City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Countries all over the world are thinking about how to redecorate and re-inhabit their pavilions for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Australia is no exception, and its creative directors this time round are John Gollings and Ivan Rijavec, and you can read about the approach they’re taking – dubbed NOW + WHEN – at the AIA website. In a nutshell, the bit I’m interested in is the open competition to envision Australian cities circa 2050 (NB. I think the date has been floating around. It was originally, if loosely, set around 2050. It now says 2100 on the competition site. No matter but interesting. I wonder why?)

Anyway, I was involved in a couple of the shortlisted teams for stage two, but no further. But I will will post up an earlier entry that didn’t make it to the shortlist.

I wanted to create a sense of future Australian cities without necessarily relying on a vision of a future Australian city.

Although future visions are always appealing, if rarely immediately useful, I’m more interested in exploring different ways of conjuring up how such a city might feel, or function, of what its social and cultural fabric might be, rather than how it might look. As these aspects are not straightforward to draw, I looked instead to the short story format, and when the competition’s requirement for a 3D model was considered, this became an animated montage/collage with soundtrack/narration.

I wrote the original set of 14 ‘super-short stories’ late one November night for an internal ideas competition at Arup Sydney intended to whittle down our office’s entries. I’ll post those up for the record, but here is the eventual, final entry, centred on 6 of those 14, and with a quick sketch of one selection – ‘Darwin S.E.Z.’ – to indicate how the collage idea might work. 



6 Cities Here's the PDF version: 6cities.pdf [2.6mb]

Here's the submitted text extracted that accompanied that image:

“This entry comprises six stories of six Australian cities, set around 2050. Each is depicted through an animated collage with narration and sound design. All are extrapolations of contemporary trends, and as such explore aspects of possible futures for any Australian city. They could even be aspects of the same city.

These super-short stories leave the city wide open for the reader to construct their own visions. They hover indeterminately between utopia and dystopia, tongue-in-cheek yet serious, plausible yet exaggerated, pitched in tone somewhere between cheap sci-fi, JG Ballard and Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Each city is an extrapolation of particular questions or trends, such as: 

What would Australia do to maintain its resources business with China?

What would an Australian city be like if it had a Chinese urban planning regime?

How far would Brisbane go to capture business from Sydney?

What would a city designed for an average age of 72 be like?

How could a CBD develop residential capacity without losing an atom of commercial space?

If the trends for cocooning oneself in mobile media and augmented reality continue, what becomes of actual urban fabric?

Animated collage with narrative voiceover is chosen for a reason. The city is rarely experienced as anything like a rendered 3D scene, but is instead layered, noisy, fractured, oblique, subjective, laden with memories, media, aspirations and allusions. And so most rendered urban visions are by definition misleading, over-specifying yet under-selling, carefully modelled but bereft of character, culture, and conflict.

Both the collage and the short story offer a way out of these representational cul-de-sacs.

The collage can both define a sensation or a mood while remaining more open to interpretation than a traditional literal representation might.

Equally, short stories are also seen as more open texts, inviting the reader into the construction of their terrain by not stating things, and by constraining description.”

In terms of production details:

“The collages are designed to assemble, at varying paces and with varying kinetic behaviours, from disparate 3D objects. As such, they unfurl, twist and snap into place, in time to a narration of the story behind each city. Each object is a structural element, and so can be revolved around, panned across, zoomed into. Typographic elements are also rendered as structural objects. Thus each collage is an impressionistic yet impossibly structural urban experience.

Sound design will be key — elements must appear, fold and click into place with tones and timbres that appear familiar and everyday, yet are also extrapolated to become dislocated and exotic. The narration must also hover, being equally indeterminate, between solemn and sardonic. For reference, listen to Burnt Friedman’s ‘Tongs of Love’, Jerry Granelli’s ‘Nolan’ and Paul Schütze’s ‘Partial Site’. Note: The “Six Cities” team recognises the need to work collaboratively with the Biennale production team on these aspects.”

Of course, I didn't get time to fully detail those different elements to the collage – for example, the typography-as-structure elements – and the image itself is a little rushed, as these things tend to be. But it has its moments, and tells a story of sorts.







I tend to approach architectural imagery from the angle(s) of graphics, information, type and text, and although the rush jobs of competition entries are no place to develop such approaches coherently, I feel there's more mileage yet in these collages. In some respects, they hark back to a series of images I produced a while back e.g.:


I must admit to being disappointed by the narrow confines of the competition brief – in the context of so much debate about a broader remit for architecture, it seems lacking in imagination to simply ask for 3D models as a platform for thinking about the future. I suppose they are at least brazenly honest in being so explicitly image-based. However, I will of course be as intrigued as anyone to see what emerges from the competition. Although there are only scant details of the selected teams thus far, looking at the list of names we can expect some fairly compelling thinking behind the visions. I did enjoy writing the stories, however, and I’m aware that this format could be also pushed much further, in terms of another mode of thinking about architecture and urbanism.

Beyond_mag The wider set of ‘14 Cities’, from which these six are taken, is clearly a respectful rip-off of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in that each of these imaginary cities could simply be particular aspects of any Australian city, essentially, extrapolated to cast into sharp relief. You can see all these trends in Sydney, to varying degrees. Or Brisbane. Or Melbourne. But I tried to combine this with the idea, drawn partly from literary theory, that the short story format is a more ‘open’ text, its brevity necessitating greater engagement from the reader. Since writing these pieces, I discovered Beyond magazine, which is a lovely little mag delivering speculative writing around urbanism. Although it ranges across a wider range of writing and formats, it approaches some of the ideas in similar fashion. It's well worth picking up. 

As a result of all this, I'm fascinated by the potential in this narrative format for developing ideas as part of an actual urban development and design process. I've practised this a little – for Melbourne's Docklands and Seoul's Yongsan IBD – but have yet to push it further, and I'd be interested in hearing about any other examples, successful or otherwise.


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