Book review: Douglas Murphy dreams of space in Last Futures, an exploration of utopian architecture

The sci-fi architecture of the 1960s and 1970s – domes, biospheres and megastructures – imagined a utopian and progressive future, a spirit worth rediscovering.
Artwork from a 1970s space colony study at NASA Ames. Courtesy NASA
Artwork from a 1970s space colony study at NASA Ames. Courtesy NASA

The future was never supposed to be this way: widening social inequality, a refugee and migration crisis, conflagration in this region, national borders hardening, dwindling natural resources, and the world’s political leaders stalling while the climate changes. If we are to look forward with optimism again, perhaps we should start by looking back.

To this end Last Futures, by young British architect and writer Douglas Murphy, explores the forgotten science fiction utopianism of 1960s and 1970s architecture and design, when biospheres, domes and other megastructures promised a human future ambitious enough for the age of the space race, as well as being sustainable in a period of idealistic expansion.

This is not a purely intellectual-historical exercise. Murphy makes the case that contextually, we share much with this period half-a-century ago and that “we again stand at the edge of massive transformations in human society” – and face similarly grave threats, albeit different ones. Then, it was drastic oil crises, the Cold War and threats of immediate nuclear annihilation; now, there is geopolitical instability and the prospect of climate catastrophe.

It is significant that the showroom for many of these architectural innovations and speculations was a global one, and Murphy walks us through the world fairs, exhibitions and expos where the public once met their future.

“Conceived in a genuine spirit of optimistic fraternity”, while there was of course a sense of competition between national pavilions, world fairs also suggested a human race moving forward together, and doing so in peace – even while ideological, military and cultural wars raged outside.

At Montreal’s pivotal Expo 67, “the point in the twentieth century when accelerating progress was at its strongest”, visitors were given a passport, instead of a ticket, emphasising the idea of “the expo as a zone apart from the political problems of the world”. And they came in their millions – these so-called museums of the future were commendably populist in outlook, placing cutting-edge elite architecture at the service of the masses; half-a-million people could pass through in a single day.

It is here that we meet the first of many fascinating eccentrics, Richard Buckminster Fuller, a polymath and idealist who found himself contemplating suicide, when a vision told him he had “a blind date with principle”, to improve the lives of all humanity.

As Murphy explains, “Fuller’s vision stretched out all the way to the cosmic scale: he described himself as a ‘citizen of the universe’” and coined the term Spaceship Earth as a pointer to the limits in resources that humanity was exhausting, while on this cosmic journey.

He wrote in his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth: “We can make all of humanity successful through science’s world-engulfing industrial evolution, provided that we are not so foolish as to continue to exhaust in a split-second of astronomical history the orderly energy savings of billions of years’ energy conservation.” Fuller’s vision was based on two interconnected central tenets: that the future of humanity was already under serious threat; and that by looking at what worked in nature, human beings could build a better world both on Earth, and beyond it.

Central to Fuller’s utopian view was the optimistic feeling that technology was rapidly helping to eliminate unnecessary labour, leaving human beings free to spend large parts of their working week following intellectual, educational or artistic pursuits – to the inevitable betterment of society as a whole. Looking back 50 years, this positive vision of automation seems like one of the most idealistic and far-fetched interventions of all – more so than his famous geodesic domes (albeit, perhaps not when it came to his proposal that by changing the dome’s internal pressure, they would be able to float).

It is no coincidence that recent years have witnessed a small but significant left-wing intellectual current that seeks to excavate the tech-positivity that was left behind with the advent of neoliberalism in the late 1970s, and the decline of trade unions and social democratic parties based on an organised working class.

Fifty years on from the Montreal Expo, there has been a smattering of books published calling for people to harness the catalysing power of technology and embrace automation as a potentially emancipatory force for social change, rather than a danger to livelihoods everywhere. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future and Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism were both published last year, perhaps a reaction, only at a slight delay, to the crisis of western capitalism that was sparked by 2008’s global financial crisis – and the paucity of lessons that seem to have been learned in its wake.

Tongue-in-cheek though they have been, there have been concerted efforts made in recent years to link Karl Marx’s predictions on automation and labour in the Grundrisse to The Jetsons, the robot-laden 1962 cartoon series set 100 years ahead, where patriarch George Jetson comes home and complains about getting “push-button finger” from his nine-hour-a-week job. Broadly, the argument is that neoliberalism has discursively ‘cancelled’ our ability to imagine the future, specifically an egalitarian future with much less work, dominated by leisure time, and the task now is to try and envisage how technology can help to get it back.

More remarkable than the fact we have had our jetpack dreams forestalled, is how seriously some of the more outlandish Jetsons-like proposals were taken at the time. Murphy describes the process by which proposals for space colonies, beginning as a hypothetical exercise given to undergraduate physics students, reached as far as the US Senate, and were taken on by NASA. Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill developed plans for orbiting cities taking “the form of large cylinders, potentially over a kilometre long, which would spin at a constant rate to recreate the effects of gravity within... glazed to allow for sunlight to reach the interior, while large shades and baffles would protect the inhabitants from glare and cosmic rays”.

Not all of these proposals were necessarily destined for space. We are introduced to Italian architect Paolo Soleri, whose ‘megastructures’ did not skimp on the mega: his Arcology designs were ultra-dense cities containing “millions, if not billions of people” – the kind of urban planning that above all, reminds me of playing the computer game SimCity on cheat mode. Equally fascinating are the proposals commissioned in 1970 for an Arctic City, making use of the least habitable place on Earth to house 30,000 people, under a domed roof two kilometres across, built on a mesh of giant nylon cables, strategically positioned to accommodate a harbour, an airport and a nuclear power station.

Murphy’s writing is as evocative as his analysis is sharp – a vital attribute for an architecture writer producing books based around words, not pictures; it is very easy to have one’s interest as a lay reader buried under cladding, without the writerly elan Murphy employs to describe domes seeming to “melt into the sky”, or an acrylic roof giving “a milky, diffuse quality to the light”.

His eye for intriguing little details also helps Last Futures to skip along: we don’t necessarily need to know, for the purpose of the wider story, that Jacques Cousteau helped with a design concept for a floating city off the coast of Monte Carlo, or that French supermarket chain Carrefour and “father of public relations” Edward Bernays were involved with Expo 67, but I’m glad I do.

Above all, these details reinforce the sense that the “last futures” of the 1960s and 70s were multidisciplinary in their construction – visions to which many different types of people contributed, not just the architects. Even if many of the proposals were failures, that is a spirit well worth rediscovering.

Dan Hancox also writes articles for The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.

Published: March 2, 2016 04:00 AM


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