Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. This is part of the reason, I think, that Bjarke Ingels’s hedonistically sustainable, pragmatically utopian architecture has managed to stay out of Letters to 2120 up until now. On the utopian side of things, he’s undoubtedly a shoe-in. However, as an occupational side-effect of my work with design coming out of KiBiSi (which Bjarke constitutes one third of), I guess I’ve watched the global design media lose their collective shit over the charismatic starchitect and his inspired, information-driven buildings on one occasion too many. It seemed to me that everyone had had their fill of Ingels and then some, so I thought it pertinent to give him a miss. At least until the tidal wave of hype had subsided.
Thing is, though, that I keep coming back to his conceptual ingenuity and unparalleled story-telling ability. It’s inspiring. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself thinking that the man is the personification of the old adman expression ‘lightning in a bottle.’ He’s Don Draper without the alcohol, tortured soul and annoying, forced facial expressions – with an added, disarming infusion of giddy, boyish enthusiasm.
Of all the contemporary cultural moments featured here so far, I’d say that his work probably stands the biggest chance of making it to 2120. Which is down to the simple fact that they’ll have a hard time tearing down all of that robust construction over the course of a century. Even if he’s not your bag, you’ll have to admit that he’s a seriously prolific son of a bitch.
The pyramid-shaped Via 57 West Courtscraper in New York designed by Bjarke Ingels Architects.
If I were to sum up BIG architecture glibly and superficially, I’d say that it’s the real-world manifestation of all that ingenious, uninhibited free-thinking you did when you were slurping on your homemade bong in the 8th grade – realized on a momentous scale and backed up by some pretty hefty, multinational budgets. Take one look at their sci-fi-inspired, smoke-blowing power plant-turned-skiing slope, and you’ll realize that the stoners have won.
Somewhat inevitably when an organization achieves success on BIG’s scale, there’s been backlashy murmurings here and there, allegations of implementing cheap materials, criticism of gender imbalances at partner level and claims positing Ingels as a ‘shameless self-promoter.’ All of which amounts to critique that would have stopped, stunted and impeded the careers of lesser, more fragile architects.
Bjarke Ingels, on the other hand, just goes ‘Yes is More.’ Which could be loosely translated into: ‘The haters can suck it – let’s get on with the more pressing business of blowing everyone’s mind with trailblazing construction.’
One of the twisting towers that make up Grove at Grand Bay in Miami, Florida.
The ‘Yes is More’ maxim has the added benefit of placing BIG, forthrightly and unpretentiously, in a lineage of paradigm-shifting, world-shaking architecture. First there was Mies Van der Rohe’s modernist ‘Less is More’ dictum; then came Robert Venturi’s postmodern antidote in the form of ‘Less is a Bore’; and now there’s BIG and its ‘Yes is More’ manifesto, the deceptively simple yet unequivocally clever, new rallying cry for a new age that’s charmingly zealous, unflinchingly ambitious, empathically intelligent, and genuinely down-to-earth all at the same time. This succession of characteristics is central to BIG’s sensibility, I think, and it translates directly into Bjarke Ingels’s prodigious gift for architectural story-telling:
For me, the true merit of BIG and Bjarke Ingels lies in turning problems into challenges. Instead of approaching the ecological crisis with downcast, puritanical, crypto-protestant eyes as most of us are inclined to do, he turns it into problems that can be solved in a pragmatic way balanced with a utopian mindset. The process of solving it to the best of human ability, in a way that fuels our collective imagination, becomes a gratifying game. A kind of fun obstacle course, which matter-of-factly names and demystifies our fears by compartmentalizing them into decipherable complications that makes the future markedly less unpredictable, volatile and scary in the process.
It’s easy and very human to succumb to the notion that we have to pay for our sins and make sacrifices for our ignorance and inadequacies. For all our gung-ho secularism, the narrative of redemption still runs deep in our supposedly post-religious veins. As a dubious consequence, never has guilt-tripping the public into buying a bunch of self-righteous, hokey products they don’t really want or need been so easy. But what if it doesn’t have to be that way? What if we don’t have to kiss modernity and technology goodbye as a means of appeasing our new secular God, the vengeful Mother Earth? What if we don’t have to wear crap sandals and go vegan to have a decent future? What if we can judo-trip the the multitude of problems we face, not only solving them in process, but slapping them around a bit to make their pressing energy work to our advantage? That’s the inviting, seductive question posed by Bjarke Ingels’s ‘Yes is More’ manifesto. And one that he consistently answers in style with uplifting, ‘unremittingly radical’, and downright incredible architecture.
