With building today at its most spectacular, and sometimes also at its most out-of-touch, how can we still hope to provoke wonder in our architecture, and how should we envision the wonders of tomorrow?
This is the premise of We Want World Wonders, the latest publication authored by The Why Factory (T?F), a global think-tank and research institute run by architecture firm MVRDV in collaboration with Delft University of Technology.
The book is a call to “reclaim and embrace the spiritual in the things we create” and to once again imagine icons that are not merely spectacular feats of technology but “true celebrations of human achievements,” that inspire us to feel, think, and wonder, as the Great Pyramids of Giza have been inspiring us for 4,500 years.
After briefly surveying a host of existing world wonders — from the Roman Colosseum to Turkey's Cappadocia — the authors examine and embrace four conditions man-made world wonders exemplify: they evoke a sense of mystery, or wonderment; stand at the superlative of some scale (whether it be height, length, volume, age, or beauty); exhibit pioneering technology, and tell great stories. With this framework defined, the authors embark on the most ambitious project of the book: presenting 23 possible world wonders of tomorrow, dreamed up by the master’s students of The Why Factory’s "World Wonders" studio.
With T?F Director Winy Maas and architect and researcher Tihamer Salij at the helm, the 2008 and 2011 studios have imagined wonders that truly live up to the name: creations that push beyond the boundaries of technology as we know it, careening just far enough past our current frontiers to fabricate our most wondrous visions of the future. They rise above earth’s surface into space and onto the moon, and tunnel under it in the form of ultra-high speed ball-shaped vehicles traveling 2,900 kilometers below ground that shuttle commuters from Brazil to Vietnam in just 42 minutes.
The proposed creations both utilize and recalibrate our meteorological systems, from “The Dancing Cloud,” an artificial cloud resting 754 feet above Berlin that will become the most exhilarating dance club of the future, to “The Artificial Sun” and “The Lightning Harvester.” They provide solutions to our greatest contemporary challenges — from climate change and energy to security, health, and conflict — and propel our most pioneering advances, such as space and aeronautics, long-distance transit, genetic engineering, information technology, and artificial intelligence. They are just audacious enough that, someday, we could imagine them as real.
The Dancing Cloud.
The Typhoon Controller.
These possible world wonders of tomorrow are the culmination of the project and the strongest section of the book. The preceding texts lead up to these visions, providing the mood and theoretical framework under which these future “fantastications” are dared, but they leave the reader wanting more. They often feel unmediated and fall into generalizations that in the best cases simply ring true, while in the worst fall flat and do not provide anything enlightening on the topic of world wonders. While the texts point to feelings of “wonderment,” “love, fear, hope [and] beauty” that are evoked by world wonders, they often do not dig deep enough to provide a plausible reconstruction of how these spectacles inspire such reactions.
There are, however, moments of illumination, which provide exciting insights into the anthology's focus. One such instance involves a reconstruction of how architecture functions as storytelling:
Storytelling bridges the many worlds inside people’s minds. And translating these worlds into reality, into the physical world, could be called architecture, the stories of inhabiting spaces that force us all to become users. Architecture and the city, the accumulation of buildings, are stories with motives that capture the essentials of the human drama of inhabiting space and the attempt of survival within it…. Architecture embraces a sequencing of events in which we temporarily become characters in scenes.
Approaching architecture as embodied story is illuminating in this context: it sheds new light on manmade world wonders as constructions with the power to create and reinforce myths, to reformulate our relationship to our planet, society, and the whole of humanity in this most visceral and grand of ways. Salij, the author of the chapter in which this appears, draws on scholar Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth for this account, and one wishes The Why Factory might have included more of such discussions, supported by thought-provoking and well-researched texts by theoretical experts.
The approach to the theoretical texts is perhaps a necessary stance for architects: audaciously bold, holistic, broad, and filled with big new words and bigger visions. How else could one hope to envision and create true world wonders? Buildings are real-world entities and making them requires a concrete vision that is followed through resolutely. Architects can’t be moderate or wishy-washy in their planning, and certainly not with regards to the most audacious project of all. The role these wonders are to assume is an immense one, as markers of the current age and forecast for the future, inspiring vast emotions with ambitious ideas.
All images via nai010 publishers.