Kyiv EuroMaidan / Alexandra (Nessa) Gnatoush / flickr.com

Global scale problems need global scale communities

An interview with Liam Young on the city in the age of network society by Vitaly Avdeev

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An interview with Liam Young

An interview by Vitaly Avdeev

Liam Young (Australia, 1979) works and lives in London as an independent urbanist, architect and curator. In 2010, Blueprint magazine named him as one of 25 people who will change the architecture and design. He has worked for a series of firms (Arup-Drivers for Change, Phillips Technologies, etc.) as a consultant. Liam runs the London based ‘Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today’ think tank, which tries to explore the consequences of fantastic, perverse and underrated urbanisms. He is also tutoring in studios at AA, UCL Bartlett, Princeton and others. One of the studios called ‘Unknown Fields Division’ explores remote and unique corners of the Earth, where the future might be found. In 2013 Liam Young was curating the Lisbon Architecture Triennale.
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You are trained as an architect and have worked for a number of high profile offices, including Zaha Hadid Architects and LAB Architecture Studio. What made you escape from ‘building’ to ‘visioning’?

I did my time in star architects offices and I started doing my own building projects. Actually, I’m trained rather traditionally in Australia, a country with an extraordinary context of making. It’s one of the few places in the world now where as a young architect you can build something. But I guess what I found several years ago was that the forces shaping the city were increasingly being defined beyond the confines of the physical spectrum. The things that were affecting changes in the city were networks systems, mobile technologies, nomadic infrastructures that for an architect who defined their practice traditionally, around the idea of the building as an ending point in itself, seemed really reductive and actually wasn’t the space that I saw for innovation. So I began to look for the forms of practice that actually could have more capacity to change things. Architecture is inherently an extraordinary slow medium that the active speculating about possible futures or the unbuilt project can actually operate with much more media scene. Working on building projects that could take 5, 3 to 10 years to build – just seemed too slow. Far too slow. So I was redefining a space for the architect that would allow for speculation, vision or a projected feature to be a research project and actually an end point as a practice in itself. So I just moved away from the traditional architecture towards a type of work that just seemed more urgent and relevant.

Is it possible that you will ever come back to building? Maybe with some kinds of technologies that will make this media faster than now?

Well, I think that the work that I do is a form of building. There are different kinds of buildings and structures that are emerging now. I do visionary and speculative projects, but sometimes the site for that project is actually the network. I do the consulting work with technology companies and we talk about the future of technologies in the city. All of these projects are spatial. I don’t think I will ever move to building in a very traditional sense of a structure with walls, floors, ceilings, doors and windows. But that’s only one particular type of defining space. We define the space through the network, we relate to each other not just in the physical public space of a cities, but in the pseudo public space of Facebook or chat rooms and designing within those kind of sites is an act of building. Designing the autonomous management systems that actually run and organise cities is another type of building. It’s not designing with bricks, concrete and steel, but it’s still a form of building. So I think I will continue the work in that space, but I don’t think I will be making buildings. It just seems rather inconsequential at this stage and time. I’m not calling for the death of architects, but I’m calling for the expanded role of an architect. I think there will be space and opportunity for architects that want to make buildings, but only in the same way as space for designer who does Louis Vuitton handbags, a very small percentage of population need them or want them and those kind of architects that define them solely through building practice will end up being no more than beauty craft industry. I don’t want to perpetuate that so much – I’m just interested in different kinds of projects.

‘Anonymous’ non-state agent / Andrewww26 / flickr.com

Anonymous’ non-​state agent /​Andrewww26 /​flickr​.com

You talked about growing role of networks so probably this question will be suitable. In your interview for URBNFUTR website you said that nomadic digital networks, orbiting GPS satellites and cloud computing connections will drive development of cities in the future instead of such physical infrastructure as roads, plumbing and park spaces. You also mentioned that ‘Today we are much closer to our virtual community than we are to our real neighbours. This death of distance has created new forms of city based around ephemeral digital connections rather than physical geography’. Does this mean that people will create communities only in the digital world? Will poor and rich districts disappear? Will people travel less and stick to their places?

We are in the interesting period where traditional physical boundaries are being reimagined within the context of the network. I think that there already are communities that only exist in the network space and not in physical space. I live in London and we used to define London by the people that lived there. I live in London, my friends live in London, we are in London together and that is what London is – a place that is a collection of people that are identified with being there. In reality I don’t know who my upstairs neighbours are and who lives below me. I sit in this space talking to people on Twitter, on Skype, in my Facebook network. These are the people I interact with whenever I’m in London. My experience of London as a physical place is actually mediated by a people scale of all over the world.

