Utopia Forever - Visions of Architecture and Urbanism. An inspirational exploration of utopias and radical approaches to city planning. Edited by Robert Klanten and Lukas Feireiss (available on amazon USAand UK.)

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Publisher Gestalten writes: Whether created by established architects and artists or new talents, the examples in Utopia Forever are important catalysts for fundamental change and are radically shaping our notions of life in the future. The current projects and concepts from architecture, city planning, urbanism, and art collected here point beyond the restrictions of the factual to unleash the potential of creative visions. This inspiring work explores how current challenges for architecture, mobility, and energy as well as the logistics of food consumption and waste removal can be met. Text features by both architects and theorists give added insight.

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Amid (cero9) + Colectivo Cuartoymitad's proposal The Big Mech Co

Everything in this book is orderly and rational. Clean and clear design. Project neatly presented: title, name of the architects, envisioned location and envisioned completion date. Followed by a brief summary of the context for the project and a few paragraphs that describe its principles and the way it works.

Five themes govern the selection of projects. Great Scapes examines proposals of living in inhospitable spaces: deserts, caves, online, up in the sky, etc. As its name suggests the chapter Rising Tides is all about projects that responds to rising sea levels. Ecotopia Emerging presents projects that have distinctly (and at times, extreme) eco-conscious ideals. Technology Matters highlights the impact of innovation on the way architects envision utopia. The last section, Sky's the Limit engages with vertical architecture.

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Studio Lindfors, Aqualta

The dozens of projects presented in the volume are accompanied by six essays that vary from the pragmatic to the humorous: Dan Wood and Amale Andraos walk us briskly through architectural utopia of the 1960s and 70s while Geoff Manaugh offers a tongue-in-cheek but also remarkably spot-on game that would help you build every possible scenario of utopian architecture.

Everything in this book is orderly and rational. Everything but the subject of the monograph of course. But no matter how 'conceptual' and outlandish the works presented in the book might appear, they come with irony, lucidity and a desire to focus on society/the planet's most pressing needs and as such, they provide valuable food for thought.

Some are mere exercises in speculations while others almost have their feet on the ground. Some are strangely seducing, others will give you nightmares.

Of course you will find in this book what any respectable book about utopian architecture should offer: pods of all sorts, vertical farms a gogo, mobile living spaces, cities built in the air, on the water, in the water and of course flooded cities. But there were also a few scenarios i had never heard about:

David A. Garcia has a couple of exciting projects in the book. My favourite is the Quarantined Library located on a cargo ship. Its mission is to collect infected and radioactive books, a robotic arms that engraves secrets on wooden panels infected by termites, and historically censored books. I couldn't find illustrations online but i did find some for the South Pole living station for 100 visitors with minimum environmental impact. The space would be holed out in a super large iceberg which would eventually melt in 7 to 10 years time.

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David A.Garcia, Sustainable Iceberg Living Station

Mila Studio proposes to build a 1,000m tall faux mountain at the site of the masterpieces that is the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin instead of hotels and sky-high offices. The Berg would be the world's largest man-made mountain, covered with snow from September to March and would serve as a tourist attraction for skiers in the otherwise slope-less city.

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Mila Studio, The Berg

London-based NaJa and deOstos office develops speculative, alternative urban concepts. One of the most attention-grabbing is the Hanging Cemetery of Baghdad which explore a possible response to extreme cultural and political challenges such as the crisis in the Middle East. Initiated in 2004, the project envisions "a gigantic presence of a hanging funereal structure [that] extends over the volatile city of Baghdad."

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NaJa and deOstos, Hanging Cemetery of Baghdad

Nicolas Mouret's Phyte is a 380m high tower that would move in natural flow and offer a stark contrast to the city's static skyline. The mechanical energy of the rocking tower would generate enough electricity to supply the building's lighting.

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Nicolas Mouret, PHYTE

Stéphane Malka's Self Defense hijacks The Grande Arche De La Défense in Paris and turn it into the 'Great arch of fraternity' at the service of the forsaken, the marginalized, refugees, demonstrators, dissenters, hippies, utopians, and the stateless of all kinds.

