Jotta- Unknown fields division
see more on the trip here
Extract from the article bellow, Words by Lemma Shehadi
“Unknown Fields Division, the interdisciplinary studio at the Architectural Association
School, embark on annual expeditions around the world to explore and draw ideas
from surreal landscapes and obsolete ecologies. We talk to UFD co-founders
Liam Young and Kate Davies, as well as participants of the 2011 summer journey
through the abandoned futuristic sites of the former Soviet Union.
Imagine a museum twenty years from now displaying the first iPad,
today’s coveted technology reduced to a relic. This would be akin to what
Unknown Fields Division saw as they moved from Chernobyl in Ukraine to
the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan, with a pit stop at the dried-up
lake bed of The Aral Sea.
These abandoned sites were once pillars of futuristic ideals. The
landscape redesigned by upheavals of the cold war: Chernobyl, the nuclear
factory, abandoned in the ‘80s after a deadly explosion, The Aral Sea,
a giant lake which drained out to promote agricultural growth, and the
Cosmodrome in Baikonur, the world’s first launch pad which sent Yuri
Gagarin into space.
In the 18th century, the Neo-Classicists were inspired by ancient ruins.
They hoped to capture what they saw as the simplicity and rationality of
the Classical era, but their perception of the past tells us more about
the Neo-Classicists themselves, and how they tried to shape the future.
Similarly, the UFD study the not too distant past, but one so obsolete
it appears as ruins. This otherworldliness serves as a distancing
lens through which “we can start to imagine what emerging trends,
technologies and ecological conditions will look like,” says Liam Young, who
co-founded UFD with Kate Davies in 2008 and helms futurist think tank
Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today.
“In some ways we have overshot the futures imagined for us by science
fiction writers and speculative thinkers in the 20th century,” says Davies.
Just as several of science fiction’s most influential creators formally
studied architecture – Fritz Lang (Metropolis) and Syd Mead (Blade
Runner, Tron, Aliens) to name two – UFD take a sci-fi approach to tackling
current debates in architecture concerning the relationship between
nature and technology. “We are beginning to encounter a new form of
engineered nature,” says Young, “the unfamiliar landscapes of robotics,
bio technology and a changing climate.” Preservationist views of nature
are a thing of the past, he explains. “Nature is being redefined through
An eclectic gang including artists, architects, scientists, filmmakers,
designers and writers are invited to join each UFD tour, to document and
respond to their findings. “We don’t have a specific future in mind,” Davies
explains, “that’s why we bring people with us to speculate and to fuel
discussion.” Will Wiles, writer and Deputy Editor of Icon Magazine joined
the Chernobyl adventure: “I was interested in the lure of forbidden places,
the mysterious melancholy draw of ruins, the romance and adventure
of space flight – Chernobyl, Aral and Baikonur had taken deep root in my
imagination already, and I wanted to find out why.”
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
The expedition began in Chernobyl, an abandoned space around a nuclear
factory where a 1986 explosion contaminated the surrounding area.
The team don red Tyvek suits for protection from the radiation that still
permeates the environment. Members were equipped with GPS trackers
and Geiger counters so they could map changing radiation levels.
“We wanted to measure the sites for ourselves to form our own opinions
in the face of debates about the effects of the disaster.” Young describes,
“I packed two radio controlled robots with spy cameras to record the toxic
sites remotely, to see the sites through the eyes of technology.”
The exclusion zone shows rebirth in a post-apocalyptic environment.
Young recalls, “We expected to see ruins of false utopias, the faded
dreams of nuclear promise. Instead what we found was a pocket of
illegal re-settlers in Chernobyl, living off the land, growing crops and
Waiting for the Aral Sea to return
The death of the Aral Sea, which lay between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan,
left an arid wasteland of salt and dried mud. Once one of the largest
lakes in the world, it eventually dried out, as the rivers feeding into it were
redirected in the 1960s. The plan was to turn the surrounding desert into
an agricultural haven. Satellite photos of the lake, taken in 1985, 1997
and 2009 show the rapid decline of this large blue sea into a white crater
of crackling salt.
“Now only a long horizon of empty water is left,” describes Nelly Ben
Hayoun, an experience designer and participant on the expedition who
would rally the troops at intervals to enact their encounters through
performances. In her diary of the trip for architecture magazine Domus,
Ben Hayoun conceptualised their experience of the lake as one of various
“waits”: “Layers. Spaces that needed to be filled in.”
Wiles recounts his “unexpectedly strong emotional reaction” to Aralsk, the
neighbouring town. “It’s a grim town by this desiccated seabed, poor and
monstrously polluted. The Aral Sea, like the Baikonur Cosmodrome, was
for Wiles, “the product of a modernist project to master vast spaces
- Kazakhstan, and outer space itself.” Both, he claims, “have wandered far
from their original ideological goals to take on mysterious new directions.”
Their final destination is the busy spaceport in Kazakhstan where fifty
years ago, Yuri Gagarin was the first man to be launched into space.
“A bizarre city,” Wiles recalls, “littered with technology that is
simultaneously incredibly advanced and completely obsolete. It’s leased
from Kazakhstan by Russia – a political island, a special zone, a space
Hong Kong or Gibraltar.”
During their visit, the explorers dress as cosmonauts to view a real space
rocket launch which Michael Madsen, director of the documentary film
Into Eternity, films in 3D. Vere Van Gool describes Baikonur as “Some kind
of manmade fantasy land in the middle of a desert. The immense statues
and sculptures, the casino, the museum, the entire primary school was
The breadth of this interdisciplinary project is seen through the explorers
who take part. It is difficult to ignore the pioneering force of the Unknown
Fields Division. Their nomadic approach defies concepts of studio space
and research. They are not discovering new worlds, but visiting ghosts at
the margins of modernity.
The chosen landscapes show a collision between the control of civilising
powers and an unpredictable and sublime nature. In the past, cultural
movements have tended to emphasise either one or the other: the
Romantics celebrated craggy mountains and waterfalls, and the
Futurists, as they drew closer to the first world war, hailed technology,
speed and industry. The Unknown Fields Division create an aesthetic
for this collision. Rather than buildings, these architects are designing
scenarios for a future where the fusion of the high-tech and the organic
will be a necessity.
- The Unknown Fields Division travels again this August, driving from
Roswell, New Mexico to Nevada, to investigate places of UFO sightings.
The deadline for applications to join them is 6th August 2012.
-Set for release in 2013 is Will Wiles’ book ‘Toxic Tourism’, “about the
utopian fantasies of the 20th century and the 21st century’s darker
foreshadowing of a post-human world.”
- Nelly Ben Hayoun is currently working on an interactive performance
inspired by the trip.
- Liam Young and Kate Davies will release a compilation of drawings,
photographs and writings from the trip, to coincide with a July exhibition.
- Michael Madsen has made ‘The Dream’ a 3D film based around
interviews he did with the Chernobyl group.
- Factory Fifteen have just released their short sci-fi film ‘GAMMA’,
shot on location during the 2011 expedition.
Watch the film here: www.bit.ly/GAMMA