Liam Young

Director of Tomorrows Thoughts Today and the Unknown Fields Division at SCI-Arc—Los Angeles, USA

[Q] Question
[LY] Liam Young

The ‘field’ is a sensor—a material record—encoded with evidence. Evidence that when gathered, uncovered, composed and presented has the potential to validate certain structures or challenge particular narratives. Architecture, and architectural education, plays a crucial role in establishing the tools and methods which inevitably shape the built environment. How can the tools of architecture critically engage and respond to the urgencies of today; ecological decay, systemic racism, economic disparity? In what ways can critical and experimental forms of learning transform practice? Operating in the space between education, art, architecture and journalism; manoeuvring through and beyond borders, we speak with Liam Young about mapping an ‘unknown field’—documenting the signals of possible futures.
Liam, your trajectory in education has been an interesting one; you began teaching at the AA, in the regular studios and there you developed Unknown Fields1 Liam Young
Unknown Field
,—a series of studios that began to diverge out of the traditional studio format. In the last couple of years you were at the AA, studio teaching was not the place where we thought research could happen. Can you explain how that shift happened and what led you to think that way?

What was central to the narrative from the very beginning was that in order to make work, we were going to leave the studio and go out into the world. We didn’t start Unknown Fields in the very first moment; we started doing what we were interested in, which was exploring the relationship between nature and technology. After a couple of years that evolved into what we now know as Unknown Fields.

The cornerstone of Unknown Fields is to try and counteract the traditional colonialist practices of architecture—like looking at a landscape from afar, thinking that we know it and then we're going to make a building on it; or travelling to it, identifying a problem and solving it with a building. Rather, we use our capacity as architects and storytellers to meet and engage with people that have devoted their lives to a particular context.

In order to really understand a place, you have to go out and see all these “Unknown Fields”, as we label them, to sufficiently make work in the disciplinary context of architecture. Our role has always been to take students and put them in front of intelligent people that have been on the ground operating—sometimes for decades. What we can do as architects is record and capture their stories; synthesise, reframe and recontextualize them and tell them back to our audience. And that's what Unknown Fields has been doing as an education practice. That is; throw open the doors of the institution, take people out and confront them with a massive hole in the ground in Inner Mongolia, or a giant mega container ship at the port of Hong Kong; to try and immerse them in contexts that are critical in understanding the place that they're coming from—an elitist institution in London, like the AA.

We did that for a decade and that was part of the studio system at the AA, but then we also ran a nomadic visiting school. We would do two or three journeys a year, sometimes with students, or sometimes we would do open calls and invite collaborators; like filmmakers or artists, that related to the themes we were exploring. The expeditions were anywhere between 12 to 30 people that we would drag along with us through these strange trajectories; behind the scenes of the modern world. In the 10 years, I think we did 15 or 16 journeys and we made lots of work and made a bunch of books. That became the cornerstone of our practice.

We got to a point where our desire to get into places and the stories we wanted to tell, became more and more risky. We were in situations where we were acting much more like investigative journalists and using the methodologies from that discipline. With a bunch of students or collaborators in tow, we flew drones over fences in order to get footage of illegal fashion dyes being dumped into the Ganges River in India, or over the border to get footage of a secret pilot plant for lithium development in Bolivia. We've been chased by unmarked vans—I've had to take the SD cards out of the drone and swap, hide or stick them in strange places so that no one could find them. We had to pretend in meetings that we were buyers from London making a big purchase, in order to get into the Christmas Factory and get footage of how decorations are made—which later went viral on BBC. So you can imagine the health and safety complications that emerge from those situations…

Across all those years, the work we developed began to establish a reputation. And that visibility meant we could apply for different grants and research funding—which allowed us to change our funding model. Up until then we relied on people paying to come with us. But once we started getting commissions and started getting research funding and winning grants, we changed the model. Now we just travel with a very dedicated project team that might be just a very small documentary crew. It allows us to be much more nimble, incisive and get into places that we wouldn't be able to… instead of trying to pretend we’re 25 UK business buyers in China.