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Stéphane Malka, Auto-Défense

Where the Grass is Greener by Tomorrow's Thoughts Today envisions a group of Londoners who have chosen to segregate themselves from the rest of society, and has taken up the mantle of sustainability in an extraordinary way. Driven by a set of ethics that places them in sometimes radical opposition to the rest of London, they have adopted a lifestyle that effectively makes them a carbon sink for the remainder of the city.

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Tomorrow's Thoughts Today, Where the Grass is Greener (Hallucinogenic garden)

Saturation City explores the future of Australian urban space in 40 years time. The proposal manufactured a crisis - a rise in sea level of 20m, tested around Melbourne and Port Philip Bay - that would require dramatic urban upheaval. The park/garden, the business district, the suburb and the coastline, are subjected to dramatic densifications in response to the 'flood'.

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Bild, Dyskors, MGS and Material Thinking, Saturation City

Views inside the book:

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Image on the homepage: NL Architects, Cruise City, City Cruise, 2003.

Sponsored by:





For the first time in my life, i'm happy with Iberia services. They cancelled my flight from Gijón to Madrid and i was informed at the last minute that i was booked on a plane that departed before dawn. The new schedule meant that i'd have to wait 8 hours for my connecting flight in Barajas airport (stunning architecture, crap-est over-priced food in the entire universe.) I decided i would take the opportunity generously bestowed upon me by the dreadful airline and do something more interesting than spend hours in duty free shops. I left Barajas, took the metro to the center of Madrid, got a decent meal and visited an exhibition.

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Daniele Pario Perra, Economic Borders, Sicily, 2005

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Daniele Pario Perra, Economic Borders, Sicily, 2005

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Veronika Zapletalová, Chartarství (Summerhouses), 2005

The lunch wasn't memorable but the show was a joy. Post-it City. Occasional urbanities - Ciudades ocasionales at Centro Centro looks into temporary occupations of public space that appear on the fringe of urban-planning. Neither authorities nor architects have planned these informal uses of space. Whether they emerge for commercial, recreational, sexual or survival reasons, post-it practices answer needs that the city isn't able to answer adequately.

Post-it City phenomena emphasise the reality of the urban territory as the place where distinctive uses and situations legitimately overlap, in opposition to the growing pressures to homogenise public space. In contrast to the ideals of the city as a place of consensus and consumption, temporary occupations of space reaffirm use value, reveal different needs and lacks that affect given collectives, and even promote creativity and the subjective imagination.

From another standpoint, the temporary activities that contaminate public space with numerous para-architectural artefacts enable reflection on urban experience to redirect its attention towards the minuscule, thus correcting the arrogance of traditional architecture.

The exhibition has been touring for a few years and i even got my hands on the catalogue a while ago. I can't seem to be able to locate it right now but it's available on Amazon USA and UK. The show is packed with fantastic information, photographs and stories. I wish i could talk about every single one of them but that won't be necessary as all the projects have been listed on the Post-it City website. Here's a small selection:

Every Autumn, the Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, New York, are sprinkled with temporary outdoor structures called sukkah. People live there for 7 days as a way to remember the fragile dwellings in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt.

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Francisca Benitez, Prótesis del Nuevo Exodo

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Francisca Benitez, Prótesis del Nuevo Exodo

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Francisca Benitez, Prótesis del Nuevo Exodo


Francisca Benitez, Sukkah, 2001

Another of Francisca Benítez's photo series is part of Post-It City. The images show bundles nesting in Parisian trees. They are the personal belongings of Afghani immigrants. In July 2005, two months before the Paris riots, Benítez recorded every tree next to the Gare de l'Est. (Illegal) immigrants stack there their possessions while waiting for another odd job, for continuing their journey.

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Francisca Benítez, Gare de l'Est, 2005

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Francisca Benítez, Gare de l'Est, 2005

The photo documentation that most shocked me is Old Wreck City. Federica Verona and Cecilia Pirovano investigated what they call 'the city of abandoned cars' in Milan. Abandoned and stolen cars become a refuge where homeless Italians or foreigners sleep, eat, drink and take shelter from the rain and people's gazes. The images are accompanied by the story of some of the people who sleep in cars. Some of them have slept there for years, continuously or between jobs, some are couple waiting to be allocated social housing.

