Douglas Murphy

Douglas Murphy

Douglas Murphy is a writer, lecturer and practising architect. He is the architecture correspondent at Icon magazine and the author of The Architecture of Failure (2012). He spoke to Lili Owen Rowlands about his most recent book, Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture, which focuses on the hopeful visions of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the futures that these decades’ architects imagined. Murphy lucidly traverses a history of ideas from the catastrophic geodesic science experiment that was Biosphere 2 to the mad charisma of Buckminster Fuller.

Interview: Lili Owen Rowlands
Portrait: Tom Medwell

Lili Owen Rowlands Your first book, The Architecture of Failure, was about “solutionism”. What do you mean by the term?
Douglas Murphy It’s funny because Evgeny Morozov independently published a book [To Save Everything, Click Here] that’s very much about solutionism. What links our work is an interest in the way technological change made people think about cities and the future of cities. In my first book I looked at various attempts to make architecture politically radical that either weren’t radical or completely failed to achieve what they were setting out to do. “Solutionism” is what a designer or architect does in general: identify a problem and resolve it very neatly. However, what you then do is close off all other issues, so that design and architecture become about resolving a certain problem and, of course, in a social process like architecture, that actually means lots of things get left out.

LOR In your new book, Last Futures, you show how the utopian ideals of the late 1960s were located in definite futures. People were incredibly hopeful then!
DM In a way, the book is anti-utopian. The way the word “utopia” is used today is very much like a box that I find closes off any chance of affecting what’s happening now. This is especially important with the current aesthetic appreciation and rummaging through of crazy, retro, utopian products on the likes of Tumblr. 

LOR What do you make of the way modernist and brutalist social housing is now “fashionable”?
DM I think the one thing that often gets really clouded is who had the agency in that period. Architects often get both the blame and the praise for the bad and good things that people perceive in architecture from the 1960s and 1970s. A modernist building can often be a fantastic work of architecture, but modernism also coincides with a period that looks quite attractive to us compared to the world we’re living in now, and these things are often mixed together in an unclear way. I mean, the brutalism thing is very interesting because of the way it is being used as a political football. Many people are using the period as a symbol of progressiveness, but at the time of building the picture was perhaps more mixed. Some of the brutalists were actually quite apolitical. But on the other hand, it gets turned into a fashion, and so you see lots of pictures on blogs of things just made of concrete, but with a complete lack of engagement with the history. These two things are happening at once, but their appreciation is not necessarily the same thing. 

LOR The first chapter of Last Futures is about exhibition pavilions, starting with the Crystal Palace in 1851. What do you think the pavilions embody? 
DM What is great about expo culture, from its beginnings in the mid-19th century to its decline in the 1970s, is that it was an opportunity for nation states – in a similar way to the Olympic Games – to come together and show off their ideologies in a very particular way through displays of technology and architecture. With architecture, you normally have to dig or scratch the surface to find what people thought about their culture through buildings, but with expos, you don’t need to scratch. They’re literally saying, “This is how we view the world.” Some of them are extremely predictive: the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition in 1851 is, some people say, the dawn of global or consumer capitalism – [the philosopher Peter] Sloterdijk subscribes to that. Then in the early 20th century, modernism is very much promoted at expos and becomes globally significant post-war. At the American expos, like the 1939 World’s Fair, they predict American post-war suburbia perfectly. Computers appear at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, which is the first time people experience computing. But then, significantly, by the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, they stop being convincing visions of the future and that’s one thing the book asks: why did that happen? 

LOR I am fascinated by the description you give of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 building in Montreal, where the apartments are like bubbles or cells in a crystalline form. Could you explain what this vision was running counter to?
DM The Habitat 67 building is a perfect example of something that lots of people were trying to do in architecture. Architects were influenced by the rise in individualism and consumer culture; they were seeing that people had more disposable and personalised objects in their lives and they wondered whether this could be the case with architecture. Would we be able to have a more individualised dwelling? This was combined with interest in prefabrication technology, such as concrete panels. What Safdie was trying to do was break up a housing block into lots and lots of different units where everyone would have the best of the city –proximity and density – but they would also have privacy. This process extends as they break the buildings up and so the spaces become crystalline. The buildings are a metaphor; molecular crystalline units as part of an agglomerated whole that really captured people’s imaginations at the time. Not just architects, but the people commissioning buildings are interested in this as well. So this is an architecture that is both massive and clearly one thing, but also you can see every single unit, so there’s the egalitarian impulse of wanting to see people’s lives making up a social whole.  

LOR You write that Buckminster Fuller’s dome was a concrete example of almost every futuristic metaphor that was drifting through the culture at the time. 
DM Fuller’s eccentricity, or his five-hour lectures and idiosyncrasy, are not actually the most fascinating things about him. What is fascinating is the way that he united the people he worked for under one vision: the American military and the hippies he hung out with in the mountains of California. People were desperate to cross-fertilise ideas. The 1967 Expo dome that he designed obviously has a cosmic sense; it’s a metaphor of the Earth, which was a big idea at the time. He didn’t design the interior exhibits, but they were very much about the space race, so there was lots of lunar equipment on show. It was also very technocratic, high technology, with new lightweight plastic materials. When you compare it to the Soviet pavilion from the same expo you realise what’s at stake. It is much more conventional, while this American one appears very creative and free. It’s also filled with this kind of hippie-ish “oneness” of the world mixed with the fragility of the cosmos as this thing we must protect.

