Many say that there is no more time, that we must act. They say there is no more choice, undermining our ultimate securities. Some of us say that we are in danger, that we cannot go on forever in this way. What are they saying? What should we be afraid of? There is no way that I risk all this, all that we have created in thousands of years of progress! We are invincible, right? Of course, maybe not all of us .. But we have our dreams, we always aim at perfection! We know what we want, how we want it, and we always find ways to get it. Well, at least some of us. We are in the Age of Prediction: the future does not scare us!.. right? I beg you: please, tell me.
Professor Galli often repeated this to me when I was studying for the Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture in Genoa: “inserting a person in an image is a political, social and historical gesture. It is not a random operation”. You will remember the triad of paintings of the Ideal City: Urbino, Baltimore and Berlin. Their importance breaks through every wall that can stem their cultural resonance, being among the greatest examples of visualization of the entire history of humanity. Read in sequence, they constitute a trace of variations applied to the urban fabric of an ideal city, hinting at the iconography of every detail present in the scenes. The most interesting element is the almost total absence of people, present in small numbers only in the Baltimore table. What has changed from the Renaissance visualizations to those of the twentieth century to the renderings of every architecture studio on the planet today?
If on one hand, visualizing the future is part of the normal practice of doing Architecture, proposing something that will happen exactly under the conditions specified by the project, on the other hand this millennial operation is strongly affected by the cultural context in which it is carried out. This derives from internal and external issues of Architecture, thanks to its function of translating existing social characteristics and at the same time translating the dreams of the community, irremediably influencing the context. In this continuous exchange of influences, it is cultural identity to be the final product, and certainly not the image of the built environment or even the cultural atmosphere of a certain population. The former would be so if Architecture were only an operation of rendering the collective imagination, and the latter would be if Architecture were something independent – and also abstract – capable of directly producing significant differences in the cultural sphere. Clearly, it is neither of them: built environment and culture are both identities of an equation in continuous development, focused on the production of means to describe our society. The reason why we have increasingly begun to demand an image of our society projected into the future is essentially due to the ever-decreasing uncertainty related to our life cycle. Overlooking the scientific and cultural reasons that have allowed us to get to this point, I would like to emphasize that the inventions that allow us to live better than in any other era in history are not being questioned. On the other hand, we must not refrain from saying that if buildings and cities have a certain shape, this also depends on the veneration of wealth, or on the veneration of a god, or on that of other figures among which it is also possible to insert the Human Being.
© Luca Fabbri, Mass City (Hyper-dense Manhattan before Burning City), 2019, original picture: Old Manhattan in early 1900.
For instance, Lewis Mumford, in the first pages of “The Urban Prospect”¹ tells about the phases that have shaped America. Paraphrasing the master, if the first American phase – that of stable settlements – had produced an environment characterized by industrial and agricultural activities capable of making the best use of local natural resources, the consequent “America of migration” ended up compromising the initial atmosphere of well-being and sophistication achieved. The three migrations Mumford talks about are a mixture of enterprising discovery of the territory and the birth of strategic cities, and finally the unconditional amalgamation of women, men, things and money around financial centers. Mumford asks a question as simple as it is disarming: why did we choose to live in a psychologically and physically destructive city, under the banner of productive action, subjected to the God of Money and compromising our wellbeing?
It is about our need to imagine the grand future as we expect it to be. Thanks to science, this has indeed become less and less an expectation and more and more a calculation. I like to call it the “Age of Prediction”, in which our society spends billions of dollars and millions of hours of work to skillfully calculate the risk of any process, initiative, project – in short: predicting the future. The rendering of any architectural firm and the Urbino table are both visualizations of an already present future, linked to their own era, which have influenced or directed the construction of a space in a certain way. What it changes is rather the particular result of the design work, and the consequent role that people have. Again Lewis Mumford, in “What is a City?”², writes:
“The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theatre and is the theatre. It is in the city, the city as theatre, that [humanity’s] more purposive activities are focused, and work out, through conflicting and cooperating personalities, events, groups, into more significant culminations.”
© Luca Fabbri, Burning City Maintenance Corps, 2019, original picture: “Concrete sound mirrors in White Cliffs”, Dover, di Rob Riddle.