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Federica Verona and Cecilia Pirovano, Old wreck city

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Federica Verona and Cecilia Pirovano, Old wreck city


OLD WRECK CITY 09, the city of abandoned cars

Unlike European cemeteries, Cairo's historic cemeteries are not walled, they open onto the city, even merging with it. Driven by the difficulty of finding a home in the overcrowded city, some people have established their living space inside Cairo's cemeteries. Authorities do not officially recognise these informal settlements even though they supply them with water and light.

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Charlie Koolhaas, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, City of the Dead, 2005

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Charlie Koolhaas, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, City of the Dead, 2005

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Charlie Koolhaas, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, City of the Dead, 2005

The Cora Garrido Boxe Centre in São Paulo is a social institution as well as a gymnasium established below the motorway. The non-profit and free center seeks to attract marginalised people - the homeless, former addicts and prisoners, children and teenagers at risk - and to promote actions to bring about social reintegration through sport.

The gymnasium uses makeshift equipment. Lorry tyres are transformed into sand bags, lorry axles become barbells and shock absorbers converted into strength-training equipment.

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Cora Garrido, Gymnasium below the motorway, São Paulo

Each year, the "Day of the Dead" and "All Saints" see thousands of people visit their forefathers in the cemeteries of La Paz and El Alto. The commemorative event is also a festive ritual in which music is played and people are invited to take fruit, bread, drinks or coca that have been laid out to receive the souls of the departed. Informal markets are set up between graves and children's games appear where prayers are swapped for food and drink.

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Roberto Bogani and Sergio Forste, Convite de almas

Bas Princen's photos are always worth mentioning. The exhibition is showing a few photos from Utopian Debris, a photo series that attempts to illustrate the future of urbanism and landscape.

The first photograph below shows the section of a construction site which is excavating the ground under an existing village, and the second one, the sand-storage area for the construction of the Olympic Park in Beijing. Both demonstrate how the artificial nature of places is temporarily disguising itself as the natural.

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Bas Princen, Section II, 2007

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Bas Princen, Future Olympic Park, 2007

Post-it City. Occasional urbanities - Ciudades ocasionales remains open at Centro Centro in Madrid through 19 February 2012. Entrance is free.
Image on the homepage: Roulotte magazine, Special issue on Post-it City.

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Charlotte Lybeer, Maasmechelen Village, from the series The Villages

From 2003 to 2008, young photographer Charlotte Lybeer spent extended periods of time in gated communities and contemporary theme parks to document how these places neatly designed around a central theme managed to give an illusion of safety and dream lifestyle. Strangely enough, she told me when we met for a drink in Antwerp a few weeks ago, living inside gated communities only increases the feeling of unease, the paranoia. Everything is fine and safe as long as you're among the people you have chosen to live with, those who have the same -architectural but also moral- values as you, but as soon as you step outside and face 'the real world', the fear rises much stronger than ever.

Her latest project, The Villages, was commissioned by Z33 House for Contemporary Art for their ongoing exhibition The Architecture of Fear.

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Opening Architecture of Fear. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Opening Architecture of Fear. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

For this new series, Charlotte visited a variety of places in the world, from luxury shopping villages to holiday resorts and residential districts, which have in common a fake, idealized Flemish/Dutch architecture. These "paradise" enclaves were created by developers from behind a desk and usually have nothing to do with authenticity or local context. The artificial settings are empty capsules aimed at creating a pleasant environment for mass consumption and tourism.

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Charlotte Lybeer, Orange County, from the series The Villages

Orange County, a holiday resort in Turkey with replicas of typical Dutch facades as well as of the windmills of Volendam and Amsterdam Central, is particularly striking. It's a little piece of Holland heaven under a perpetually blue sky and set against the backdrop of mountains. Lybeer also found plenty of Dutch/Flemish architectural clichés in the Belgian designer discount outlet Maasmechelen Village and much more surprisingly in Northeast China, where a Dutch businessman born in China had the ambition of opening Holland Village, an amusement park and residential complex in Shenyang. Holland Village featured replicas of famous Dutch public buildings and windmills. It never opened.

The artist's photos -whether they capture details, passersby or a whole street- translate perfectly the feeling of eeriness that pervade these places. Everything is so neat and pristine that you wonder if people are actually allowed to set foot in this postcard-perfect architecture. The facade of the INNTEL Hotel in Zaandam (NL), however, doesn't attempt to fool anyone. The architect of the building fearlessly piled up several houses of the typical Dutch building tradition on top of each other.

