Vegetal city

To break with everything you know and to conceive a dream of somewhere else, of a different way of living – it’s one of the most fascinating intellectual ideas you can examine. That’s what’s behind this work. In addition, it uses the theoretical and technical concepts we already have and combines them with the attitudes towards development which are best suited to the realities and necessities of our life on Earth.
“Vegetal City” is the product of an architect’s thinking on possible ways in which our urban habitat and how we function within it might change in the future. It was created with an eye to the realities of life, to our material and intellectual needs. Free from all the constraints imposed by capitalism, this far-sighted vision of our environment considers our various ways of life against a background of sustainable development.
The present state of the planet raises questions concerning its future. The revolution brought about by investment in industry (in all societies, to varying degrees) is now drawing to its close. Exploitation of natural and human resources all over the world, the erosion of biodiversity, the multiplicity of markets (some of which are monopolies), the capitalisation by private individuals of the planet’s resources, the reinforcement of hierarchical systems for making societies function – these are all typical aspects of the modern world and of the situation we have got ourselves into. The society which has resulted from our mania for production has created an illusory concept of progress. The technical skills which yesterday were the foundation of our increased wealth seemed to promise us that our industrial societies would dominate the world for ever; unfortunately, this dream has infected our civilisation like a devastating plague. Our societies have allowed themselves to be led astray by putting their faith in the hope of a better life, with the quest for material riches as our guarantee of escape from the precariousness of life on the level of mere survival.
The Utopia of a better life was really just a dream of a better life. But we couldn’t define what this better life was. The very idea served to arouse dissention and envy. Beyond the reach of any social co-operation or any legislation, and against the background of technical attempts at control which are of doubtful value, something alien has come into being. Like cells with no concept of belonging to a larger organism, we have all been fighting for ourselves or for our families, without noticing how these dreams of ours were destroying the balance of nature or of society by altering the links between individuals and our relations with the living world.
It’s true that the progress brought about by our technical daring has allowed us to make considerable advances in knowledge and research, which has meant that some individuals are now much better protected from some terrible menaces. But these victories were surreptitiously opening a Pandora’s box full of different threats: technological progress and the possibilities of comfort which it has brought have been coupled with a belief that the individual’s goal in life should be to become wealthier and wealthier. People became richer than ever before in societies which had originally been agrarian. We no longer simply produced what we needed, but what we wanted – and as our salaries grew, our aspirations grew with them. An entire market economy system grew up. More production meant more raw materials – that was obvious. And so we had to get more and more from the earth and what lay under it. Things have been going downhill, and the price we have to pay today is now becoming clear. We are at great risk of running out of resources in the near future …
“It is now vital to change the links which bind us as individuals, and likewise as groups, to the concept of growth and to the underlying values.”
All contemporary societies are now faced with the fact that the systems of thought and production which came into being over two centuries ago have done all they can. Everywhere, all over the world, we’re up against a wall. Trying to imagine new universes and comparing them with the one we’re living in has the merit of posing the question of what we need to satisfy human needs and what kind of future is possible – in both the material and the political sense. What we need now is a regeneration revolution. We have to call a halt – to mining operations which exhaust the planet’s resources, to burdening nature with our industrial waste, as we have done for so long, to standardisation and globalisation. It’s not enough just to make good the shortfalls we’ve caused. We need to reconsider a whole set of attitudes towards our life as a society and to how we live, by finding other ways of using the resources we need to keep us alive.
The question we are faced with now is this – do we keep our societies on the same course, or do we adopt a different outlook?
The world we live in has emerged from a number of possible outcomes and owes its existence to knowledge which has been applied on the basis of ways of thinking which were born in different times. Things wouldn’t have been the same at all if some completely different philosophy had been behind the way we use these various types of knowledge. Industry would have developed in a different way, guided by values other than military ambitions and individual profit. But the past is what it is. Because we are starting from our position as the victors, it is now our job, using what we know of the world and the condition our planet is in, to explore new possibilities. We should no longer be thinking in terms of extending our territory and power, but of making the whole world aware of how vital it is to protect and regenerate our environment so that we can start to get back to a system of sustainable coexistence: we must stimulate the imagination in order to explore different perspectives and solutions, and to investigate ways of doing things differently to what we do now.