LOR You argue that the Californian hippie and “back to the land” movement were not anti-technology.
DM When I was growing up, I only knew the view of the hippie in relation to the music festival, to LSD. People have often told the story of the attempts to technologically revolutionise housing, or the space race and its architectural thinking, or the “back to the land” commune builders. These stories often just allude to each other, but actually they have a whole lot of common problems that people were trying to address. The fact is that the much-celebrated Whole Earth Catalog was a mix of mung beans and body paint, but also quite sophisticated structural engineering and computing – and that’s vital to understanding what was going on.

LOR What is it about the dome that is favoured by these particular countercultures?
DM It’s both a oneness, a wholeness aspect, but also a really obvious metaphor: it’s not square. It meant something to people to be anti-rectangular, anti-bureaucracy. But the dome’s meanings multiply up, like the Fuller dome, so it’s also a symbol of the sophistication of industrial capitalism. 

LOR The backlash against modernist architecture and the critique of mass housing feels really familiar. You mention Alice Coleman’s book Utopia on Trial in your book: she linked tower-block living with social breakdown.
DM This is why brutalism is at stake at the moment. People often say that the Ronan Point disaster [when a gas explosion caused the partial collapse of a London tower block in 1968] is the historical marker, but there was discontent as soon as mass housing began to be built. In British culture, we’ve deliberately forgotten the enthusiasm for the remaking of cities after the war. Now the cliché, which is widely held, is that arrogant, unaccountable architects and planners whimsically destroyed communities around the country in order to build untested experiments in living that ultimately did not work. People just believe this! It’s a political point that tends to be held on the right of the political spectrum, but it’s a very common view. There were some serious problems, but what starts happening in the 1970s, through the world economic crises and changing political backdrops, is that the very notion of the state solving a housing crisis becomes suspect – and it remains under attack. Today, Create Streets and other such political organisations still say tower blocks didn’t work – people found them ugly or whatever reason – but actually what really upsets them is that these “experiments” were about trying to make housing a human right and solving a housing crisis! 

LOR The Biosphere 2 experiment is obviously a great story. Was it ever meant to be a serious scientific experiment?
DM Biosphere 2 comes way after the other Californian counterculture communes and what sets it apart from all the rest is that its members worked hard and had a structure that was able to make money; they made investments. Whereas many communes were completely anarchic, Biosphere 2 is paid for by an oil heir who joins the ranch – so it’s a demonstration of how to live in harmony with the Earth, paid for with oil money – another fun part of the story! On a serious level, Biosphere 2 is a way of looking at the difficulty of attempts to be holistic about the world and its problems. Attempts to synthesise and create a broader view of the world were difficult for standard scientific methods, and this is a major political issue that runs through the whole period. Frequently this was a very left, utopian way of looking at the world: to try to have all-encompassing theories that bring different fields together, running counter to the more “specialised” view of things on the right. Biosphere 2 was an attempt to prove it possible. But the project has that apocalyptic ark rhetoric to it as well; it’s about ecological collapse while also showing that humans don’t have to be either destroyed by nature or destroyers of nature.

LOR I wonder how we simultaneously try to dominate nature and define it as “outside”.
DM It’s about shelter. If you want to look askance at what humans do politically and when people talk about what kind of society they want to have, there’s a general process whereby we try to build safety from the world. Without just copying Sloterdijk’s terminology completely, we want to create safe spaces where we can be free from danger – whether that is the danger of the cold, animals or the people from the next town. It’s an ongoing process where we are engaged in building safety nets to protect us. The purest way to look at architecture is as a shelter being a boundary of togetherness. 

LOR You write at the end of the book about the resurgence in geodesic architecture, at least among tech companies – specifically Google’s new Mountain View offices. But also Amazon’s biosphere offices and Norman Foster’s “mothership” for Apple are under construction. Do these companies have a vision of the future?
DM Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have been very chatty about what they are up to recently, getting [the Futurist] Ray Kurzweil involved in Google, as well. He’s a dinosaur from a different age and the problem with getting people like Kurzweil involved is that they are almost the worst of protagonists from that era to become successful again. They often have odd, utopian and libertarian-anarcho-capitalist views of the world. In the world we have now, the future is happening but your life won’t change at all, you’ll just have a cooler gadget. There’s no sense that social relationships might change any more. These companies never used to be interested in architecture. They just used to rent space in offices that were built 30 years before. It’s amazing that now they think, “We are extremely powerful and we need an architectural expression of that.” It’s funny that they would go straight back to ideas from the 1960s and 1970s.  

LOR Do you think we currently have a vision of the future?
DM On the one hand, yes, as you’ve got Musk and Bezos talking about moving to Mars in case an asteroid hits Earth and all the humans are destroyed. On the other hand, what is really clear is that nobody wants to challenge the relationship of money to life and to how people relate to each other. These people are so powerful, but capitalism is working for them – for now, at least. In the UK we’ve just had the wettest and warmest December on record and we’re in an absolutely terrible housing crisis. In the late 1960s people were also preoccupied by ecological disaster and the housing crises, but they were much more ambitious about how they were going to solve it. Whereas these days it feels like everyone is dragging their heels even though we are a much more sophisticated, technological society. Ambition seems to have evaporated. §

Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture, published by Verso, is out now