Favela Chic, Gothic High-Tech or The Suburban Ideal: Bruce Sterling & Sean Griffiths on the Future

After reading Kazys Varnelis’ syllabus for the fall semester at Columbia, I was compelled to go back and read Bruce Sterling’s lecture given at Transmediale 10 in Berlin earlier this year, as published by Wired, titled Atemporality for the Creative Artist. I also read an essay by Sean Griffiths, of FAT Architecture, on the future of housing in the UK titled Back to the Future: Staying with the Suburban Ideal (link opens as a PDF) written in 2004 with revisions in 2007.

Bruce Sterling lays out atemporality- we are at the transition into a new era. At the close of postmodernism, advanced societies are slowly collapsing (Gothic High-Tech) and others are chaotically rising (Favela Chic). This passage sums it up perfectly:

The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.

Society is treading water. People will look to a variety of pasts, which Sterling points out we can see in fashions today like steampunk, and collage them with the present and the future. Atemporality will last ten years, and then expire- as something new will come along to replace it. Sterling’s point in this essay is that we should have fun with the era while it lasts. Why not live out your own future? Why not decorate your house like it’s 1750 or pretend you are an astronaut? You’re probably going to spend time unemployed as the economy goes through a massive restructuring and the jobs never come back anyway.

Sean Griffiths’ essay looks at 2024 and the state of housing in the UK. This prediction conveniently happens after the 10 years Sterling has allocated for atemporality are up. His predictions are based on a very similar scenario of advancing network technology and the partial collapse of the systems we have grown used to: travel has become prohibitively expensive, privatisation has taken over all aspects of government, and those that can afford to flee the city have done so as they no longer https://onhealthy.net/product-category/sleeping-aids/ need to be there to work. Climate refugees have arrived from other parts of the world that have become uninhabitable.

Local communities become more tightly knit as people spend more time socialising in their neighbourhoods. The English front yard becomes a more social space, thanks to traditions borrowed from immigrant groups. The suburbs become far more diverse, and at the same time the loft developments and open plan living spaces built in inner cities in the 1990s and 2000s become filled by recent immigrants with multigenerational families who run home-based businesses: favela chic comes to the urban bachelor pad. Everyone is plugged into the network, yet technology doesn’t define peoples’ lives or surroundings. In fact, the housing of the 2020s incorporates many historical English traditions like half-timbering, shingles and bay windows while still accommodating subtle hints of immigrant cultures. Network culture is collaged with architectural ornament that references the Middle Ages.

What does all of this mean for your life? For architecture? We are already in middle atemporality now, as the pre-crash era was the first phase (Kazys writes about this here and it includes a video of Sterling’s talk). With the “age of austerity” already upon us, we are seeing the effects of massive unemployment and underemployment. Tonight the chairman of the US Democratic Party was on Jon Stewart’s show trying to spin the idea that we we’re in an economic recovery while Stewart repeatedly pointed out that unemployment is still over 10%. California, New York (and many other US states) are on the verge of insolvency, and a large part of Europe is still facing financial crisis. Dubai is littered with abandoned construction sites and record-breaking heat caused massive forest fires that rendered Moscow uninhabitable for most of the month of August. We are in for an interesting seven years, at least.

Griffiths’ predictions are interesting because they are so contrary to what we’re used to see architects predict for the future, yet they are also incredibly plausible. I can’t help but agree that the future will be filled with far more half-timbered suburban houses than it will be with descendants of the Burj Khalifa and the Guggenheim Bilbao.

By Mark

Mark is an architect in San Francisco.

1 comment

  1. I hadn’t read Sean’s essay but I will now… the descriptions you give make it sound identical to Montclair where I live (which is why I live there… because no matter how interesting and comfortable the city may be, a new chapter in urbanism is happening in the suburbs… e.g. diversity, telework, neighborhoodness, etc.)

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