Posted in Uncategorized by johnsnavely on June 19, 2007

So I’m stuck in a long layover in Germany again. And, in an odd coincidence, I finished the book “Fatherland” on the way over here. Google reveals there’s also a movie starring Rutger Hauer that probably won’t be seeing anytime soon. But not because the book was bad, on the contrary, it was a fun, fast thriller. The real joy of it lies in the setting. The book is set in 1964 in Berlin in an alternate future where Nazi Germany has actually won WWII. I couldn’t help but think of Gibson’s Difference Engine when I read the book. I confess, however, that other than that single Steam Punk novel I haven’t dipped into a lot of alternate history science fiction. But I do find the concept of “alternate histories” really really exciting as a way to think about design. Wikipedia (I must find better sources) has the French version of “alternate history” which sounds so much more compelling:

In French, alternate history novels are called uchronie. This neologism is based on the word utopia (a place that doesn’t exist) and the Greek for time, chronos. An uchronie, then, is defined as a time that doesn’t exist.

While I’m a little shaky on the wiki definition–Utopia is really a “place that doesn’t exist”?– since that is what I think architects do essentially, I’m drawn to the idea of creating a setting through a rigorous examination of a dead style and then following it to some contemporary end in which the alternate future posited could be realized. Or phrased as what ifs: What if Gaudi had a computer? What if Notre Dame had to be made entirely of wood? etc. Essentially, my thesis should be a dry run for one of these alternate universes. A universe in which rococo never went out of style or where Jeff Koons and Tarantino ganged up to open a design firm.

The problem with this approach is the same with the book. Even if I have a convincing “what if” (which I don’t think I do yet) there needs to be some underlying structure to hang this fictional hypothesis from. In Robert Harris’ case, it is a formulaic (but still fun) suspense novel. In my case, it might just be the classic representation of a architectural project.

I think with the rest of my time in the airport I’m going to try and come up with a good “what if”.


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  1. […] was such an odd coincidence after I had just read “Fatherland”. Ritchie and I talked about that book and another, Philip Roth’s Plot Against America both of […]

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