For three years running, Blank Space, an online design platform based in New York and Rome, has hosted an open design contest. It’s not a typical call for entries. Fairy Tales asks architects to come up with new tales about myths and magic. It’s an architecture storytelling contest.
This year’s winner is Olson Kundig, a Seattle-based architecture firm, which took the contest’s prompt in an unexpected direction. Led by principal Alan Maskin, the firm’s project team turned in a science fiction-inflected, graphic-novelized story about the rooftops of Seattle and cryogenic regeneration.
Welcome to the 5th Façade, the winning entry in the Fairy Tales 2016 contest, is part of an ongoing investigation at Olson Kundig. The firm describes the story as one in “a series of built and conceptual investigations into the neglected top layer of cities—the rooftops.” The project received first prize from a jury that included Elizabeth Diller (the architect of Diller Scofidio+Renfro), Hans-Ulrich Obrist (the curator for the Serpentine Galleries), Allison Arieff (the editorial director for the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association), Sylvia Lavin (the director of critical studies in architecture at the University of California-Los Angeles), and other luminaries.
The story follows an unnamed first-person protagonist (it’s the architect himself) as he explores Seattle, a city he calls home but no longer entirely recognizes. The story starts, naturally, with the narrator’s death:
A myocardial infarction began midway through Act 1 of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge at the Phoenix Playhouse. Although cardiopulmonary support kept your heart pumping for the 30-minute ambulance drive, you were pronounced dead upon arrival. The stainless steel bracelet on your left wrist was inscribed with CRYONIC ALERT. The card in your wallet outlined medical protocols which, in turn, triggered your immediate transfer to the Al-Cryo Life Extension Foundation.
Your naked body was submerged in an ice bath. Profusion—the process of removing the blood from your body—commenced, and your blood was replaced with a non-toxic solution that preserves cells when they freeze.
Your head was severed, a relatively new procedure at the time of your death, and positioned vertically alongside your body in a cylindrical stainless steel tank where incremental cooling brought your temperature to -196° Celsius.
Your tank was stored with hundreds of others for the many decades that comprised your cryopreservation.
After an orderly reorientation—this kind of thing happens all the time—our narrator is outfitted with an augmented-reality headset that helps him adjust to his new status as an orphan resident of the distant future. He is led to the Fifth Façade, which is an area of Seattle that spans its rooftops.
Our narrator discovers that many parts of the city are still recognizable, even some five or six generations removed from his first lifetime. These surviving elements include 19th-century brick neoclassical buildings and, what do you know, the old Washington Shoe Factory Building, the present-day home of Olson Kundig.
It’s at this point that Welcome to the Fifth Façade begins to sound less like Blade Runner and more like an architectural prospectus:
During the decades that I slept, the rooftops of Seattle had changed. The grey waterproofing membranes, HVAC equipment, elevator machine rooms, long-empty water towers, and miles of ductwork were replaced with a vast pastoral landscape. Rolling green hills, public parks and swimming pools, pastures with livestock, and vegetable farms were joined by enormous water collectors, solar arrays, and wind energy turbines. Bridges, like connective tendons, unified the separate buildings into a continuous landscape. I could wander anywhere, and I did.
Cryopreservation doesn’t sound so bad! What with all the adaptive reuse of the neglected built environment and advances in technology and sustainability.
The science-fiction format is a perfect vehicle for illustrating a particular truth about architecture: Architects tend to be utopians. They’re certainly not all optimists, definitely not all cheerful. Welcome to the Fifth Façade does not have a happy ending. Still, the concept of a new Seattle moves the story. The evolution of the city’s built environment makes it appear to be a livable place. The urge to build is consonant with a desire to improve, and moreover, the confidence that the world can be improved, the world can be changed, by building.
The drawings, Surrealist portraits that conflate nature and form, seem to arrive at the same exceedingly human conclusions: Design can make the world a better place, even one that we don’t deserve. These drawings don’t serve as storyboard illustrations. Instead—part René Magritte, part M.C. Escher—they echo the story. The self-portraits cast the author/narrator as a tragic hero. This is not an uncommon refrain in the field.
It’s rare, though, that lessons about design come in the form of a dark fiction exercise. And it’s good fiction, which is even rarer in architectural follies. (“’Patient crossed Milestone 149,’ she whispered into her headset,” writes Maskin, referring to the moment when a reorientation technician witnesses the narrator utter his first word after the big thaw.) It’s a testament to Maskin’s story that he expresses a steady admiration of architecture even as he questions the society that comes to occupy it one day.