Fossil Futures

Published in the exhibition catalogue for ‘New Constellations on Repeat,’ which took place at the Deptford Old Police Station, London, May 31 – June 2, 2013. 

The twenty-first century tongue seems to thicken around the Future. It automatically extends the U that follows the capital F into an arc that at once reaches ahead into the temporal to come and also harkens back, at once nostalgically and disparagingly, to a Modernist past that permitted conviction when speaking of tomorrow. One seems, with this slight vocal demarcation of an elysian future perfect Future, to simultaneously deride a vision of 2001 where we walk on ceilings with Velcro grip shoes and also yearns to be allowed to anticipate with wonder a Kubrick-ian world without gravity.

This now antiquated retro future holds forth in time not only in cinema and literature, but in the architectural structures in which we continue to dwell, as we constantly negotiate the strangeness of addressing the futuristic design of Modernist architecture. These prototypical house-machines, burdened with their pledges in the style Le Corbusier to solve the problem of the Modern epoch through mass-production and ergonomics, linger in a landscape that saw no Revolution despite Architecture.[1] The specters of un-arrived utopias haunt the symmetries and smooth, serial lines that lie decaying in anticipation of a Future that our present disappoints. These ubiquitous structures of concrete and glass, from council flats to entire capital cities, endure past the expiration date of their social promises.

Not only are many of the once shining towers of Modernist architecture greying with age and falling into material decrepitude, market interventions such as the privatisation of council houses strip Modernist buildings of their equalising imperative, of their function in forwarding the “social evolution that will have transformed the relationship between tenant and landlord.”[2] As Modernist architecture becomes canonized, the art market also evaluates and isolates once practical structures into commodities. The city of Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier as a symbol of newly independent India’s faith in the Future, now lies not only in neglect and but in circulating fragments as chairs, tables, carvings and doorknobs are being sold for immense sums in European auction houses.[3]

Some of these more esteemed edifices have become have garnered the attention of heritage trusts that seek to preserve these decaying structures as consummate examples of a historical style. Yet the move to excavate these Modern ruins, still haunted by their promises of a future that is yet to arrive, becomes problematic when the Modernist, particularly in its architectural manifestations, is taken as that which is traceless.[4] Following Benjamin and Brecht’s exhortation to “erase the traces,” is any attempt to excavate a Modernist architectural utopia a betrayal of Modernism itself?[5] What does it mean for the present imagination to treat this once Future as a fossil?

If we are to undertake an archaeology of past utopias, it must be with an understanding that these dreams now exceed their original dreamers. The Future hasn’t vanished, but dwells on, evolving in its degradation. For even ruins are never truly desolate; they are inhabited, if not by humans, then by plants, ghosts and microbes.[6] The search for tomorrow perhaps thus relies on a forensics of the living, an attentiveness that allows one to hear the moisture of air, breath and voices as it has been soaked up into porous and cracking concrete. Ours is not a Future of pristine promises but one of fantasies formed in decay.

[1] Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (San Diego, CA: BN Publishing, 2008), 265.

[2] Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 237.

[3] Jason Burke, “Le Corbusier’s Indian masterpiece is stripped for parts,” The Guardian, March 7, 2011.

[4] Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism (Winchester: O books, 2008), 3-4.

[5] Hatherley, Militant Modernism, 3.

[6] This discussion of biological structures in relation to historical events and the future is greatly discussed in Patrick Keiller’s film, Robinson in Ruins, 2010.