BIG design for the Dubai Hyperloop high-speed transportation system.
My money’s firmly on this guy’s legacy being around in 2120. With a little bit of luck, you guys will eat the synthetic dust of my great-great-grandchild who’s puffing away on her space-age bong while casually skiing away from a giant smoke ring that lights up the Copenhagen horizon.
What does the Venus Project, Silicon Valley hype men, Italian Futurism, Ray Kurzweil, David Lynch, Holly Herndon, new age prophet Terrence McKenna and the abonimable snowwoman Ayn Rand have in common? They all feature in this week’s letter on the benefits of utopianism, that’s what. If your tolerance for emotional earnestness is of the lower variety, now would be a good time to disengage your ocular viewing configuration. If, on the other hand, your interest in self-indulgent tirades from around a century ago have been piqued, I suggest you get locked into your interface because it’s about to get real.
First off, I should probably come clean. It’s a precarious state of affairs, but a lot my contemporaries look at me funny when I speak in utopian terms. When I venture the offensively uncomplicated opinion that the world would be a much better place if everyone thought happier thoughts and that the solution to a lot of the problems we face is optimism instead of pessimism, I get accused of propagating the sinister, shiny-surfaced, dream-colonizing rhetoric of modern advertising.
As soon as I lift the lid on my belief that we’re bound to overcome the challenges faced by the entirety of humanity, and that we’ll do it by collectively aligning our thought patterns along more positive pathways, I’m suddenly cast in the same category as Silicon Valley hype men disguising their hidden, megalomaniac, Ayn Rand-inspired agenda with progressive, world-changing aims. Either that, or they patiently take their time to politely let me know that I’m full of shit.
You see, I surround myself with people of a certain persuasion. Creative people, writer people, academic people, people of a certain ilk of whom Tolstoy would likely say that their lives are passed in ‘idleness, amusement and dissatisfaction.’ Open to experience and informed by power-critiquing strands of postmodernist thought as they are, they seek complex answers to complex questions.
Old man Tolstoy.
It’s not that I blame my friends and learned acquaintances for shooting me dirty looks when I state my optimism. All things considered, I realize full well that I can sound like a bit of a dickhead. Bearing in mind how zealots, terrorists, fanatics, Italian Futurists, Steve Jobs, Bono and other self-aggrandizing fringe groups and individuals with utopian agendas furthered untold devastation, fascism and questionable, rose-tinted eyewear, my utopianism is, somewhat understandably, regarded with guarded skepticism and overbearing glances among the cognoscenti (also, in my day, this is pretty much par for the course when you dare to suggest that the human condition can ever be anything, but an interminable struggle in the presence of people who make a living thinking about things).
The funny thing is that I’m not even that happy, so it’s not as if my utopianism comes easy to me. I mean, I’m happy enough, I have a lovely girlfriend whom I love, reasonable health and all that, but for various reasons, I am, like a sizable part of my generation, what you could call ‘existentially challenged.’ With no religion or fixed belief system to give me an overarching sense of purpose, I fail to see what the big deal about existing really is. What the point is, to be accurate. In that particular respect, I’m probably not that different to my worldly buddies.
Still, despite these reservations about the sanctity of existence, I remain, forever and always, an optimist on the part of humanity. Maybe it’s the excessive Star Trek TNG-watching of my impressionable youth, which drummed it into me that we’re destined for escaping the minor quibbles of Earth to sail among the stars, forging neorealist, diplomatic relations with samey variations on humanoids who’ve somehow all mastered English.
Or maybe it’s just that I’m so deeply embedded into the capitalist matrix’s modus operandi of ‘working hard, applying yourself and not whining about it’, which is giving me tunnel vision, effectively blinding me to the irreconcilable contradictions of our age. Whatever it is, I can’t seem to shake it. Don’t really want to, in all honesty. And I have my reasons. Reasons that I’ll now send your way because, well, you’re not even born yet, so you don’t really have a say in the matter.
1) David Lynch has my back – No, really!
I mean, it’s not like I can call up one of the most brilliant directors on the planet and get him to explicitly state that he agrees with me, but the director of Twin Peaks and the creator of tons of other genius, mind-bending stuff is a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation also known as TM. TM, if you’re unfamiliar, has as one of its core tenets that if the square root of 1% of the world’s population acted according to its beliefs, we’d be on our way to an enlightened tomorrow. Sound crazy? Stupid? Dangerous, even? Possibly. But you know what else sounds crazy, stupid, fucked-up and dangerous? The fact that we’re blithely skipping on the precipe of the biggest catastrophes mankind has ever faced without taking necessary steps to fix things. That’s literally the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard. With that in mind, I’ll take what I can get, quite frankly. And if David Lynch believes TM might provide some kind of structure or solution that makes everyone unite and come together, who am I to disagree? Some people might call it grasping for straws. I call it actively looking for alternatives to a mindset with a proven track record in failure.