“Creativity is an important key to changing points of view and ways of thought and to finding solutions by developing projects which stand some chance of being implemented using current technical research.”
It was this malaise which led Luc Schuiten to take up the work of designing something new for the community, in view of the way our society is continuing to develop. The first step for an innovator is to try and look at what already exists from a fresh point of view.
“We can’t carry on with individualistic attitudes which boil down to “I’ll just do my own thing and let the rest of the world go by”. We need to change the way our entire society thinks in order to make it compatible with the rest of the world of which it forms part, and on which it ultimately depends”.
One thing we all really need to do is to take a broader view of things. Above all, we have to stop thinking that the last word has been uttered, that no more bets can be placed, that there is no alternative. We stand at the crossroads. We have to explore a vast number of alternative routes and decide upon the best way to regenerate the world in which we want to live. For this vision of the future to become a reality, it is essential to strike a chord with the general population. The potential of the individual is the initial catalyst: each of us, using what we are and what we know and what we have, can imagine what the future might be like. We can’t just sit there and accept whatever we’re asked to accept. It’s true that some are better off than others. Not everyone is in a position to demonstrate his or her rejection of a way of life he or she disapproves of. But for those who can listen with an informed ear, and who have enough freedom of action to make their disapproval known, it is their duty as citizens to speak out. It is the role of an artist to choose a mode of expression which suits him or her and makes it possible to show others what he or she is thinking.
The graphic arts are the media through which Luc Schuiten has chosen to try and understand things. He begins with his responses to what he sees, and gives these feelings expression. Then he takes his work forward to explore new perspectives. This is how he came up with the concept of Vegetal City. The diversity of the habitats demonstrates his affinity with living things in all the adaptations possible to different landscapes, populations, climates and natural environments, and gives us a glimpse of the multitudes of other ideas which are possible. In these universes, people are once again in communication with the universal natural order, in a new project based on interaction with nature, in which nature can be regenerated and obtain a new lease of life. That’s why the images presented by Luc Schuiten are not frozen; they evoke the way that places change over time. It’s a way of surprising us, of evoking our emotional response. The artist brings his intentions to life. He goes beyond simple graphics to give them a creative dimension – for himself, and for those who encounter them.
Having grown up in surroundings in which pictorial expression and aesthetic considerations were at the heart of his family’s values, Luc Schuiten had the benefit of his father’s teaching from a very early age, and has inherited his know-how (his father was both an architect and a painter). The use of drawing to express ideas and events was to give him a mode of expression that he has never abandoned. The family’s life was punctuated by celebrations, brief interludes when places changed, moments of magic and surprise such as Christmas – times which were to be engraved on the imagination of the artist before he was even aware of it, and would become a vital part of his creative work. The visual images created by his father Robert gave full expression to the extraordinary dimensions of the events, and the religious belief which gave an additional dimension to the child’s imagination intensified the magic of the dream.
“The fact that we believed these stories we were told was a way of fully integrating the events and of experiencing an emotion which was so powerful that it just took us into another universe.”
In his turn, and while he was still a child, Luc Schuiten, wanting to impress his family, decided to reject what everyone around him said, and declared that the stories the family had been told weren’t true. He expected his brothers and sisters to disagree with him. But he found that his attitude led them to ask questions of their own. And he realised that what he had dismissed as absurd had concealed a hidden truth. The situation had been turned upside-down, and what appeared to be something made up suddenly carried all the weight of truth. It was then that he understood that the most unbridled imagination, the most improbable invention, can help the person responsible for it to perceive a hidden aspect of the real and open up a window on a completely different reality. During his adolescence, at the time of life when we start to see the world as it really is, Luc Schuiten was experimenting with this inventive approach, which threw into question conventional received attitudes which he had been taught were unchangeable. Similar situations cropped up during his schooldays. He compensated for his lack of interest in certain subjects by pushing the envelope, putting his own personal stamp on the subjects in question. This audacious approach frequently met with an understanding and encouraging response from his teachers. While the ideas he put forward may have been pure invention from the point of view of knowledge, they had the attraction of a coherent internal structure which sprang from his imagination and which, when all was said and done, shed an unexpected and innovative light on the subjects in question. In the process of developing his personal and specific vision, Luc
Schuiten became a regular visitor to museums. There he made watercolour copies of the works of the masters. As he studied the work of the different painters, he discovered the subtle effects and the bold way they used colours. He was beginning to think that what you don’t see may also play a role in any image.
