The Why Factory: Daring to Dream
Is the future dead? That might be a good question for the beginning of the 21st-century’s second decade. The beginning of the millennium released a lot of millenary hopes—and fears—that were quickly dashed by the bursting of the dot-com bubble and then the succession of crises and disasters that culminated with the stock market crash of 2008. What is perhaps more important, however, is that we have replaced utopian or dystopian dreaming with scenario planning, in which statistics and computer modeling have measured out and suppressed the dreamy visions of the past. Planning, which since the era before World War II has taken over the construction of anything new, from a business to a building, has now completely colonized the future.
It is for that reason that the Technical University of Delft’s division The Why Factory’s slender volume, Visionary Cities, is both a breath of fresh air and just a bit nostalgic. Coming to us with a reproduction of John Martin’s painting The Bard, in which the Moses-like figure seems to scream at the wind as an army marches along below, it is a cry from the heart, and from the core of the Dutch image factory now headed by the Why Factory’s director, Winy Maas of MVRDV. (Full disclosure: I am currently working on my Ph.D. from this University, and I used to be on Board of NAI Publishers, who brought out this book).
“What is a vision?” Maas asks, and answers: “A vision is, in a way, what happens between a question mark and a proposal. It asks the big questions and then paints an image for the future with its answer. More importantly [sic], it is a dream of the city and for its spatial translation that offers a long-term, cohesive, seductive, and strong perspective for future societies. It is part curiosity, part exploration, part fantasy, and part real problem solving. The role of the visionary is to guide, and direct and summarize the course for this increasingly urban world.”
It is both a clear definition and an insanely romantic one. I have to say that it is one I share, however unrealistic it might be.
Maas goes on to call for vision in 12 areas: We need to go from dreaming alone for the dream house in which we close ourselves off, to come up with a collective dream; instead of building competing icons, we need to build a global one (the picture is of a collage satellite); we need to counter escapist tourism with productive and sustainable leisure (gardening); we need to value vision at an urban scale, not just at the scale of small houses or products; we need to rise above our process orientation by making process into the subject (a very MVRDV idea); we need to replace caution with deliberate action; we need to exploit the voids left by the financial crisis (though it is not clear how); we need to replace faddish green products and tactics with big ideas about being truly green; we need to design for the poor without designing poorly; we need to develop a better balance between preservation and the will to build the new; instead of everything retro, there should be room for something truly better and innovative; we need to reclaim scifi from video games for architecture.
I have here paraphrased the points, but the book is in fact both extremely succinct and vague, from the sloganlike phrases that stand in for paragraphs of text to the close-up photographs of student models that illustrate each of the dozen visions. It also moves between the obvious and the impossible, and between the common-sense and the impractical. What I like about the visions is that they remind us of the value of envisioning a better world, and how that task used to be, and should be again, central to architecture. I disagree with Maas that it all needs to be big, I am not sure that gardening is really an alternative to sunning one’s self, and I certainly do not think we need or could have a global icon orbiting around us night and day. But we do need to use the particular skills architects have to understand data, physical conditions, and human activities, and then translate them into coherent and useful form, to contribute to a shared vision of what our world should be. I hope the Why Factory will keep churning out their prototypes and models. Most of them will be discarded on the dust heap of history, but if at least one of them leads to even a small victory over darkness, despair, self-destruction, alienation, and poverty of both body and spirit, it will have been worth it.
So here’s a good decade resolution for all architects: Build a vision.
P.S. Several alert readers have pointed out that the illustration of the article on Fumihiko Maki's AIA Gold Medal showed the James Steward Polshek-designed Yerba Buena Theater, not the adjacent Arts Center Maki designed. We apologize for the mix-up.