Beginning in 2010, the Hypothetical Development Organization, founded by G.K. Darby, Ellen Susan and me, set out to recognize, and expand upon, a form of urban storytelling. It works like this:
First, we identify a suitable building: Something that appears neglected, and seems to have no immediate prospects for a future use. In short, we choose an unpopular place. Next we devise a hypothetical future for that structure. Specifically, we strive to make this future blatantly implausible: maybe provocative, maybe funny; above all engaging. Then an artist creates a rendering based on the imaginary concept. This is printed onto a 3′ x 5′ sign, modeled on those used by real developers. That sign, finally, goes onto the building.
In December 2010, our stories began to appear around New Orleans. By March of 2011 we had presented ten of them to the public at large. This effort concluded with a display of duplicates of each of the HDO’s initial creations at an art gallery in New Orleans. The project was realized thanks to the efforts of an astonishing crew of contributing artists, with the financial support of far-flung strangers.
Strictly speaking, nothing more need be said. But my purpose here is to tell the stories behind these stories, because this project raised a number of questions among those who have come into contact with it. In some instances the answers are interesting.
Here, then, is an account, and an explanation, of this enterprise, its history, and its aims.
It Started Like This
One day I went for a routine walk. My wife and I live in Savannah, GA, in an area that’s mostly residential, but interspersed with commercial and public buildings. It’s a nice stroll to an excellent bakery, my bank, a convenience store, the main branch of the public library.
Our neighborhood is the sort that people describe as “transitional,” and some of the property, both residential and commercial, is vacant. On one nearby commercial structure, vacant for the four-plus years we’ve lived in the area, I noticed a sign during this particular walk. You’ve seen similar signs, and I’d seen this one probably a hundred times, without ever really thinking about it. It was a rendering of a development, a future, involving a small, empty building. It suddenly struck me that, given how long this sign has been here, what it depicted was, at best, a hypothetical future — and arguably a fictitious one.
Since whenever this sign was first posted, the real estate market has collapsed, the old go-go economy has evaporated, and as it happens this building has been put up for sale. Any development that may take place some day would depend on someone buying it, and on what that party might want to do. Until then, it’s just another empty building that happens to have a sign on it. The disparity between the rendering and reality is considerable: In the rendering, in fact, the actual extant structure has been folded into a much bigger building, which in point of fact exists nowhere besides that rendering. In real life, it’s a vacant lot.
It further struck me that there are vacant buildings much like this one, with no definitive future, all over town — all over lots of towns. In a sense, then, our city streets are full of fiction, or something very much like it. The stories, mostly visual, are told in the form of colorful signs attached to drab or neglected structures, presenting speculations about how the very same physical place might look in some unspecified future. The abandoned office tower could house airy condos. The long-shuttered auto shop might morph into a gleaming boutique. The factory built for some bankrupt enterprise will, perhaps, burst with life again, its cheery mixed uses enjoyed by stock-image people representing a cross-section of pleasant citizenry. Sometimes these ideas are punctuated by the name of a development company and its Web address. But the story flows mostly from the beguiling picture, showing what could hypothetically happen, right here.
The fact of the fiction, however, is often given away by a nearby “For Sale” sign, or the weathering visible on the rendering, or the flagrantly neglected state of the structure to which it is attached, hinting at how long ago this future was first presented to passersby. Possibly, in some more upbeat economic era, whoever spun these morning-in-America tales believed them. We cannot say, because that time has passed. Only the tales remain.
That somewhat gloomy line of thought led me to consider all the neglected buildings, in my town and others, that lack such signs: Evidently no one can even dream up a hypothetical future for these decidedly unpopular places. Rather sad, no? I thought so, and had an idea: Wouldn’t it be cool to create completely fictional, but imaginative and exciting “renderings” of their hypothetical futures, too? I was thinking of Claes Oldenberg and his drawings such as “Study for Feasible Monument: Lipstick.” (I should underscore that it was his drawings I was thinking of. I always found them, and maybe the use of the word “feasible,” more interesting than the structures that he has actually managed to get built in real life — as the Lipstick Monument was, in 1969.) What if renderings with a similarly absurd and amusing spirit were posted on the actual vacant buildings?
