The Future: Yesterday and Today
- contemporary architecture
In this issue, we are publishing an article by Alexander Skokan that was originally published in the collected works of Russian Academy of Architecture and Construction Sciences: about the Future the way people envisaged it in the 1960’s, about the Information Age, and about the future that we are witnessing today.
The leader of Ostozhenka Bureau
When back in the 1950’s and 1960’s people spoke about the Future, they, just to be on the safe side, were not saying exactly when it was going to come (apart from Nikita Khrushchev’s rash promise of communism coming in the 1980’s), yet, for all intents and purposes, it was implied that it would surely come in the XXI century. We have been living in this Future for 17 years now, and, looking back, we can compare it with the expectations of that time.
“That time” was ten years after the end of World War II, after the death of Stalin, after the “Iron Curtain” was slightly lifted, and after a whole string of events, which had quite recently been deemed impossible, when everything hinted at the beginning of some new era, behind which some kind of Bright Future could be discerned.
In front of our eyes, miracles were unfolding; we witnessed space exploration, jet aviation, peaceful (and not-so-peaceful) nuclear development, television, and many other things, new and wonderful.
At the same time, all this euphoria and expectancy of the future peacefully coexisted with the drab realities of everyday life, primitive technologies, and pictures of poverty and need that were to be seen everywhere in this country shaken by recent the all-out war.
This harsh reality, and romantic expectancy of the Future created a certain emotional tension, which got in the way of people’s going about their everyday businesses, making thinking about the Future a far more attractive thing to do (“forward to victory”, “the victory of communism is inevitable”, and such like).
It was believed by default that the Future is better and brighter than the present, much more so than the past that made one shudder to think of.
The young Soviet architects of those days could not stay away from these Future games, and from this expectation of the coming age of plenty. They were like children, looking forward to a Christmas party, peeking through the door into the room, where a Christmas tree already stands and the last-minute preparations are being made...
Is it possible, in such a situation, to go about your everyday business, do your homework, design standard housing construction, or study the history of architecture, for that matter?
This is why the main item on the agenda was the Future. It was the only thing worth speaking about, it was the only thing that the architects could devote their thoughts to and design for. The present simply could not provide any compelling subjects for the architects – designing the rank-and-file micro-districts and houses for the party bosses was a much less appealing option.
This is, of course, an exaggeration, but not a strong one; besides, the limited possibilities offered by the construction technology of those days did not allow the architects to expect the coming of complex and interesting architecture any time soon.
And for this reason as well, the Future was the time and the place where the impossible was becoming possible.
The future was like a mind expander that helped you run away from the present.
Out of all the ways of escaping from reality (hiking, religion, alcohol, dissidence, science, and fine arts), this “futurologist design”, as it was called then, could arguably be considered to be the most professional one for the architects. In addition, this was a pretty exciting thing to do, because you did it in a good company, and it was generally a fun thing to do.
This may have been one of the reasons for such increased interest for the Future, as well as forecasting and modeling it. This is why the late 1950’s and the early 1960’s witnessed the appearance of various “informal” – meaning, connected solely by their circle of interests, and not necessarily working at the same offices – groups of architects, who to a certain extent continued the traditions of the Russian architectural avant-garde [i].
One of such groups – probably, the best-known one – was the so-called NER.
In 1960, a group of graduate students of the Moscow Institute of Architecture presented a collective “experimental project – New Element of Settlement (NER) – the city of the future”.
This work aroused a lot of interest; it was much talked and written about. Since this project was absolutely unique for the Soviet architecture of those days, it became the main newsbreak in the professional community, its authors instantly becoming extremely popular figures. Today, they would have been probably called “stars”, but back then the word of mouth spread unbelievable rumors about them, and already then they became some sort of an urban myth.
Developing the ideas proposed in their diploma project, the authors publish the book “New Element of Settlement” (1966), which was later on translated into English, Italian, and Spanish, and was published in 1967 in the USA, Italy, and a few countries of Latin America.
