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Building the Future: An Optimist's Guide

Mitchell Joachim is a cautious dealer in fictions, a meticulous creator of fantasies. His ecological architecture organisation, Terreform One, make it their business to imagine a better cities down to the last crisp packet. 

But can imagining the future change it? And how do we find room for optimism in a world still dominated by big oil?

This wide-ranging conversation between Mitchell and Darran Anderson, our guest editor, visits the utopias of the past while retaining an eye for the revolutions of the future.

WORDS - Darran Anderson

In dark times, cynicism seems a safe bet. There is a strange kind of comfort, even catharsis, in letting go or wallowing in dystopian visions. It lets us off the hook. Utopia gets a bad press, much of it justified; it’s impossible, even undesirable. Yet abandoning the utopian impulse is arguably even more naïve and ultimately self-defeating. Last year, for the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, I spent a great deal of time giving talks on the theme, beginning with profound scepticism in London and ending with the realisation of utopia's necessity months later in Venice. 

The problem of our age seems not necessarily the unattainable or corruptible nature of utopian ideas so much as their absence. Failing to construct or contribute to a vision of the future merely ensures living in the nightmare that is someone else’s dream. It’s not naïvety that should draw us back to utopian impulses but scepticism and realpolitik, or as Antonio Gramsci put it in a letter from prison, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” 

Mitchell Joachim is not utopian in the fantasist sense. He is the co-founder of Terreform One, whose ambitious and forward-thinking projects delve into real-world problems and solutions, often from unforeseen and startling angles. While it can be easily said that visionary architects and designers clear conceptual space that others then build on, Terreform One seem to go further. As experimental and speculative as their concepts appear, they operate in terms of actual technological, sociological and ecological application. Rather than indulgent reveries, their intention is to envisage the future that is coming, following existing threads and historical studies, and to influence and engineer what is to come or, at least, our response to it.

I spoke to Mitchell about their work and urbanism, both speculative and real, in the past, present and future.

The first time I came across your work was your Urbaneering Brooklyn 2110 project. What struck me about that project is that it’s incredibly futuristic but also organic. Rather than begin with a blank slate, it incorporates existing infrastructure and architecture. It remembers that the future is older than the present, and that nature is intrinsically part of that. When you’re developing a project like Urbaneering Brooklyn, are you aware of influences or does it come as a response to solving problems?

Recognising the influences is paramount and it happens early on. It’s not only standing on the shoulders of giants but it’s trying to tease out where they didn’t quite explore, identifying the areas they never polished or thought through. When you’re doing any project that involves ‘future’ in its name, there’s some level of speculation or clairvoyance even – and we’re not clairvoyant. What we do is create very detailed fictive scenarios that don’t promise the future will end up this way, but we think about what the inherent issues are and talk in a logical way about how cities might respond. 

Urbaneering Brooklyn Terreform One Mitchell Joachim
Models from Urbaneering Brooklyn 2110.

This is nothing new; the entire field of design is this way. Jules Verne is a great example. There’s a guy who has written something like eighty books on this little island in Paris a century ago. He never promised we’d get to the moon, but what he did was write a very careful speculative narrative that looks at technologies either readily available or on the cusp of happening, and said, “This is most likely how it will go down.” That, in and of itself, influenced the actuality of those events. Jules Verne talked about a staged booster rocket system, launching from a peninsula, that would escape the atmosphere; the sections would decouple from the central mass; a lunar module would land on the moon. So when John F. Kennedy said “We’re going to go to the moon,” all those folks who ended up doing all the engineering were influenced by the design and speculation that Jules Verne had put forward. That’s exactly the napkin sketch they used to get to the moon. 

When we think about cities, it’s the same level of thinking. It’s not as difficult to think about cities as it is to create the Apollo mission, because we don’t have to invent a lot of the engineering from scratch. When you talk about changing cities, the actual city morphology doesn’t shift overnight. Take, for example, my iPhone. From a napkin sketch to an actual device you can purchase, it’s a five year process. So if I said, “holographic smart phone,” which by the way I just pulled out of my ass, someone in Apple will have an okay version of the technology required, but it’s five years before you have a pretty shitty but working model. That’s the scale to change a telecommunications device.

Jules Verne Moon Terreform OneIllustrations by Émile-Antoine Bayard, taken from Jules Verne's Around the Moon.

