Drawing Science/Drawing Fiction

I’ve been remiss in posting about a graduate course I’ll be co-teaching with the brilliant Nicholas de Monchaux up at UC Berkeley for the 2018-2019 academic year. The application period is currently open through December 2017.

Called “Drawing Science/Drawing Fiction: The Future of Californian Ecology,” the year-long Master’s course will be a combination of architectural design, experimental drawing methods, and narrative speculation, exploring what de Monchaux calls a “new relationship between architecture, media, ecology, and craft.”

The idea is to look ahead, not just at the future of California, but at the future of what California represents: cutting-edge industrial design, the global cinematic imagination, unparalleled demographic integration, agricultural innovation, adaptive infrastructure, and, of course, the risks of climate change.

[Image: From David Maisel’s “The Lake Project”; used with permission of the artist].

With the entire state of California at their disposal, students will be able to focus on everything from the U.S./Mexico border to the San Andreas Fault, from Silicon Valley and space tourism to the sci-fi productions of Hollywood. Agriculture, Artificial Intelligence, electric cars; species loss, wildfire, drought; policing, governance, human labor.

There are architectural scenarios to design and explore for all of these.

[Image: California’s Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System photographed by Ethan Miller for Getty Images, via The Atlantic].

In an interview with Boom California published in 2014, novelist Kim Stanley Robinson—who was also interviewed here on BLDGBLOG way back in 2007—commented on the science-fictional appeal of California. By the time he went to college, he remarked, the landscape of the state had fundamentally changed; it was being terraformed for human habitation by the forces of industry and suburban development.

California, he realized, was itself a design project.

[Images: From David Maisel’s “The Lake Project”; used with permission of the artist].

Robinson explained to Boom that, in the blink of an eye, California became a “completely different landscape. At that same time I started reading science fiction (…) and it struck me that it was an accurate literature, that it was what my life felt like; so I thought science fiction was the literature of California. I still think California is a science fictional place. The desert has been terraformed. The whole water system is unnatural and artificial. This place shouldn’t look like it looks, so it all comes together for me. I’m a science fiction person, and I’m a Californian.”

Science fiction is the literature of California.

[Image: Early rendering for Michael Maltzan’s Six Street Viaduct in Los Angeles].

Briefly, this theme was developed further by an essay by Michael Ziser published in the same issue of Boom. “Postwar science fiction is to a surprising degree a phenomenon of the western United States,” Ziser wrote. It was also quite specifically Californian.

“As the producers of Golden Age sci-fi were lured to the region by the new economic opportunities available to writers in the pulp, television, and film industries of Southern California,” Ziser continued, “they were also drawn into an imaginative relationship with California’s physical novelty as a place sprung de novo from the plans of hydraulic engineers, road builders, and tract housing developers.”

Many of the major themes of science fiction in this period—the experience of living in an arid Martian colony, the palpable sense of depending in a very direct way on large technological systems, unease with the scope and direction of the military and aeronautics industries, the navigation of new social rules around gender and race—can be read as barely veiled references to everyday life in California. For sci-fi writers, teasing out the implications of an era in which entire new civilizations could be conjured almost from nothing through astonishing feats of engineering and capital was a form of realism. They were writing an eyewitness account of what was the most radical landscape-scale engineering project in the history of the world.

This idea of an “imaginative relationship with California’s physical novelty” is something we will be exploring in architectural form throughout the Studio One experience. In the process, we will approach California itself as a subject of design and compare the state to other regions currently experiencing their own de novo re-inventions, whether it’s a thawing Arctic or China’s ongoing building boom.

[Image: Floating caisson during the construction of the original Bay Bridge; photo by Clyde Sunderland, courtesy Library of Congress].

To develop and articulate their visions, students will be pushed to experiment with new forms of architectural representation, modeling, and drawing—or, as de Monchaux writes, “Our chief medium will be drawing, but we will engage and embrace a world of devices and tools—from scripting through mapping and virtual reality-that are changing, and expanding, the capacity of architecture to influence the world.”

I will be up in the Bay Area multiple times for this throughout the academic year, although not on a full-time basis; if you’re a fan of de Monchaux’s work, of science fiction, of architecture, of design’s potential for conjuring radical visions of landscape futures, then please consider applying. You have roughly two more months to do so.

[Image: Farming California, via Google Maps].

More information is available over at UC Berkeley.

3 thoughts on “Drawing Science/Drawing Fiction”

  1. Yesterday I happened to catch a “human interest” segment on the local (San Diego) PBS affiliate which relates to sci-fi and the state’s “unparalled demographic integration.” A quick search did not yield a video of the segment, which was not locally produced. It had to do with sci-fi collector Jim Kepner, a member of the small LGBTQ community which existed within the sci-fi community of 1950s California. See page 28 here: http://www.onearchives.org/uploads/collections/2011-002_kepner.pdf.

    1. Thanks, Greg! I was able to tour the ONE Archives a year or two ago as part of a fellowship I was doing at USC at the time. Interesting collections, especially the sci-fi materials.

  2. Right, I apologize in advance: this doesn’t have much to do with this post (although it is about California as playground), but I didn’t know where else to put it.

    I just listened to a short interview on KCRW (local NPR station), with the composer Yuval Sharon, who’s just been awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant. He’s mainly composed Operas, and at least two are directly inspired by/based on experimental novels. One is “Invisible Cities”, from Italo Calvino’s beautiful urban fugue; and the other, more recent one is called “Hopscotch”. I didn’t see or heard it mentioned, but I would be surprised if the latter hadn’t taken inspiration (and title) from Julio Cortázar’s novel “Rauyela”, which is “Hopscotch” in English.

    Anyway this is the link to the NPR website: http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/10/11/556899374/opera-director-yuval-sharon-awarded-macarthur-genius-grant

    And this is the YouTube video linked therein, where Sharon explains all the reasons why I posted this comment here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LivzsddPn-Q

    And here I’ll just paste the description of that video:

    “What if a car became the tool for transforming your view of Los Angeles? The Industry wants to move you in a whole new way with HOPSCOTCH, a world-premiere opera experienced in cars zig-zagging throughout Los Angeles. Collaboratively created with six composers and six writers, and featuring over 100 artists, HOPSCOTCH tells an original story of a disappearance across time. Audiences can experience the work in both the intimacy of a car, where artists and audiences share a confined space; or for free in a large central hub, where all the journeys are live-streamed to create a dizzying panorama of life in Los Angeles.”

    It all just sounds like the Angeleno Redux version of pretty much everything BLDGBLOG.

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