That beautifully traces a shift that is not so strange to us; a practice that starts within a school or institution, using it as a platform to do things that are impossible to start straight away as a practice, then slowly move towards something that is autonomous.

This coincides with your new pedagogical project, the Master of Science in Fiction and Entertainment2 Southern California Institute of Architecture
MS Fiction and Entertainment.
, which seems like a completely different pursuit in terms of what someone should be doing within an architecture school. The title itself ‘Fiction and Entertainment’ doesn't refer to traditional formats of architectural teaching, even though they are both terms and methodologies that architects use a lot. How did this project form and what is its relationship to your previous pedagogical experiments?


The big success stories out of Unknown Fields went on to not make buildings but rather to leverage architectural thinking within different industries. That was always our Kate Davies and I’s intention inside the AA, but to a certain extent we had to tip our hat a couple of times a year to things like RIBA accreditation and external examiners. At two points in the year all the freedom you're afforded comes crashing down on you and you get judged by your peers. To a certain extent, it was always limited in how radical we could be because it was still an architecture diploma—an accredited architecture degree.

I operated within that framework at Princeton and was running studios all over the place, but I was still trying to contort an architectural degree into this other form of practice. It became rather frustrating. Then it became clear—if people really wanted to do this type of work, if they wanted to leverage architectural thinking outside of the domain of traditional forms of practice, why do they need to try and hack the system to do so? What would it mean to make a master's programme that actually facilitated and celebrated that transition as opposed to sneaking it through the back door? My own work was starting to move more and more towards films; so I moved to L.A and there was an opportunity to create a master's programme at Sci−Arc.

If I wanted to do a degree that allows me to do what I do now, it doesn't really exist—so we made one. It’s still an architecture programme to a large extent, but it facilitates people that want to do different kinds of work. It's not a programme that's trying to be a film school inside an architecture school, nor is it trying to be an entertainment design course inside an architecture school. Rather, it's a year-long master's thesis programme that supports students to make a body of work. At the same time, they work on developing their own practice; to define a model of practice that's going to be sustainable, that will allow them to do the work they are passionate about once they leave. So it's kind of Unknown Fields, but with the shackles off, no holds barred; all chips on the table, leave architecture and see what happens.

It's not a weakening of the profession to dissolve or dilute it—it is a strengthening of it because it means that people are able to find different avenues, opportunities and realms in which to operate and be effective.
Could you expand upon the limitations of the accreditation process?

The model (at the AA) always followed what was required of us for accreditation but that's not where we would stop. We would do everything else beyond that. So students were never in danger of failing or not getting their degree. But there was always a point of compromise where we'd have to shove a bit of traditional architecture in a project somewhere so that people could grab onto it. But it'd be a kind of a shell game, like ‘look here this is the bit you need’ and then over here is all the stuff that we're actually really excited about and what the students really want to be pursuing. That diversion is something that when we could, would be jettisoned and left behind. At Sci−Arc I don't have to make any contestations like that; it's just allowed to be what it is.

We're in a strange position where most architecture schools are training students for a discipline that no longer exists. How many people actually graduate architecture and end up designing and making buildings? I mean, there are certainly plenty that do, but there's a huge percentage of architecture graduates that don't actually make buildings after they leave. Yet, so much of what we define as architectural education assumes they will. That was something we always found kind of insane.

At Sci−Arc, I still say that these people are operating as architects, but they might do so inside the entertainment industry; they might do so inside a video game studio, or as documentary filmmakers, or even as design researchers, or take some of the methodologies of world building that we talk about into architecture but they operate in a different kind of way.

I don't think this is a dissolution of the term 'architect'. It's not a weakening of the profession to dissolve or dilute it—it is a strengthening of it because it means that people are able to find different avenues, opportunities and realms in which to operate and be effective. It's a real call to arms to say that if you're interested in effecting change with the work that you can do, why stick within this marginalised, very disciplinary, very inward looking profession when you can get out there and operate like a Trojan horse.