What does that mean for the definition of cities? What is your London in this sense?

My London is very different to my friend’s London who has a different network. It’s very different to the guy that runs the shop downstairs. So the notion of place is actually becoming very difficult to define. I think we are in a condition where you see non-​state actors and agents becoming much more dominant.

Can you provide an example?

Something like ‘Anonymous’, a community that has a brand, a name and a logo. It emerged from a chat room and is now a network of people dispersed across the planet. They can operate with a rather extraordinary force. It’s only through the network they can actually come together and work in that way. So I think they are a strange form of nation in a way. Al-​Qaeda is another non-​state actor which has emerged and has a very dominant role within global politics and it doesn’t have a physical space. It’s nothing more than a mailing list with a weapons budget. The U.S. is spending billions of dollars trying to stop them. Billions of dollars in relationship to the activities of Al-​Queda! The Justin Bieber ‘belieber’ fan club has an extraordinary community spread around the world. It’s another kind of non-​state of people. I think these types of communities, these types of state are nomadic in that they drift across the physical territory. They bear no relationship to physical boundaries and actually are going to be the form of communities and a form of nations and states that are going to relate in the future. When I talk about the death of distance, I’m referring to this idea that physical geography is becoming increasingly irrelevant. That’s not some kind of utopian position. All technologies do is perpetuate the problems that exist. I’m not a believer that technology is the miracle cure that is going to solve all the problems in the world. I think it presents new opportunities, but it also reinforces the existing contradictions and problems. So it’s not going to eradicate poverty or distinctions between rich and poor, but this is going exist in different ways.

Sergey Brin and Google X / Steve Jurvetson / flickr.com

Sergey Brin and Google X /​Steve Jurvetson /​flickr​.com

Technology doesn’t redefine the city – it only redefines it in the same way as rain redefines the city

Will people travel less and stick to their physical location? I don’t think so. I just think that the nature of the way they travel will change. When we were in the early days of the Internet and people talked about telecommuting there was the fear that everyone was going to sit in their homes, never leave, never interact, and never be social because they can work from home and Skype into their office. That’s turned out not to be the case. What the network has done is actually create new platforms for interacting and create much more extraordinary ways of being together and relating to one another rather than eradicating the possibilities of interaction. So I think we’ll travel. These new types of communities I’m talking about aren’t going to be at the expense of physical relationships – they are just augmented relationships. So it’s just one more layer across the city. Technology doesn’t redefine the city — it only redefines it in the same way as rain redefines the city. It changes the way we interact, it changes the way we move through the city, it changes the way we inhabit it. But it doesn’t make a new city in itself. So we are just going to be entering a point where we can’t describe a community or a place or their interaction purely through physical means. So we have to describe it in a way that is mediated through technology. So it’s not one or the other, but it’s both at the same time. And it creates something new.

With your think tank ‘Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today’ you try to ‘not just find solutions to problems, but identify new arenas for operation’. Do you involve local people in the process of discussion? If so, do you think that this model of think tanks will gradually appear in every major city and will be a bridge between local people and the authorities?

…the nature of future city is a geological condition as a new kind of nature that has cycles and systems and seasons at scale of year, decade or even longer

The nature of the think tank is a form of a post-​bubble or a post-​economic crash model of an office. It’s an office that doesn’t have massive overheads and permanent staff. A think tank is something that is dependent on a project, we bring people together, we do work and then we disperse again. In a different form of project we are bringing different people to collaborate. So it’s much more dynamic and nomadic. As a way of operating, the think tank pops up in one place, disappears and pops up in another. So it doesn’t have the kind of structure that a traditional office has which allows us to be much more flexible and allows us to acknowledge the changing nature of any given problem. So it does mean that we operate in local conditions where think tank pops up. It pops up in Lisbon where we are doing a project for the Architecture Triennale, in Eindhoven when we were doing a Speculative City funding for the Netherlands, it pops up in New York because we got funding from New York City University. So it just drifts and that means that you are able to engage a wide variety of people. You can bring in specialists for the particular project that you dealing with. I think that this model of working is something that we’re going to see more and more of. I think the most interesting forms of offices that I see appearing now are think tanks that are based within larger institutions. A whole series of think tanks are popping up inside massive technology companies, where the think tank parasitically occupies the infrastructure of a corporation, it parasitically soaks up funding from that corporation and it does research and experimental work which is an extension of the work of the corporation. I think that’s really an interesting funding model for architects and designers to be working with. It means operating relatively autonomously, but within organisations. Intel has a design-​based think tank, Microsoft research, Google Creative Labs or even Google X projects are really interesting models that create a way of speculating, thinking about the future, creating experimental projects that actually have some kind of legitimacy. So I think that’s a really interesting model of working.