Architecture is forty years before you see a paradigm shift. You can see all these experimental buildings with unbelievable forms, but that’s not the everyday act in architecture. Doors and windows and roofs and boiler heaters take a long time to change. I’m not going to buy a super-sustainable boiler until the current one I have utterly fails or simply costs me too much money. So that’s when you see replacements in architecture. And with cities it takes a hundred to 150 years before all of this discussion and all of those different scales rationalise themselves and become everyday practice in city design. To be a really good city designer, you need multiple hats, bridging multiple disciplines, looking at all facets of technology and how society evolves at their timescales before you find a new city. 

Thinking of historical cases that have worked. One is Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. That worked because it was a meme. It had a great title. Who didn’t want to live in a garden city? How do you argue against that? 

So it’s a PR victory first of all?

Massively. Right now, everyone’s writing about smart cities because no one wants to be in the dumb city. No one knows what a smart city actually is. We’ve settled a lot of arguments about what future cities may or may not be under these memes that have incredible sticking power with folks. 

The thing with smart cities that’s always got me is the frequent lack of consideration towards repercussions. If there’s data about everything, where does privacy fit? The old “who watches the watchmen?” question keeps springing to mind. And there’s an element of the snakeoil-salesman or shyster politician to it; pitching something conveniently ephemeral. I’ve no doubt developments will and are happening in those directions, looking at Songdo and Masdar, for instance, but much less thought seems to have gone into the side effects, sociologically and politically, and a lot of thought has instead gone into the future as a sales pitch.

Well, we consider it a polemic. All of our models and projects are meant to question what that city will be like rather than saying, “This is utopia, build it like so.” Designing a city is like painting a watercolour in a stream. Once you settle infrastructure, there’s going to be an air quality issue, a waste management problem. Some kind of flow is going to shift it. So you settle on big colours.

Song Do CityThe skyline of South Korea's Songdo International Business District, photographed by Seungwon Lee.

When you’re designing a project, how important is it to consider how it might go wrong?

That’s where we start from. I’m not a severe pessimist, but I am a sceptic. We don’t make promises – we just speculate. One of our scenarios is called “drunk on energy”. If energy is totally renewable and it’s for free, are there any limitations? Why should I ever turn off my air conditioning? I wasn’t at home all day but my plants wanted to feel cool. Or my cat. Or I don’t want to wait fifteen minutes when I get home.

We run through all sorts of scenarios; it’s part of how we build up these dialogues. Urbaneering, which you’ve mentioned, is almost a ten year project, morphing into different projects. I don’t know where it’s going to end. I’ll probably be dead when it comes to fruition. It’ll be a grad student of mine who writes the paper saying, “That’s what Mitch meant.” I’ll be dead but I’ll be like, “Wow, that guy got it. I had to die before they figured that one out.”

After a certain period of time, we’ll try and codify the relationships we created about that area of the city. For instance, the idea of having vertical farms in cities, or riparian corridors replacing streets: automation in farming that’s not only there for food or sustenance but also air quality and waste management – every single surface in New York, vertical or horizontal, somehow fitted out with edible groweries. We have 3000 acres of unshaded roof space in New York City, why not grow everything possible up there? We’ll look at the big metrics and we’ll propose what Urbaneering could mean. We’re interested in many others coming and taking up that torch. That’s a bit different to the architect like [Garden Bridge designer] Thomas Heatherwick saying, “Here’s my beautiful design, love me.” 

I was reading his book Making recently and he frames it all as if he’s solving problems constantly, but I’m not so sure he is. He has a particular aesthetic, quite an impressive often beautiful one, but, for me, he seems to go with that first and then works back retrospectively to show how he solved a problem. Speaking of designers or inventors, I get a recurring sense that those who were seen as speculative or visionary, take Buckminster Fuller or Nikola Tesla, were just too far ahead of their time. For a long while, they were regarded as cranks and eventually technology catches up and, as you mentioned with Jules Verne, their ideas in the meantime have changed the future. 

It’s a feedback. 

Yes, so they get rehabilitated fifty or a hundred years in the future and are retrospectively recast as prophets and we paper over the ridicule they faced. Yet we never seem to learn from the original dismissals and we continue to do it to the next bunch of visionaries who come along. I like to follow the threads back and try and bring people’s attention to the fact these people were laughed at, even projects that are popular memes but still largely critically dismissed like, say, Archigram’s predictions of Smart Cities and the internet in the early 60s.

Ron Herron Archigram Walking CityRon Herron's Walking City concept, proposed in avant-garde journal Archigram in 1964.