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Charlotte Lybeer, INNTEL hotel in Zaandam, from the series The Villages

Charlotte gave her series the title The Villages because these secluded places replicate the feeling of safety of a village, a place where you know who is who, what to expect and where things appear to be immutable.

Does getting so close to gated communities and to the people living there makes you better understand why one would want to live there or does it have the opposite effect, makes you feel that a gated community is something best left to paranoid people? More generally, can you refrain from making judgements about their way of life? because when looking at your photos it seemed to me that you felt some tenderness towards these people. It's all very subtle and respectful.

I lived for 2 months in most of the gated communities I photographed, so during that time I try to understand the choice of living in a gated area.

I definitely don't want to generalize it. For some people I understood their reasons, and for me some people are just to scared or not adventurous enough to live inside the ungated world. I question more the idea of project developers and architects who construct that kind of housing, than the people who choose to live in it.

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Fences, from the series Woodhill, Gated Lifestyle Community (South Africa, 2005)

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Uniform, from the series Woodhill, Gated Lifestyle Community (South Africa, 2005)

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ZCC, from the series Woodhill, Gated Lifestyle Community (South Africa, 2005)

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Postboxes, from the series Woodhill, Gated Lifestyle Community (South Africa, 2005)

I guess that the reason why you first decided to document a gated community was that you were curious about them but also that you might have had some preconceptions before going there. Were these preconceptions met or did you find that life in a gated community was nothing like what you had expected?

I always do lots of research before I travel to a certain place. So I'm very much prepared. Nowadays you can find so much information on the internet, it's almost possible to see every corner of a place virtually. So for the project in China (2007) and Dubai (2008) I planned before the locations I want to photograph (sometimes I decided already on the framing) and the I waited until something happened in the framing, that made my picture. Of course I also like to let me be surprised by the reality of the moment and the place. Sometimes an unexpected glimpse of strong sunlight can make the image or a person who passes by and just fits perfectly in the atmosphere... thats what I like about documentary photography, you can make a combination about the planned and the coincidence.

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From the series The Fountains, Where Living is a Pleasure (Florida, 2003)

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From the series The Fountains, Where Living is a Pleasure (Florida, 2003)

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From the series The Fountains, Where Living is a Pleasure (Florida, 2003)

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From the series The Fountains, Where Living is a Pleasure (Florida, 2003)

One would expect people living in gated communities not to be very open and welcoming to the intruding photographer that you are. How do you get access to them? Do you have to ask for official authorizations? Is it a difficult process? How ready to help you are people living there? Which kind of relationships do you form with them?

In most of the places it is not allowed to photograph, so I always ask for permission.

I write letters, phone or email the gated communities and most of the time they don't give me permission.

Once I'm there, people are a bit distant in the beginning and they don't easily trust me. But when I stay in a gated communities, I'm everyday everywhere, so they can not really avoid me.

I also look quit innocent, so that helps too. And I try to explain my intentions and be honest about my goals. People appreciate that. Some are even proud their living environment is interesting enough to be photographed. They get used to me after a while. That's also one of the reasons why I stay there for 2 months, so people have the time to adjust at me and vice versa.

I still have contact with some of the elderly people in Florida, they liked my visit allot, I was a part of the entertainment there.

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Charlotte Lybeer, Holland Village, from the series The Villages

You've investigated and photographed gated communities in several parts of the world, Florida, South Africa, Belgium. Are their reasons to live in a closed environment the same wherever you go? What motivates them to seclude from the rest of the city?

Not at all. In Florida I photographed a gated retirement community. So it's something between an elderly house and a club med.

I understand their choice of living there, no traffic, everything they need is withing close reach, silence, clean, many friends... I can understand that many people prefer to spend their last years of their live in such an atmosphere than in a grey small boring elderly house in Belgium. But I don't say it would be my choice.

In South-Africa, safety was the main reason. Families with young children lived there.

You also photographed Dubai. Is there something in Dubai that you find similar to life in gated communities? An atmosphere of artificiality for example?

Dubai looks like one gated community. Everything is artificial and controlled. the absolute climax of the topic.

It was for me also the most difficult place to work, the security persecuted me for an entire day... just because I took pictures with a camera with many pixels. They noted down everything I did, from drinking something until speaking with somebody. They even ask me to hand them down all my photos.

