Tomorrow Now : When design meets science fiction
Tomorrow Now
When design meets science fiction
Alexandra Midal + Björn Dahlström, December 24, 2007
Despite stories of invasions, extraterrestrials, robots, mutants and cyborgs that take place in spaceships, on Earth, in the galaxy or beyond, or even inside the human brain, science fiction offers its own reading of contemporary society. Often considered as a minor genre of literature or simple speculation concerning an improbable future, science fiction acts like a distorting mirror presenting caricatures of the world and extreme scenarios whose starting point is anchored in the present. Although a primary source of inspirationfor the cinema, the visual arts and architecture, science fiction’s closest links are, however, to design.

Following the example of science fiction, design anticipates the mutations of the world, sometimes pushing them to extreme limits, the better to show their consequences. They share the same territory and both pose the same questions: what sort of relationship should be maintained with technological change and what might the impact be on Man, his behaviour and his physiological and mental capacities? And perpendicularly to this axis, there are numerous simultaneous multidimensional worlds through which certain individuals move.


Ant Farm_Enviroman, 1969_Chip Lord
Ant Farm_Enviroman, 1969_Chip Lord


Encounters between design and science fiction have been determined by three eras. The first is linked to anticipation and innovation with the invention of the term “science fiction” in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback, an immigrant from Luxembourg living in the United States, and the Universal Exhibition in New York in 1939 which presented the Futurama, a giant model of a futurist city devised by the designer Norman Bel Geddes. It was exhibited in the General Motors pavilion and is the most premonitory example of science fiction and design working together to show how technology can be put to the service of mankind. It was at this international exhibition that designers who traditionally anticipated the production of industrial objects seized on that of private, public and urban spaces.

The second encounter between science fiction and design took place in the post-war period when the dream of space conquest was becoming more and more realistic. The possibility of discovering new intergalactic territories, counterbalanced by the stress placed on interior worlds, inspired designers. Indeed, they took inspiration from the imaginary aspect of science fiction, creating a myriad of capsule-like forms, and also borrowed from it the fictional mode which, when diverted, either validates technology or denounces it.

The third bridge between design and science fiction is based on the postulate of the existence of a fourth dimension, that of time, which, when associated with the other three dimensions, becomes a gateway to a parallel world. Breaches in space-time may be found through these “wormholes”, teleportation doors and other black holes. Neither anticipation nor prediction nor retro-future, these parallel worlds are juxtaposed with present reality.


Haus-Rucker-Co., Laurids Ortner, Günther Zamp Kelp, Klaus Pinter_Fly head, 1968
Haus-Rucker-Co., Laurids Ortner, Günther Zamp Kelp, Klaus Pinter_Fly head, 1968


The invention of modern science fiction: Hugo Gernsback

Luxembourg-born Hugo Gernsback (1884-1976) invented the English term “science fiction”. Following the “scientific marvel” by Maurice Renard and the “scientific novel” that notably qualified the stories of Jules Verne, it was this young émigré to America, the editor of a modest publishing house of pulp fiction, who was the father of the term “science fiction”. He invented it in 1929 for the editorial of the first edition of his magazine, Science Wonder Stories, and contributed to its popularisation through the magazines he published.

Since childhood, Gernsback had been fascinated by the relationship between science and technology
and he liked to imagine future inventions. At the end of each year, from 1951 onwards, he published a review titled Forecast in which he revealed his personal vision of the future. From Superception, a metal circle which goes round the forehead and which, via electronic impulses in the brain, recreates television images, to the Teledoctor, a remote-controlled robot that allows a doctor to treat people in their homes, from a distance, not forgetting the concertina handbag for alphabetical order, or the electronic assembly line which infallibly detects future conscripts... the verbose author constitutes a technological and heterogeneous
arsenal to magically facilitate future daily life.