Well, the Archigram projects weren’t necessarily something they intended to realise – an appreciation of them will be on paper. Architecture happens when the architects operate in the mind space, or page space where they create a drawing or a physical model. That is the intention. It is not architecture when [architect] Frank Gehry is done crumpling the paper for whatever reasons he’s doing it. It is not architecture when he throws that ball of paper out of his office window to 400 men who turn that paper into computational modelling, into building science, so that that can be assembled and constructed. That’s nothing to do with architecture. All of the thought happened in Gehry’s hands. Once it becomes a physical building and has gone through that process, it is architecture again. But the real body of work and the thing we strive to do is actually the paper part. That’s what Archigram is or Claude-Nicolas Ledoux and the whole French Enlightenment – those imaginary structures like Newton’s Cenotaph...

Boullée’s globe.

Étienne-Louis Boullée Cenotaph to NewtonÉtienne-Louis Boullée's Cenotaph to Newton, a series of drawings imagining an impossible tomb for the scientist.

That was impossible to build at the time, but it’s in every single book on the history of architecture because it is an act of architecture.

It looks crazy even now. It must have seemed insane at the time, but it’s really a logical extension of domes in basilicas. 

It doesn’t need to be built to be a rational piece of architectural history, same with Archigram or Lebbeus Woods and his work. Those drawings were meant to be occupied by the mind and they have enormous influence and range in terms of who they’ve inspired.

It’s interesting you say that. I remember reading a comment by Lebbeus Woods to the effect that “I draw these things and if others want to go build them that’s up to them but I’ve already created what I intended.” 

He’s a great example. An even deeper one would be John Hejduk who built almost nothing, a few installations, and yet has influenced probably every single contemporary architect. I don’t know if the public absorb that. They might think, “It’s got to be a building or it’s not architecture.” Maybe somewhere it’s part of the mission of architecture to explain what we do and we’re trying, but perhaps we’re not doing so well. Considering ninety-something percent of structures in the built environment don’t go through the hands of an architect, you can see that it’s still our fault, in terms of how we consider what is architecture and what is not.

There’s an expectation these days for an architect to be a politician and a philosopher and a sociologist. Part of me, as I continually argue at talks, believes that space is innately political, but then there’s part of me that thinks an architect is really there to design buildings. Zaha Hadid took a lot of critical flak in terms of the political implications of her buildings, and in cases very justifiably so, but even I concede she wasn’t a politician and she shouldn’t have been expected to have been a politician in the conspicuous absence of actual politicians. So maybe, to be devil’s advocate for a moment, the public and people like me expect too much. 

Look at Bjarke Ingels. He’s taken the philosopher out of architecture. He’s taken doubt out of architecture. He’s really jumped into the Silicon Valley mentality of believing in making the world a better place, this utopian sense of progress. He’s almost infinite in his ability to compromise; he calls it bigamy or polygamy. Whatever your idea is, he’ll morph his concepts to make it happen. In a way, that is his politics. And the dark days of Rem Koolhaas, filled with theory and doubt, not even being sure what he means, like Yoda or Jesus Christ, levitating three feet off the ground. Importing things from God knows where.

The architect as priest. I have to confess to having nestled under that wing, in terms of admiration for Koolhaas, Gropius and others. But there is a sense of the architect as some kind of monk who is detached, performing sacred work that has me wondering.

They’re really great at controlling the story of whatever that topic is, much more so even than many scientists who can be too myopic sometimes in their own research to zoom out and see why it might be interesting to the public and how this will impact different actors and agents. 

In terms of the ecological side of the equation, the Rapid Refuse project is an interesting one as it runs somewhat against the common tendency I’ve seen where waste is approached as a problem to be simply rid of. Your project begins almost as if it’s a strange opportunity.

Early on, there was this thought that the term waste is a problem. Period. Even having two small kids, even telling them there’s garbage, “Urgh, what am I doing?” I’m instilling the small kind of values that were instilled in me. And garbage is the wrong value. There is no such thing as waste. Waste is supposed to go away but there is no away. We look at a state where the waste doesn’t exist – a steady-state economy that cycles back and recognises the limits of the earth’s metabolism and what we can take out. Everything is a nutrient whether it’s that cup you’re drinking from or those eye-glasses you’re wearing. Everything is a nutrient and we have to treat design objects as nutrients. What they feed sometimes isn’t really clear. We have to recognise that they are servicing you for a period of time and then they move on to feed something else. 

We see the synthetic biology we embed into the projects as really important because it keeps this general theory of ‘everything is a nutrient’ working really well. In a culture of biology, you don’t design something for a single purpose. A cherry tree is servicing thousands of other forms of life. It doesn’t produce three cherries so that three new cherry trees start to grow. It produces thousands of cherries that get absorbed into the soil, feed all different types of flora and fauna, over the lifetime of that tree. It’s connected into a web of life. We don’t throw out an iPhone and expect it to help thousands of other things. We might have that in the software side, in the connectivity, but not in the hardware side, not in the products we make.

