Futuring the new from the past

Brad Holland once quoted “ futurism was a movement of intellectuals who wanted to replace tradition with the modern world of machinery, speed, violence, and public relations. It proves that we should be careful what intellectuals wish for, because we might get it.” But is futurism really ‘replacing’ tradition, or is it an unconscious mirroring of an object we have seen before?

The idea of futurism without a doubt has been an ever-lingering topic. It brings up the questions: What else is possible and how can we make such other futures more possible? How can we help our society pick out a better future for ourselves?

If we look at the reading Speculating Everything, the authors, Anthany Dunne and Fiona Rabay, create a new perspective about alternative ways of being and us futurism as a means to aid imaginative thought to challenge the social norm through speculative design. We are given design forms that begin to question the present but there is no further exploration in how to reach the actual future alternative. Despite current transition of society into the information age, the authors take a modernistic approach in exploring and challenging the idea of the future.


There is a great deal of our current cultural status that these authors seem to undermine. Firstly, we live in an era where there are new options in the forms of entertainment, commerce, research, and work driven by the forces of the Internet. With 2 billion citizens currently interconnected, there has been a constant exposure to global information and the realties of the world. There is much difficulty in taking a pure imaginative approach with the consistent impact of the peripheral. The readings hint at experimental social possibilities and during modernism, these outcomes seemed quite possible. But through the Internet, we were able to experience the-virtually at least- rise and fall of autocratic regimes. Showing that anything less of a democracy will see the same fate of failure. And while Dunne and Rabay’s designs can hint back to these ideals, history reveals the social and economic problems that were imbedded within it.

Secondly, western culture has pushed the ideals of individuality, allowing us to draw our own conclusions and to think for ourselves. Dunne and Rabay generalize the movements our society may take but it is difficult to assume that all the individuals will take the same route let alone agree on what future would be ‘best’.

Dunne and Rabay emphasize very much that designers should take a new approach to design but is a new invention truly a new invention?

Window and the Mirror

Nieto Sobejano theorizes “every work is the mirror of another” and “many of our projects have been devised from images and remembrances previously recorded in our memory, perhaps unconsciously, through impressions received in unexpected circumstances.” So perhaps these ‘new inventions’ are an iteration of some sort of something we have seen in our past lives. It is a connection and a revival of our past culture. And it is “only when grouped together, like pieces of an imaginary puzzle, do they reveal what unconsciously connects them”. They are unconnected circumstances that in the end resemble one another. Projects are a reflection of one another almost like an endless play of mirrors. Perhaps it is fair to say that we look to past cultural references in order to create a better future.

A more conscious effort of this idea is evident in adaptive reuse projects. We satisfy the world’s needs by using what we already have in the past and by no means do we compromise the resources of future generations. It provides a window in how our environment had been previously structured as well as a vision into where they fit into our future. The physical appearance, and its social, cultural, and historic meaning are preserved for future generation to learn and develop upon. The ability to reflect on culture allows our society to grow and develop itself. We can reflect on past mistakes or accomplishments and use it to our advantage. As John Berger so famously states: “ a people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history.”

Gasometer in Venice

Gasometer in Venice

This adaptive reuse project in Gasometer City in Vienna Austria took four disused gasometers and revamped it. The gas plant serviced 88 good years to large-scale coal gas and electricity supplies until it was permanently shut down after natural gas supplies emerged. Each of the gasometers was reprogramed to create zones for living, working, and entertainment. As a result, a vast walled city within a city was produced. A close-knit inner community was created and it hints at a miniature self sustaining society.

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 2.30.00 AM

Another adaptive reuse project is the Tate Modern Skyline located in London. It was an old oil-fired power station, which now houses an international collection of contemporary art. Much of the main electricity generators were left in its original forms providing a vast gallery for art installation. Its space and its ability undergo transformation time and time again that has changed people’s perceptions of art.

Rem Koolhaas explains through adaptive reuse, designers are “constantly projecting new layers of civilization on old systems” and that the “sum of modifications would reflect the never-ending evolution of systems”.   We are creating layers that give us the ability to trace back our history and expose ourselves to the once existing culture. The knowledge of our past gives us the power to move forward.



