Postcards from a Future

Scenario: The iconic City office tower is now high-rise housing.

[Scenario: The iconic City office tower is now high-rise housing. Originally converted into luxury flats, the block soon slid down the social scale to become a high-density, multi-occupation tower block. The Gherkin now worries the authorities as a potential slum. Refugees from equatorial lands have moved north in search of food. They make their homes in the buildings that once drove world finance – before the collapse of the global economy. Image © Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones.]

A current exhibition at the Museum of London entitled ‘Postcards from the Future’ attempts to imagine how climate change will affect London.  The illustrators, Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones touch on issues such as the food crisis, rising sea levels, informal housing, etc. to give a vision for types of adaptation.

Scenario: As the Gulf Stream slows a mini ice-age brings temporary relief.

[Scenario: As the Gulf Stream slows a mini ice-age brings temporary relief to heat-weary Londoners. Winter skating becomes London’s most popular sport and Tower Bridge is a favourite spot. The scene harks back to the 17th century when artists loved to paint London’s Frost Fairs. Then, the Thames froze over because the river flowed sluggishly. Now, the river flows quickly but every winter the temperature falls to new lows. Image © Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones. Background photography © Jason Hawkes]

There are a few observations that can be deduced upon examination of the postcards. Firstly, the city will be succeeded by ‘nature’, further blurring the boundaries of the contemporary metropolis.  Secondly, infrastructure and (select) monuments will be some of the last remaining elements in such a metropolis; and thirdly, that housing will take the form of dense informal settlements or ‘slums’.  If one were to use these postcards as warnings, they would suggest more current design emphasis on infrastructural deployment, housing, and incorporating productive nature into the city.  More importantly, the extreme visions reveal a lack of resilience in the city.

Scenario: Buckingham Palace shanty town.

[Scenario: Buckingham Palace shanty town. The climate refugee crisis reaches epic proportions. The vast shanty town that stretches across London’s centre leaves historic buildings marooned, including Buckingham Palace. The Royal family is surrounded in their London home. Everybody is on the move and the flooded city centre is now uninhabitable and empty – apart from the thousands of shanty-dwellers. But should empty buildings and land be opened up to climate refugees? Image © Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones. Background photography © Jason Hawkes]

While these images are certainly provocative, they give little evidence of actual researched scenarios of climate change.  The two typical depictions of such crises often are utterly utopian or dystopian (think archigram vs. archizoom), both of which are problematic.  It is difficult for all to understand the exact ramifications of climate change, and that being said, I am interested on the role of nature and infrastructure depicted within these images.  ‘Nature’ is presented as a violent force (ice, floods) or a productive element (the rice paddies, tidal energy), both of which co-exist within dense urbanity. Infrastructure is rendered as a centralized point condition (Kew Nuclear Power Station) or as a distributed field (Tidal/ Wind) in the absence of people (through the photomontages).  These various depictions of both nature and infrastructure not only exist today but also are fairly traditional. Some of the more innovative postcards examine the merging of nature, infrastructure and the public in new ways.  In this regard, the distributed field of infrastructure and the productive use of nature are interesting because they both embrace a larger surface condition, and therefore a notion of landscape.  But this isn’t a picturesque or formal landscape of the English or French Gardens; it is a multivalent condition that could provide more resilience to the future metropolis.

Scenario: Thames Tidal Power.

[Scenario: Thames Tidal Power. The river remains a focus of power generation, just as it was for the great coal-powered power stations of old. Around the old Thames Barrier a number of new tidal power stations are using the tidal flows up and down the Thames to generate electricity for thousands of London businesses and homes. Image © Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones. Background photography © Jason Hawkes]

The provocative images are on display from October 2010 to March 2011.

Scenario: Parliament Square rice paddies.

[Scenario: Parliament Square rice paddies. This view across Parliament Square shows paddy fields running up to the walls of the Palace of Westminster. The land that once housed political protest is now part of the city’s food production effort. In this scenario London has adapted to rising water tables in radical ways. Managed flooding is now the name of the game, as is self-sufficiency in food. Central London is a network of rice paddies – and Londoners’ diet is largely rice-based. Image © Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones.]

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