Frankly, I wanted someone else to take on this task, because I assumed it would be pretty hard to pull it off. But Ellen Susan (that’s my wife) and G.K. Darby, a friend of ours in New Orleans, convinced me that we should do it.
But before I go any further about our project, I’d like to take a detour to address the notion of “architecture fiction.” This is something I had never heard of when I took that walk. But it is a wonderful genre, and I believe The Hypothetical Development Organization fits into it — and makes a pleasing contribution to it, too.
Definitions of the term seem to vary, but the coinage belongs to Bruce Sterling. He introduced it in 2006, after reading an imaginative and insightful essay by J.G. Ballard, published in The Guardian, about modernist architecture. “Now there’s some top-end sci-fi architecture criticism,” Sterling observed, adding this thought: “It’s entirely possible to write ‘architecture fiction‘ instead of ‘science fiction.’ Like, say, Archigram did in the 60s.”
Archigram came to life as an “architecture telegram” (a publication, basically) put together by a group of young architects in London in 1961. Its contributors specialized in hypothetical projects. In their publications, the architects involved, including Peter Cook and Ron Herron among others, would propose fantastic schemes for completely re-imagining buildings and urban spaces, which they would illustrate in equally fantastic styles. Cook’s Plug-In City was not made up of buildings, but was a single structure with standardized cells that could be fitted in or removed, here and there — the structure, the city, was meant to be in charge of the people, rather than the other way around. Herron’s Walking City, a cluster of urban-ness mounted on four legs, was said to be an extension of Le Corbusier’s dictum that a house is a “machine for living in.” In 1963 there was a big Archigram show called “Living Cities” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and since then the group’s work has remained highly influential in certain quarters of the architecture world.
Maybe one can say that “architecture fiction” refers to stories inspired by, or imposed upon, buildings and the built environment. And since Sterling cites Archigram, I take him to mean that those buildings or environments don’t have to be real, and the stories don’t have to be a series of words: They can exist as plans, schematics, models, renderings.
If Archigram is the core historical reference point for the idea of architecture fiction, then the core contemporary reference point, and resource, is BLDG BLOG, the popular website run by Geoff Manaugh, a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. Mark Dery has called him “the acknowledged auteur of architecture fiction,” adding: “On BLDG BLOG, Manaugh reads our built — and unbuilt — environments like a cultural radiologist, scanning them for evidence of social pathologies, symptoms of the post-apocalyptic.” As it happens, Manaugh was actually auditing a class about Archigram, and reading a lot of J.G. Ballard, in 2004, when he started his site.
A book based on BLDG BLOG was published in 2009, collecting some of the “architectural conjecture and urban speculation” that Manaugh is interested in, and writes about so well. “Architecture will always involve telling stories — it is as much fiction as it is engineering and materials science,” he writes in The BLDGBLOG Book‘s introduction. That belief guides an extremely expansive and imaginative notion of what architecture is, even when it exists in novels and video games and other non-physical places.
Suffice it to say I was soon obsessed with collecting examples of what may or may not qualify as architecture fiction. I’ll mention just a few. For starters: “Warsaw’s Polonia Hotel: The Afterlife of Buildings” was part of the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2008. The curators presented photographs of six recent acclaimed architectural projects in Poland, along with collages that depicted how those buildings might look after a “major transformation.” One office building created by a prestigious firm was, for instance, depicted as it could appear in the wake of a real-estate market and broader economic collapse. Specifically, it was depicted as a prison. (Apparently the building has an inner courtyard, which could work as an exercise yard with panopticon-style surveillance.)
