Liam Young is protagonist of his own making: an architect, an educator, a storyteller, and a foot soldier of the visionary present. Born in Brisbane, Australia, based in London, moving to Los Angeles, Young makes films about cities – complex cities in China or India on the verge of emergence or collapse (likely both), cities that illustrate something unsettling about our now and our future. Like all heroes, he needs an origin story.
ORIGIN STORY 1: GLOBAL NOIR.
It’s late afternoon when I meet Young at a bar in Culver City, California. The Mandrake caters to the drinking needs of Los Angeles’ nomadic art set, the kind that drift in Uber packs from opening to opening. It’s also, importantly, not too far from the airport. Young is either coming or going and has bit of time before his international flight. He’s wearing a uniform just shy of fatigues: high-laced boots and a shirt buttoned to the neck made out of what, uncomfortably, looks like wool flannel. It makes me itchy just looking at it.
Amber Southern Californian rays slip through a lone window picking out stylish touches in an otherwise dark and nearly empty room: posters for art rock happenings, the sweat beading on my negroni. Here, in this half light, we’ve dropped out of the reality of La Cienega Boulevard and its conflation of galleries, strip malls, and traffic, and into something way more cinematic. We’re discussing a possible essay about unreality and speculation he’s working on. In our gloom it glimmers with the stuff of legend: myths woven by professionals; CIA whistle-blowers; US military black op storytelling divisions; classified desert compounds; weaponised folklore. He tells me lawyers are batting around the interview content, each vying for a piece of the pie rather than facilitating clearance. Young would later write in an email: “I feel like I’m in a Kafka novel.”
ORIGIN STORY 2: SWIMMING WITH SHARKS.
“Oh shit. We’re doing that?” Young says when I ask him about where he grew up Australia. He rankles for a moment at the possibility of revealing his backstory before conceding, “OK, outside of Brisbane, which is the sunny bit.” He paints a picture of an idyllic Australian childhood on the Sunshine Coast and a surfer kid with bleached white blond hair down to his shoulders. (Currently, he wears his light brown hair combed back with ragged beard.) “It’s like a country town punching above its weight,” he says with a laugh. “It’s the third largest city in Australia, it doesn’t have the cultural panache that Melbourne does, it doesn’t have the business acumen that Sydney does, but it’s got better waves.”
Sitting in LA in an office at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), where Young now teaches and where he will be heading a post-professional Masters programme in the autumn, its difficult to connect the image of a towhead beach bum with the man across the table; a man whose fixations include drones and technological infrastructures such as server farms that house all the world’s selfies. Young’s path to this point covers continents. It’s oft cited that he began his career at Zaha Hadid Architects in London at a time when the office was working on the Phaeno Science Centre at Wolfsburg and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Then, after designing one too many trophy apartments for rich oligarchs, he ventured out on his own in an attempt to find some meaning in his work.
“I felt like I was a designer of a luxury handbag,” he recalls. “The world wants and needs luxury handbags to a certain extent, but they’re totally irrelevant in the way that most people live their lives and tend to the forces that shape the city. They’re so marginalized and privileged. So, I looked for forms of architectural practice that would actually have more scope to effect change at a larger scale, more engagement with an audience outside of the discipline, more engagement with a clientele that wasn’t just the rich cultural elite.”
Leaving Hadid’s office was big leap of faith, but then again, Young had already left Australia for the U.K. and in doing so steered his ambitious path away from local projects and into the global network. Still, his early gigs reveal certain restless interests. Young’s first job after receiving his architecture degree from the University of Queensland was designing beach houses for Australian architect John Mainwaring. Renowned for his climate-friendly residences, Mainwaring’s designs are part eco, part techno, and it could be argued that there are hints here of Young’s later critical interest in ecological futures and the dystopic lessons of climate change.
“You know, it still my favourite place on earth,” he says, recalling a spot on the central coast in New South Wales—a national park where the forest meets the sea. “It’s pretty magical—you swim with dolphins and all that sort of stuff, but it’s not a Sea World experience. They just pop up and scare you to death because you think they’re sharks. They enjoy that… you just sit there and let them ride the waves.”
ORIGIN STORY 3: BALLARD’S CHILDREN.
Like all designers of a certain generation, Young can reel off references to J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, Lebbeus Woods, and Archigram easily. The new Tom Hiddleston movie not withstanding, Ballard’s High Rise is a model of architectural speculation. Written in 1975, it suggests that a structure – the very shelter we depend on to live – is complicit in a dramatic narrative of social tension, political crisis, and even violence. The building is not simply setting, but subject also. Young discovered the novel while living in London as he was trying to find a new way to practice. “The book is a treatise on the town block,” he notes. “Reading it revealed a way that you could still operate as an architect, but use the currency of storytelling and fiction to enable a way of rethinking the building.”
Young is leery of calling what he does sci-fi, however. His is a near future. In 2008, one of the darker moments of the global economic recession, Young founded Tomorrows Thoughts Today (TTT) with his colleague Darryl Chen, describing it as think tank that “exaggerates and extrapolates” contemporary conditions into speculative critical landscapes and imaginary urban realms. The same year he also began teaching at London’s Architectural Association (AA) as part of The Unknown Fields Division led by Young in conjunction with the architect and artist Kate Davies. Each term the AA research studio journeys to remote sites for weeks at a time.