If you think about the crash in 2008, the West had wholeheartedly opted for a Ponzi scheme (I was working for a bank then so I saw it in real-time), a delusional and cynical faith in endless growth, much of it funded from shady sources and buoyed by derivatives. When the nerve holding it together wavered, when reality could no longer be kept at bay, it all came crashing down. And really the only reaction or idea in mainstream circles following that was to ensure the collapse occurred in slow motion and then we’ll just somehow get the growth and the Ponzi scheme back up and running again. 

There’s also something more insidious than that. I’ve been trying for a long time to locate what the real enemy is and it’s called ‘predatory delay’. If you’re an oil company, you’re going to say “Yes, solar panels are great. We have to grow and grow and grow, and we’ll invest in that. We think in 2050, we’ll be using solar panels.” Until then, every single day they are in business there are such enormous profits that the point is to delay. It’s only when you get a giant ugly crisis that you have to stop delaying and you need to implement the new technology. After the crisis, which wasn’t big enough and was mostly financial, the 'best' thing to do was more predatory delay in every single part of what we’re discussing about cities. It’s an extremely effective bridge especially for those in power and those who are profiting. One example is the issue of fracking. When I saw Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, on the same page for energy in the United States, it was game over. They both said no to coal but they were totally fine with natural gas and we’ll deal with the environmental consequences later. We’re going to delay, yet again, an infrastructure of renewables – geothermal, solar, wind, hydro, let’s not go there.

So that delay is a constant drag on progress?

It’s built to do that and it’s really hard to argue with predatory delay, because they’re on your side mostly. “We really love that new [low-energy] car, what a great concept. Here’s a little bit of money. And a little bit of press on it. And everything’s good, but we’re not going to get into it today. Let’s do it in 2020-ish.”

Talking of coming change, let’s consider the sea level rise. Most of the world’s major cities are on the coast. There was a line that struck me in your future city of Governors Hook where “instead of keeping the water out, the design allows the water in.” That was rather refreshing after years of seeing ideas that are built on either ignoring or building siege conditions against the sea.

Pretty much every single scientific institution on this planet has talked about sea level rising as an imminent fact. You have to roll with that punch. Even if we make these changes now, regardless of predatory delay, we won’t see the effects globally for twenty years. Today we design cities where this is the edge of London and we put in a coffered dam of concrete and steel and God forbid water or anything else gets in here. It’s just not reality. Nature is going to find its way, through time, erosion or just because of a massive climatic event. 

Governors Hook Terreform One Mitchell JoachimGovernors Hook models.

We need to find these much larger buffer zones that are accepting of these two worlds of nature and city. Sometimes they’re for aqueous life-forms, and then at other times it’s a great place to play frisbee with your dog or have a picnic. We were using these ghost fleets, old military vessels as artificial reefs, that would be embedded into the edges of our city and allow sediment and other life-forms to build up on top of them over time and create middle zones between protected occupiable space for people and space for nature.  

For ten years I’ve been discussing in talks how we get an Urbaneering project like this done. It comes from a belief that you need a combination of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Jacobs was the activist who was a writer, a poet, who was very much on the ground, the grassroots person who knew how to make a mark versus Moses the power broker who was able to get really big projects completed yet was a racist asshole who was able to create his own tax base, who did not care about communities and was a top-down individual, a super control-freak. I imagined that the two of them were in a love affair – which is not historically accurate – and they produced a love-child who was Frederick Law Olmsted, who is for me the perfect urbaneer. Someone who cares about the introduction of nature and community into our cities, but projects done on a very large scale. That’s what Olmsted succeeded in doing. 

I’ve become increasingly sceptical of the David and Goliath myth that’s grown up around those two figures. It’s pretty clear to me someone in Moses’ position could potentially do a lot of good and someone in Jacobs’ position could easily be a constricting conservative force. 

Many things she got right, but many things she got wrong. The idea that Harlem needed that theatre and civic centre. She thought that this gym would be great for the community, the community protested and many people were hurt and arrested. It destroyed the fabric of the relationship Columbia University had with Harlem at the time and until this very day. And that was Jane Jacobs writing about it, saying it was a good idea. 

It’s interesting how gentrification, even social cleansing of areas, is shrouded in Jacobs talk these days. We can’t blame her for that, but the position’s one that has been readily exploited. In terms of progress, does it take an event like Hurricane Sandy to provide a jolt necessary for change?

