Writing Sci-Fi Could Make Architects Better at Their Jobs
At the beginning of “Welcome to the 5th Façade,” a science-fiction story by architect Alan Maskin, a nameless man awakes from a cryogenic freeze. It is an unspecified date in the mid-21st century, and he’s been in “big sleep,” as his cryonic technician puts it, since suffering a massive heart attack decades before. After undergoing rehabilitation for the “reborn,” the man returns home to Seattle. He finds things drastically different. Kinetic vertical farms decorate the neo-classical brick buildings that still stand. Above them rises a new layer of the city, where farms, parks, and energy-harvesting machines form a new, high-rise urban landscape. This is the 5th Façade:
During the decades that I slept, the rooftops of Seattle had changed. The grey waterproofing membranes, HVAC equipment, elevator machine rooms, long-empty water towers, and miles of ductwork were replaced with a vast pastoral landscape. Rolling green hills, public parks and swimming pools, pastures with livestock, and vegetable farms were joined by enormous water collectors, solar arrays, and wind energy turbines. Bridges, like connective tendons, unified the separate buildings into a continuous landscape. I could wander anywhere, and I did.
Maskin is a principal at Olson Kundig, an outfit that, like most architecture firms, isn’t normally in the business of writing fictional tales. The Seattle design practice creates tangible, practical things like homes, offices, and museums. “Welcome to the 5th Façade” is an anomalous project, dreamt up by Maskin and a team of architects for the third annual Fairy Tales competition. The event is coordinated by Blank Space, an organization that promotes architecture through contests and publications, and calls for designers of all stripes to submit “architectural fairy tales”—fictional narratives that view the industry’s future through a more speculative lens. Maskin and his team at Olson Kundig took first place, beating 1,500 other entries.
“Architects aren’t really known for fiction, storytelling, narrative, or writing,” Maskin says. It’s true: architects often speak in numbers (square footage, budget proposals, etc.) or esoteric jargon (phrases like “spatial impression” and “formal vernacular” get bandied around a lot). But as Maskin tells it, writing fiction could be a useful exercise for builders. With other projects, “we construct literal myths almost the way a filmmaker would outline an experiential arc that would relate closely to the beginning, middle, and an end,” Maskin says.
One such project is the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where, in 2014, Maskin and his team finished building a giant replica of Noah’s Ark for the children’s portion of the museum. Bringing the biblical tale to life, with 15 pairs of moving animal-sculptures, was the firm’s way of promoting the Jewish museum as a place where all visitors can celebrate their individual origins. Maskin says the firm is applying the Noah’s Ark theme and “looking at flood mythology” for a children’s center at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, a project for which Olson Kundig is shortlisted.
“Welcome to the 5th Façade” takes a more dystopian approach. Architecturally, the story is about the future of urban rooftops, which Maskin calls “a neglected layer of cities.” In this sense, the tale proposes several easily imagined scenarios, like mechanical vertical farms that rotate around buildings to maximize exposure to sunlight (Maskin says the team consulted a botanist about this story element). The rest of the narrative focuses on the protagonist—a man who has awakened from decades of artificially induced sleep and joined the workforce that makes this new type of city possible. He, like others in the story, wears an augmented reality headset that replaces human contact with a series of intelligent animations.
My very first tasks involved harvesting food through the double-hung single-glazed windows of the Washington Shoe Building, whose original hand-blown glass panes had been removed long ago. I once was an architect who looked out from those windows; now, I was a farmer who reached through them. “What happens in winter?” I said. I didn’t get explanations for everything I wondered about but when I asked, “Should I pick these?” the animations guided me through every step. Soon, I could clear an entire tray of turnip greens in a single rotation without a second thought. It was hard to mess up when you were directed and redirected at every turn.
There’s a couple things happening here. “Welcome to the 5th Façade” is science fiction. (It’s also worth noting that the story is just a story and not part of a business proposal.) In that sense, it’s a useful tool for designers. “Science fiction has traditionally been used to help us imagine what the future might look like,” says Maskin. Indeed, we’ve written about how Stanley Kubrick, in 2001: Space Odyssey, portended many of the gadgets we use today. Likewise, Spike Jonze’s Her showed us a future where, thanks to artificially intelligent conversational user interfaces, technology has dissolved into daily life. And that was before the proliferation of services like Alexa, M, Clara, and so on.
Secondly, by viewing this futuristic landscape through the lens of a person who might inhabit it, Maskin says it became much easier to see where things could go wrong—a useful exercise for projects that will actually be implemented. “I think there’s a tremendous value to be able to look at a project objectively,” he says. “It would be naive to assume it will always work the way you intended it to. There was a value, for me at least, to imagine what the pitfalls could be.”
The ability to surface valuable insights through speculation is also what clinched the win for Olson Kundig. “Fairy tales seem to be removed from society because they are fanciful and they disobey the limits of space and time. In reality though, the fairy tales format is simply a vehicle to addressing the most challenging issues that we face, not just as architects but as a society,” said Matthew Hoffman and Francesca Giuliani, the founders of Blank Space, in an email. “Olson Kundig proves that architecture isn’t a single building, it is our environment and our future.” It’s easy enough to design a building or new piece of technology and call it revolutionary. Exploring visions of the future is more difficult, and, potentially, more troubling —but ultimately, could be much more fruitful.