We are in 1937 and, in my opinion, this description of the city as a social theater is still one of the most relevant today. My journey through “Burning City” started more or less here, when I decided that dystopia would be the way to take the first steps in an extremely complex discourse. The first step in developing a visualization exercise was to deny the theater of social action in my city. The urge to limit any type of temporal and spatial connotation derives from the precepts of the reductio ad absurdum, equivalent to those of operating a dystopian visualization. Consequently, the time in question has become a period a thousand years ahead in the future, in 3019, and space no one in particular. The denial of a socially active context entails the exclusion of citizens from the basic administration systems of the city. The reasons for such a result were four, characterized by different nature:
– Impossibility of living in the urban environment due to the formation of dense hyper-metropolises without a logistic and spatial program.
– The elements of the urban environment, which has become “mute” due to the indiscriminate conversion of every architectural artefact, can no longer be translated into a cultural identity.
– Architecture is in a position of subjection to technology, the only element capable of allowing the actions of personal and community routine within the city context.
© Luca Fabbri, Parliament and Eden Garden of a tower of Burning City, 2019.
Furthermore, I have constructed a sequence of phases which can be traced back to those that could be put into action by a hypothetical society that has to solve a problem on a global scale:
– PHASE 0: CRISIS or problem definition: The cities of 3019 have become the most dangerous environments on the planet due to the fact that many of the problems of 2000 have not been solved.
– PHASE 1: HOPE or search for a solution: to allow life within the built environment, spherical mechanisms capable of floating in space are produced, collecting and exchanging environmental, climatic, social, political, economic data, and so on saying. In this way, the inhabitants could minimize the exits from home.
– PHASE 2: DREAM or integration of the solution: the spheres are used on a large scale so that the whole world is connected in a network capable of allowing life and work to function.
– PHASE 3: DECEPTION or abuse of the solution: this mechanism is radicalized in people’s lives, becoming the only way to govern the built environment.
– PHASE 4: COLLAPSE: the relationship of subjection between the spheres and humanity is reversed. The built environment adapts to the spheres, and no longer the other way around. The concept of territorial governance is confused with that of “reality experience”.
– PHASE 5: SALVATION BURNING CITY. The last chance of salvation for a part of the population is to create a city above the city. Burning City is a city made up of kilometer-long inaccessible towers, in which a cross-section of society locks itself up in order to survive.
The “Burning City” project involved a series of large-scale drawings of a typical tower, 2119 meters high, implementing an absurd political design and producing a sort of allegory of a class society. The legs of the towers give home to the poor, on the whose shoulders the wealthiest are supported, locked up in better houses which however do not solve the problem of physical presence as the only means of investigation of the world. A garden capable of producing supplies divides the two classes so that they cannot see each other. The spheres that “Burning City” uses to continue ruling the earth’s surface are nothing more than the representation of the Internet. “Burning City” is the city that burns money, time and people to function. It is a horrible theater in which the actors are enslaved to their own need to survive. Today we see beautiful images of projects that will never correspond to reality. The white and immaculate architecture, the shining glass, the tapered and austere forms, the gardens full of birds and happy people, under the sparkling sun – are all elements that are part of our utopian dream. But who and how many are those who will have access to all these things? Meanwhile, long before the Renaissance and for centuries to come, the presence of people continues to be the keystone of every design. It is part of the objective of Architecture to build the social theater, the greatest propeller of the well-being of our race.
A year after my thesis, the SARS-CoV-2 acute respiratory disease virus began to spread, forcing us to lock ourselves in our homes to preserve our lives, exactly as imagined in my thesis. An extremely powerful system has been brought to its knees by an invisible enemy and this reminded us how much our success is not so obvious. Our social theater has been irremediably undermined. Our goal for the future must therefore focus on the real well-being of people, without exception. And this must also go through how we depict dreams for our reality. We must not only understand how to defend our social theater: we must also begin to consider the idea that our energy intensive system and careless of the fate of this planet can foment problems such as the one in progress as I am writing, and perhaps many others.
I graduated in Architectural Sciences in July 2019, at the Department of Architecture and Design of the University of Genoa under the guidance of Professor Galli, with a thesis entitled “Burning City: a dystopian visualization of a City in the Future”. My goal was to tell a story without a happy ending, precisely dystopian, which would give a face to the fears of the system in which we live.
© Luca Fabbri, Burning New York. Year 3019, 2019.
Translated into English by Luca Fabbri.
Cover: © Luca Fabbri, Manifesto, 2019, Collage, originally “La Creazione di Adamo” by M. Buonarroti, Sistine Chapel, 1511.
¹ Lewis Mumford, The Urban Prospect, Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, London, 1968.
² Lewis Mumford, What Is a City?, Architectural Record, November 1937.