Konstantin Grcic and Nitzan Cohen_Installation Space-1, 2007
Konstantin Grcic and Nitzan Cohen_Installation Space-1, 2007


On the occasion of the Universal Exhibition in New York in 1939, the American designer and theatre decorator, Norman Bell Geddes (1893-1958), created an exhibition of the city of the future for the General Motors pavilion, the Futurama. It presented a preview of what the city would be like in 1960. Sitting in pairs in chairs that circulated on a conveyor belt, the astounded visitors observed the city of tomorrow from below, with its skyscrapers, traffic lights at every junction, interchanges and expressways. They also admired the automated farms of the future in the countryside of tomorrow. Each visitor received a badge stating “I have seen the future” as a souvenir of this voyage through time. The Futurama was a project with enormous social ambitions and embodied the issues surrounding the recent discipline of design that was aimed as much at urban planning as at the production of contemporary consumer objects.

Norman Bel Geddes_Futuroma Project, 1939
Norman Bel Geddes_Futuroma Project, 1939


Matti Suuronen_Futuro home, 1968-1969_Andres Lejona
Matti Suuronen_Futuro home, 1968-1969_Andres Lejona


Richard Buckminster Fuller (United States, 1895-1983) opened the field of anticipation to the environment, convinced that the way in which the world organised its human and material resources should be reconsidered. In 1928 he conceived the Dymaxion House, a dwelling capsule envisaged as a portable temporary space to rent rather than a private property. Even if Buckminster Fuller’s projects remained utopian, they provided the basis for the subsequent radical questioning of architecture by Archigram, Haus-Rucker-Co and Superstudio. The inventiveness of these individual visions found its counterpart in the world of industrial production. The success of the Streamline movement (which was at its height in the 1930s and 1940s) and the scale of the Futurama shows that futurist forms were being introduced in private, public and urban space. By becoming closely involved in the increasingly complex relationship between human beings and technology, design became a form of mass communication.


Charles Jencks_Evolutionary tree to the year 2000, 1969
Charles Jencks_Evolutionary tree to the year 2000, 1969


Numerous science fiction writers have imagined the future by borrowing from the field of prediction. In the same spirit, as a part of his book Architecture 2000, the American architect Charles Jencks (*1939) presented a large table, The Evolutionary Tree in 1969. It lays out six hypotheses about what the world of tomorrow will be like by examining the political impulses behind six architectural traditions. These predictions go up to the present decade and are thus verifiable today.

M/M-Robots, The Agent, 2006_Haunch of version Gallery and The Artists_Jens Ziehe
M/M-Robots, The Agent, 2006_Haunch of version Gallery and The Artists_Jens Ziehe


Matti Suuronen_Futuro home, 1968-1969_Andres Lejona
Matti Suuronen_Futuro home, 1968-1969_Andres Lejona


The Futuro was a standardised plastic house designed by the Finnish architect Matti Suuronen (*1933). It was produced in 1968 in response to a request from a childhood friend, Dr Jaako Hiidenkari who wanted a ready-to-use house for his skiing holidays that could be set up on the snowy slopes of mountains.
The Futuro was a space capsule on adjustable stilts and reflected the 1960s optimism: the ideal of a new era, the space age; plastic as a construction material; production in series; modular assemblage; mobility, elliptical shapes, pop colours, etc.

The 001 prototype was eight metres in diameter, weighed 400 kg and could accommodate up to eight people. Following general enthusiasm, Suuronen envisaged a serial production of the Futuro in a more portable five metre version. A huge international publicity campaign was launched but the oil crisis of 1973 meant the end of the house.


Parallel worlds

Going against the principle of industrial fabrication of minimal art, John McCracken (*1943) makes his sculptures himself, producing the resins, lacquers and fibres for his artworks. The timeless and enigmatic shapes of these six black monoliths emit an implacable strangeness by evoking the prehistoric alignments of Carnac or Stonehenge and the black monolith in the film 2001, A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.

Their precise disposition reconfigures and renews our perception of space. McCracken carefully works the surfaces which, once sanded and polished, become almost reflective and impose their presence on the exhibition space. In his work the artist alludes to metaphysics, hallucinatory experiences and the existence of parallel worlds. He clarifies the relationship between his work and science fiction thus: The fact that these objects simultaneously exist in multiple dimensions fascinates me to the highest degree and this also has an echo in the world of men. I think that humans exist in several dimensions at once. His monoliths seem to come from elsewhere, from the future or from another dimension.


