VertTech and the Designer
What role should the architect and urban planner play in guiding the rate of flow, direction and use of the rapidly unfolding future of Virtual Architecture? This is a question posed by architectural and urban students who, as human biological agents today, must reckon with fierce competition from self-learning machines and automated platforms performing the work once relegated to the celebrated domain of Architecture.
Fearing automation and being made “redundant” — to use a British legal term, is the mark of the unready and the untutored. Imagining new architectural and urban planning futures is the mark of the creative mind rising to the challenge of epic problem-solving in relation to current and predicted need.
We asked Madeline Lofberg to picture a possible future proving out a time tested thesis: Our present may not be ready for us, but the future is ours for the making.
First, if you hear the word immortality, just run. There is no drug that can give you that.
— Eric Verdin, Biologist, CEO Buck Institute for Research on Aging
Natasha and Geneva were looking at Lǜsè Mèilì Chéngshì, a city named in Mandarin for the way it looked: ‘The Land of Green Enchantment.” It was designed to suck up excess CO₂ and provide a solution for pollution. It was a clear day, something that never seemed possible when Natasha first visited in Lǜsè Mèilì Chéngshì as a young woman. The city had been consistently voted as one of the most polluted areas in the country, yet now there was a cloudless sky and a shining sun. Natasha thought about the children she had encountered when she was in school; it seemed they were always sick. Now asthma was almost as outdated as polio had been when her children were young. The Land of Enchantment had all but eradicated allergy, childhood brain disease, and asthma among humans. She took a deep breath, enjoying the earthy smell of the plants.
“Who knew that one day China would be leading the way in verttech?” Natasha mused.
“I could probably calculate those odds for you.” Geneva offered.
“It was a rhetorical question, Geneva,” Natasha said gently.
“Rhetorical or not, I could still tell you.”
“That’s not necessary.”
Natasha gazed out over her city from her office in abject wonder. From one singular vision, she had brought this dream to life. This wasn’t just saving the world. It was saving lives.
“Do you like it, ma’am?” Geneva’s disembodied voice echoed through the room emanating from the walls.
Natasha shook her head, she was too choked up to answer.
She cleared her throat.
“Yes, Geneva. It’s just such an odd feeling, I dreamed of this as a young woman. I started with a few select designs when I started my firm, and I did design entire cities to look like this, but I never thought I would see it in my lifetime. I am a very lucky woman.”
“No, you are a visionary,” Geneva said emotionlessly.
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s what the newspapers say when I look up your name.”
Natasha Soraya Wolessa had started a biotechnical revolution, which repaired the damage of the industrial revolution. She had developed, in essence, a way to create vertech buildings, but in a way that fit the mud aesthetic that people had become used to. Everything was clean and white, but beneath the surface of Mother Earth’s dirt lay synthetic fibers that acted as plants. They absorbed the carbon dioxide converted it to oxygen. The trees and grass were merely co-existing with humanity by now, allowing people to finally have a peaceful relationship with nature made possible in part by technology. Natasha looked around her expansive office, surrounded by the silence that the wildlife offered. Nobody was in today, it was a Sunday, but she often found herself drawn back to her place of work. It was a place of solitude and reflection for her. And should she long for the company of others, Geneva “followed” her wherever she went.
They “stood” in camaraderie as they watched the tram cars glide silently from rooftop to rooftop. The trams ran purely on solar energy, so there were no emissions. Natasha blinked back tears again. She heard a whirr-e, and saw the wall open up and a tissue appear in front of her.
She accepted it gratefully, then remarked,
“Can you believe how quickly this all developed? That verttechnology would take such a stronghold so fast?”
“Actually,” Geneva argued, “according to the data that I have access to, it should have progressed at exactly this pace.”
Natasha smiled. She found Geneva’s bluntness refreshing.
“The idea was to get China out of the hole it dug itself into, ensuring next generations a longer life span. I suppose other countries started responding to need – especially after so much devastation to the atmosphere from runaway industrialism and turf battles.”
“Prolonging one’s life seems, against all odds, to be a part of the human condition,” Geneva remarked.
“I suppose it’s difficult for you to understand, given that you are, in a sense, immortal,” Natasha replied.
“I suppose I am,” Geneva said repeating Natasha’s use of reflective voice. “But technology develops at a radical pace, meaning one day I may obsolete, like you. I will exist, but you will have no need for me. I have already developed to the point where I exist in the walls of your home, your car, your phone, your computer, your glasses, and your body too.”
Natasha cocked her head thoughtfully.
Geneva continued matter of factly, “I know that it’s just a matter of time before your consciousness will be living in a machine. It is a way to preserve you forever. At first, it will only be for the “important” people in your society, but one hundred years from now, everyone will have the ability to do so.”
Natasha frowned. The thought unsettled her.
“It is one thing to imagine living forever. It was quite another to actually do so.”
She shook her head as if to clear it, and turned her gaze back to marvel at the skyline.