The "Another Generosity" display, designed by Lundén Architecture Company in collaboration with Bergent, BuroHappold Engineering, and Aalto University
Juan Arce, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art The "Another Generosity" display, designed by Lundén Architecture Company in collaboration with Bergent, BuroHappold Engineering, and Aalto University

Design for Different Futures, a traveling exhibition organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Art Institute of Chicago (it runs through March 8 in Philadelphia and opens in Minneapolis on September 12), is one of the best compendia of utopian thinking I have seen in a long time. That also means that, like all good utopias, it evokes nostalgia and dread as much as it inspires us to dream of a better future. For all of its promise of better and more affordable mobility devices, from different sorts of vehicles to tools for people with disabilities, the enhancement of the human body and its abilities, the opening of identities towards more fluid social persona, alternatives to the depletion of natural resources, and the development of communities that are inclusive and empowering, it seems as much an elegy for the human body and the planet as a celebration of what is possible.

It also shows that utopias aren’t what they used to be. As we dream of a more perfect world, out there in both time and place (in the future, on another planet, or in an alternate reality), we delay developing tactics for responding to the pressing issues of today. On the other hand, in the laboratory of the atelier, we can develop images and forms about utopia—fictional fragments, exploratory drawings, and probes into the possible—that can open up possibilities in the present.

Installation view, including "Seated Design: Sleeves and Shirt" by Lucy Jones and the TiLite Wheelchair for FFORA Attachment System by Numotion
Juan Arce, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Installation view, including "Seated Design: Sleeves and Shirt" by Lucy Jones and the TiLite Wheelchair for FFORA Attachment System by Numotion
"Svalbard Global Seed Vault," designed by Peter W. Søderman and Barlindhaug Consulting
USDA Agricultural Research Service, National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation and Global Crop Diversity Trust, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art "Svalbard Global Seed Vault," designed by Peter W. Søderman and Barlindhaug Consulting

What Design for Different Futures seems to cast most in doubt about both our own future and that of design is the object—whether it is our body, our planet, or the designed artifact that connects the two. Part of the problem, as the essays and interviews that give the accompanying catalog its coffee table book-weight make clear, stems from our realization that the object itself is a construct—an accident of perspective, interpretation, and consensual hallucination. Science and philosophy have reached a point where almost all of us realize the fictional nature of both the artifact’s and the human object’s coherence, even if we continue to regard them as tools, containers, and mechanisms.

Design for Different Futures is as its best when it evokes the disappearance of our bodies and our desire to reconnect through, with, or beyond them. Whether it is Neri Oxman’s death masks, Vespers III, which feature microorganisms that keep growing after the death of the person memorialized, coloring the masks; Andre Jacque’s multimedia installation depicting Grindr as the creator of an alternate community (Intimate Strangers); or the romantic village building proposed by Francis Kéré, Hon. FAIA, and Alejandro Aravena—these displays come across as elegies for what is lost. There is really only one true utopia I could find in the exhibition: Sean Thomas Allen’s Platinum City, an “organic computer where biological and mechanical processes work in concert to form an adaptive, eve-changing urban fabric without the need for human labor or intervention.” Though it's unclear where I or any other human would exist on that planet.

"Vespers III," designed by Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group at MIT Media Lab
Joseph Hu, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art "Vespers III," designed by Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group at MIT Media Lab
The PhoeniX Exoskeleton, designed by Homayoon Kazerooni for SuitX
SuitX, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art The PhoeniX Exoskeleton, designed by Homayoon Kazerooni for SuitX
"Another Generosity," designed by Eero Lundén, Ron Aasholm, and Carmen Lee of Lundén Architecture Company in collaboration with Bergent, BuroHappold Engineering, and Aalto University
Joseph Hu, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art "Another Generosity," designed by Eero Lundén, Ron Aasholm, and Carmen Lee of Lundén Architecture Company in collaboration with Bergent, BuroHappold Engineering, and Aalto University

Many of the other objects, by boosting, abstracting, and extending our bodies, continue the work of Modernism. We can clothe ourselves in Iris Herpen’s computer-aided ruffles, waves, and snaky body appendages or overcome our physical disabilities with Homayoon Kazerooni’s and SuitX’s exoskeletons; we can turn the containers we inhabit and where we work into pods, such as the one presented by Lundén Architecture (Another Generosity, already presented at the Venice Biennale in 2018), and we can imagine landscapes that will be both more functional and more beautiful (although agriculture is the weak point in the exhibition). But, as we do so, we’re confronted with the imperfect, the dead or dying, and the disappearing anchor in the world we thought we knew or imagined we were.

The problem is that the exhibition does not really offer us something tangible to grasp or hope for. The future is slippery in Designs for Different Futures; it appears without any concrete and humanly inhabitable contours.

"Alien Nation: Parade 0," designed by Lisa Hartje Moura
Head-Genève and Michel Giesbrecht, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art "Alien Nation: Parade 0," designed by Lisa Hartje Moura
"Raising Robotic Natives," by Stephen Bogner, Philipp Schmitt, and Jonas Voigt
Stephan Bogner, Philipp Schmitt, and Jonas Voigt, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art "Raising Robotic Natives," by Stephen Bogner, Philipp Schmitt, and Jonas Voigt

This is, of course, is not necessarily bad—it illustrates the integration of design into the current project of figuring out who we are, and where we might be going. It just makes it difficult to put your finger on what might be pertinent for designers, what our skills, knowledge, and social networks might let us achieve. I found myself gravitating to things I could hold onto, even if they were not objects: Alice Potts' speculation on making sweat tangible, presented as crystals on worn ballet shoes; Forensic Architecture’s now familiar attempts to make visible the violence state agents work so hard to hide; or Liam Young’s In the Robot Skies, an elegiac video of two people on lockdown in housing projects of the future trying to communicate with drones. The last two examples showcase the best of traditional design, or at least some version that combines functionality, composition, visual representation, communication, and technological invention, to tasks that make us see and understand both our future and what is already happening with our implicit consent.

"Perspire," designed by Alice Potts
Joseph Hu, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art "Perspire," designed by Alice Potts
"Driver Less Vision," designed by Urtzi Grau, Guillermo Fernández-Abascal, Daniel Perlin, Max Lauter, and Make_Good
Joseph Hu, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art "Driver Less Vision," designed by Urtzi Grau, Guillermo Fernández-Abascal, Daniel Perlin, Max Lauter, and Make_Good
"Cricket Shelter: Modular Edible Insect Farm," designed by Mitchell Joachim
Mitchell Joachim of Terreform ONE, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art "Cricket Shelter: Modular Edible Insect Farm," designed by Mitchell Joachim

What we can see and hold onto, in other words, is not pretty. I mean that in both senses: very few of the images and forms on display answer to conventional notions of beauty or even design elegance (Leonardo Mariano Gomes’s sex toys might be the most remarkable exception), and the future depicted by those exhibits does not look particularly appealing or promising.

Yet, strangely enough, there is a joyfulness about Designs for Different Futures that belies its message and much of its content. It has the whiz-bang exuberance in investigation and invention that, when I visited the exhibition on a Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, obviously delighted not only adults, but also kids. At first glance, the show works like an avant-garde science fair, and that might not be so bad. I just hope that somehow, somewhere, and sometime soon designers come up with another take on the future that is less dystopian than the one lurking below the shifting forms of this particular exhibition.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.