Mariko Mori, Oneness, 2003_Jens Ziehe
Mariko Mori, Oneness, 2003_Jens Ziehe


Yinka Shonibare_Space Walk, 2002_Stephen Friedman Gallery, James Cohan Gellery
Yinka Shonibare_Space Walk, 2002_Stephen Friedman Gallery, James Cohan Gellery


The Space Walk by Yinka Shonibare shows two astronauts in zero gravity attached to the same space capsule. They wear suits of wax, a material specially made in Holland to create the traditional dress of African women. The motifs represent black soul music album covers. In addition to questioning the validity of newly belonging to a European and non-African culture, Shonibare shows how the extraterrestrial is associated with fear of foreigners. By using the creation of motifs as a metaphor for the phenomenon of cultural confusion, the artist turns the notions of identity and otherness into an issue of construction and asks the question: “Who is foreign when we leave the Earth?”

Yinka Shonibare_Space Walk 2, 2002
Yinka Shonibare_Space Walk 2, 2002


The Medialab by Konstantin Grcic was commissioned and produced by Mudam and is reminiscent of the film Minority Report by Steven Spielberg with its multiplicity of screens and the immateriality of information and images. Like a multimedia curiosity cabinet, where information is presented simultaneously, the media lab makes parallel worlds coexist and also replays the science fiction dream of individual reception proposed by Gernsback, with his Superperception, where each member of the family watches his favourite programme at the same time.

Mathieu Lehanneur_Élements, 2006_Véronique Huyghe
Mathieu Lehanneur_Élements, 2006_Véronique Huyghe


Innocence, 2003_Hideaki Kawashima
Innocence, 2003_Hideaki Kawashima


The body: The “Mechas”- Mechanical transformation of the body

Design and science fiction approach the human body by imagining its organic, mechanical or psychic transformation, improving it through the addition of prothesis or bypassing it through interior voyaging and pharmacopoeia. From superheroes with supernatural powers to monstrous hybrids, what is imagined is another body or the body of the other, the extraterrestrial. By returning to the fusion between the mechanical and the organic so dear to cyberpunks, the metamorphosed body redefines living. For example, in the animated film Ghost in the Shell by Matsumo Ooshii, a computer program asks to be recognized as an individual and demands political asylum. Technology constantly forces us to rethink and redefine what we are.

At the begining of the century, in his play R.U.R, the Czech playwright Karel Capek questioned the relationship between the human body and technology when faced with industrial production conditions. While Capek’s “robota” (the Czech word for worker) referred to an artificial organic human, the word robot has been taken to refer to a “mechanical” being. The latter has become a worldwide success, as witnessed by the Griffith collection toys produced in series.


Gianni Motti, The Messenger, 2003
Gianni Motti, The Messenger, 2003


In the relationship between design and science fiction this coupling between the mechanical and the organic underlines the difficulty of defining limits of what the body is. There is thus super-prothesis: New menus for new projects by the designer Dennis Santachiara (*1951, Italy). Inventing super-prothesis writes Santachiara, underlines a mutation of nature, similar to an extension of the desire by which society can no longer be relieved by functional improvements but demands a new aesthetic and means of communication and emotional gratification that are different from what has previously been offered by the world of design (…) It is the opportunity for a new design to emerge in which technological innovations (...) reveal the poetry and sensuality of an entirely artificial body.


Fergus Greer_Leigh Bowery
Fergus Greer_Leigh Bowery


The transformed body of the mutant, with xenotransplantation (the transplantation of genetically modified animal organs), is from now on a reality. But, in science fiction, the design of the body is related as much to the will for control and for biological superpower as to a translation in the flesh of cataclysms, anguish and transformations of society. Unlike American superheroes, who acquired supernatural powers to ensure the continuity of their national values, in Japan the monsters and Godzillas of the post-war period transposed the generational post-atomic trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki felt by the Japanese population. However, there is a recurring motif of an innocent body whose original human nature is modified by an alien element. Such is the case with Tetsuo who, in the manga and the animated film Akira, undergoes a monstrous and horribly painful transformation of the body and ends up exploding while destroying New Tokyo.