This project is not an adaptive reuse project, but there is the evidence of the imbedding of its cultural roots. It is a refrigerator designed by a designer and where the inspiration of the Portuguese ‘postigo’- small door or window within a regular door- shines through.



This project is a multi-purpose object designed with a similarity to the traditional ‘canape’- finger held food.

And so even though we attempt to design for the future, the past is something we cannot escape. There is evidence with our designs that lead back to our past cultural upbringings. Even though we make the attempts to create a new futuristic invention, there is much evidence of the roots that are tied within it.   Instead of looking so far into the future, perhaps we should take an alternative route and look into the past to create a new future.

The design world segregates the past and the future and we often associate these as outdated versus innovative. But in reality, the two are very much linked together. A future could not exist with out a past and a future most certainly could not move forward without a past.   We may consciously or unconsciously use the past to create a better future but it is without a doubt that it is present in design.


Schmidt, Eric, and Jared Cohen. The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business

Sobejano,Nieto. The window and the Mirror

Berger,John. The Ways of Seeing 

“7 Excellent Examples of Adaptive Reuse | Archi-Ninja.” ArchiNinja RSS.


2 thoughts on “Futuring the new from the past

  1. You really should have included Cameron Tonkinwise into this conversation if you were going to address Dunne and Raby. His article was a scrutiny of what Dunne and Raby describe as critical design.

    Besides that, I think you should work to strengthen the bridge between Dunne and Raby and Sobejano’s adaptive reuse. I understand what you’re saying about his book, but what does it have to do with the future? It seems more a creation of the present on top of the past. It’s tackling the problems of now, not the problems of later. I don’t see a clear connection between it and futuring.

    I’m also conflicted with your choice of examples. Dunne and Raby’s article showcases a lot of design, but a lot of it was designed for the space of a gallery, not for practical purpose. Your architectural examples are very purpose-driven, not thought-driven, a dichotomy that Dunne and Raby list in the preface of their book, and the two products you show are 3D CAD, imaginary. How are they seen by others to get them to consider the future?

    Strengthen your own argument and opinion about speculative design, adaptive reuse, and how it engages us with thinking about the future. Maybe your argument is skeptical of speculative design BECAUSE we are so bogged down the past, that it is impossible to make something new when we are so focused on the old. Or are you trying to say that looking at the past can unlock our future? How do you imagine that playing out? How does it relate to Dunne and Raby’s consideration towards the subject?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This post reminds us of several things: notably: (i) futurism itself has a history and not always a pretty history, (ii) projects to “future” and replace the past often replicate the past and (iii) there are other ways to future which don’t involve “blank slate” imaginaries.

    Your initial observations rather remind me of the critique of the Communist experiment posted by many conservatives as well as a few radicals (like George Orwell in Animal Farm). We begin with political movements proclaiming the need for a bold break from the past. Then, Stalin and Mao (to take two examples) both attempt to level all but at the same time revert back to the “old bad habits” of the past regimes that they replace. The KGB just replace the Okhrana (the Tsarist secret police), and new modes of authoritarian rule are reworked etc…Its interesting in this regard how the ultimate experiment in utopian leveling (Mao’s China) is now seeing the PRC returning to Taoist idea to legitimize itself.

    The basic proposition that follows this, (that you explore in your post), that perhaps culture and tradition are less flexible than futurists like to maintain is an interesting thought to work off.

    I liked the discussion of futuring by adaptive reuse. It would be nice to have a few more meaty examples of this. I also would be interesting in seeing how Adaptive Reuse itself can be defended from a kind of modernist critique that would claim, it is in essence a rather conservative reaction to modernism and its failures which fundamentally lacks ambition. Adaptive reuse allows us to purpose and conserve material forms. It can allow repurposing of buildings etc. Does it allow us to think about broader reshaping of social and ecological relations as well? (What would be the most ambitious examples of this?) Are there ways of thinking more ambitiously about building the shell of the old within the context of the new (this is from Martin Buber’s Paths in Utopia (1950).

    I think the question that is starting to interest me in the light of this is: what is the relationship of the architectures (landscape/interior and plain old architecture) in the light of this? Would we be able to produce fuller futures if they were more integrated?

    I wonder whether the different in views between Tate and Audrey is in part reflecting differences between Industrial designer and Interior Architects and the very different “professional ideologies” they have developed in relation to “the new”?


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