Thanks Charlotte!

Curator Ils Huygens made a lovely interview with Charlotte Lybeer (in dutch):

Architecture of Fear remains open at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium through December 31, 2011.
Previously: Discussing democracy, torture and secret services with Jill Magid.

Remember i was telling you about "Anti Anti Utopia", the talk that Vicky Messi gave at the FILE festival symposium a week ago? She was highlighting media art projects from Latin America that 'look beyond anti-utopia.' The first work she presented was Arcángel Constantini's Nanodrizas, a fleet of "flying" saucers deployed in polluted waters to clean them up.

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A second brilliant project she mentioned was Ciudad Nazca / Nazca City, a land art project in which a robot draws a true scale map of an imaginary city onto the surface of the Peruvian desert.

Artist Rodrigo Derteano's autonomous robot plows the desert ground to uncover its underlying, lighter color, using a technique similar to the one of the Nazca lines, the gigantic and enigmatic geoglyphs traced between 400 and 650 AD in the desert in southern Peru. Guided by its sensors, the robot quietly traced the founding lines of a new city that looks like a collage of existing cities from Latin America.

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Nazca monkey, Peru

Because of the city would extend over several squared kilometers, the map can only be appreciated as a whole from certain a height by means of airplanes or satellite imaging. Just like the Nazca lines.

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The project invites to reflect upon the explosive urbanization of the deserts of the Peruvian coast, taking place since the middle of the last century, and its consequences on environmental sustainability and the quality of living.

I asked Rodrigo to talk to us about Ciudad Nazca:

Hello Rodrigo! What is the motivation behind the project? During her presentation at FILE, Vicky mentioned the spectacular growth of the city of Lima and the need to find new ways of designing and envisioning cities, maybe by building them in the desert. Can you expand on this?

I live and grew up in Lima. About 60% of the city today lies within the desert, most of it grew without any serious urban planning. It's a self-made metropolis, the second largest city built in the desert after Cairo. It grew from 1 million to 8 million people in less than 60 years. There's a lot of problems derived from this development in terms of sustainability and living standards which exacerbate the huge inequality of our society. The desert plays a big role in this regard. People living in desert areas of the city are usually poor and often have to pay more for water than those living in more centric (richer) areas. They also lack proper infrastructure and have much less public places and parks. For a long time, these areas were not considered part of the city by the ruling class and the authorities until they became the majority.

By drawing a gigantic map of a city onto the desert, the project not only seeks to draw attention to this facts, but questions our very concept of city, specially in regards to its environment. Lima is a sort of negation of the desert. Our model and ideal of city is very occidental, and does not adapt very well to its context. The desert is seen a kind of non-place, not a part of our living environment. In this sense, there's a sort of irony in using a robot to draw a city onto the desert, as if it would be drawing it on the surface of Mars (exploring the outer space for the possibility of urban life).

I'm also fascinated by the Nasca people and their lines (200 BC - 600 AD). Studying theories about them, I found their notion of desert as ritual space, and therefore an expansion of their living space, to be in sharp contrast to our notion today. Some see the Nasca lines as cult to fertility and life in the desert, trying to communicate beyond. In this sense, Nasca City is kind of a cult to urban life in the desert today, not communicating beyond, but within our society...

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I was also interested in the cities you selected for the final collage. How did you chose them? Why Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro rather than Sao Paulo? Why Bogota rather than Medellin for example?

The project required an interdisciplinary group of people working together to make it happen. In regards to the design of the city we worked together with the Latin American architecture collective Supersudaca, represented by the 51-1 architecture studio in Lima. The collective proposed to do a real scale collage of pieces of the 10 largest cities in Latin America (Sao Paulo is included). They would overlap at the borders creating new urban forms and zones of conflict. The idea was to create a map of mixed references, city patterns already charged with meaning, that people would be able to recognise, compare, and understand the scale of the drawing according to their own real life experience.

Why 10? Well, they like to put up simple rules. The cities pieces were put together conserving their relative geographical position and original orientation.

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The city drawn in the desert is ephemeral is that correct? Isn't it disheartening to dedicate so much energy and see the city being slowly erased by the wind and other natural elements?