“If the near future is this very kind of dark, unilluminated landscape in front of us that we can’t kind of see into because it’s so uncertain, the speculative project is like a torch light that just illuminates certain tracks,” Young notes. “You know, the more projects we do, the, the more light kind of is shown on what’s in front of us and we can start to then choose the path of going forward to a more preferable future.”
Over the past few years the Division has traced technologies back to their source: server farms in the Pacific Northwest, iPhone factories in China, Chernobyl wastelands, and lithium mines under salt flats in Bolivia (the source of much of the battery power material for drones, phones, and Tesla electric cars). Both the Division and TTT take the edict “make visible” as a guiding force for documenting these far flung sites, places that are integral to our own daily lives but largely removed from our physical existence. Both projects operate between fiction and documentary in an arena that Ballard once called the “visionary present”. “Right now there are so many balls in the air,” says Young. “I mean, economic collapse, radical climate change, advances in technology, biotechnology, all these things… any one of them could drop in the next five years and totally change the landscape.” Clearly, now is what is at stake, not some fantasy future.
EXT. EARLY EVENING.
Young paces in front of a large screen set up in SCI-Arc’s parking lot in Downtown Los Angeles. We are within walking distance of the LA River where films like Terminator, Drive, and Grease 2 were famously shot in its concrete channel. It’s a landscape that’s as much infrastructure as it is entertainment. A crowd gathers for what seems like movie night, but we are assembled for the final reviews for Fear and Wonder, the spring architecture studio taught by Young with filmmaker Alexey Marfin.
Cinematically, the lurid pink dome over the LA basin turns from to violet to black. The carnival smell of caramel popcorn wafts in the air and Young hands out beers to the invited guest jurors in the front row: futurists, visual effects specialists and journalists outnumber the architects. Young’s students, organised in earnest groups, screen their semester’s efforts: short films that explore the flip side of Los Angeles entertainment production—the outsourced technological support, visual effects, and rendering industries based in India.
The research brief extends from themes found in Young’s multi-media lecture/performance City Everywhere, a three-screen, live-mixed journey into contemporary culture’s pixilated underworld – guided, of course, by Kim Kardashian. It’s a deep dive into our technological nadir that looks at the workers and landscapes exploited in the making of every fleeting spectacle. The work is a mash up of Young’s collaborations as part of Tomorrows Thoughts Today and student work from his Unknown Fields Division excursions. Immersive and thick with GIF-like visuals and hyperbolic Wired lingua franca, it also stands in collaboration with the Internet itself. One vignette zooms in on the island of Aditnálta, a “ghost geography” that only exists in Google Earth and which is the digital construct of past AA Visiting School workshop.
The SCI-Arc studio had traveled to India to research and film both narrative and documentary footage earlier in the semester. The results vary and include a reflection on its creative labourers in a section that combines live footage with an animated character, and an ironic short about the price of Instagram fame and the cost of hiring Indian contractors to pad out numbers of social media likes and follows. In all cases, there’s a pedagogical expectation for the students to use storytelling to bridge the cognitive gap between systems of production abroad and the implications of that outsourced labor at home.
For Young, this is an architectural project – one that draws on a history of speculative design. “It’s one of the few ways that architects can stay critical and relevant,” he notes. It’s also a prelude to his upcoming role as coordinator of SCI-Arc’s new Fiction and Entertainment Masters degree, a three-semester programme geared to prepare architects to work within the world of Hollywood, virtual reality, and gaming.
Hernán Díaz Alonso, SCI-Arc’s director, recruited Young to the school and is excited by the possibilities of using “the tools of fiction and multiple realities to understand architectural language.” For Díaz Alonso, bringing film to SCI-Arc is not radical: it’s simply a natural evolution. What’s new in this context is the agenda. The Fiction and Entertainment programme is strategically poised to build connections with entertainment industry, with Hollywood’s commercial and technical players. It will likely include workshops with screenwriters, composers, and video game producers as well as architects, theorists, and documentarians.
Young has a couple other schemes for which the Fiction and Entertainment programme is a kind of Trojan horse. First, he’s dedicated to rethinking architecture as a discipline, to open it up to other fields, to engage broader audiences, and find ways to explore different ways of making. “The studios I run here aren’t just film studios that happen to be sited in an architecture school,” says Young emphatically. “The work that we’re doing is architectural practice, but I just think that we often define practice so traditionally, so narrowly, it’s shocking. No one else gives a shit, you know?
“I’m interested in the way the architect parasitically operates and occupies all these other different disciplines. And I don’t think that’s disillusionment with the profession or somehow a weakening of it. I actually think it’s just radical strengthening of it in that we have much more scope to have consequence in a whole lot of different fields.”
His second agenda is even more grandiose, but not out of keeping with a desire to impact the real, not fictional, world. “The work is trying to have the scope to effect change in the city, but to do that not necessarily by putting it in front of a politician, but by putting it in front of as many eyes as possible,” he says. “That’s why the entertainment industry is powerful. So many people can engage this kind of media, and that’s a pretty powerful voice to have. The more architects that are part of the discourse, the better. What sits below all the work is this idea to try and somehow effect some sort of productive change.”
While Young is a master of cautionary tales, our hero is utopian not dystopian at heart.