Aoshin_Chime Trooper, 1958_Japan
Aoshin_Chime Trooper, 1958_Japan


If the conquest of the West constitutes the great American adventure of the 19th century, outer space represents the ultimate territory for domination in the following century. The transition from “far West” to “far far West” takes on the form of a “space opera” in science fiction literature and films. On the other hand, we can expect that extraterrestrials will attempt to annex our planet, destroy Mankind, or that they are wise, teaching their values to Earthlings. But what do they look like? The Soak of Hideaki Kawashima (*1969, Japan)? The aliens from Oneness by the artist Mariko Mori (*1967, Japan)? The little beings with hydrocephalic brains in Mars Attacks? Or the insects in Men In Black?


Nomura_Space Robot x-70 Aka Tulip head, 1960_Japan
Nomura_Space Robot x-70 Aka Tulip head, 1960_Japan


Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd._Ultrasonic bath_Osaka
Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd._Ultrasonic bath_Osaka


The body: Totalitarian tendencies

In works such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or 1984 by George Orwell, science fiction authors point out totalitarian tendencies that are latent in contemporary democratic principles. When concerned with the body, these warnings concentrate on procreation, cloning, the revising of the laws of eugenics or a number of constraints that could redefine the human being. Manufacturing Human Cyborgs and the Erotic Museum of science fiction denounce the danger of thinking of the body in terms of a single technology, as if it were an instrument or an object rather than a living being. It was conceived in 1981 by Masata Matsuno as a hihokan (“sex museum” in Japanese, a word that literally means “the house of hidden treasures”).

This diorama was presented at the 2004 Yokohama Biennial of Contemporary Art by the artist Kyoichi Tsuzuki (*1956, Japan) under the name of SpermPalace. It is a vertical tableau composed of mannequins, models and other objects and the installation presents (across several such tableaux) a history of science fiction which places extraterrestrial eugenics at the centre of the story. Having been kidnapped by extraterrestrials, badly treated Earthlings serve as sex slaves ready to gratify the desires of extraterrestrials. These crude scenes play around with clichés of representation in science fiction. Black and silver instrument panels, helmets with antennae and figure-hugging clothes all lend the central scene a laboratory-spaceship dimension that questions the consequences of technology. Certain scenes may shock sensitive persons. This exhibit is forbidden to minors.


André Courrèges_La Cité de Lumières, 1967-2000_Andres Lejona
André Courrèges_La Cité de Lumières, 1967-2000_Andres Lejona


With treatments for eternal youth, the ingestion of drugs and remedies, placebos, elixirs, sprays and ionisations, the imaginary psycho-pharmacy (so dear to Gernsback who liked to imagine industrially preserved happiness) finds in design the necessary mediation for reinvigorated mental space Architecture Pill is a project by the Austrian architect Hans Hollein (*1934) that serves the production of environments modified by homeostasis (the stabilisation of living organisms with different physiological constants). His “architecture pill” ironically creates a healthy balance between the environment and its occupant. This kit for controlling the non-physical environment, to use the words of its author, is a simple coloured pill in a transparent wrapper that eliminates design because controlling the environment can be done thanks to chemistry and medicine.


Cesare Casati and Emmanuelle C. Ponzio_Pillola, 1968_Philippe Decelle
Cesare Casati and Emmanuelle C. Ponzio_Pillola, 1968_Philippe Decelle


Marc Newson_Alufelt, 1993_Galerie Kréa_Paris
Marc Newson_Alufelt, 1993_Galerie Kréa_Paris


The chair is perhaps the everyday object that shows most clearly the mutation of design under the influence of new technologies and new materials. Until the beginning of the 20th century, most chairs were made from traditional materials, decoration being their only criterion of differentiation. In 1926, the Hungarian designer Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), a teacher at the Bauhaus, devised a film project about the development of seating. He published a photomontage of six chairs that he had made in the school magazine. From his first creation, the African chair, to the last-but-one, the Wassily, a development from expressionism to modernity distinguished by a geometric approach and a simplification of shapes is noticeable. In the last image, that shows a woman sitting in a void, Breuer supersedes modern functionalist and aesthetic issues to defend an idea of seating that, like a flexible and immaterial column of air, defies the laws of classical physics (especially that of gravity). According to Breuer, the chair of tomorrow is anti-gravitational and promises adventures in space.