BLDG BLOG described Canadian artist Carl Zimmerman’s beautiful visions of “fictional ruins from fictional worlds” (such as a 2003 series called “Landmarks of Industrial Britain”) as “a photographic series of fictional public buildings derived from small scale architectural maquettes.” Zimmerman has said that his work addresses “the apparent willingness of the viewer to accept a fabricated past.” Ioana Iliesiu explained the fictitious “The Ruins of Twitter” as “a monument of the Death of The Internet. … In the server dome, tweets are recited by a mechanical voice — in real time. The server hangs, creaking, from a pulley system, hovering over an interior salt water lake.” Images created for the Swiss Architectural magazine Hochparterre showed purported “architectural misprints” or “misplots“: Imagine a future process for essentially printing a house in three dimensions, to the buyer’s specs — but sometimes the printer misreads the data parameters, and so the house comes out as a strange and uninhabitable blob.
Taking such thinking into the realm of the latest mobile devices, designers Irene Cheng and Brett Snyder created an app called Museum of the Phantom City, exploiting global-positioning system and augmented reality technologies. The latter layers information or images over whatever you see when you peer through your smartphone at the world around you. In this case, you get images of and information about proposed utopian projects in New York City that never came to pass.
Other examples of what might be considered architecture fiction have unfolded in reality — and have been designed, on some level, to influence reality. For example, a 2000 installation by an outfit called Heavy Trash involved eight “Coming Soon” signs installed over a 15-mile stretch of Los Angeles, announcing a new subway line that would connect downtown to the west side. This was fiction, intended to provoke discussion of the need for fresh solutions to the city’s notorious transit problems.
In San Francisco, artists Packard Jennings and Steve Lambert interviewed local architects and city planers and transportation experts, asking: “What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about budgets, bureaucracy, politics, or physics?” Based on the answers they created illustrations printed in a series of six posters, 6’ x 4’, which were installed in bus shelters. (This was funded and sanctioned by the San Francisco Art Commission.)
Finally, Stuart Candy offers the intriguing framework of “Found Futures.” In one of his projects, from 2007, he and his collaborators imagined what might transpire in Honolulu if that city were “ground zero of a new influenza epidemic” that occurred in 2016. They created a number of posters and signs and objects designed to reflect their speculations, and put them up around Honolulu’s Chinatown. A bronze plaque, for example, offered “testimony to the resilient response of the community to a hypothetical tragedy that would not occur for another ten years.” There were also advertisements for new businesses that could spring up in the post-pandemic environment, plus official government notices. This was part of a broader effort to spark debate about the real future of Honolulu’s Chinatown. Candy borrowed a term from Australia-based futurist Jose Ramoshe, calling this version of architecture fiction “future jamming.”
Once I became aware of (and rather entranced by) architecture fiction, it was tempting to plumb the genre to reverse-engineer a highfalutin’ theoretical grounding for the Hypothetical Development Organization. But as wonderful as I found these projects, I knew that this strategy was misguided. Our project’s actual inspiration was embarrassingly mundane: those dull real-world development signs. And I think this origin ought to be examined, not ignored.
After all, the original idea was that such signs are, essentially, stories. It follows, then, that they are form of architecture fiction, too. Admittedly, commercial real estate signs are not a particularly literary sort of fiction, but this sub-genre does have its own traditions and mores. Its practitioners exercise what we might consider a tentative form of realism: After all, their stories should be plausible enough to, ideally, attract capital. Thus certain rules and strictures — relating to commercial potential, practical materials and the laws of physics — must be observed. This of course is why current manifestations of the genre tend to be so god-awful boring. And, as time goes on and the failure to have attracted capital becomes more pronounced, these tales tend also to be dispiriting. Or possibly just ridiculous. And that in turn is precisely why this is the set of storytelling tropes, the grammar, that the Hypothetical Development Organization borrowed.
Meanwhile, around the time that the Hypothetical Development Organization got underway in earnest — choosing our first set of buildings, devising our stories, recruiting artists to render them — I encountered what I now believe is yet another architecture fiction sub-genre. Actually, as with those commercial development sings, it was a form I’d seen before, without properly considering it.
I happened to find myself contemplating an image, on the website of an architecture firm, depicting a proposed public space project in Memphis. Created as a competition entry, this rendering aspired to represent a future reality (for the people of Memphis, and naturally for the architecture firm that devised it). But it lost the competition. This, then, is an example of a story told not on a building, but in a portfolio or exhibition: Proposed structures and projects that no one is going to build, ever, and everybody knows it.