2) We fucking need it
Pardon my potty mouth, but I can’t think of a time in history when we’ve needed utopianism more than the present moment. Nuclear war, the impending collapse of ecosystems, the cannibalization of resources, loose cannons at the helm of the military-industrial complex; these are all very real threats to our way of life occurring right now in my present, while we’re sitting idly by, feeling smug about impotent Trump-roasting tweets, garnering 4 hearts and a retweet. Utopianism might feel dangerous and difficult to control, which, I suspect, is why so many are apprehensive about letting the utopian genie out of the lamp, as it were. But quite frankly: the shit is, by qualified accounts, so close to hitting the fan that you can practically smell the contents of last night’s dinner being wafted in your direction by a cool fanning system on a globally-warmed summer’s day. As prominent braniac Stephen Hawking isn’t shy about pointing out in the Guardian:
‘Now, more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together. We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans. Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it.‘
Adding to this dire clusterfuck is the fact that the hottest 17 years on record have all occurred since 2000. In other words, there’s literally no other way out. We have to step up. It won’t be easy or pretty, but, in my opinion, the grand, sweeping utopian, narratives of positive change need to be invoked if we’re to have a shot in hell at turning things around. For all their dewy-eyed corniness, imagined utopias are pretty much all we have at this point.
3) Contemporary Visions of Utopia Don’t Suck in the Slightest
Are contemporary visions of utopia really that untenable and/or quixotic as certain people claim they are? Whenever I see the proposition of a radically new model of civilization, like The Venus Project you get the inevitable cynical, smartass on social media commenting how humans are inherently selfish and that ‘communism doesn’t work.’ I’m sorry, but it’s not a case of ‘communism vs. capitalism.’ We need to break out of this reductive, simplistic, binary, fift-grade conceptualization of societal modes and get more nuanced about the essential matters determining our future.
The Venus Project isn’t without its flaws, but in the light of the rapid, accelerating decline of everything we hold dear, this bold attempt at transforming the world, has to be admired and encouraged. It has to better, in any case, than making snide, inconsequential remarks on Facebook? Or posting resigned, fatalist articles on the coming ecocide?I love you, Motherboard, but this kind of thing is doing infinitely more harm than it can ever do good
4) It might even give some of us a sense of where we’re going
If anything does actually give me a sense of purpose it’s utopianism. The notion that we’ll eventually overcome our primitive, moronic barbarisms and create a world where we function as reflective caretakers instead of mindless locusts, makes me feel like I’m taking part in something bigger than myself.
Today, part of the problem and one of the reasons, I think, that clinical depression statistics in the well-off, industrialized world are soaring is that we’re left to our own devices in personalized, atomized bubbles facilitated by intimacy-faking social media. We’ve been individualized and trapped in our own little algorithm-orchestrated worlds, which runs counter to the sense of cohesion, characterizing earlier models of society. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a return to feudalism, or anything like that, but maybe there’s a way to incorporate the productive, collectivist social dynamics of history into our own behavior and letting it work to our advantage? It would be pretty arrogant to assume that our ancestors were all hapless cretins and that we are, in every way, the apex of civilization. As an atheist, I can even find it within myself to listen to Alain de Botton when he tells me to borrow from religion from time to time. Maybe it’s time to do some serious Spring cleaning in our inventory of ideas and philosophies.
5) Capitalist realism is obstructing our view – dismantle it and we’re free to dream big
Within the all-encompassing sphere of capitalist realism, all radicalism and novel ideas are inevitably stunted, assimilated and rendered toothless. Robbed of their original intent and radical potential, and transformed into novel ideas fuelling the voracious engine of capitalism. This is a very important point, I think. As Slavoj Zizek puts it in his Occupy Wall Street speech:
‘Let me tell you a wonderful old joke from Communist times. A guy was sent to work in East Germany from Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends, ‘Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say; if it is written in red ink, it is false.’ After a month, his friends get a first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: ‘Everything is wonderful here. The stores are full of good food, movie theatres show good films from the West, apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot find is red ink.’ This is how we live. We have all the freedoms we want, but what we are missing is red ink: the language to articulate our non-freedom.‘
In today’s seemingly endless cycle of newness and appropriation, those who dare to dream big, agents and actors whom I would consider the utopianists of our age, like Elon Musk, David Lynch and Holly Herndon are easily reduced by cynics to savvy marketers whose ideas, new and potentially transformative as they may be, lend themselves well to the assimilation of capital – that amorphous, omnipresent system without a face that devours our resources and seems hell-bent on sending humanity on a precipitous descent into Mad Max-like instability. But here’s the thing; imagining life outside this system is crucial to the betterment of our future. Our survival as a species, even. Bringing Zizek’s red ink into existence, the language and culture in which we can express ideas that fall manifestly outside the current paradigm is a matter of life and death. As the electronic artist and self-proclaimed optimist Holly Herndon says it:
“If society is ever going to progress, and move beyond certain oppressive institutions and infrastructure, then the idea of fantasy is essential.”
