It has been said that the past is a foreign country—but it is the future that remains undiscovered. Despite the obvious truth that no one has been to the future, that no one has even seen a photograph of it, the last two centuries have witnessed the rise of a body of visual codes and tropes that are commonly seen and understood as “futuristic.” These “progressive” or “modern” attributes are derived from an entirely imaginary landscape, indicative of a destination that is impossible to visit; yet nearly everyone can recognize the place where no one has been.
Building Expectation: Past and Present Visions of the Architectural Future offers a glimpse into this undiscovered country, presenting a collection of historic and ongoing visions of the future from the nineteenth century until the present day. The exhibition’s content has been drawn from a number of university libraries and private collections, as well as the Swiss state-supported museum of utopia known as the Maison d’Ailleurs (House of Elsewhere). Many of these objects have never before been exhibited in the United States.
The “world of tomorrow” has usually been imagined first and foremost as a place—the new Promised Land, the millennial landscape. And architecture, cast since the Enlightenment as the calling card for cultural and technological “periods” in the “grand narrative” of human development and progress, is one of the future’s most revealing and recognizable features. The exhibition’s collection of past architectural visions has been divided into three categories, each highlighting a different motive or guiding principle in the crafting of future worlds. First are imaginary places designed to articulate and support political reform schemes, such as Robert Owen’s early-Victorian industrial paradise of New Harmony, brought to life in highly detailed drawings he published to advocate a new world order framed by garden-filled Gothic factories-for-living. The second group of futuristic visions consists of exotic locales crafted to make money on the open market by functioning as amusing and/or inspiring distractions, such as early-twentieth century pulp magazines or utopian romance novels. The final category of past visions is made up of futuristic cityscapes constructed to lend the prestige and promise of “the future” to personalities, products, and corporations by cleverly (and often beautifully) drawn lines of association, such as Syd Mead’s 1969 “Portfolio of Probabilities” commissioned by United States Steel. Considered together, the different “futuristic” codes created and deployed in these different categories of vision are revealed not as truly “forward-looking” glimpses of “modernity,” but rather as artifacts of the past that have been aesthetically formed and have acquired meaning in historical processes of their own.
The final portion of the exhibition is dedicated to contemporary visions of the future, chosen or commissioned for their makers’ ability to continue the critical conversation about the “world of tomorrow.” A number of the participants offer futuristic design paradigms that openly defy some of the most persistent dogmas of progressive Modernism, while others take the conceptual processes of technological evolution to their furthest extremes. All of them call into question those aspects of “the future” that have been, and often still are, taken for granted. Artists such as Pippi Zornoza, Jane Masters, and Brian Knep, all based in New England, have created large installations that are architectural in their scope as well as their content. Others such as Swiss artist Christian Waldvogel and the urban design firm DPZ are showing works resulting from years of study and refinement in sites around the world.
Spanning the gap between past visions and contemporary concepts of the future is a new drawing by illustrator Katherine Roy. It depicts the wonderful but deeply troubled city of “Industria,” a radiant urban landscape described in the largely forgotten 1884 novel Ignis by Comte Didier de Chousy. A fevered, delirious paradise, it is the stage for a satirical tragic comedy of utopian proportions, and Roy’s illustration speaks on multiple levels to the past and ongoing cultural processes that may be said to “build expectation.”