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Latent Utopias, held at the Landesmuseum Johanneum, Graz, as a kick-off event to Graz Cultural Capital of Europe 2003, is an exhibition that inspires and frustrates. Glimpses of architecture in prototypical form with new hybrid typologies are mixed with renditions of studies of a much more abstract nature. A labyrinthine sequence of twenty six individual, self-organised architects' spaces shows a cross section of innovative practices, from Coop Himmelblau to MVRDV, Foreign Office Architects to Sadar Vuga and UK's softroom. Commentary is included as well as displays, but often the combination does not show and tell in equal measure.

Unfortunately the precise agenda behind the laudable assembly of talent in the exhibition curated by Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher seems vague. Instead of crystallising a set of ideas, it dives into and around them in a rather serpentine fashion. Advocating an integrated approach to help architects compete, for instance, as Kolatan MacDonald does, through cross platforms in software, doesn't go hand in hand with examples. At the weakest points some propositions - such as a single, kinetic wall or a shoal of inflatables - seem bereft of a brief.

The best presentations are powerful demonstrations of an objective, radically revising the premises of past treatments of space, for instance, the diagrams and model for Foreign Office Architects' Bundle Tower high-rise prototype, conceived to be built in place of the World Trade Centre or elsewhere. Formed of a complex of interconnected towers, it replaces the deep plan of the high rise with flexible floor plans and a series of sky lobbies to increase vertical circulation. Or Lars Spuybroek of NOX's intriguing Son-O-House in the Netherlands that picks up the movement of visitors and feeds it into a score like 'an evolutionary memoryscape' that develops with their traced behaviour. Other architects have lucid insights, but when it comes to the work, some can only back them up with formal studies (both models and computer-generated) of a high level of abstraction often seemingly unrelated to urban processes.

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The traditional 20th century project of a utopian vision of progress has been replaced by a more flexible engagement in the processes of transformation of the built environment architects play a role in. Architects are exploring new spatial forms and typologies. The premise on which the exhibition is based is that as we experience changes in the ways we perceive reality, architecture has the profound capability to adapt to and interact with that set of transformations. Reiser + Umemoto's Solenoids, a hypnotising magnetic field in a cell-like space that detects the presence of visitors and UN Studio, with a huge digital photograph of people moving, both grasp the nettle when it came to pinpointing their ambitions: to draw inspiration from a context continually in flux.

Narratives about global urban qualities hypothetically merged in time and space, such as Branson Coates' six part Ecstacity video, play with the dynamics of social space. Its value lies in imagining, not being prescriptive ('In Ecstacity, the citizens are the real architects'). The old-style, top down, overdetermined utopia is replaced by a belief in adaptability. What kind of adaptability that is remains to be seen. The CAD projection of the Functionmixer, a 'Sim City'-style urban environment made by MVRDV you can play with presents urban software. Building up an abstract world representing the city, Functionmixer is a powerful instrument to assist the architect and planner. Its evolution raises yet more questions, such as how much information becomes part of the design process, how far you extend simulation of propositions, as well as, inevitably, who controls its parameters.

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To pin down its agenda, the whole exhibition - and many of the architects themselves, needed stricter curating, to put the key insights and multiple strategies architects have for urban 'transactions', as MVRDV put it, into the sharpest focus. When it comes to designing credible models of an architecture engaged in an adaptation of reality, some of the exhibitors are more illuminating in their written statements than in their presentations. The impact of the transition from mechanical to digital technologies in society to the extent that computing is now social infrastructure demands examples of how architects are relating to that condition. Mark Goulthorpe of DECOi flagged up the replacement of linear, determining strategies by evolving, open-ended ones. He is one commentator who needs more opportunities to test out ideas.

Maybe the level of abstraction in Latent Utopias stems from a sentiment that to be 'utopian', a design cannot be a solution to a present day problem. But the future is coming at us like a speeding train: the luxury of abstract forecasting is not there. At the same time, the speed of change demands more flexible and more personalised solutions. We want to know what methods and materials have potentials, as well as what the implications are, now. If the future of the surface is, as Ocean North describes it, as a generative field organising dynamic relations, as part of intelligent spaces of a four dimensional Baroque, experiential quality, then the means must be made available to demonstrate that potential more fully in an exhibition. Like servo's Thermocline, an interactive sensory 'reprivation' furniture project, such projects could have been unveiled as a prototype to be experienced.

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There is a thread of lounges in Latent Utopias, but mostly not for sitting in: Zaha's own sinuous space includes a bed, and Andreas Thaler's podium-style Liquid Lounge, projections and sounds of water. Karim Rashid's biomorphic spaces (one being the tactile WOOM) also embodies the casual lounge aesthetic and desire for a flux of programmable sensory stimulation to be part of our architectural environments. This epitomises a more intimate, and in many ways releasing relationship between the human body and surrounding space that is developing, as well as an intention to broaden function by accommodating 'hypertextual and less linear' experiences.

At the heart of Latent Utopias is a cultural agenda for environments that are not only more related to flows of human movement (Foreign Office being a proponent of this approach), but can sense and adjust themselves to these patterns of their use and inhabitation, thanks to sensors and other feedback mechanisms. The AA Design Research Lab's exhibits express this potential well, but unfortunately do not have the means to fully evoke their schemes for physical spaces that behave as seamless extensions of the virtual. Kine-tetra and Topotransegrity are projects that hopefully will reach fruition in this form.

Asymptote's animation of their concept of body architecture invokes the car as a mobile machine that can create an inverse form of mapping of the environment. Plastic, abstract, capable of being surface and volume at the same time, the future qualities of space are ready in the can, like a movie. Allied to a written statement including the cryptic phrase 'motion tectonics', Mscapes take us back to the passions of the Futurists. Without specific prototypes, tested on real people, and involving interactive design as creatively as possible, they remain an architect's dream of liquid space. Undulating topographics is not just about buildings like car bodies, which is already happening, but a matter of seeing and movement embodied in architecture as integrated rather than parallel human processes.

Latent Utopias needs more architects to show a bottom-up tackling of specific challenges and locations and to 'up' the experiential dimension of its impact. Summarising the qualities of the latent architecture drawn across all the exhibits, it can be customised, programmed, adapted, sensorily attuned to the body - in short, it is more analogous and attuned to natural processes, human and environmental, and to movement. Architecture risks overaddressing itself to formal experiment, taking an abstract, sculptural route that exploits the computer's infinite form-giving capacities. The multiple qualities evoked in Latent Utopias do not replace architecture's applications in relation to the processes of local and global scenarios, as the exhibition might well have amplified. That capacity produces the best interpretation of liquid architecture.

© 2018 Lucy Bullivant