Whatever happened to the future?

“The future doesn't exist so don't get stuck with that. We only create the past; we never create the future because the future is nonsense. It doesn't exist, period.”

That’s what Paolo Soleri told me in an interview a few years ago (
http://www.nbm.org/about-us/publications-news/blueprints/lessons-in-arcology.html) when he was in Washington to receive the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. I had asked him what advice he might have for today's architecture students and the conditions they would inherit, shaping the future and all that. Well, he set me straight. I felt instantly naïve. I had fallen for the myth of the future, that brave new world of flying cars and silver Mylar jumpsuits that is going to start....right...now! Wait...it didn’t.

It’s all about the future now...again. Exhortations to act now for the sake of the future: we must change our ways. Warnings in the future tense: things will get worse before the get better. Meta-warnings in the future perfect: if we don’t act now, we will have missed an unprecedented opportunity. We had a future once. You can go visit it in Southwest Washington the huge urban renewal district wiped clean and remade from 1959 to the mid 60’s according to Modernist orthodoxy. It’s a part of Washington that fascinates me and about which I can never draw stable conclusions.

These buildings are nearing 50, and interestingly, so are the street trees. A walk south on 4th Street in the spring proves unequivocally the importance of urban forestry. Both buildings and trees have aged well, but what time are they? The trees look old, but the architecture looks more modern than the officially sanctioned Washington style of Fedevictorolonial. Don’t laugh...well, all right, laugh a little, then cry. One peek at the debate over the building at the center of the Georgetown vs. Apple battle and you will understand.

Even as its underlying planning principles have been roundly discredited, Southwest retains its ascetic dignity and peculiar appeal. Yet, it stands as a warning to all of the dedicated followers of theory that there is more to the city than can be described in plans or discerned from afar. The singular solution is rarely any solution at all. Southwest’s various sub-communities have never sorted out their public from their private with anything approaching the effortless grace of a typical Capitol Hill block, substituting signage, ferocious fences and gates for the legible boundaries of the traditional city. Unfortunately, the innovative architecture got conflated with the planning, so instead of seeing a proliferation of those endearing Charles Goodman row houses on a traditional street grid, the whole Modernist package got tossed.

The urban removal crews literally couldn’t see the value in the past. The past is past; long live the future. History is bunk. Free beer tomorrow. That last one pithily reveals the truth about the future: it never comes. What comes is another present, evaporating instantly into a past. Soleri, such an extraordinary man with such challenging ideas, was so correct admonishing me. It isn’t just a past we’re making. That sounds so abstract. It’s a legacy, a bequest, a basket of collective and individual memories rooted in places that we ourselves have made. If it’s made with cynicism instead of optimism, with its own congenital obsolescence instead of permanence, then what kind of past are we making?

Postscript: My dear friend the late Doug Michels used to sign off every conversation with “see you in the future,” which seemed so much more interesting than “see you later.” “Later” has no character, but the future, oh the future...Doug embraced the myth of the future with a passion and peerless creative imagination, even as he maintained a delicious sense of humor about the entire enterprise. But he’s gone and his elusive future is in fact a store of memory. A priceless past. See
http://www.brainwavechick.com/dougmichels/NYTimes.html for more on Doug.

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