Then comes the exhibition period in the biography of NER – a show in the Research Institute of Theory and History of Architecture and Urban Planning in 1966, and two international exhibitions: the 14th international Milan Trienniale in 1968, and an exposition in the pavilion designed by Kenzō Tange at EXPO 1970 in Osaka.
NER’s original idea consisted in creating compact self-sufficient (architectural thinking) small towns with an optimum population of 100 thousand people. According to the architects, this number was enough to ensure the adequate amount of social (based on mutual interests) contacts, necessary for harmonious life in the city; for this, a “communication center” was organized, located in the city center.
These new perfect cities were opposed to the existing megalopolises, hopelessly and uncontrollably sprawling in spite of all the “smart” and beautiful-looking master plans. As analogues and prototypes, the authors cited well-known “perfect” historical cities from Palma Nova to English “garden” towns.
The entire inner plan of a “new element of settlement” was designed to provide walking accessibility – those days, bicycling was only popular in China and Holland.
The growth of these settlements was limited, on the one hand, by their self-sufficient form, and, on the other hand, by the 100 thousand population limit.
However, the main thing about this project was the structure that these cities formed – it was a global network encompassing the whole country, the so-called “settlement system”. This structure also included the hubs of the already existing cities in the European part of the country, stretching into a “settlement corridor” in the eastern direction.
And, although today the idea of “parceled” urban development is considered to be utopian, the theory of “settlement system” implemented on a national scale has not been disproved at all, and in many respects seems to be the solution for many issues of the structural and spatial development of our large country.
In addition, during that period of NER’s activity, Aleksey Gutnov and Ilia Lezhava, with input from their colleagues, developed and put into professional practice a whole number of academic thesis statements and project terms. Essentially, they created their own NER vocabulary: recovery center, framework, plasma, settlement corridor, KVAR (temporary active settlement complexes), and others.
At this point, however, the history of NER ended – this extremely interesting creative community, this “futuristic company”, quietly disbanded, at the same time keeping up friendly ties, Aleksey Gutnov and Ilia Lezhava publishing yet another book, “The Future of the City” (1977).
NER was an attempt of a professional architectural response to the challenge of those days, the 1950’s and the 1960’s, an attempt to come up with the image of the oncoming Future, and to “design the city of the near-future communism” [ii].
The NER term generally signifies projects and academic constructs built around the idea of the “City of the Future”, while essentially NER (“new element of settlement”) is in fact that City of the Future, a fragment of an all-embracing town planning network that covers the whole country.
These appeals to the future and attempts to peek beyond the horizon nevertheless ceased somewhere in the late 1960’s, when people started to live on other ideas and aspirations.
In fairness it must be said that designing cities of the future was not done solely by the NER team – right about that time or maybe just a little bit later similar utopian projects were proposed and exhibited by a few other architectural teams – the group of Ikonnikov, Pchelnikov, Gunst, Bokov, Gudkov, Loktev, and, possibly other less widely known enthusiasts.
Not mentioning the fact that all of the architectural magazines of that time were filled with sci-fi projects of a similar character, and few architects were able to resist the temptation to make their statement on the subject – Kenzo Tange, Otto Frei, Yona Friedman, and, of course, the most popular leader of the young architects of that time – the British group Archigram.
The logic continuation of the NER narrative was Ilia Lezhava’s teaching practice at the Moscow Institute of Architecture, and the scientific and project activity of the Department of Prospective Research of the Scientific Research and Design Institute of the Master Plan of Moscow, led by Aleksey Gutnov, whose team also included a few of the former NER activists.
Meanwhile, somewhere around the early 1970’s, something went wrong with the Future, as if some spring inside of it snapped – and people stopped looking forward to it, learning to live in the present and getting adjusted to it. Time stopped.
