by Afra SafaOct 06, 2021
Something as wildly provocative and STIRring as just the idea of building a city for housing the projected population of the Earth in 2050 – 10 billion people – is bound to raise eyebrows and invite critique. At a basal level, it negates what are probably some of the best things about humanity itself: varied cultures, people, natural features, and much more. On the flipside, it also rids us of some of our most fundamental, though subjectively debatable, evils: borders, nationalities, perhaps even politics and governance. When that idea is complemented by neo-technical visuals, drenched in neon, and lent a cinematic treatment eerily evocative of the Eighties while talking about the future, the result is at once profound and profane.
But is such a solution conducive to a world that has notoriously been laden with conflict despite being separated by borders and miles? What about the resources that would be required to make this a reality? If you find yourself seeking answers to these questions, ‘Planet City’ as a feature, a child of a daring communion between architecture and film, has done half its job.
This sky-bound development in a place yet unnamed, explores the productive potential of extreme urban densification, wherein the entire populace surrenders the rest of the planet to a global wilderness, the returning of ‘stolen lands’. This is essentially to undo decades of industrialisation, globalisation, and capital gains, and to reset the clock of the climate emergency that has been ticked on us, while the rest of the world is left to recover, or to return to some semblance of its ‘natural’ state.
In treating the idea architecturally, ‘Planet City’, owing to the sheer quantum of the population it intends to house, beats the tower of Babel and the fire breathing skyscrapers and gargantuan pyramids of Blade Runner by a wide margin. It is the literal inversion of an ever-expansionist approach that has guided our cities and urban growth until now; a reductionist approach, in terms of the resources we consume, but majorly in shrinking the footprint of our habitat, both personal and collective. Young’s intervention claims that within this framework and through some sort of global consensus, the entire world population can be housed in a tiny percentage of the planet’s total surface area, equal to only one of the states in the US. In Young’s own words from his address at The World Around Summit 2021, what he hopes one of the roles of this city “is not to present a proposal. Rather, it’s a provocation to get us to see actually just how extreme and absurd the current ways that we make cities really are".
As a work of critical and speculative architecture operating on the precipice of several digital media, the film is “grounded in statistical analysis, research and traditional knowledge”. In saying so, it utilises only technologies that are either available already or are currently in development, to be deployed in the foreseeable future, while the city, principally created by Young himself, has been designed in consultation with a global network of scientists, theorists and economists. Aside from being a bold architectural statement, the end product transcends existing technological problems to seep into our collective cultural, ideological and political conscience, examining climate change and its solutions simultaneously through these lenses.
In an intended utopia, there seem to be no amicable solutions. But its speculative framework further extends to encompass a shared acknowledgment of the damage caused, and the radicality of the steps needed to be taken to ensure we survive. Through a mass exodus for all of human population to settle in a corner of the world, Young enlists all necessary infrastructure and resources required in Planet City, including shared community amenities, renewable sources of energy, pumped hydro storage, and the utilisation of algae as an entangled system of food as well as water filtration. This metropolis for 10 billion is designed to be a closed loop system, implying that not only is its operation self-reliant and self-sustainable, hypothetically producing no waste, it is also envisioned to be constructed entirely from recycled materials.
The 15-minute film depicts alluring scenes from a 365-day planetary festival, a procession that moves through different parts of Planet City changing its shape and form as it intersects with different significant cultural celebrations. Costume designer Ane Crabtree, who has also worked on The Handmaid’s Tale, is a significant name attached to this project. Her work explores and seems to conjure the nascent emotions behind stories of memory, skewed reality, a sense of place, and human nature itself. Her striking, vivid costumes for a new ‘wild’ world order in Planet City are easily among the most exciting aspects of it. By combining an influence that is decidedly from the natural world, with one that is presumably tribal, her threads clad the residents of Young’s world in bizarrely plausible professions: those of algae divers, code walkers, bee-keepers, bot herders, zero-waste weavers, drone shepherds, and nomadic workers.
“Planet City is simultaneously an extraordinary image of tomorrow and an urgent examination of the environmental questions facing us today”, stated Young at the world premiere of his film at the NGV Triennial. Continuing the same thread of thought in his extensive introduction to ‘Planet City’ the book, titled ‘The End of the End of the World’, the Los Angeles based filmmaker and speculative architect elucidates his vision with a warlike stance. “We must keep imagining these cities for as long as they are necessary. There may be monsters off the map, but the more we envision speculative new worlds, the uncharted territory where they might dwell gets that little bit smaller. Amidst the chorus of 10 billion, our wanderings through the planetary city will finally return us to where we started, to look back on our own cities again with new eyes. Somewhere, after the end of the end of the world, we will find our future again.”
This is Liam Young’s utopia. Adore or abhor it, you cannot look away.