Hans Hollein_Mobile Office, 1969_Jens Ziehe
Hans Hollein_Mobile Office, 1969_Jens Ziehe


From the Twenties onwards, the column of air was displayed using a cantilever technique in which an element appears to be suspended or supported by the void. After World War II, the air column became structural. In response to science fiction (that seeks to give substance to that which does not yet exist and to that which is intangible), a radical design tendency directed itself towards a dematerialisation of spaces perceived as stable and perennial. Thus the collectives Archigram (a movement created in Great Britain in 1961), Haus-Rucker-Co (an Austrian collective, 1867-1983) and Ant Farm extended their research into the areas of architecture, urban planning and the environment.

Enclosed in a plastic skin, the air column could give shape to a space. Such was the case for Pneumakosm
by Haus-Rucker-Co, an urban landscape composed of a myriad of spatial cells in the form of transparent and pneumatic electric bulbs or the Cushicle Suitaloon by Archigram, a cockpit-skin which could be deployed to make a house. The various formulations of the air column took various paths including that of poetry when Shiro Kuramata (1943-1991, Japan) let a feather float in weightlessness as if by magic, or when the air rushed in under the folds in the chair Alufelt by Marc Newson (*1963, Australia).


Hans Hollein_Colonne Air_Jens Ziehe
Hans Hollein_Colonne Air_Jens Ziehe


Norman Bel Geddes_Flying Car, 1945
Norman Bel Geddes_Flying Car, 1945


Capsules: the atom

The capsule as an inhabitable entity with a rounded and autonomous form belongs to the history of shapes. But, in the 1950s, these forms were chosen to extol the energy of the atom as a beneficial energetic and “vital form” - but one which was also deadly. The designer Joe Colombo (1914-1978, Italy), who was then a member of the Movimento d’Arte Nucleare, depicted a self-regenerating world without recourse to an exterior source. This tendency takes on a new meaning in the Città Futuribile (City of the Future), a drawing dating from his architectural studies at the Milan Politecnico, on which he wrote in pencil “Sfera = Forma Perfetta” (The sphere = a perfect form). Colombo drew a sun beaming down on a city and insists on the complete revolution of the sphere by adding arrows in the direction of the rotation of the sun. The movement of the lifegenerating sun and the rotation of the Earth underlines the importance of movement. With this project on paper, Colombo means to show how important it is to adopt a dynamic representation that corresponds to the vital and autonomous energy of life. The central idea in Colombo’s aesthetic conception concerns the rotation of the sphere rather than the sphere itself (considered as a support for the movement). Following the example of the revolution of the Earth around the sun, it echoes that perfect form, the Città nucleare, which recalls the movement of the universe and is opposed to the orthogonal aesthetic of the moderns.


Joe Colombo_Città Nucleare, 1952
Joe Colombo_Città Nucleare, 1952


As a counterpoint to interstellar voyages and the conquest of space at the end of the Sixties, the interior voyage comes from the “Existenzmaximum”, a term made explicit by the designer Alessandro Mendini (*1931 , Italy) and subsequently taken up by Paula Antonelli, curator of the MoMA design department. “Existenzmaximum” defines an immaterial space which, starting with a simple mechanism, allows the senses and the mind to roam free. Domestic space is no longer physical but becomes mental instead. Based on anti-technological and individual practice, the objects that refer to it in the exhibition are the supports for an imagination that stands in for reality and for the environment and objects. The Mindexpander by Haus-Rucker-Co. (an Austrian collective, 1867-1983) allows an individual perception of the interior world. This plastic chair is mounted with a helmet and brings together two interlinked people in order to share their thoughts and multiply their field of consciousness.