Sometimes I also find it disheartening, but most of the time I think it is ok for it to be slowly erased by the wind. The lines loose the sharp contrast with the surface in a couple of weeks, but the relief will be visible for years. I don't know if I would find the drawing and whole action equally meaningful in, let's say, 20 years. The desert is quite a special place for me, and I had my thoughts about leaving permanent marks that large on its surface.

For it to stay forever, we would have had to do it in a terrain with almost identical conditions as in Nasca, which is a protected area classified as world heritage by UNESCO. We would have ended in jail for sure, if we had done it over there. Which brings me to question number 5...

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How long did it take to draw the whole city and did you have to stay near the robot constantly to monitor its work?

The drawing took 5 days (4 under ideal conditions). We had to rescue the robot sometimes and had some problems, but most of the time, it would do fine by itself.

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Did you need to obtain special permits to do this piece of land art or can anyone do anything they fancy in the desert?

In theory, you can't do what you want in the desert (in Peru), unless you own it. And even then, you'll have to do an official and quite expensive study certifying the absence of archeological rests. In a protected area like Nazca, it would be a serious crime (to destroy national heritage). We certainly could not buy up that amount of terrain (!!). But it is permitted to drive around in non protected areas, which also leaves marks. So there's kind of a gray zone. In practice, people exploit the landscape in all sorts of ways, but we wanted to go public with it. We had to make sure we could do it, or at least be prepared for the consequences. The local authorities were sympathetic to the project and we got an unofficial permit...

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Are you planning to repeat or show the project elsewhere in the near future?

The project is not completely finished, because there are lots of follow ups. Maybe I'll take on the topic in further projects or exhibitions. Maybe someday we repeat the drawing process, but it's quite a production and I have no concrete plans. There are no exhibitions planned at the moment, but I have a lot of material and would like to show it again.

Thanks Rodrigo!

And if you speak spanish, check out this interview that Vicky did with Rodrigo:

All images courtesy of Rodrigo Derteano.

Previously: Nanodrizas, "flying" saucers for polluted waters.

The dream of self-sufficiency and sustainability has become true. Everyone is now able to produce goods, to communicate with anyone without being charged or tracked and to fulfill their basic needs without forgoing modern conveniences.

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Rendering of the Cruiser Charisma

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Model of Cruiser Charisma as exhibited at RCA

Cruiser Charisma intertwines extrapolations about the latest (and upcoming) advances in technologies with a series of research trips that designer Jonas Loh made into intentional communities, groups of people who attempt to establish their own society on a micro-scale. He visited Earthaven which is ruled by community consensus and divided in small villages, went to see what remained of the ethics and ideals of The Farm and even made a trip to Berlin, Ohio, to get to know the Amish lifestyle built around religious beliefs and resistance to modernity.

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Amish doll are faceless

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Caravan at Earthaven Community

The project also professes faith into D.I.Y. and open source movement which could one day take technologies that are currently out of you and i -such as synthetic biology, genetic engineering, bio-printing and new form of production methods- out of the hands of venture capitalists and politicians and into everybody else's backyard.

The outcome of the project is utopian, yet credible: a caravan which will run on advanced biofuels, whose inhabitants will be able to produce all kinds of goods and organic materials thanks to a 3D printing production unit, eat synthetic protein rich meat that will be grown through a new generation of plants, recycle their poo to produce energy and experiment with new ways of community living.

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Useful Synthetic Plant Garden & Production Facility

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Conveyor belt, part of the production unit

Interestingly residents would communicate over long distance using the Earth-Moon-Earth, aka moon bounce, a radio communications technique developed after World War II. The system relies on the propagation of radio waves from an Earth-based transmitter directed via reflection from the surface of the Moon back to an Earth-based receiver. The residents of the caravan selected this form of long-distance communication because it is not yet privatized and because their personal data doesn't get tracked.

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Rendering of the Cruiser Charisma

The project explores the possibility to reach a total state of self-sufficiency and with it a different social, political and economical system.

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Amish One-Room School

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Earthaven Community

All images courtesy of Jonas Loh.
Another project by Jonas Loh (together with Steffen Fielder): Known Unknowns.

Cruiser Charisma is a project developed at the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art in London.

A couple of weeks ago, while i was visiting him at the School of Design and Crafts at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, Otto von Busch told me about an extraordinary experiment that architect Armin Blasbichler had carried out with 21 of his architecture students at the University of Innsbruck. I didn't get much details, except that Blasbichler's students had been assigned to pick up a bank in the city, study it, identify its Achilles' heel and plan a bank robbery.