However, this stagnant present was not half as much interesting from the professional standpoint, and the problem of escaping the reality and leading a “secret” life was for the young architects as relevant as ever. This was not some obscure future (which, come right down to it, was inevitable in any case), but quite a different world, another dimension, which was neither yesterday, nor today, nor tomorrow, and in which the sci-fi projects of “paper” architecture began to unfold. This was not a different time but a different space. And this was also very exciting, even though not so optimistic.
However, the Future did come, at least because the new century officially set it, and it turned out to be not quite what people though it would be 50 years ago. And, of course, it is a great thing that it did not happen overnight, as if we fell asleep during a train ride, and suddenly woke up at a station that we never saw before, reading its name: “Future” – here we are!
Luckily, nothing really happens overnight; most of the time things happen in due course, and every big thing is usually preceded by some events that indicate the vectors of development, the trends, and everything that shows us the signs of the Future, near and remote.
There are always ample warnings and subtle signs, and if we fail to notice or understand them, it is our problem.
So, what is it that surprised us most of all at this station named “Future”? Something that we least expected to see? People and cities. Fifty plus years is too short a term to count on some fundamental changes in people’s minds – essentially, these are the same people, only they are much older now.
However, they are much better informed both about what they need to know (economy, health, politics, and so on), and about what they don’t need to know (specialized medical and other kinds and information).
On the one hand, people, overloaded with all sorts of information, became more versed and savvy in many respects, but on the other hand, they became much more controllable by pre-calculated biased information (informational manipulation).
“Homo Informaticus” is an information-charged individual who is essentially programmed to do some certain actions and experience some certain emotions. Basically, there is nothing fundamentally new about it, this is the ways it has always been in various societies to this or that extent but today all of these information influence technologies became as effective as never before.
In respect to the city, this means that people, who spend now so much time in the “parallel universe” of the cyberspace, became much more indifferent to real and material things, including to the city and its spatial environment and, in a broader sense of the word, to their physical location as such.
One of the consequences of being so information-supercharged is a far greater mobility of the human being of the Future, meaning, the human being of today. This means that he is no longer tied to his one and only hometown – being constantly on the move, he has grown attached to different places, cities, and landscapes, which, as a rule, are geographically remote from one another.
Of course, information, or, should I say, propaganda, i.e. biased information, can “charge” an individual with patriotism, love for his or her home, city, and country, but this “cyberspace” love is not likely to endure. A professional answer to that can, and probably will be, a set of pictures or 3D images, or other kinds of graphic illusions.
We can go on and on about the aspects, in which today’s Future justified our expectations and dreams, where it disappointed us, where things stayed as they were, and where they even got worse. This is a very interesting topic in itself, whilst most of our expectations were connected with technical innovation and scientific discoveries. In this field, indeed a lot of wonderful things happened, which were totally unthinkable back in those days, yet, on the whole, the future happened not quite where we expected it to happen, or maybe it’s not so noticeable, or in some places in did not happen at all, or maybe such kinds of the Future happened that it would have been a good thing if they had never happened in the first place. However, though, the main difference between today’s Future and the Past, from which we tried to see this future, is that now this Future with a capital “F”, like some light and happy cloud, in which you want to find yourself as soon as possible – this Future no longer exists.
The new Future is much more pragmatic; it promises problems that today do not seem to have a solution – overpopulation, resource exhaustion, global warming (or global cooling), the so-called “hybrid” wars and lots of other not-too-pleasant and not-too-comprehensible conditions.
On the other hand, we are surely in for a lot of positive news in the area of information technologies and further perfection of the cyberspace, to which we are most likely to turn for consolation if we don’t agree or are upset with something in our real, material, and pragmatic Future.
[i] This was the time of numerous literary, artistic, philosophical, and other communities, groups, clubs, and studios, whose members would discover for themselves new opportunities, overcoming the rigid boundaries imposed by the Soviet state.
[ii] Stroitelnaya Gazeta, 27.04.1960 ¹ 51 (3734), “Gorod Budushchego”, A. Baburov, A. Gutnov, and other MARKhI students.