A designer friend dropped me a link the other day to the Patent Room blog. The blog offers a wealth of inspiration, a candystore of oddities. In my first post on this blog I cited Norman Bel Geddes’s remarkably fresh quote from 1940 to demonstrate that new mediations of old ideas can result in new successes. Ever since I wrote that, I keep on finding more examples of old, unrealized projects from bygone eras that upon reconsideration might offer innovative solutions to contemporary problems. Bruce Sterling introduced me to the concept of metafutures, got me all fired up about futures studies, and this idea that the future of right now is totally different from the future offered five minutes from now. Separate that by fifty years instead of five minutes and you get a reason to start a fun blog, like Paleo-future. Recently I stumbled into an exceptional example of what I thought was a laughably bad idea from 1925 that is currently regarded as a clever innovation.
Frederick Kiesler was something of an oddball architect/designer (the best kind). I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a copy of his 1930 book “Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and its Display” a while back. The book itself is a masterpiece; the typography and layout were way ahead of their time. Kiesler’s “polydimensional” approach to architecture was pretty out there. My favorite image from the book is Kiesler’s outrageous proposed horizontal skyscraper, meant to be constructed in Paris. The drawing is a De Stijl work of art, the form looks like giant deconstructed Gerrit Rietveld chair. But a horizontal skyscraper? Are you kidding? That is like the dumbest idea I ever heard of! Until… enter Steven Holl. His Vanke Center in Shenzhen, China is a spitting image of Kiesler’s plan from 1925!
I’m not going to compile a list of the unrealized then re-realized projects out there; that is a job for somebody else. If it already exists, please email it to me! The point is that this phenomenon points to a really different model for innovation than we are used to. Rather than “learn from your mistakes”, this suggests that we should embrace mistakes rather than reject them. In order to look forward, we have to scrutinize and re-examine the past. If you are an archivist you should embrace this idea: if preserving and organizing mistakes, oddities, and dreams actually drives innovation, you hold the gatekey. That’s a big responsibility. What does this suggest for librarians who are designing information service spaces and interfaces for the future? Maybe reading Engadget and Gizmodo is the wrong idea? Perhaps we need to reconsider everything and look to the fringes, the unrealized futures of Buckminster Fuller or Ted Nelson?
Here is Kiesler’s Horizontal Skyscraper:
Here’s Holl’s horizontal skyscraper: