Protecting Our Second Foundation

 
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Most science fiction dwells within the realm of the impossible. Space ships zip between galaxies at incomprehensible speeds, tossing Einstein’s theories out the window. Battles are fought with mind melds and an endless array of far out weapons. Language is rarely an obstacle.

As an art form, the genre has a rich and fascinating history. My indoctrination was with Star Trek, a romp through the stars with a multi-cultural cast and a series of episodes that explored everything from race to a love affair under the Nazi regime. I read a lot of sci-fi books as a teenager and still do, though with more curatorial care. Sci-fi is escapism at its best, contemplating realities that don’t yet exist and for a short time taking us away from our nonsensical world. 

Except, this isn’t always true. More thoughtful science fiction, such as the movie “Gattaca,” is not so far down the spectrum of reality with its cautionary tale of genetic discrimination. When we turn pages or sit in a dark theater, we may not be immediately aware of how the fictional future has consistently foretold our present. As we negotiate our way under a federal government that legislates from a sandbox, some of the greatest 20th century science fiction stories are looking remarkably prescient. If one reads Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” and Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy, books written decades ago, a pattern emerges on how humans in the future will face, listed in the same order, desperate water conservation measures, fluid gender identity, and an attack on reason. These themes are no longer future constructs - they are our reality.

In Asimov’s trilogy, written in the mid-20th century and set thousands of years in the future, humans are facing the decline of the Galactic Empire. Hari Seldon, a psychohistorian who has founded a field of science that can predict large scale behavior on an interplanetary scale, calls on the Empire’s leaders to allow him to create a Foundation which will gather and safeguard all human knowledge throughout the chaos that will follow the Empire’s collapse. The Foundation’s mission is to carry out The Seldon Plan, reducing the turmoil from 30,000 to 1,000 years. Seldon is allowed to establish the Foundation on the outskirts of the galaxy; a mysterious Second Foundation is also created, its location only described as “at star’s end” on the opposite side of the galaxy.

As expected not everything goes according to Seldon’s plan. A mutated human, called the Mule and initially perceived as a clown appears on the scene. He gathers an army and conquers the Foundation. Intent on establishing tyrannical rule of the galaxy, the rest of the trilogy traces his quest to find and destroy the Second Foundation so he can consolidate his power.

It’s worth pointing out that Asimov modeled his story on the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s also pretty clear that we are witnessing parallels in our current culture. When I started out as an architect, there were no apps, social media didn’t exist, and the Cold War was in its last days. The Vietnam War was over, and people were starting to talk about how design could help the environment. I won’t go so far to say that there was hope in the air, but it seemed our country had left a dark era and was starting to tackle something that was a real threat to our planet. Sadly, this was hopelessly naive as our current narrow-minded leaders ignore the escalating effects of global warming and tacitly support a resurgent disregard for civil liberties.

Great strides have been made and in the present day there is plenty of technology at our disposal that allows us to collect data and visualize new buildings, communities, and even cities in their digital forms long before the footings are poured. Architects are using these tools to push back against the assault. Last year, WXY completed the D15 Diversity Plan for the city’s Department of Education. Through a series of workshops, surveys, and community outreach, WXY’s remarkable work is a template for how the city will start integrating a public school system still segregated in the 21st century, 65 years after the Supreme Court unanimously overturned it in their landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

 
courtesy of WXY Architecture + Urban Design and NYC DOE

courtesy of WXY Architecture + Urban Design and NYC DOE

 

Other efforts are a bit more mercurial. A controversial response to then candidate Trump’s proposed border wall was the “Building the Border Wall?” design competition, hosted by the Third Mind Foundation. It asked designers to redefine the wall with humanitarian solutions. One could ask why bother considering a wall at all? Vanessa Quirk of Metropolis wrote an excellent essay on the thorny issue after Bustler, a well-known website that publishes design competitions, decided to not include the border wall competition in its listings. Standing firmly in the camp that a conversation about a bad idea is better than no conversation, I like that Third Mind organized the competition. There were some pretty cartoonish entries, but the better ones included a national park, an irrigation channel, and a community meeting place.

 
courtesy of Gautier Piechotta & Wu Di and Third Mind Foundation

courtesy of Gautier Piechotta & Wu Di and Third Mind Foundation

 

Design has no single moral purpose and, like life, it can be disrupted quite easily by the vicissitudes of history (Albert Speer, post-modernism, the glass towers going up in Long Island City). Assuming that the earth is still habitable in 1,000 years and we haven’t destroyed each other, future historians will have a tough time understanding our defining character when reading our archived tweets, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and Reddit feeds. We have our Mule; in fact, we have many of them, ready to destroy a desire for a better and more inclusive society by using social media tools, conspiracy theorists, and xenophobia to stoke our fears and crack the underpinnings of social progress. With friends and families divided by the ongoing political rhetoric, it is a challenge to dismiss the chaos and negotiate our way through the perpetual tension of reaching a higher truth. As any good designer knows, the creative process is marked by the pendulum swing of rejection and consent that can be frustrating, but always necessary towards revealing a project’s contribution to the community.

Defending our society’s more enlightened principles is not easy in an era of distrust. Asimov’s Mule never finds the Second Foundation and eventually meets his demise, not at the hands of a superhero, but by the collective efforts of people cleverly concealed by Seldon’s words while safeguarding their culture. Although it is “at star’s end,” the Second Foundation is not where a cartographer or astronomer would expect to find it. As its location is revealed on the trilogy’s last pages, it cosmically makes perfect sense and is in a physical place where it is least expected and, like all worthy ideas that we seek to protect, conceptually exactly where it needs to be.Go forth and prosper in 2019.

posted by David Briggs