernist heritage, its influence on our lives today, and the lessons we could learn from researching it. In ‘Last Futures’, Murphy paints a larger picture of the era through architectural examples from the sixties and seventies, and points to the sources of our current problems through the account of the last avant-garde. What can we learn from the last utopian dreams of the city and whatever happened to them?

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Man and his world’
Murphy’s view is not an idealistic one. Rather than looking at the utopian concepts as examples of grand designs (much of the design discussed in the book is often of dubious quality, when evaluated according to established standards, he writes), he sees them as
experiments and visions, which were far more sober attempts to address the challenges of the times than the apparently more sensible world that came afterwards.

Last Futures’ starts with a brief history of world fairs, which were once considered “significant events”. Apart from being displays of power and technological advancements, these exhibitions were also of great importance for architecture. Murphy focuses on Expo 67, the world fair with “the strongest claim on the future as a conceptual vision”. Titled ‘Man and his world’, the Montreal Expo was, according to Murphy, one of the first to embrace the idea of how fragile human existence on the face of earth is. The architecture of the pavilions showed-off new materials and construction models, but it also conveyed a sense of fragility. Think of Buckminster Fuller’s dome structure for the American pavilion, which was re-purposed as Biosphere museum after the Expo, or Frei Otto’s Western Germany pavilion.

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The planning of a new town’

The Expo 67 also tackled the issues of expanding suburbanization and high-density housing. It did so by commissioning a large-scale housing project – the Habitat, a modular unit, which aimed to recreate the relations in a village or town on a small stretch of land in the city of Montreal. Unprecedented in design, Moshe Safdie’s Habitat (actually his undergraduate thesis) inspired generations of architects to come with its modular structure. At the time, flexibility was considered one of the foremost important tasks of architecture. It was seen as a solution for the increasingly complex social relations and a way to respond to the prevalent feeling of how quickly the world is changing. Safdie’s modular structure is just one of the examples. When thinking about the city of future, many architects tended to embrace the idea of a flexible system, which would be able to accommodate different needs and functions. Essentially, the city of future was thought of as a grid with interchangeable elements, which would be added or discarded according to lifestyle changes. One of the concepts Murphy describes in detail is Archigram’s Plug-In City, which was based on the premise that the solution to the housing problem was a reduction in permanence and a rise in industrialised production.This argument can give us a sense of hope placed in industry at the time, but it also tells us that those were the times of wealth and hyper-consumerism. While the latter hardly changed for the better, it is quite unimaginable to think of housing as just one of the consumer goods nowadays.

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Living in a Bubble

Apart from technological advancements and social change, there was another important issue, which started to be raised in the sixties and seventies: nature. At the time, Murphy says, a new understanding of nature is coming into being. This period marks the start of environmentalism, which has, according to Murphy, reached a peak in those years that hasn’t been surpassed until the present age. People started thinking about the fragility of nature and the negative impact humankind has on the environment. Architecture of the period tried to respond in different manners. The most peculiar is the vision of living in a bubble – a dome-like structure with its own ecosystem, covering entire cities. None of these domes was built, obviously, but they were taken rather seriously at the time. When a German pharmaceutical company hired Frei Otto, Kenzo Tange and Ove Arup in 1970 to think of a solution for living in the most inhospitable environments, they proposed a plastic dome, under which a town of 30.000 inhabitants would be placed. The company planned to build the Arctic City in 5 years time. When Otto was asked about the project a few years ago, just before his death, his only answer was, they were stupid to think anything like that would work. For Murphy, it is a disavowal coming from a very changed ideological context.

Last Futures

Douglas Murphy’s book, published on Verso last year, is a fresh and haunting way of explaining what happened to the radical 60s and 70s as a whole.” ‘Last Futures tells us the cultural history of an era through its architectural concepts and achievements, a match that makes for a great read. For an introduction to the book by the author himself, watch his lecture at the 2016 Sonic.architectures symposium at Slovenska Kinoteka in Ljubljana.

Images: IR photo of Buckminster Fuller’s Biosphere, Safdie’s Habitat in Montreal and an artwork from a 1970s space colony study at NASA Ames.