Rendered Useless – The Realities Behind Futuristic Imagery

By Tony Chavira

Imagine for a moment what the future of Los Angeles will look like. In fact, imagine if you can what future cities around the world will look like. New York City will have greenery growing alongside white, hyper-streamlined buildings, Paris will have a second layer of floating green transit corridors, Chicago will be a city immersed in gardens and technological sculpture, Abu Dhabi will be a veritable Babylon, thousands of years past Babylon’s first disintegration. Already Tokyo and Hong Kong (and to some extend Beijing and Brazilia) are seen as cities of the future: technologically-infused, cyberprep urbanism to the extreme.

I can’t help but sneer sometimes at the 1970 design stains we can’t seem to remove from Los Angeles’s landscape. The freeways are super-massive concrete hydra, dividing neighborhoods and growing larger and more behemoth with each attempt to subvert them. Our downtown skyline reflects our worst radio stations, riddled with fads from an era we look back on nostalgically only with a sense of irony. Our most pleasant neighborhoods only differ from the least pleasant in the expense and size of their homes. The streets are still made for cars, sidewalks go unused (if they exist at all), and greenspace is just too planned out to be organic.

But why bother living in the present? It’s clearly a depressing time: hell, we’re in a depression! The future (on the other hand) is jam-packed with possibilities, most of which are limitless. As rational humans, we tend to have a natural inclination to think into the future anyway: from “what’s for dinner tonight” to “what kind of person do I want to marry” to “how do I want my funeral to go,” we can’t help it. In fact, we love it … it’s practically an addiction. We are addicted to the future.

Instead of bothering with the limited scope of design and urbanism we currently see around us, we finally have the ability to escape fully into a world so fantastically probable that it may actually come to life. Clearly, the present is a pretty boring place, but thanks to advancements in image rendering technologies, architectural visionaries can give us images of gigantic urban farms next to the Statue of Liberty, monolithic, spiraling green towers in Bangkok, fully-sustainable island resorts in the shape of ice cream sundaes in Dubai, and a gigantic urban park where the Santa Monica Freeway once happened to be. And who said these images had to be fantasies? We’ve already seen what Beijing was willing to do to bring their city into the future with the Bird’s Nest stadium. We can already see the fruits of derelict rail lines converted to urban parks in New York City. And have you seen the images of Millennium Park in Chicago lately? Breathtaking. Just think of how amazing the world will be once all of these glorious images of the future are brought to life through the magic of foreign investment and inflexible design vision! If they can do it, we can too.

Let’s not be so foolish, though.Architectural renderings may be visions of a potential future, but they’re also fantasies meant to increase your heart rate, strike up some dialog and make the designer famous. And so far they seem to do their jobs just fine. CurbedLA, for example, reported that architect John Dutton received an award from the Westside Urban Forum for “proposing” the conversion of the 10 Freeway into an urban walkway, completely eliminating space for cars. Not that it’s a bad concept. Converting all freeways to green walkways would be a wondrous conversion anywhere in Los Angeles. While we’re at it, let’s convert all the freeways to green while we’re at it! It may not be a realistic from a building, planning, transportation, zoning, or even walking perspective, but it’s definitely full of cool drawings and whimsical stuff to make us future addicts “ooh” and “ahh” with glee.

One may argue that it’s simply not realistic right now, and that’s perfectly reasonable. Except that when would it be realistic? When should we, as a city, sit down with our very serious faces in a very serious meeting and decide for ourselves how seriously we want to take an idea like John Dutton’s. Clearly the Westside Urban Forum was serious enough to honor him, but did it come with start-up cash? Or was it meant to get investors interested in taking the idea seriously? For that matter, are any hyper-futuristic renderings from any of these locations meant to get investors seriously interested?

There was a time, not long ago in fact, that a particularly famous starchitect named Zaha Hadid was able to elicit vast amounts of cash to develop hyper-modern structures around the world. Money to her was no object, and her structures brilliantly reflected that mantra. And my word, what structures they are! Her Aquatic Center in London for the 2012 Olympics is truly something breathtaking. Her Alpine Funicular Railway in Austria will make you weep, and I am not exaggerating in the least. All sarcasm aside for once, if you want to see some of the most amazing architectural masterpieces recent times have to offer, visit any of Zaha Hadid’s structures.

This era, when money flowed like wine and wine flowed like water, was truly amazing for such a visionary starchitect, and her contribution to visions of cyberprep futurism will never be forgotten for as long as art history exists as a college degree. But times change and we must change with them. The money for building simply wasn’t real and the need for such strikingly avant-garde design is simply not there right now. Moreover, Zaha Hadid’s structures do exist and can be visited for the architectural enthusiasts among us, but are they really something we can all see ourselves living in 100 years from now? Do you really see yourself hanging out in a super-massive rotating tower, simply for the novelty of living in a super-massive rotating tower? Can we really see ourselves urban farming from islands off the New York coastline? Could we, as a city, suddenly pass an ordinance to ban all vehicles from the Santa Monica freeway in order to develop a “greenway”?

Zaha Hadid and her company, for all of her visionary futurism, have something that many wild and fantastical diviners of the future scattered throughout the Internet do not: a track record of completed projects. I’m not just talking about a small house here, a public works project there. I’m talking about bringing her hyper-modern design prophecies to life! Renderings themselves are much like the fantasy images of our retro-futuristic past. In the 1950s, we all thought we’d have robot butlers on the moon by now. From the year 1990, we all expected to see flying cars by 2000. But Zaha Hadid has actually developed her buildings, including completing the stages of programming and arduous design, unnecessarily-detailed construction drawings, ridiculous amounts of engineering, and headache-inducing construction observation. Her company has had to deal with cities and their planning departments around the world, every possible problem you or I could ever imagine. They’ve dealt with zoning, planning and urban design issues you wouldn’t expect in your wildest dreams, all for the sake of bringing that fantasy design to reality. And she did it. In fact, many wildly creative architects with the determination and budget to do something extraordinary have.

But renderings themselves do not a building make. The design community can be easily fooled by the prophetic optimism induced by a heavy dose of the future, and our addiction will only get worse as rendering technology becomes easier and fantastical images of urban possibilities appear more and more realistic.

So here is a warning to the naive: those with the expertise to design do not always have the practical expertise to build, and are therefore not always experts despite their vision’s realism. Syd Mead, a truly awesome artist and hypermodern visionary, does not pretend to be an expert on the technicalities and realistic issues involved with building structure or city planning. As an designer, you may be inspired by his urban designs from Blade Runner, his line and structure from TRON, or the dark industrial interiors from Alien, but he doesn’t claim to know how to develop a city, piece together a building or design an interior. Heck, he designed a mobile robotic exoskeleton for Bandai toys, but doesn’t say he’s an expert on military-grade exoskeletons. Although he is Syd Mead, so I guess I shouldn’t jump to conclusions too quickly.

Anyway, this is just an old book in an insanely glossy package. Don’t let your addiction to the future blind you from noticing that the future is still a long long way away, and arguably will look a lot different from any fantasy computer rendering you might stumble upon during your late night Web browsing. Stay realistic about what you can do now and we’ll see what happens when it happens.