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5×5 Exhibit: Participatory Provocations

Architect Magazine Ι March 11, 2016

What, exactly, does architecture have to say about this wild and surreal election season? The default answer for just about any year is usually: Not much. And that’s a problem Julia van den Hout and her fellow curators at Original Copy aimed to fix with 5×5. The exhibit invited 25 young design firms to tackle one of five prompts each; some fictional, some real, and all deeply engaged with the economic and cultural forces that wander into the voting booth with each citizen’s decision to pull the lever. There were: “community branches” for the NSA; Donald Trump’s heartily promised Mexican border wall; “droneports” and drone warehouses for Jeff Bezos’s inevitable future of omnipotent convenience; lunar vacation resorts; and the rise of pencil-thin luxury towers as investment havens for the ultra-rich.

This call for participatory criticism aimed to eject architecture from the arcane, avant-garde discourse it usually defaults to when things get a little too chummy and myopic, while keeping some sense of its vision subtly intact. The exhibition requirements kept things concise and approachable: one model per team, with only 100 words of text.

The prompts were met earnestly, with projects such as co-curator Kevin Erickson’s plan for drone “doggy doors” that use rooftop stairwells as entry points for deliveries. They were also met satirically: Future Expansion’s Trump Wall entry drapes the border-long barrier in the Statute of Liberty’s dress. And this opposition illustrated architecture’s dual ability to be a pragmatic tool as well as a detached prognosticator.

But the best entries did both at the same time: Spekulatius by Ultramoderne envisioned a future where the environment was so degraded and the required carbon offsets so expensive that the only mega-high-rises that would make financial sense were uninhabitable monolithic blocks of carbon-sequestering wood, with just enough space cut out for observation towers. It’s both comedy and tragedy, just like the 2016 elections.

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