The best way to know more about the project was to interview the mastermind behind it...

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Blasbichlers Twentyone. Credit photo: Christian Flatscher

If i understood the project well, you ran a seminar at the University of Innsbruck where 21 architecture students, the famous "Blasbichlers Twentyone", were given the assignment to study the plans of the bank, spot their weaknesses and then take advantage of them to make a bank robbery in which however, they could not steal money. Is that so? Could you give us a few more details about the project?

The project is the result of a semester-long design research course at the Institute of Design/ Studio1 at the University of Innsbruck. The course was conceived as a laboratory to investigate in the continuing marginalization of the role of the architect, the sheer new mass of young architects produced by Universities trying to find a stand, the potentials of role play and last but not least the bold attempt to run an academic course as a profit oriented business model. For the motivation of a young aspiring architect I would put it a little more dramatic:

"...Yo, we gotta take the power back! Bam! Here's the plan." (Rage Against the Machine,
Take the Power Back)

The plan:

At first glance the attempt to plan a bank robbery might sound like a post-adolescent prank. But it's not, of course. Such a project claims most of the core competences of an architect. i.e. research and value the site (if of necessity), find out weak/strong aspects, think, imagine, anticipate, sense and develop a concept, sketch, think, design, rethink, reimagine etc., prepare action plan documentation, plan the time schedule, the costs. And well, in this case also an escape plan was asked.

Role play:
Before the actual task the students were asked to present a paper of the working methods of a personality of their choice. The choices ranged from leading figures from politics, sports, arts, economy, science, etc. These fictional personas have been called alter-egos. Subsequently and together with their alter-egos, the students had to break the task.

The task:
Develop a bank robbery plan for a bank branch within the city limits of Innsbruck. Use only information you find out yourself. Your alter-ego is your team mate, listen to what he/she says. Do not tell bank staff who you are and what you intend to do. Identify weak points of the chosen bank branch. Develop a concept to detract assets from the bank according to the weaknesses identified. Include action-, time-, and escape plan in a paper document of 70x100cm of size. Use graphic design techniques and text in order to provide a viable instructions manual document. Calculate or estimate the potential loss of assets.
21 bank branches vs. 21 architecture students.

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Blasbichlers Twentyone. Credit photo: Christian Flatscher

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Blasbichlers Twentyone. Credit photo: Christian Flatscher

I suspect that you didn't warn the banks about the performance. Wasn't the
University of Innsbruck a bit worried about your plans?

The single banks where not advised or involved in the project simply because I wanted to provide an authentic general framework. At some point in the research phase some students came up to me, worried about the fact that they are going to do something illegal. However, the University's legal department approved the project with some formal and privacy restrictions. Any time you put to the test your own imagination of things with the prevailing parameters of the real, things become potentially illegal. Architecture is always illegal.

How did the bank managers and employees react after they realized what happened?

The results were presented within the context of an exhibition in an art gallery in Innsbruck. That was the moment where bank representatives and safety officers came to see the poster size "emergency plans", for the first time. There was a mixed feeling of incredulity about the feasibility of the plans and at the same time a sense of appreciation for the inventiveness of the authors. Though tailored for specific banks branches in specific locations within specific conditions all plans showed a general validity. As a thank-offering for their involuntary participation to the project they all received a copy of the emergency plans for free, as it wasn't intended as a blackmailing event. But the key question for me was: is this immaterial architecture, the information provided by unsolicited architects, is architecture itself of any monetary value? To my surprise most of the banks appreciated the outcomes and gave a financial contribution. With that money we were able to finance the exhibition, material expenses and partly the expenses for the publication of the book. All in all a leveled risk capital venture.

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Blasbichlers Twentyone. Image courtesy of Armin Blasbichler

What did the students steal by the way? Do you have some examples of what they brought back from their break-ins? Any anecdotes about some of the most original/spectacular/curious robberies? Did they get to keep anything in the end?