Behind this position lies a clear statement about the current tools of architecture not being enough to respond to contemporary challenges. There are things that architects can do, but they are not because of the training they receive. What are the possibilities to operate in something like the Masters of Fiction, which gives the students something a regular master's in architecture doesn't? What tools are required in order to face the challenges of tomorrow—or today?
It is an urgent responsibility and an absolute necessity that we find appropriate mediums through which to disseminate those ideas and content to audiences outside of our own. Otherwise we're just screaming into the void

There are still architects out in the world operating, making buildings, doing the things that we used to do. But they're becoming far more marginalised, kind of pushed to the edges; operating essentially a luxury service trade to those with capital. And there are very notable exceptions to this, but the bulk of what we determine as ‘architecture officers’ are doing just that. They're either making trophies for dictators…The star architect system…The pinnacle….What we hold up as being the highest point of the profession is essentially fleshing out the trophy cabinet of warlords and despots, all the way down to building beach houses and loft extensions for rich people. They're catering to a few corporations that have the capacity, the money or the inclination to employ us or to call us up and commission us. Meanwhile, we are terraforming the planet. We are creating supply chains and conveyor belts that wrap our globe. We're producing stuff, space, volume and material at extraordinary rates and scales.

The big issues of today; climate change, systemic racism, massive economic disparity, the distribution of the ubiquitous network—these are things that architects that operate at the scale of a single site and its immediate adjacencies, have very little say over. So what does it mean for an architect to operate within that context? What Unknown Fields has been trying to do is map a new site.

Back when I first started architecture and studied at the University of Queensland, there was one narrative of Australian architecture. Maybe Sydney is different, but certainly Brisbane is still telling the story of genius loci, and place specific architecture. And it's because, to a large extent, in such an extraordinary place like Australia, that's a hell of a context and we engage with it, right? That was the singular narrative. To be honest, ironically I still think I'm working on that project. I still think I'm talking about ‘site’; but site as a single point on a map, a single block with its immediate adjacencies, flows of traffic, and sun angles no longer exists in that definition.

Now to operate as a meaningful architect in the world, one is to understand ‘site’ as being something that is an entirely distributed and atomised context. Yes, site is the vacant block of land, but that block of land is caught within a network of flows; economic, social, cultural, technological. Unknown Fields has been trying to map that new conception of site, to say that in order to understand this piece of land in London, you need to travel to China to see the hole in the ground—where the things that you’re ultimately going to stick on that piece of land begin their lives. An accurate model of that site includes this globalised planetary scale network of supply chains.

We try to make work that operates across those scales and new forms of site. We try to help people to become architects that intervene in that space. There are different ways you can do that; the architect as politician; the architect as researcher; the architect embedded inside a tech company; the architect as a storyteller. The niche that we're trying to expand on here in L.A., is to say that a big part of understanding this idea of site, is to understand that site is caught up in a network of flows, of culture. And how do you start to narrate that condition? It's not a condition that occurs in one spot or at one time. Therefore, it's inherently full of stories and complexity. And we can use stories and the mediums of popular culture to unravel those conditions. So, that's what we're trying to do. We’re trying to help architects and designers engage with that planetary site.

Why do you think storytelling and fiction are specifically effective tools for operating within or capturing that space—the global site?
Fiction is this universal language. It allows us to disseminate critical ideas to audiences outside of the codified languages of the architectural discipline.

This notion of site involves thousands and thousands of people and professionals other than architects. The medium through which traditional architects operate; the codified language of urban diagrams, plans, sections, mappings; we train for many, many, many years just to understand how to make and read a section. It's an extraordinarily inwardly looking disciplinary language. Yet the phenomena that we're talking about, and the way that I'm trying to describe it, connects and touches so many different people. Fiction is this universal language. It allows us to disseminate critical ideas to audiences outside of the codified languages of the architectural discipline. That's the value of storytelling. If we appreciate and value the work that we do and the ideas that we talk about, it is an urgent responsibility and an absolute necessity that we find appropriate mediums through which to disseminate those ideas and content to audiences outside of our own. Otherwise we're just screaming into the void. For me, storytelling, fiction, film, co-opting these mediums of popular culture, encoding those mediums within architectural and urban ideas, and treating these mediums as vessels and containers that hold those kinds of architectural ideas—that's what we're interested in here at Sci-Arc.

