Interview with Architect Liam Young
Why are you a speculative architect? What drives you in visualizing fictional near-future scenarios?
I was originally trained as a very traditional architect. I come from Australia, where there is a real fascination with the conventional ideas of making space. For a while, I worked in that classic form of practice, before I began to see that dominant forces shaping cities were starting to exist outside the traditional domain of architecture. Cities used to be formed by permanent networks of infrastructure, roads, public spaces, buildings. But now, emerging technologies are shifting the active agents of the city beyond the physical spectrum. So, architects that define that practice around the traditional ideas of making static and physical buildings are becoming increasingly marginalized.
Speculative architectural practice is really just an attempt to stay relevant in the context of a city that is always changing. I use this type of work to think about how, as designers, we could engage with emerging technologies in a much more critical and urgent way. Traditional architecture exists at the wrong end of the technology transfer line. Technology always happens to us rather than being shaped by us. With this type of work we are speculating and acting on the potentials of technology, and being active agents in shaping the development of where it could go and what we could use it for. So, I thought that operating with networks, software, stories and fiction within other cultural forms was a timely and legitimate form of architectural practice.
So, it is a way of being up to date with the developments in architecture.
I think somehow we all want to be able to effect change at some scale. I don’t think the traditional role of architects is going to disappear, but classic architects are going to become a form of luxury item. Louis Vuitton handbags still exist in the world, they serve no real purpose, but we all kind of like to have them. And the role of architects designing crafted physical buildings is going to operate in a similar way. The architectural profession will have to diversify. A speculative architect will tell stories about possible futures, and there will be architects as politicians, urban planners, tech company executives, researchers, writers and performers. The change is just an expanding role of the discipline.
You use drones for many of your projects. Do you think drones occupy an important position in the technology of the future?
I think drones are important for a speculative architect right now, because they are at an interesting point in their technological development. They just moved from being expensive and elite militarized technologies to being utterly accessible to everybody. Last year was supposedly the Christmas of the Drone, when everyone would wake up to a toy drone under the tree. In the development of all technologies, the moment we start to see interesting things happening is generally the point where it becomes democratized and people take the technology and misuse it. Sometimes this misuse has horrific consequences but sometimes it creates the conditions for the emergence of Web 2.0, or extraordinary ways of sharing information. My role has been to take the technology and speculate on what alternative applications it could be used for, beyond its original purpose of destruction and surveillance.
How can design play a role in developing new cultural relationships with the anthropocenic world?
What I am doing with Kate Davies in our nomadic research studio Unknown Fields is travel around the world to explore the landscapes our contemporary technologies set in motion. I use the phrase “our luminous screens cast shadows that stretch across the planet”. We have spent around five or six years, traveling through those shadows, looking at the world that our technology has made for us. That includes rare earth landscapes, the mega-ports of the shipping industry, logistics infrastructure, gold mines or the lithium fields in Bolivia where our batteries are coming from. All of these vast landscapes are fundamental to the technologies we consider ephemeral or light. The cloud, MacBook Air, wireless and so on are all terms that suggest invisibility, but they are in fact massive geological instruments.