For the Venice Biennale later this year, the Audi Urban Future Award asked six prestigious architecture firms to come up with visions of what cities might be like in 2030. The preliminary responses, as reported in the Economist, had a disturbing common theme: cars.
Pretty much all of the presentations assumed that cars would be self-piloting within 20 years, and that their interiors would, to some extent, be transformed into extensions of living spaces.
Some suggested a sort of descendant of the iPad offering an interface between car and passengers, an idea that seemed to emphasise the way in which the vehicles would feel like blank slates. … How the notion of power and autonomy built into the car and its associated desires can be domesticated in ever denser cities will be a crucial matter for at least some of these practices to deal with in their finished projects.
Well, these are visions of the future sponsored by a car company, so I suppose we might cynically have expected this, although the Award website’s summary of the challenge certainly sounds like it took a wider view. After the usual summary of the problems of expanding urbanism and affluence, they say:
In order to be able to actively shape the future, the intellectual, social and technical principles of the present must be reconsidered. …because all areas of life today are interconnected and mutually dependent, it is every bit as important to think about innovative concepts for mobility as about energy supply systems … In this context, the complex and sometimes chaotic urban structures of the metropolis constitute a laboratory for the advancement of a critical examination of architecture, transport policies, mobility concepts and urban development.
Some jobs are just too big for mortals, and this sounds like one of them. Human beings can “reconsider” some of the “intellectual, social, and technical principles of the present,” but not all of them at once. It’s like rock climbing: The more you extend your speculative reach in one direction, the more firmly you have to hold onto some other assumption.
In this case, it appears that while overturning “the intellectual, social and technical principles of the present,” none of the architects overturned the centrality of the car. Instead, that was one of their anchors, a solid conceptual foothold that let them imagine in other ways.
This is tool-fetishism, but it’s an instructive mistake because we’re all tempted to fetishize tools.
Technology can do a lot of things. It can make some headway against our biological and physical constraints. It may even solve the crises around energy and emissions. But the problem of cars in cities is not a technology problem, it’s a geometry problem: a problem of space.
Every car takes up 12-15 square metres. In 2030, there will be a lot more people, and a lot more people will have money. If they all buy cars, no iPad interface or
in-seat stereo system or self-driving computer or green-powered motor is going to solve the real problem, which is that a major city doesn’t have room for them all.
So it won’t happen. Rich people may have self-driving cars, but they won’t be the basis of the city. So we need something else. That’s really what the architects — and even Audi — should be planning for.