The following interview was conducted by Saba Salekfard and Christopher Pin, In conversation with Liam Young.
SS: How and why does your storytelling begin with world building? You’ve mentioned spatial forms of storytelling, and I was wondering if you could talk about the way that’s different from, for example, the way filmmaking is approached, which starts with scripts or character arcs.
LY: All architecture is a form of fiction making. Sometimes those stories get framed through the structures of the physical building and sometimes they become the landscapes of video games, or the 24 fps of an unfolding sequence of space in a film. So I still think of my fiction practice as an architectural practice. What that looks like in the context of the entertainment industry or in the context of film is what we call practices of world building. You’ll develop the environment, the world, the setting, the space of a narrative at the beginning point, as opposed to a traditional film that might begin with a script or a character. To construct our stories we develop a world first, populate that world with inhabitants, and then role play a whole bunch of scenarios. This produced a whole bunch of interesting characters that emerge within that story as a way to describe what that world is doing. This is really a spatial and architectural process of getting to a narrative as opposed to endless drafts of scripts. So the beginning point of our fictions lies within the narrative context that we are most interested in. How does that narrative context, as an alternative world, help us to understand the world that we are in, in new ways? Is it a projected future? Is it a counterfactual present? Does it become a process of imagining the world as it is, but just dialing the volume up on one specific thing? We then construct a world as a way of critiquing and thinking about the current world that we occupy. That narrative context is really a vessel for a series of architectural and urban ideas about who we are and the cities that we occupy. The fiction then becomes the most efficient way to disseminate those architectural ideas to the broadest audience possible. Ultimately, I gravitated towards this process of world building and storytelling because I thought the ideas that we talked about as architects are really important, and I was endlessly frustrated by the way that we are continually satisfied by putting those ideas within the most extraordinarily niche mediums. Architecture books might sit in a few rarefied bookshops, or on a few hundred student desks. Lectures at a school like Yale are given to a bunch of other architects, and architecture students. World building is a process to me where I can crystallize a set of architectural and urban ideas in a fictional space, but I can use the mediums of fiction to disseminate those ideas to audiences that would sit outside of the disciplinary audiences that we typically talk to. If we value what we do, it is our responsibility to find forms through which a broader public can engage with that. So, it’s an architectural project that we’re working on, and fiction becomes the conduit through which we launch those projects into the world in such a way that they might find traction.
CP: Our fetishization over niche mediums is tough to square with the importance of these ideas. Do you then see your work as dealing with a different aesthetic toolkit entirely? The techniques in your toolkit are much more aesthetically grounded than a more traditional built architecture, which occupies our lived experience through sheer existence.
LY: We train for five or seven years in order to understand and develop a literacy with the language of drawings, like plans, sections, diagrams. They’re an extraordinarily coded language that people without that training don’t really have access to. It’s an extraordinary privilege to be able to understand the drawing in those terms. If we continue to code within those mediums, the critical ideas about our world that affect everyone else in it stay in that disciplinary language of the drawing. This is desperately problematic and inaccessible, and it continues the same systems of privilege. We’re interested in the way all of us have a literacy in stories: we laugh and cry in front of the TV, or in a dark movie theater; we fall asleep in the pages of a novel; we read stories when we’re young. It’s really how our culture has shared and disseminated ideas, and we co-opt those mediums of fiction, or the mediums of popular culture, and encode within them trojan horses that hold architectural and urban ideas.
CP: To do this, you have to rely on specific registers of realism. There’s a whole host of techniques that you use, be it analogy in the scripts that you read, the way that you use live performance, with your voice, to create a spectacle, or the quick cuts between geological footage and animated clips. The necessity for you to continue to play with this skill set is different from most architects, who use the built world as a crutch. How do you develop this craft?
LY: We’re trying to explore ways that we can connect people to complex ideas. With our science fiction films we will often lean into tropes, a sort of a shared language through which we typically represent the future. A lot of times the architectural discipline or the art world, in a traditional sense, use “accessible” as a kind of derogatory term. That’s another extraordinary position of privilege. So, we use the visual language of Hollywood because it becomes a shorthand through which we understand futureness. We know we’re looking at a science fiction speculation because it looks a certain way. The software and CG tools that we use produce a certain type of image, and for us that’s valuable because that accessibility means that we are potentially engaging people that wouldn’t otherwise be part of the discourse. I do the same with language. A big part of what I do in my live cinema performances is that I narrate the work through a very literary lens. I look a lot at some of the romantic poets, or the Beat movement, and I would bring to a condition like the planetary logistics network, a language historically associated with daffodils or wandering clouds. I’m interested in the voice that Kerouac might have if he wasn’t traveling across America in an open top car, but instead was riding on board a massive container ship or wandering through a rare earth mineral mine. You can bring people into those spaces using language that’s typically not associated with them. For the most part the dominant media narratives will try to render infrastructure invisible, whereas my aesthetic practice tries to drag those conceptually peripheral territories into mainstream focus. People can start to relate to them in new ways. Ultimately, there is no periphery. There is no mythical outside where we dig up stuff and then refine it and turn it into the goods that we all own. We exist in this planetary scale urban context and either landscape is conditioned by that urban context already, or it produces that urban context. Everything is part of this one discontinuous planetary mega-structure and our practices of fiction are trying to render that legible and as an important part of our lives, because ultimately it is.
SS: Is there something about specific clients or projects that you choose to take on that gives you more leverage in creating counter narratives, and creating agency.
LY: A way to explore both of those questions is to talk about the way that a project emerges. Whether it’s a distant sci-fi speculation or a documentary project, all our work begins with licking our finger and putting it up into the breeze and seeing which way the wind is blowing. We’re trying to capture the zeitgeist. What is part of the contemporary discourse, the frustration, or the hope of the present moment? What part of that might we be able to contribute to in some form? Our fictional work begins with a deep engagement of the present, what we call signal scanning, where we look out and try to identify the current trends, the weak signals of possible futures that are out there. Then we’ll get on a plane and we’ll go and investigate. For the most part, that means a practice of really aggressive listening, trying to reverse the tradition of architects going to a place, hanging out for two days, thinking they can solve the problems of that place by going back to the studio and making a building. It becomes just a continuation of the colonial project and isn’t helpful in any sense. We will go out to a context, and try to engage and listen to the people that have been devoting their lives to that place, documenting and capturing those stories with our own platforms. So, a lot of our work will begin with documentary engagement. An extension of this process involves understanding the future as part of contemporary discourse; we’re being sold futures every moment of every day. Those futures come with a whole lot of self interest, crafted by people that have a vested interest in enacting those particular futures, because, generally, they can profit from them in some form. Constructing counter narratives is really about exploring and narrating and visualizing alternative futures, so that we can see it’s not all set in motion; that there are alternatives which are possible, other worlds which may be enacted if we choose to do so. By potentially laying out this whole landscape of possibilities in front of us, we can start to be more informed and active participants in instigating the futures that we want to be a part of, as opposed to passively strolling into the futures that we are being sold. I use the analogy that the landscape ahead of us is this dark and shadowy territory, and that each one of these stories becomes a torch light that illuminates one particular path, or part of that landscape in front of us. The more torches we shine, the more of that landscape becomes illuminated and the easier it is to navigate from one side to the other. A singular future is not productive because it doesn’t actually illuminate any of that landscape at all; we need to think about both the cautionary tales and the aspirational utopias as a means to figure out how we get there.
Liam Young is a speculative architect and director who operates in the spaces between design, fiction and futures. He is cofounder of Tomorrows Thoughts Today, an urban futures think tank, and Unknown Fields, a nomadic research studio.