In this variety of architecture fiction, the plots all resolve in similar ways. A competition about “design solutions” for redesigning the suburbs, for instance, yields a depiction of a rezoned “Entrepreneurbia,” which would turn residential neighborhoods into “innovation incubators.” A parking garage would get converted into a bike storage facility; a supermarket would be transformed into a “sustainable community complex,” which also includes shops and “adaptable housing for active senior citizens.” Here in Savannah, there is much talk of revitalizing a strip of Martin Luther King Boulevard that was ruined by a highway overpass years ago. So we’re regularly treated to stories of its future in the form of renderings printed in the local paper, imagining a new and pedestrian-friendly reinvention of the place (somehow including hundred-year-old oak trees).
In short, these are examples of the most blatantly optimistic form of architecture fiction: the blue-sky proposal, the suggestion of what ought be done, etc., given rhetorical oomph by way of a snazzy rendering. These stories never trouble or disturb. They aim to comfort.
Perhaps the most striking example I have yet encountered was from San Francisco, a story told not merely in a rendering, but in a video variation of the form, explaining how geospatial analysis would be used to reclaim city-owned but neglected sites, parcels that add up to an “archipelago of opportunity.” The story offered the conjecture that “using parametric design” and “optimizing thermal and hydrological performance to enhance the whole city’s ecology,” the project could tap into “citizen participation to conceive a new, more public infrastructure — a robust network of urban greenways with tangible benefits to the health and safety of every citizen.”
I encountered this tale by way of a blog, where someone left a comment expressing pointed skepticism about a particular passage in the video. The passage showed an “empty side street transformed into a green space that is then magically populated with people (young hipster-ish looking silhouettes, no less),” this person wrote. “If this is a side street somewhere in the industrial part of SF, where are those people coming from?”
That commenter was of course being a sourpuss. Come now: It’s just a story!
I certainly don’t mean to mock or criticize such efforts. Still, as with commercial development signage, it makes sense to consider them as forms of fiction. And here I am forced to conclude that this genre tends to be implausible in a way that is not very entertaining. To the contrary, it’s often fairly preachy. Moreover, by presenting itself as something that really should come true, but almost certainly won’t, this form tends to leave its audience with a general sense of disappointment. H.D.O. did not set out to do so, but perhaps we have performed the critic-like function of revealing these other forms of architecture fiction. Our actual goal, however, was different.
“Real World Value”
When we set ourselves to the task of introducing a new variation of urban storytelling to the public at large, we agreed upon several parameters for our stories. We decided they must be self-contained, explicitly independent of a promise. (We were not trying to fool anybody.) They should exist in the real world. (As signage.) They should prod the viewer into a different way of seeing the genres of current architecture fiction described above. And they should be intrinsically engaging. In short we sought to present, to the public at large, a series of implausible futures for unpopular places.
Between December 2010 and March 2011, the Hypothetical Development Organization presented ten such stories to the general public, by way of signage on buildings around New Orleans. We also presented duplicates of these signs, as well as two additional hypothetical developments, at the Du Mois Gallery in that city.
Claes Oldenberg remained an influence on the hypothetical scenarios we devised, but it occurred to us later that some of our stories might show traces of our admiration for the cartoonist Ben Katchor’s imaginative city fictions. In any case, the ideas we dreamed up were improved by the artists we worked with. Many were New Orleans-based, but others contributed their talents from New York, Detroit, Portland, Richmond, VA, and elsewhere. In some cases we arrived at concepts in collaboration with other entities: notably The Center for American Placelessness (a theoretical cultural institution devoted to the synthesis of community and placemaking) and the School of Visual Arts, Masters of Professional Studies in Branding, Class of 2011.