We need a visceral crisis where Americans and Europeans can see a lot of death and damage. The analogy I make, and others have made, is Pearl Harbour. That was a clear enemy who attacked us and the US, within three or four days, was able to agree and retool its entire economy to fight the Japanese and then join our allies. It does take a crisis to get us organised. Right now, it’s not obvious. Hurricane Sandy was big but someone in Tennessee or Bangladesh doesn’t care. There are huge events like Chernobyl or Fukushima that, even then, do not globally permeate to beat up this model of endless growth. We haven’t got to that really ugly moment. 

We may not have to, but there is a chance we will. Here’s a situation when we did solve the problem and you can’t give credit to any one person or organisation for solving it: the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the mutually-assured destruction of the planet. The Soviets and the Americans together did the math. “Everyone dead? That doesn’t work.” So we stepped it down. You can’t credit a single leader, a single government, a single grassroots movement or a soccer mom or dad for saying, “Hey, let’s not annihilate ourselves with nuclear weaponry.” The environment could have that same method whereby you can’t credit one group or one treaty in Paris. Perhaps it’s going to be all of us doing the math and saying, “Hey this just isn’t going to work.” Before that crisis happens, perhaps we can do our bit. What that bit is is really confusing. I know we’re going to solve it, otherwise you’re not going to be around to say I was wrong.

Out of curiosity, what happens when it’s too late? If cities are half in ruins or, thinking of your Homeway project, they have to move? 

Interestingly the Soviets had undertaken that idea before us, we just didn’t realise it at the time. The Soviets had envisaged keeping their urban populations, especially Moscow, incredibly mobile so that the city could avoid destruction by atomic weaponry. You could never get them because they are constantly on the move. It was a military strategy. We were thinking of ours as a propaganda piece at first as a pun or a joke. America’s building larger and larger cars; what’s the biggest possible vehicle you could imagine? Like a house-size idiot Mc-Mansion house on wheels.

Homeway Terreform One Mitchell JoachimA photo from Homeway.

As a theory, we didn’t know where it would go, but we soon noticed this is an alignment for how we’re learning to deal with the internet: this growing, evolving mechanism that isn’t located in one place. How can our physical world marry the expansion of the internet and its associated economies? So it’s an idea steeped in layers of propaganda, of posturing about what will happen to our cities. Some of the larger models contain an infrastructure that mirrors how America did grow and how it came to be. We are based on the highway network which had separated the Democrat and the Republican, the have and have nots, the city dweller and ruralists; this major network started by Eisenhower as an emergency act of war. It was instituted in the Highway Act. We created highways and separated people to give primacy to urban centres.  

The story of Eisenhower going across America is well known, where he tested if America could defend itself from one coast to the other. In 1919 when he was a lieutenant colonel, he left the White House lawn in Washington, DC with a military convoy and travelled across the US to San Francisco. It took months to get there. It would have been a total military failure. The troops on the east couldn’t reach the west. They had to build bridges. They were going through backwoods, roads that had no name or were filled with mud, and he said, “This is no longer acceptable.” When he became President of the United States, he created the Highway System. Our project Homeway was about making the American Highway System much more robust, linking our waste, food, water, energy, air quality and mobility, all in a series of connected cities and talking to one another so they’re not treated as separate cities but as one continuous grid. A single city. So there’d be no distinction between Chicago, Los Angeles or New York.

So it’s important to anchor speculative projects in real historical examples.

We can’t have future cities without prototypes, without real working operable sections at full-scale happening some place. 

Are you optimistic then about the future of cities?

I think so. I have kids and I want to make sure they’re in a world that’s better than the one we are in. I definitely have a lot of faith in humanity. Donald Trump aside, I think we’ll get there. We all want a place that’s better for the kids. It does discourage me when I confront places like Beijing; the super-powerful wealthy and the poorest guy on the block, and all of their children, are breathing this horrible air. Why in a place like China, where they could switch overnight, are they still suffering? Is it really worth the edge on the economy they have, to run the coal-powered plants at the levels they do? That has created the worst possible air quality for their children and for their next generation. At some point someone in China will say, “Stop,” and overnight they’ll start cleaning. So there is a sceptical side, but hopefully we’ll all be in a better place. Wherever that is and how that’s defined, I don’t know. That’s a moving target.

This piece is part of our Imagined Cities month, guest-edited by writer and urbanist Darran Anderson. Photo at top by Manish Vohra and on homepage by Claudio Napoli.

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