Dezeen Magazine

"Architecture's eccentrics and outsiders can be retrospectively recast as prophets"

Opinion: sci-fi films, comic books and wild hypothetical ideas by architectural theorists like Archigram and Cedric Price have helped shape the world we live in today. Darran Anderson identifies the next wave of unwitting futurists who could change the way architecture functions.

Ideas ridiculed are often just ideas ahead of their time. When the zeitgeist – and particularly technology – catches up, eccentrics and outsiders can be retrospectively recast as prophets. Works dismissed as unbuildable may only be temporarily so. Myopic critics tend to miss how influence reverberates both forwards and backwards through time.

An iconic building like the Centre Pompidou can suddenly make a once-maligned predecessor like Cedric Price's Fun Palace seem visionary. Having been long sidelined as curiosities, French architects like Boullée, Ledoux and Lequeu finally made sense during the century of Modernism and Postmodernism. Expressionists like Hermann Finsterlin and Bruno Taut, once regarded almost as madmen, have been rehabilitated by blobism and the recent glass colossi of the London skyline respectively.

Part of the reason they're overlooked is that portents frequently appear in unconventional and supposedly disposable places. In the late 1950s and early 60s, Arthur Radebaugh created a series in which he followed the threads towards a future of planetary communications and personal technologies. Due to the fact that Closer Than We Think was a comic strip appearing in newspapers, it was easy to dismiss. Yet for the very same reason, it permeated the imaginations of tens of thousands, prospective innovators among them (a parallel to this is the farsighted use of handheld and video communications in Star Trek).

Many of the predictions featured came true – at least approximately – from smartphones to moon landings. Though it's easy to laugh at those which have not come to pass (weaponised weather for example), it's worth noting that they have not simply happened yet. Indeed, one of Radebaugh's more outlandish plans (roads that glow in the dark) has recently been adopted in the Netherlands.

Locating the future requires a degree of lateral thinking. Developments often come as tangents and reverberations rather than linear progress. From 1961 to 1974, Archigram earned notoriety with its plans for the likes of Walking Cities and inflatable housing. These were deemed impossible follies yet it is apparent that many of the ideas they were raising and examining have led to real and profound developments; its Plug-In and Instant Cities, for instance, being physical foreshadowings of the internet.

By exploring superficially-absurd ideas, Archigram was asking the vital questions of what architecture was and who it was for. It was opening up vast swathes of conceptual space for thinkers and builders to come. Indeed one of the reasons the architectural mainstream is now so strange and adventurous, for all its flaws, is due to how far the group dragged the spectrum left field.

Following William Gibson's much-quoted but less-pursued observation that the future is already here but unevenly distributed, where might we find the fragments of the future now?

A great deal of the past and present will remain as functioning or decorative wreckage. It's often forgotten, in our obsession with the shiny and new, that the future will be built on old ideas. Contemporary plans for green cities very often mimic high-tech hyper-vertical versions of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The increasing interest in seasteading, due to rising sea-levels, land prices and overpopulation, reawakens Kenzō Tange's Tokyo Bay project of 1960 as well as the traditional floating villages of Southeast Asia.

It should be remembered that technology will have side effects as well as offering solutions. These too will have been seen before. The perils of Smart Cities and the Internet of Things, in which we are watched by everything always, recalls the unease with Bentham's Panopticon, itself connected to folkloric myths of scrying orbs and the evil eye.

Dispensing with inefficiency may save time and money but it neglects to acknowledge that so much human liberty exists within these inefficiencies and accidents. Worries concerning augmented reality take us back to Plato's Cave while transhumanism and the singularity raise the spectre of Nietzsche and his ubermensch. The dangers are perpetual ones and so too must be vigilance and resistance. Knowledge is power and power accumulates with those who can control it. We may already feel the dissonance of logging onto 21st-century technologies and logging off into a world that politically feels like a century behind. This is no accident, and the widening democratic deficit must be bridged before it turns into a chasm.

Aside from questioning the repercussions of existing and emerging technologies, we would do well to avoid the mistakes of the past if we are to identify where we are headed. We could do so by turning our attentions to the overlooked, the ridiculed and the throwaway. Comics, video games, science-fiction novels and films have long experimented with and explored questions of space, interactivity and invention, and there's perhaps as much to learn in these fields as on the wilder shores of architecture.

Take this scene from the book The City and the Stars by Arthur C Clarke: "The wall flickered partially out of existence as he stepped through to the corridor, and its polarised molecules resisted his passage like a feeble wind blowing against his face." It is a speculative glimpse that sets off a chain reaction of questions and ideas.

With nanotechnology, we could conceivably walk through walls. What would the implications be for privacy and security? What would happen if it malfunctioned? Could it be adapted to, for example, monitor the health of the person passing through it or scan them for concealed weapons? What began as an intriguing aside in a science-fiction book begins to enlarge our thoughts and the boundaries of what might one day be possible. All cities are, after all, the result of the dreams and decisions of individuals.

It's entirely possible to envisage a time when nanotechnology will combine with Hundertwasser's assertion that architecture will only become an art when everyone can participate in it. A wall that can become permeable or intangible can perhaps be manipulated into different forms and shapes. Given that change seems to be the only constant, we can imagine a future architecture that can change according to whim and fashion. Bored with a clean Streamline Moderne look, the molecules will rearrange at your command (or perhaps anticipate your mood) to Mayan Revival or Art Nouveau. An entire city might change innumerable times. As with all developments, there is the unspoken warning to be careful what you wish for.

At present, it is the designers questioning what architecture is who are opening up new ground in the process; specialists in unbuilt architecture like Mir, design studios merging physical space and cyberspace like Atelier Olschinsky, architects moving beyond solid structures like Sean Lally's New Energy Landscapes or Diller and Scofidio's Blur Building; artists such as Simon Stålenhag who remind us that the future will be stunning and yet recognisable, filled as it will be with innately human stories.

Given the snake-oil salesmen aspect to much Smart and Green Cities evangelism, and the fact we have evidently little cause to trust either the state or the markets with the power granted by new technologies, it is natural and healthy to be sceptical. It is important however to avoid letting this slip into paralysing cynicism.

The future is happening whether we want it to or not. There will be side effects and tyrannies. It will contain utopias and dystopias, often inter-dependent, depending on who and where you are.

The important question is how we prepare for the future and participate in it – settling for being passive spectators to our environment will result in us becoming passive spectators to our lives. The future is already here but it is by no means ours. The search is on.

Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities, which explores fictional cities dreamt up by artists, writers, architects and lunatics. The book is published by Influx Press.