Monday, February 08, 2021

Attlee, Harper & Smith, Gross Ideas (2020)

Edwina Attlee, Phineas Harper & Maria Smith (eds), Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture. The Architecture Foundation, 2020. Pp. 208. ISBN 978-1-9996462-3-3. £12.90.

Reviewed by Valeria Vitale

Gross Ideas is a book unlike many others, for a number of reasons. First of all it is the companion publication of an architecture exhibition, the Oslo Architecture Triennale. But rather than a traditional catalogue it is an anthology of seventeen stories about future cities. The other peculiarity is that only some of the authors of these stories are fiction writers, the others are architects and engineers. So, if you like the challenge of something unusual, this book might be the right one for you.

Another thing that would probably strike you immediately is that the book is beautiful. You know the stereotype that architects have better taste in everything? Well, that might be true for editorial projects as well. Charming graphic details, specific to each story, enrich the pages, and the whole layout is delightful. But we have been taught not to judge a book by its cover. Or editorial aesthetics. Or at least not only by them. So, let’s talk about the stories too.

It is not easy to judge stories written by authors who are not used to fiction writing. On the one hand, they bring fresh ideas and perspectives, and take us outside some worn tropes of the genre. On the other hand, as is only to be expected, the prose is sometimes not very smooth, and the pace can be a little frustrating. I believe the trade-off still makes this anthology a worthwhile read, because, really, if you are interested in the future of our cities, who knows more about materials, buildings, infrastructure, resources, communications than architects and engineers?

If some of us have only recently come to the realisation that the collapse of our planet is not a far-fetched literary scenario but something that is getting harder and harder to avoid, architects and engineers have probably been thinking about the future, in practical terms, for a long time. Many of these stories conjure a quite grim sense of doom. Things are going bad. And, sure, we can adapt and survive, but it won’t be fun. And what is possibly the most scary bit is that the point of no return is really, really close. Much closer than we think. If we used to think that climate change and abuse of natural resources was something we had to worry about for the sake of our grandchildren, Gross Ideas will help us look at the ugly truth that, actually, it’s a catastrophe that our own generation is going to face. It’s already going on.

The stories explore the dissolution of old societal bonds, but also the creation of new ones, and the role that solidarity and communities may play in future scenarios. There are (a few) uplifting stories too, like the one by Leslie Lokko, “<3.” Half story half essay, “<3” touches on the impact of cities and technology on poverty and the quality of life of people in developing countries, through a simple yet very effective story, specific enough to make you care about the characters, and archetypical enough that could be the tale of every single migrant and their families.

One of the contributions in this anthology that really stayed with me is the beautiful “Exile’s Letter” by Mill & Jones, a graphic story where the beauty of the bichromatic illustrations is deeply intertwined with the evocative, poetic text, generating a truly fascinating effect, that will make you go through those pages over and over again. Every combination of images and words becomes almost like a map to explore, a quest for the elements to find and reconnect, to finally enjoy as a whole.

The anthology also features some very good writers. The longest story is “In Arms” by Lindsey Jo Walton. More explicitly sci-fi than simply near feature speculation, “In Arms” is a challenging and mind-bending adventure that plays with the alternation between points of view, as well between the very fast pace of the gripping action scenes, and the slow burning of philosophical dialogues. Through a slow and calculated progression the two strands will start to converge.

I also quite enjoyed Cory Doctorow’s “Deliberate Ruins,” and its reflection on what we like to leave behind, for ourselves and for those who will come later.

Overall I liked this anthology more as a project than for its individual stories. Which is maybe the point of an anthology after all. I enjoyed exploring these visions of the future that felt so real, maybe because they came from the minds of the two kinds of people that have made the future their profession: not only science fiction writers, but also architects and engineers. I found the idea of this collaboration and the interplay of the different perspectives deeply stimulating, and reading it really gave me food for thought.

I would also like to praise the Architecture Foundation for promoting this exciting experiment of a narrative catalogue; I hope it becomes a trend.

No comments: