Urban Hypotheticals

[Image: The “Grow House” by Carey Clouse, with the Hypothetical Development Organization].

Tonight in New Orleans, the Hypothetical Development Organization, spearheaded by G.K. Darby, Ellen Susan, and Rob Walker, will celebrate a public launch at the Du Mois Gallery on Freret Street.

Their strategy is to propose and render a series of speculative architectural detours and additions to the city, “dedicated to the recognition and extension of a new form of urban storytelling.” Each project, they explain, is merely a “hypothetical addition to the built environment,” an “absurdly impractical solution”—some of them based on “nonexistent technologies”—to the many problems facing New Orleans today.

[Image: The “Snooze Tower” by John Becker, with the Hypothetical Development Organization].

As the organizers describe it:

Members of this organization begin the narrative process by examining city neighborhoods and commercial districts for compelling structures that appear to have fallen into disuse—“hidden gems” of the built environment. In varying states of repair, these buildings suggest only stories about the past, not the future.

That’s where the Hypothetical Development Corporation comes in:

As a public service, H.D.O. invents a hypothetical future for each selected structure. Unlike a traditional, reality-based developer, however, our organization is not bound by rules relating to commercial potential, practical materials, or physics. In our view, plausibility is a creative dead end. That is to say: We are not trying to fool anybody.

The resulting projects are then printed as posters and displayed in public, at the sites their creators have chosen.

[Image: The “Theater of Escape” by Michael Doyle, with the Hypothetical Development Organization].

It goes without saying that many people will object to the notion of dreaming up deliberately impossible solutions to very real socio-economic problems; indeed, this argument would go, if you’re going to spend so much time coming up with ideas, raising money to print glossy posters, investing in the effort to hang those images up around the city, and then go on to advertise the project online, why not simply create, say, a food bank or a homeless shelter or even a nomadic school? Why not buy a bookmobile and bring mobile libraries to the city’s most under-served parish?

These are valid questions, and any speculative project needs to consider the implications of how it uses its time.

[Image: The “Mobile Cornucopia” by Candy Chang, with the Hypothetical Development Organization].

However, speaking only for myself, I have never believed that speculative work or writing—fiction, broadly speaking, whether it’s architecture fiction or literary fiction—exists in an either/or relationship with social and political activism. We don’t need either speculative writing about architecture, for instance, or politically engaged critical writing about real buildings; we need both. Some people are better at the former than they are at the latter; some are better at the latter than they are at the former. It should never be assumed that someone impassioned by the speculative potential of new ideas is somehow against the existence of soup kitchens or grass roots community groups—or that someone working at or relying upon a soup kitchen, shelter, hostel, or church would not be inspired by whimsical utopias and bizarre ideas.

My point is that urban speculation is not some politically dangerous variant on “the opium of the people,” cruelly hypnotizing people with intellectual spectacle so that they no longer seek to transform their everyday spatial circumstances; speculation, in fact, is often the very reason they seek out—and physically embark upon—urban change in the first place.

In any case, the fact that these projects deliberately amplify the impossible doesn’t bother me. Starting from the miraculous, the marvelous, the utopian, the crazed and working backward from there to fashion a new world is a worthwhile design strategy and it needs to be pursued more often, not less.

Nonetheless, when I first heard about this project, I was afraid that the resulting posters for hypothetical developments might come off not as aspirational signs of the urban fantastic, but more as a kind of taunting—as if a bunch of architects had come along with their posters to show you all the things that your city is not, all the things we wish you could be good enough to be, that we wish you could pull yourself together long enough to become—like a deranged husband taunting his wife with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue—but, well, just look at you: you’re all weeds, empty lots, and abandoned buildings, and, even worse, you’re poor. We architects don’t appreciate the ramshackle street you live on or the old five-and-dime where you shop everyday; you’re not science fiction enough for our tastes.

In a sense, this is the aggressive undertone of all real estate development ads. The world you live in right now is not up to scratch, those ads say, and this development only proves your current inadequacy.

But there are many ways in which the Hypothetical Development Organization works to avoid—or at least lessen—this fate, in large part through its selection of sites—genuinely abandoned or destroyed lots around the city—but also through the project’s tone. It is still whimsical, to be sure; but that’s both its strategy and its point.

If an architectural proposal can catalyze local efforts toward remaking the neighborhood—which doesn’t mean clearing empty lots so that Walmart can move in or someone can build million-dollar condos—or if that proposal can simply push residents to re-conceive how they physically engage with their surroundings, then it has successfully revealed, at least in part, the transformative potential of spatial ideas and other urban hypotheticals.

In any case, if you’re in New Orleans tonight, stop by the Du Mois Gallery to learn more; if you’re unable to go, check out the Hypothetical Development Organization‘s website.

4 thoughts on “Urban Hypotheticals”

  1. ok. off the top of my head, actual architecturally/art realted projects/events in nola that are helping to create elements of a city beyond belief and corporate bureaucracy: a D.I.Y. skatepark on a slab of concrete that was formally Humanity Street; a gigantic, multi-level treehouse fashioned from recycled parts of salvaged lumber, swimming pools, fastfood playhouses…; a "garden and kitchen classroom" known as the Edible Schoolyard; mobile movie screenings on top of vacant supermarkets; a golf course being allowed to be reclaimed by nature; groups of homesteaders occupying and rehabilitating formally abandoned homes; pretty much every single unsanctioned/unpermitted parade…

    still a lot of artists existing in and coming to new orleans, treating the city as a testing ground/exploiting the conditions. but people in new orleans aren't just poor. other terms that could adequately describe a good percentage of the population: displaced, under-served, and under-educated. generally speaking, publicly and repetitively shit on by administration and media.

    not that this group of artists is necessarily contributing to any of these problems. though, there is a weariness that exists due to artists like Kirsha Kaechele. maybe it's not the responsibility of artists to better the situation(s) in a city. though it'd sure be a nice thing for them to do. i suppose making posters can't really hurt anyone too much.

    i'm genuinely interested in checking out the show. i really enjoy this kind of work, though i definitely have my reservations about these kinds of projects in this kind of city. it's definitely a tricky/sensitive conceptual terrain to navigate.

    on a final note, i have to point out the irony of this sort of event happening uptown, a generally more affluent part of the city. these sort of speculative displays and presentations of future scenarios, which are regular in a city undergoing constant change and transformation, are generally most interesting when produced by the underprivileged members of the community, who have so, so many wonderful ideas for how to improve their neighborhoods and significantly less access to the venues and forums in which these concepts can be expressed and received.

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