To offset hard costs associated with the enterprise, we used Kickstarter.com to drum up $4,197 from 80 generous backers. The public appeal involved in the Kickstarter process resulted in reactions to what we intended to do, before we had actually done it. By and large, these responses were encouraging — and as a result, we were encouraged. 1 But for my purposes here, the most useful response was an email from someone who didn’t like the idea. “What does your organization hope to achieve in real world value?” someone named Glenn demanded. “The buildings you feature in New Orleans are for the greatest part not available to you (or anyone else) and are under the jurisdiction of the historic district landmarks commission. I don’t see the point.” I can’t speak to the landmarks angle, but Glenn is wholly correct that we are not in a position to actually buy and redevelop these buildings — or any buildings. That is screamingly obvious and not worth discussing. What I’m really interested in is the question: “What does your organization hope to achieve in real world value?” I have an answer for you on that one, Glenn. Stick with me.
In writing about the Jennings and Lambert project in San Francisco — the one that presented the dreams of architects and urban planners on bus shelter posters — scholar Stephen Duncombe observed: “There is no duplicity, no selling the people a false bill of goods. It’s a dream that people are aware is just a dream. Yet at the same time these impossible dreams open up spaces to imagine new possibilities. … [their] impossible solutions are means to imagine new ones.”
It is plausible that on some level the Hypothetical Development Organization’s stories might have a somewhat similar function. In another response to our efforts, Good suggested: “Perhaps this street art project could turn into authentic grassroots activism.” Perhaps. I’m certainly open to others’ interpretations of our stories, but I can’t say that I wholly accept that reading. I don’t believe you can honestly call any of our ideas “solutions.” On the other hand, nothing we offer here falls into the category of the false utopian promise. And quite a few of our stories do carry within them provocative assessments of the contemporary urban environment.
Personally, I am most inclined to agree with an assessment on another site, Aesthetics of Joy, written by Ingrid Fetell. She asserted that the project takes “germs of imagined futures and makes them visible. Juxtaposed against the forlorn emptiness of abandoned structures, these silly fantasies feel delightful — they are uninhibited manifestations of creative energy, filtered through a lens of hope. That they are implausible is their charm, but I half-hope that one of them will be compelling enough to stick.”
I like that it’s only a half-hope. It would be remarkable if some billionaire bought one of these buildings and converted it into, let’s say, a New Orleans Loitering Centre, just like the one in Mark Clayton’s rendering. Or if local residents rallied for a Mobile Cornucopia, inspired by the one Candy Chang depicts. Or if some governmental agency elected to construct the Snooze Towers pod structures, precisely as imagined for us by John Becker. Such an outcome would, indeed, be stranger than fiction. But ultimately, fiction is what the Hypothetical Development Organization has to offer. These are stories. And I do not offer that thought as an apology, an admission, or a concession. Good stories — funny, provocative, weird, or disturbing — have value in the real world.
First, these stories strike a blow for the vital habit of actually seeing the world we live in. By borrowing an overlooked form, the traditional development sign, obviously on some level we satirize it, exposing how preposterous many of these commercial stories are if you’d just stop and genuinely evaluate the situation. Certainly I’ll never look at one of those signs in the same way again. Similarly, I don’t look at — or rather overlook — neglected buildings quite so easily now. (I still walk past that vacant commercial structure that inspired all this on my routine neighborhood walks. Nothing has changed, except for the way I see it.)
Second, I don’t think a story needs to be considered a means to an end. A story is an end. And a sign on an abandoned building is as good a medium as I can think of for telling an entertaining tale. I’m pleased to say, in fact, that among those who have taken note of our enterprise is Bruce Sterling himself. He wrote on his blog: “This must be the closest thing to an architecture-fiction ‘pure play’ to have yet appeared.” I don’t pretend to speak for precisely what Sterling means, but I think “pure play” is just right, in more ways than one.
The moment that interests me most, I suppose, would be the random passerby who suddenly notices that building he or she has walked past a hundred times, just because there’s this sign on it, this arrestingly uncanny sign that tells a story that’s blatantly and intentionally absurd. I think that moment — the story, in one image, of an implausible future for an unpopular place — makes the building exist again in a new way. It changes nothing into something.
I think it makes the passerby exist in a new way, too.
So I’m happy with a double-take, I’m thrilled with a smile. Such a moment is not a call to make something happen, or a promise of something that might happen, or an exhortation that you should hope for something to happen at some point. That moment is something happening. And that’s not hypothetical at all. It’s perfectly real.