Can you speculate more about new arenas of operation?

When I’m talking about identifying new arenas of operation I’m not just talking about geography, but I’m actually talking about new spaces for the discipline to operate within. So I’m interested in the architect defining what they do more broadly than just thinking about physical building. A new arena for operation may be siding architects within politics, local government, urban planning bodies, developer agencies, software development companies or scientific institutions. I think architecture is an extraordinary discipline because it sits somewhere between culture and technology. We are able to synthesise complex problems; we are able to have conversations with engineers, film makers, scientists or artists and very few disciplines are left out. We have that capacity to cross those boundaries. So I think it’s much more interesting for architects to not just sit within their own office space, but to actually get out into the world and infiltrate a whole series of other fields. New arenas for operation imply going into fields that you would never expect architects to be valued within. I think that’s what we trying to do with the think tank and that’s what I’m trying to call for when I’m talking about reevaluating the scope of the discipline. I think these are all strategies with which the architect can become much more relevant again.

Google Loon nomadic infrastructure project / Mario Sixtus / flickr.com

Google Loon nomadic infrastructure project /​Mario Sixtus /​flickr​.com

A lot of people talk about our work as being on the margins of architecture. They mean that it’s kind of experimental work and it’s on the fringes of architectural practice, where actually I would argue that the work that we do is actually right in the centre of practice. At this moment in time, because of the way the economy is, the architects that are actually making real buildings – they are the ones that are actually on the margins. You hardly ever meet an architect anymore that is doing buildings only. They are teaching, consulting, doing research projects and feasibility studies. I would hope the forms of projects that we develop become increasingly more accepted as being both possible and essential things that architects should be doing.

Everything with the think tanks is clear, but going back to local people do you think that in future they will have any kind of influence on decision making, e.g. how their neighbourhood will be developed?

Yes, I think this is part of the conversation about non-​state agents and new forms of communities that emerge through the network. I think what we are seeing is an evolution of the Internet and the network that is involving really extraordinary peer to peer relationships. Something like peer to peer file sharing, which is the idea that information is stored in one central place (like Amazon’s Cloud service or in the vault of Google’s data centres), but it is stored locally and dispersed across the planet on different people’s hard drives. I think that’s a really interesting form of local agency or localism, where individual citizens dispersed across the world could act and interrelate together through the network. And they create forms of community, but that also enables them to have the capacity to effect change.

What kind of change?

Global scale problems need global scale communities to take them on and technology and the future of the network can enable that to be possible

Previously we’ve talked about the idea of crisis of agency, which says that the problems that we face moving into new futures are so large that no single person can have any hope of addressing them. You know, like global climate change, economic collapse – these are things that are such massive questions that there’s just no way that we can hope to effect any kind of change. But I think one very interesting and exciting potential of technology is to enable individuals scattered around the world to come together and act with a force or a scale that wasn’t before possible. I think that’s the most interesting future for localism. As an example you see something like what happened in the Middle East a couple of years ago with the Arab Spring where the Egyptian revolution was based around a community formed in the network. It was people sending text messages, organising through Facebook notifications, and that created and organised a community of people with the scale and force that can topple governments. I think that was a really exciting moment. It was also a really dangerous moment for other states in the Middle East as they shut down the network to prevent similar organisations of coming together. I think what we’re going to see, hopefully, happening more and more is technology facilitating individuals to come together with the force of nation states and with the scale that might be able to mobilise some kind of change when faced with global scale problems. Global scale problems need global scale communities to take them on, and the technology of the future of the network can enable that to be possible.

I do agree. I’m Ukrainian and, as you probably know what is happening in Ukraine in Kiev, my Facebook is just burning with new messages. I get all the information right away from the epicentre.

That’s what’s amazing about it. Before, in order to do that kind of collective effort you had to run around and knock on doors and drag people out, you had to send out fliers, put posters around the place. It was very difficult to bring people together on a certain kind of scale and now we can do that as a kind of flash mob because we want to have a silent dance party in a public square in London or we can do it because we are pissed off and want to change the government. It’s not to say that we are all noble and going to go out there and change the world. We also are going to do stupid, frivolous things with the network as well. That’s why I love Justin Bieber as he’s mobilised the network in an extraordinary way that has nothing to do with social good. It’s going to be to do with decadence, pleasure, entertainment and finance. But hopefully we can also use the power of these technologies to do something worthwhile.

