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  • The Literary Method of Urban Design: Design Fictions Using Fiction
  • Alan Marshall (bio)

For students of design the world over, there’s usually nowhere near enough time in the school year to build a prototype of each and every single innovative idea that pops into one’s head—let alone to test them all in the social world or the marketplace. To speedily explore as many innovations as possible, students are sometimes encouraged to follow an alternative pathway, to create “design fiction.” Intended to exist only on paper or the screen, a “design fiction” is not really destined for the real world.1 As a learning technique, it allows for a significant degree of technical experimentation as well as the imagining of new social arrangements. Many design experts see this “free-for-all” method as rather annoying and untrustworthy—more art than science. Yet for the most creative students, it serves to liberate them from the various constraints of their discipline. My own peculiar process of “design fiction” is what I call the “Literary Method of Urban Design.” I will come to this method in a moment.

Last year, I was invited by the Bauhaus Museum in Weimar, Germany, to contribute artworks for a special exhibition entitled “Ways to Utopia: Life Between Desire and Crisis” (running from April 1, 2023—January 29, 2024).2 [End Page 560] This exhibition is a celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Bauhaus’s first architectural product: a modern suburban family home in the city of Weimar called the Haus Am Horn. Built in 1923 the Haus Am Horn ushered in the Bauhaus style, a streamlined functional elegance presented in clean, bright, hopeful hues.3 Beyond just style, though, the house was proffered up in utopian terms. Its Bauhaus creators suggested that such a home could be mass-produced on an industrial scale cheaply and efficiently to provide elegant living to every single family in Europe, be they rich or poor. In its first iteration, the Staatliches Bauhaus was a high-spirited, playful, future-oriented, and socially aware fine arts and architecture school that ran from 1919 to 1933 in Weimar, then Dessau, then Berlin. However, its liberalism and experimentation away from traditional teaching and practice invited scorn from conservatives and from the Nazi Party. The former took the Bauhaus school’s funding away; the latter shuttered it for good. Despite the closure of the building, the Bauhaus style transformed design across the world as former teachers and ex-students applied Bauhaus principles and approaches in new settings. The old Bauhaus school has since been resurrected, with the opening of Bauhaus Universität Weimar, and the Bauhaus Museum, with locations in Weimar and Dessau.

A few years back, Skyhorse Publishers published a book of my own “design fictions” depicting real-world cities set far in the future, each presented in utopian terms.4 Because of this, the Bauhaus approached me to help them celebrate their centennial anniversary by displaying my utopian urban designs in their museum. However, to convey the centenary theme of the exhibition, they requested exactly 100 different artworks of 100 different urban utopias portraying 100 different real-world cities set 100 years in the future. At the time, I had only produced eighty such works over the preceding decade. However, since the exhibition was to include masterworks by Bauhaus design greats like George Muche and Alma Buscher, I did not want to fall short. To make the “century” in quick time, I pushed ahead by deploying my own peculiar “Literary Method of Urban Design.”5 This method comprises three steps:

  1. 1. Select a city.

  2. 2. Select a literary work.

  3. 3. Design the future of the selected city, based upon the themes of the selected literary work.

[End Page 561]

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Figure 1.

Future London. By the author, inspired by More’s Utopia (1516).

When I used this method for the first time with Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) as the literary base, a curator at the Museum of London was tickled enough to include it in an exhibition about the future of London.6

Since then, the utopian spark has flowed through many of...