Hopefully that's what I'm trying to do with the work that we produce outside of the school; to connect people that would never end up sitting in your seminar class, or going to one of my lectures, or one of your million biennales, and try and bring them into the conversation because ultimately they're apart of it whether they realise it or not.

One of the iconic Unknown Fields projects is this Rare Earthenware, which is a larger project. A book titled ‘World Adrift’3 Kate Davies, & Liam Young (2016).
A World Adrift: Unknown Fields Actar
, which is based on this journey that we took from tracing objects of technology. For example, tracing an iPhone, from the Apple store where we might buy it, to the hole in the ground where it begins its life, and all of the station points along that process. We are mapping that supply chain and capturing this planetary scale conveyor belt that brings these objects to our shores. We worked this project to the point where people started to talk about the accountability of technology companies for their supply chains and vendors. We did this to the point where everyone was talking about Foxconn and the suicide nets. I'm not saying that we caused it, but a big part of all the work that was happening at the time that we were connecting into, caused things like; for Apple to audit their entire supply chain and set up a whole new body within the company that would be betting and following up on these kind of issues—working conditions and working hours and so on.

We found this radioactive lake in the middle of inner Mongolia, which sits beside the world's largest rare earth mineral refinery. Rare Earth is the series of minerals and metals that are inside every single one of our technological objects, from an electric car battery to a phone and a laptop. We somehow broke into this radioactive lake ; past the fence, past the guards, and collected material from that site. Some of that material we shaped into three vases that had been exhibited. But at the same time, we took some of that material and gave it to Greenpeace to analyse in their lab as a means to start cases of pollution and illegal dumping against these companies. We took journalists with us and stuck them in front of this site and said, you need to write about this. The story, ‘The Radioactive Lake' 4Tim Maughan (2015).
The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust.
, which is now titled ‘The Worst Place on Earth’, was the most read story on BBC in 2015. I have no metrics in terms of who read the story and what the millions of figures mean, but it's part of an overall groundswell of awareness that in the end has made a lot of these operators along that supply chain; specifically the people that engineer the supply chain, more accountable. And I don't think any single project did that. But certainly, we played a role in being just one voice in many, many, many that are saying ‘this is important, let's deal with this’.

When you were describing the program at Sci-Arc, you said “this is not a film school in the school of architecture, this is a ‘thing’ for architects.” So why journalism?

For me, architecture in its rawest form is telling stories with space. We were one of the last disciplines, at least at some schools where students will take a class like yours touching upon certain theoretical texts; they’ve probably done a history class as well as a philosophy class or theory class, as well as an engineering class, as well as collage... There's very few disciplines left that haven't totally destroyed their educational platform and turned it just into a vocational training exercise or a trade school. For the most part, architecture still deals with that breadth of knowledge and it sits in this really interesting place between technology and culture in a way that so many other disciplines don't. And the narratives and phenomena that I'm talking about exist in that space. They’re cultural phenomena, but their culture is produced by, or they produce technology.

Most disciplines sit at either end of that spectrum, know they're either somewhere in the text base or somewhere in the cultural base. Architecture—and there's a number of disciplines I can imagine that do it, but certainly ours sits in the middle. So we can have a conversation in a bar that's meaningful with a film director or an engineer. We can talk to the designer of an iPhone, or we can talk to an advocacy group that supports worker rights and worker hours in rural China. And that's not to say we can do everything that I'm talking about on our own. I'm not one of those people that say; with an architect's education we can do anything; there’s plenty we can't do. But, what we can do is collaborate and curate voices; and in that unique place, being in the middle of that spectrum, we can bring people from either ends together—we're extraordinary facilitators.

To reiterate my first point, that's what Unknown Fields has always been doing. We haven't been trying to solve problems; we're storytellers and we're strategic enough to be able to identify the interesting stories, and who might be the interesting voices of those stories. We have enough intelligence to identify who are the important players in a particular context. Our aesthetic practice allows us to synthesise all of that information, condense it in a way that's clear and meaningful, and represented through our own aesthetic lens. And I think that, there are very few disciplines that have that capacity of synthesis and that pluralistic capacity to bring those voices together.