You visited many extraordinary places with the nomadic teaching studio ‘Unknown Fields Division’ with which you are trying to see the future in the present. Why do those places show the future? Do you think learning from them can prevent any unwanted scenarios in the future?

I run Unknown Fields Division with Kate Davies. It’s a nomadic studio, but it’s based in London. If Tomorrow Thoughts Today is a part of my practice which is imagining speculative futures, then Unknown Fields is a way of traveling around the world looking for weak signals of those futures. So with Unknown Fields we are going for expeditions, we look for emerging trends and traces of possible futures and with Tomorrow Thoughts Today I take those traces and I project them in the speculative visions. So when I talk about Unknown Fields traveling to the future in the present tense what I’m saying is there are places around the world where certain things that we talk of as being part of the future are actually happening now in real time. Take something like global warming. In a place like London or New York global warming is a condition of the future. It is something that is going to happen to us at some point in time. If you travel to Far North Alaska global warming has already happened – whale migration paths have changed, the ice has already melted, hunting patterns are different and the lifestyle is already evolving. So we travel to Far North Alaska because we can see in real time the way people are adapting to this future condition and from that we can learn how we might adapt in other places. We travel to the mining landscapes of Australia because what we see there is an extraordinary grab for resources to fuel our desire for technologies in other parts of the world. That resource scarcity, that grab for material is going to start to happen all over the world at a much larger scale as population will increase, as our desire to furnish our world with increasingly more complex objects keeps on developing. There is a famous quote from William Gibson which is ‘the future is already here, but it is just not very evenly distributed’ and what Unknown Fields does as a project is travel around the world to find out where these futures are. And then we develop projects that document those conditions, that bear witness to them, and then we bring them back to more familiar cities that most of us occupy. We are trying to wheel those conditions to kind of shine a light onto these possible futures so potentially we can try to acknowledge them, change things and create more preferable futures.

Is it easier to see the future now than a hundred years ago?

I think we are in a very interesting moment right now where the future is much more unknown that it has been in the past. Science fiction writers in the 80s used to have a period of relative stability – in 30 – 20 years ahead they could predict what was going to happen without looking too stupid. Even with William Gibson’s novels, he wrote ‘Neuromancer’ which is the first book where the world ‘cyberspace’ appeared. There so many unknowns in play now: global climate change, economic collapse, biotechnologies, ubiquitous computing, the rise of the network all of these conditions are so utterly unfathomable that we have no idea how any one of them is going to play out: which ones are red herrings, which ones actually redefine who we are as a culture. Any one of them could have absolutely radical consequences. So the world of the future becomes different. It’s not about predicting what’s going to happen because that’s kind of seen to be an impossibility. It’s actually about testing and exploring and putting forward multiple scenarios. It’s not about a future anymore, but it’s about futures (with a letter ‘s’). In Facebook, this dark unknown landscape of the future, the speculative project gets a torch and shines a light onto particular areas: one by one, in a hope that it will illuminate more of the landscape in front of us and in the hope that it will help us to make the decisions about what kind of future we want to make for ourselves. So Unknown Fields is an active project in going out into the world trying to shine a torch to bring light onto these possible future conditions that are popping up around the world, so we can come back and hopefully make positive changes. I love this phrase ‘the future is a verb, not a noun’. The future isn’t something that is just going to happen to us, it’s not something that washes over us like water. The future is what we all actively shape and define. So in order to shape the future in the most advantageous and preferable way possible we need to announce ourselves with as much information and awareness of the way the world works. So Unknown Fields tries to go out there and collect information, disseminate it as widely as possible so we can all become much more informed as active agents in making our future.

Just curious. Do you have any destinations in Russia for your studio? I know that you’ve been to Chernobyl in Ukraine and Baikonur in Kazakhstan, but never in Russia with Unknown Fields.

I’d love to go to Far North Russian Siberia, because I’m really interested in what is happening in the Arctic region. There is a future that is already happening, the ice is already melting. Just this year the first ship passed through the North-​West shipping passage because the ice enabled it to pass through in winter. So what you are going to see happening is all of these towns on the northern coast of Russia very soon are going to become global trading centres, it’s no longer going to be a remote distant North, but it’s going to be active, intense and an extraordinary space of growth. I think that area is going to be really interesting. So that will be great destination for an Unknown Fields project, I think.

