Beyond Buildings


Photoshop Future

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Courtesy of Next Nature


“We live in a time in which the ‘made’ and the ‘born’ are fusing.” That is the central thesis of Next Nature ($32; Actar, Feb. 2012), a collection of images, manifestos, and thought experiments edited by Koert van Mensvoort and Hendrik-Jan Grievink. With little regards for current limits on technology or production, the authors propose the fusion of nature and human-made forms. They do so with a critical purpose, believing that this synthesis will set us free into a playful universe that respects our resources and offers alternatives to brands and wasteful products (the book records what is going on at their website, Next Nature). They also do it with a fair amount of fun.

Their proposals are concrete, or at least have clear images and ideas.  Sometimes, as in “Antropomorphism and Product Design: Eleven Golden Rules,” they are guidelines for how to design (everybody thinks of body images differently, though there are certain basics, and you shouldn’t try to make everything look like a face), in other cases they extrapolate from current trends to modify the body to fantasize about feet with high heels extending out from their base.

Courtesy of Next Nature

Underlying their proposals are several ideas about where both technology and society are heading –notions that seem to me fairly straightforward.  We are learning to design at a molecular and genetic level.  We have already modified crops and bodies, vegetables and building materials.  It seems as if it will only be a bit of time before we will begin to replace accretional, mechanism-based production with forms of making in which elements grow from each other based on a pattern we design and imprint.


Courtesy of Next Nature

On a social level, the dissolution of standards mechanisms of production and, by extension distribution and consumption, as well as the instant connectivity afforded by modern computing and communication technologies, would seem to open the way to a new kind of tribal society in which we combine with those with our own DNA, lusts, or musical tastes and wander a connectivity-enabled globe, foraging for sustenance and opportunities.

Mensvoort and Grievink show us as new primitives, but also as neo-hippies re-inhabiting the ruins of Dilbertland. The “noosphere,” as opposed to the geosphere and biosphere of Mother Earth, will shelter us. This will not be a new Eden: the editors warn us that we will embedded with nature, that Big Brother (or Sister) may always be watching, and we might as well just turn into mindless fragments of the new technology-nature continuum. They want “new technology that improves the human condition and realizes the dreams people have of themselves,’ but also warn that “we are living in the future and we find it pretty boring.”

The task of designers is to make the more optimistic dreams come true and provide means of connection. Ironically, some of the most convincing images they present are those that continue the current trend of making technology seem more familiar: they cite the virtual bookshelves that look like the real thing and the iPhones with dials. They call it “progressive nostalgia,” and my favorite example is Mike Thompson’s “Wi-Fi dowsing rod.” Even Gaudi has a place in this row of examples.

Courtesy of Next Nature

I first encountered this whole project as the Nano Supermarket, an installation traveling around Europe that shows mock-ups for some of these ideas in the kind of caravan that used to serve as a mobile supermarket for rural communities. They served me wine they said was embedded with nanospheres that, depending on how long you microwaved the bottle (horrors!), would be either a light Pinot or a heavy Merlot.

It was all an act and reminded me that there is a difference between Photoshopping the future and actually making it. I am pretty sure that I will live in a world of a different design than Mensvoort and Grievink envision, but the hopes and nightmares they present are as good a guideline for designers seeking their way as any past forms.  




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.