Sci-fi meets architecture in the Clarke Center


Imagine it is the year 2080. You are living in London and you work for an architectural firm. The waters of the Thames River, which pass through the heart of your city, have risen significantly and are expected to rise even more as the result of a rise in the North Sea’s levels. In response to a global temperature increase that has caused the polar ice packs to melt, the entire Atlantic Ocean is cresting over shorelines.

As an architect, what would you do to house London’s growing population, knowing that the Thames is rising and some of the most sought-after living space in the city is now underwater — and more will soon disappear?

This was the futuristic question (or “thought experiment”) posed for consideration by the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, May 4 during the first of a two-part series at the Atkinson Auditorium in the Calit2 building on the UC San Diego campus.

Although the focus was on the city of London, it could just as easily have been on La Jolla or any other coastal town facing the imminent threat of rising ocean level. Scientists estimate that 200 million people live along coastlines within 15 feet of sea level, which is the amount the oceans may rise in the next 100 years.

Visual Arts Professor and Director of the Clarke Center, Sheldon Brown, introduced the topic and served as moderator of the discussion, which included a talk on the science involved in the predicament by sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson and a speculative architectural proposal submitted in real time over the Internet by London architect Usman Haque.

Brown started off by stating the intent of The Clarke Center was to create, “An engagement with the future,” a speculation about how we might deal with an upcoming possibility. He then introduced Robinson observing, “He has probably thought about the future more than anyone else.”

Robinson, a UCSD alumnus with a Ph.D. from the literature department, has written more than 18 science fiction novels, including “The Mars Trilogy,” which all rely on hard science. He has won many awards, including the Hugo Award for best novel, and is currently completing a book about a futuristic New York City now mostly under water due to sea level rise.

Robinson warned those gathered that sea levels are rising even faster than scientists thought they would. “This is one of the greatest problems that humanity faces,” he said, noting America might end up with some of its major cities — like New York and Miami — halfway under water, becoming a “Super Venice, Italy.”

Robinson explained that the problem stems from melting ice in western Antarctica and Greenland, an unstoppable process once it gets going.

He is also worried that the ice from eastern Antarctica will also begin to melt to compound the problem.

Robinson mentioned one possible solution; building 60 huge pumping stations that would pump the melting ice water back up onto the Antarctic bedrock for refreezing.

His presentation was followed by a “Telesmatic” lecture slideshow by architect Haque that came over the Internet from London in real time. Haque is a founding partner of Umbrellium and Thingful, and has won awards from the Design Museum UK, World Technology, Japan Arts Festival, and Asia Digital Art Association.

Haque prefaced his talk with the statement, “I tend to work in the here and now. I don’t usually speculate about many years into the future,” and went on to clarify that he doesn’t consider his work to be “speculative,” which typically produces ironic, tongue-in-cheek designs. He calls his type of futuristic architecture “participatory design,” because “it has no final images or outcomes, but rather designs a system that enables others to produce outcomes.”

Haque said he thinks that in 2080 London, people will be moving away from the Thames River and looking for more space by digging basements and will leave the digging machines in the basements because that will be more cost-effective than bringing them back up to the surface!

By necessity, people will be changing their definition of personal space and will be living in closer proximity, in what he calls a “Liquid Democracy.” Things will get done, not by the government, but by liquid groups of people who form their own organizations as needed.

The Internet will no longer exist, Haque reasons. Instead, people will communicate by posting messages on giant electronic billboards, which he calls “light walls.”

The main food staple will be algae that people grow at home. There will be no live pets, but instead people will have virtual pets, like holographic cats and dogs. They will sleep in converted, driver-less cars from the company Uber, which they will drive into their homes.

IF YOU GO: The Clarke Center will hold another free discussion on London in the year 2080, titled “Mega Malls,” 10:30 a.m. to noon, Wednesday, May 25, at Atkinson Hall Auditorium on the UC San Diego campus. It will feature the speculations of sci-fi writer Vernon Vinge and London architect Marjan Colletti of the Bartlett School of Architecture. The public is invited.