The students didn't steal anything. Their task was not to steal but to examine and exploit the weak points for their purposes to provide feasible emergency plans. The objectives ranged from assets like time, space, image, future clients, electric power, etc. up to the one student, who celebrates with unbelievable virtuosity the theft of the typical chained ball pen on the counter, an icon of worthlessness and petty-minded communication strategies. In any case, cash money assets were of a subordinate interest. You can find all instructions plans in the publication "Blasbichlers Twentyone".

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Blasbichlers Twentyone. Image courtesy of Armin Blasbichler

I'm particularly interested in the result from these performances and researches. A series of plans and a book. i saw a few examples over here but could not see the details. Could you describe the sort of graphics and plans that the students created?

You are talking about number 14 and number 17. These two students have been adopting business models and principles which are written into the genetic code of the banking sector, namely "make money" and "time is money".

Number 14 did not care about a typical bank robbery on a specific site. His approach relates to a quote by Bertolt Brecht: "What is robbing a bank compared to founding a bank?" In doing so he sets the heist on a higher level of sophistication, perspective and productivity. The plan gives detailed instructions how to found a hedge fund from scratch with all the credentials one needs to do so. The business field of the fund is allocated in the banking safety sector. In reality the fund is intended to take profit from real bank robberies on specific sites. As an investor you can "bet" either on a successful or a failed robbery. According to the business term of the fund one can earn or lose money through a criminal act without getting one's hands dirty. In other words, "robbing a bank" with its own resources. The student outlines the facility to found a hedge fund and pays reference to real business processes and implications in the investment sector, i.e. the Euro break down a couple of months ago, the intensive pressure the financial market is putting on Greece as we speak, just to name a few.

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Blasbichlers Twentyone. Image courtesy of Armin Blasbichler

Number 17 was, according to the bank officials, the most alarming one as it is achievable with no particular effort. Basically the student steals time. She shows how one can jam a banks activity up to a halt and at the same time bring along consistent losses of money. The effect of this apparently trivial approach is startling and I can't go to enlarge it at this point. Check the book for the "source code"...

One would expect architecture students to build banks, not to rob them. What did the students learn in this process of masterminding bank robberies?

Architecture is much more than designing a building, it's about the making of the imagination. In this sense architecture is more related to the arts and the financial sector than one might think. Banking and architecture are of a kin.

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Screenshot from the movie Ocean's Eleven (1960)

Nowadays i suspect that people have very little sympathy left for banks. Was there any political or ethical reason why you decided to target banks?

You can't do without banks in prevailing global societies. Banks are not the enemy; rather they have become the fortresses of desires, the keeper of dreams, hardly accessible and locked-off from the public, although propagating transparency. From this point of view banks are a rewarding topic of research, also for architects. Banks constitute an almost invisible net of power structures. To examine these structures is to bring to light something which has been buried and set out of balance. Unfolding a system is not a crime, it rather adjusts the attention.

The approach of the Twentyone is comparable with the attitude of hackers. Without the commitment of hackers today you would not be able to send an email without somebody reading along, you would not be able to make a secure online purchase or bank online. No Firefox, no Open Office, no Linux - just to name a few - would be available. Hackers usually are related to an information technology security context. Why not set their working method to other topics and disciplines - "hitchhacking"?

In this sense the Twentyone are a non-institutionalized, slightly profit oriented breed of security "hitchhackers". A 21-architect resides in anyone of us and when you team up with your hidden alter-ego you make 42. According to Douglas Adams, with 42 then you can answer the ultimate questions of life, the universe and everything.

Thank you Armin!

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Blasbichlers Twentyone - the book

Paperback: 104 pages, richly illustrated. With texts by Armin Blasbichler, Otto von Busch,
Hubert Salden, Klaus Schönberger
Publisher: innsbruck university press, march 2011
Language: German, English
ISBN-10: 3902719958
ISBN-13: 978-3902719959

The book is more than a compilation of 21 instruction plans to detract assets from a bank. It is a must have for any aspiring bank robber and at the same time a blueprint for banks to take precautions.

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Armin Blasbichler (*1970) is an architect, curator and artist, trained at the University of Innsbruck and graduated from the Chelsea College of Art and Design, London with an MA in design for the environment. Beside his studio practice, which is pivoted between the poles of architecture, applied arts and design, his teaching and research assignments included University of Innsbruck, TU Berlin and European Academy Bolzano. Currently he is a visiting professor at the Faculty of Design and Art at the Free University of Bolzano, Italy.

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