Haus-Rucker-Co_Mindexpander II, 1967_Zamp Kelp_Berlin
Haus-Rucker-Co_Mindexpander II, 1967_Zamp Kelp_Berlin


Yonezawa_Mighty Robot, 1960_Japan
Yonezawa_Mighty Robot, 1960_Japan


Technophilia

Against modernism, with its leitmotiv of “form follows function”, the technophile 1960s and 1970s tended towards a design that Ettore Sottsass qualified as “sensual, exciting”, at the service of the liberated individual. This critical approach is situated between two extremes: on one side an exalted belief in technology, close to popular culture, and on the other a more pessimistic dystopian vision that warns against standardisation and untrammelled industrialisation.

“Technophilia” is based on a feeling of confidence in technology and innovation, a subject as much of design as of science fiction that gives the impression that there is a technological solution to all problems. It conceives of a future aesthetic applied to the present that is made up of automatism, mobility, immateriality, miniaturisation, air-conditioning and gadgets, etc. Technology does not simply transform Man, it becomes Man, and by reflecting the will for absolute control, postulates that everything is objectified and subjugated to human designs.


Jean-Luc Moerman_Zoloat, 2007_Collection Moerman_Jens Ziehe
Jean-Luc Moerman_Zoloat, 2007_Collection Moerman_Jens Ziehe


In the 1960s it was believed that the repercussions of the space age would be immediate and universal, applied everywhere and to everybody. Everything took the form of globes, bubbles and spheres. Whether it was lamps, armchairs, radios, crockery or houses, everything, without exception, seemed to anticipate the next moon landing. The Satellite lamp by Yonel Lebovici (1937-1998, France) provides a link between the conquest of space and the Earth, consisting, as it does, of a bubble set in transparent circles, creating the illusion of the weightlessness of a planet surrounded by satellites (indicated by the traces that underlie the plastic material).


Jean-Luc Moerman_Zoloat, 2007_Collection Moerman
Jean-Luc Moerman_Zoloat, 2007_Collection Moerman


John McCracken_6 Columns, 2006_Jens Ziehe
John McCracken_6 Columns, 2006_Jens Ziehe


Critical forms of Utopia adopted at the end of the 1960s and 1970s by architects and designers have names such as “dystopia” or “abnormal Utopia” and “anti-Utopia”. Through stories pushed to their ultimate limits, the authors aimed to erode the progressive and supposedly realistic project of technological progress defended by modernists. Science fiction acts as the vector of this critique because it employs the impulses behind Utopia.

The 12 Ideal Cities by Piero Frassinelli of the Superstudio group (a collective formed in 1966 in Italy), one of the pillars of the Italian Architettura Radicale movement, perfectly illustrates this form of dissence. These cities are ideal only in their premises of standardisation, hygiene, primacy of reason, industrialisation and so on that are also those of the modern movement. These nightmarish and caustic short stories were published in magazines in the ironic and playful form of a test. Following a request by the science fiction author Robert Sheckly several years later, a thirteenth city was added. The Archigram magazine attempted to bring together the two extremes. By employing the formal language of Marvel Comics, the young architects and editors of this revue expressed their frustration with the conservatism in place and reinvented the city as a single organism.


R & Sie - François Roche - Cabinet Hypnotique, 2005_Jens Ziehe_Mudam Collection
R & Sie - François Roche - Cabinet Hypnotique, 2005_Jens Ziehe_Mudam Collection


MentalKLINIK (Yasemin Baydar, Birol Demir)

Frozen45 by mentalKLINIK projects us into a future era, the Biot technosociety in which we can model our own bodies, thus becoming both actor and subject. Indiscernible from its application, Frozen45 is a treatment of the future whose effects are translated through the Biot transformation process and allow the development of the skin to be fixed. The faces of visitors thus become invisible sculptures foreshadowing the way in which museums might exhibit the Biot when the frontiers between humans and objects disappear.


Yasemin Baydar Birol Demir_MentalKlinik, Frazen 45 project, 2007
Yasemin Baydar Birol Demir_MentalKlinik, Frazen 45 project, 2007