Unknown Fields Division, Chernobyl, 2011 / Samantha Lee/ flickr.com

Unknown Fields Division, Chernobyl, 2011 /​Samantha Lee /​flickr​.com

That’s really interesting because all these cities are extremely decaying at the moment.

They are just waiting for the ice to melt. I think Russia is actually already investing in massive infrastructure up there, because they already know that North passages are starting to boom and Russia is interested in claiming as much territory in the North as possible. When the ice melts it opens up shipping trade and it also opens up new resource sights and Russia is already getting it.

Coming back from the Far North to megalopolises: In your interviews you say that, in the future, cities will grow not only along their horizontal axes, but also in the vertical axis, creating structures like geological strata. Does this mean that some of the layers will become useless for functioning in the future and will be used as a museum of the past?

I don’t think so. When I talk about cities as geology I’m thinking about cities as a new kind of nature. I think we are in a really interesting condition when the urban environment is being monitored by scientists as a hot bed of evolutionary change. I think what you see happening in the cities is nature moving back in. We used to think of the city and wilderness to be awfully distinct and separate realms, but now there are species of animals that are evolving to be awfully dependent on our cities. If we took our city away, these animals would no longer be able to survive. When I talk about cities as geological strata I’m interested in the idea that the buildings can play a role in that new kind of nature. You build layers and layers on top of itself, but only in the same way that a forest grows from layers; it grows from the decaying layers of the structures that came before it. As buildings become built with increasingly living materials I think the idea of a building decaying or eroding will become very different to what we think of now and the city will recycle itself and will evolve. So I don’t think you’ll see stagnant or useless layers of the city. I think those layers will become re-​purposed, recycled, reoccupied in a different way so the programme of that strata will be changed. Those redundant structures will just provide opportunities for the types of programmes that are excluded from new built structures. That’s the way something like soil works. It builds up in layers and then those layers change and recycle and another structure grow on top of them, they take the nutrients from those layers and then they decay and it repeats. I think that the nature of the future city is a geological condition, as a new kind of nature that has cycles and systems and seasons at yearly scales, at a scale of a decade and even longer. So I don’t think that’s a way of thinking about the city as a museum of history, but as something that is alive and constantly changing and evolving.

And finally, talking about Moscow. Do you see anything specific in this city that you can speculate on its future? Or will it be pretty much the same as in other world megalopolises?

I think that, in relationship to our previous conversation, the geography and place is going to be increasingly less important. So that, to a certain extent, will flatten out the differences between cities, but not totally. I still think that what network does is also enable differences. So I think what you will see in a future Moscow is certain traits and characteristics of the city that are almost kind of icons in themselves that will remain and be perpetuated and everything else will start to assimilate and become globalised. So I think that physical cities will start to become caricatures of themselves. The iconic architecture of Russia will be like you see it happening now in Moscow where the rebuilding is reproducing parts of the city not by restoring old buildings, but by demolishing old buildings and building new ones in their place and repeating the formal and traditional language of the architecture that went before them.

Unsuccessfully in most cases.

Yeah, but they’re not restoring the fabric, they’re just identifying certain features and moments as being iconic over particular Moscow conditions and exaggerating them or building them in a different material. So in the same way China Town replicates itself all over the planet repeating these iconic motifs of what the rest of the world thinks China is, I think you will see that happening in cities. Moscow will define itself by these features and will cling onto them. So it’s not going to turn into an unrecognisable global city. I think it’s much more likely to become an exaggerated version of itself. But its citizens will be identified with that place, but will be part of a global community in the way that I’ve been describing the idea of an ubiquitous network. I don’t know whether that’s a positive future, but it’s a prediction. Not so much of a provocation or speculation. Maybe that’s an interesting point to talk about as well, but I don’t see the role of speculative urban visions or future urban visions as being about prediction. I think Russia’s and Moscow’s future can be something that we make and can be whatever we want it to be. I think the role of the speculative project that might play out a series of scenarios of what Moscow can be in future is much more interesting. Not to talk about any singular version of the future city, but to talk about modal perversions as a means to help us to become more active in shaping the future of Moscow that we want. I think prediction is just a side effect of these visionary projects. The real value of this type of work is in playing out different scenarios as a critical act. Hopefully those scenarios will help us make the futures we want rather than predicting the futures that we think we might end up with.