What, exactly, does architecture have to say about this wild and surreal election season? The default answer for just about any year is usually: Not much. And that’s a problem Julia van den Hout (of Original Copy) and her fellow curators Kyle May and Kevin Erickson aimed to fix with 5x5. The exhibit invited 25 young design firms to tackle one of five prompts each; some fictional, some real, and all deeply engaged with the economic and cultural forces that wander into the voting booth with each citizen’s decision to pull the lever. There were: “community branches” for the NSA; Donald Trump’s heartily promised Mexican border wall; “droneports” and drone warehouses for Jeff Bezos’s inevitable future of omnipotent convenience; lunar vacation resorts; and the rise of pencil-thin luxury towers as investment havens for the ultra-rich.
This call for participatory criticism aimed to eject architecture from the arcane, avant-garde discourse it usually defaults to when things get a little too chummy and myopic, while keeping some sense of its vision subtly intact. The exhibition requirements kept things concise and approachable: one model per team, with only 100 words of text.
The prompts were met earnestly, with projects such as co-curator Kevin Erickson’s plan for drone “doggy doors” that use rooftop stairwells as entry points for deliveries. They were also met satirically: Future Expansion’s Trump Wall entry drapes the border-long barrier in the Statute of Liberty’s dress. And this opposition illustrated architecture’s dual ability to be a pragmatic tool as well as a detached prognosticator.
But the best entries did both at the same time: Spekulatius by Ultramoderne envisioned a future where the environment was so degraded and the required carbon offsets so expensive that the only mega-high-rises that would make financial sense were uninhabitable monolithic blocks of carbon-sequestering wood, with just enough space cut out for observation towers. It’s both comedy and tragedy, just like the 2016 elections.
5x5: Participatory Provocations was exhibited at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Temple Hoyne Buell Hall Gallery from Feb. 15 to March 4.