Going back to my pessimist friends and acquaintances, the people who were skeptical of my utopianism, I’ll grant them that complexity comes with the territory when discussing the future of everything. However, building a better future, a future that’s fair and just with the potential to liberate all of humanity from the seen and unseen reins impeding progress, doesn’t necessarily require complex, ideological frameworks. It is, quite simply, a matter of collective will. Of daring to dream the collective dream and instilling a collective fantasy – a utopia accommodating the entirety of the human experience. It’s that thing where if everyone got off their asses right now and demanded that their government took real action against climate change, we’d be on the right path tomorrow. Call me naïve or one-dimensional, but in my view, it really is that simple. In the end it’s about faith. Faith in the Tolstoyan sense that we’ll get on top of it all despite grim-looking prognoses and statistics. As a concept, faith tends to get a shitty rep with my friends because of its religious overtones. But quite honestly, what do we have if we don’t have faith? Feelings of superiority by playing the jaded misanthope at dinner parties? Also, if you think about it, why would you get up in the morning if you believe that humanity is doomed – and that it’s bound to end pretty soon? Personally, I can’t really get my head around that.
6) It’s a phase – a very scary, apocalyptic-seeming phase but a phase all the same
Look at history; you’ll find that most civilizations from the Mayans until today have been obsessed with the apocalypse. It’s very human to think that we’re special enough to be the last humans on Earth. However, being the optimist that I am, I can’t help but think that the present moment of uncertainty and instability, represents a transition phase in our history. That what we’re seeing is the death throes of the old paradigm anticipating the next stage of evolution. Whether that’s some form of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity I don’t feel brave enough to predict. I do feel brave enough, however, to show you a video featuring Terrence McKenna that sees him elucidate his leftfield take on the intensification of our world using cosmology, thermodynamics, the Mayan Calendar and other phantasmagorical, imagination-fuelling agents. McKenna’s worldview, warped as it may seem to some people – particularly the cynics of this world – is enticing to say the least. For those of you with an attention span as compromised as my own, I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting one, important point:
‘Human technologies, languages, migrations, art movements, ideologies, are not something different from nature. They’re the same download of process that we see in the movement of continents, the evolution of new species of animals – except that these human, novel emergent situations are happening much more quickly. So, I see the cosmos, if you will, as a kind of novelty-producing engine. A kind of machine, which produces complexity in all realms: physical, chemical, social, whatever. And then uses that achieved level of complexity as a platform for further complexity. Well, this explains our present circumstance. It explains the rush towards new technology and all forms of social organization in the new millennium.’
What uncle Terrence is saying here, I think, is basically that we’re not separated from nature. That the nature/culture divide is elaborately orchestrated bullshit. And that the fact that everything is speeding up and complexifying is intense as hell, but a natural process, which means that we’re not an exponentially procreating virus, but an integral part the planet. For me, that puts a different, very productive perspective on things. But I highly recommend sitting through as much his ingenious rant you have time for. I promise that’s it’s thought-provoking. Consider it psychedelic poetry, if that makes it more palatable.
Speaking of rants, that was one of the longer ones one my part. If you’re there in 2120 and you made it to the end, a tipping of the hat is in order. Brevity has never been my strong suit. What’s more, a lot of this stuff is probably so self-evident to you that it’s making you embarrassed for me. The thing is that in my time this needs to be said over and over. And the people who I think should be saying it, people who have the ears of the influencers and decision-makers of the next generation, aren’t saying it nearly enough. With brilliant, lucid and capable people like Jonathan Safran Foer holed up in a navel-gazing midlife crisis, less brilliant, less eloquent people have to step up and give it a go. This is me giving it a go. Curious as that sounds, even to me.
So if you’re listening, I’d like it noted somewhere for your future record that I gave it a try. If it all goes south, contrary to my utopian hopes and dreams, here’s written proof that I actually did something.