His passion for storytelling, the delight he took in placing characters in situations with surprising outcomes, and all within a reality which was suggested rather than made explicit, also led Luc Schuiten to explore the comic strip as a means of expression. In collaboration with his brother François, he developed the series “The Hollow Lands”, creating imaginary stories centred on the relationship between human beings and their environment. He familiarised himself with a graphic language which proved to be a powerful tool of communication easily accessible to all – something which enriched his architect’s training, requiring specialised and self-contained types of graphic communication, by adding a more spontaneous mode of expression.
But then, realising that the process of communication through comic strips called for a storyline and a plot, Luc Schuiten abandoned this form of language and went completely in the opposite direction, offering a “life space” with no story at all, leaving everyone free to embellish the author’s make-believe world with details taken from their own experience. This original approach allowed him to express the life values which he tended to favour through his visions, which were simultaneously original and personal, of archiborescent cities.
Archiborescence is a neologism created by joining together shortened forms of “architecture” and “arborescence”. It is used here to describe architecture which mainly uses all forms of living organisms for construction materials, or which takes its inspiration from living things.
“I want to communicate what I feel when I analyse a fact, and to do it in a comprehensible manner. I try to make it resonate, to make it accessible to everyone, which includes a potentially subjective viewpoint. This is part of my creative process. I let people see the choices I have made.”
Combining his imagination with his vocation as an architect, Luc Schuiten began to design living cities for the future. He often started with objective images – drawings of cities which he had visited for his work – and used them to create sequences of mutations, thus leading readers on to see an integrated future in a space they knew, somewhere they could quite happily explore without feeling any compulsion. The spectator thus became aware of the interconnections between these freeze frames and could then understand how the general process worked. This was a situation in which the viewer interacted with the image which was being presented to him/her. People asked questions, they made comparisons. They were confronted with another reality which differed from the one they knew, and started to wonder how they might behave in it. The series showing specific places changing with time were invitations to do this. It was in the space between the images that the reader’s imagination created a process of evolution. Spectators became characters within the scene they were shown, and could live through the transformations as if they had lived for two hundred years, or even a thousand years. They changed as the spaces changed. They could walk through an open door and gradually learn about a future which was different from the one which was currently on offer. This alternative future was already being given a foundation. People could walk through it – it was starting to become real.
“Readers encounter two unreal perceptions: they go beyond the limits of their own lifespan, and they witness long-term changes in cities.”
You need guidance to choose your way. Visualisation is a striking method of encountering the future. What Luc Schuiten draws is his way of speaking to us. He’s committing himself to taking a position when faced with an essential problem relating to everyone’s future: how to envisage new ways in which we could live in harmony with the planet. He offers us visual metaphors, ways of thinking, which invite us to understand that we have to reconsider our values in order to make way for a new creativity. To be an architect, you need a long-term vision. Luc Schuiten goes beyond simple concepts; he takes a position and reflects on a universal future.
“I don’t know at the start where my search will lead me. I make a sketch, I lay down an initial idea which is very much taken from my imagination, then I compare it with various realities – logical, social, biological, to bring some coherence to my feelings.”
A habitat or a city derives its constructive reality from its conception, and is then progressively defined in order to become sufficiently well-suited to its environment, its time and its inhabitants. This principle also applies to a piece of work with futurist conceptions. Luc Schuiten has no wish to enter the world of dreams and fantasies. His approach is anchored in the malaise which we experience when faced with the human race’s problematical future, and he is proposing his reflections, which offer credible perspectives for change. Rather than expressing himself in a negative way, he prefers to opt for the creation of a future which is very far from being a simple improvement on what we can conceive of today as regards buildings, transport and ways of life. This leads him to envisage new urban spaces. He goes beyond the visual to explore the natural possibilities presented by certain phenomena which are still imperfectly understood in the world of living things and ecosystems in order to apply them to construction.
More recently, following his meeting with the biologist Gauthier Chapelle and his work with the Biomimicry Europa association, Luc Schuiten’s intuitive creative approach has benefited from an additional inspiration. Some very specific approaches to solutions put forward by biomimetics caught his imagination. This recently-developed concept proposes to call on 3 thousand million years of “research and development” which can be obtained by studying some of the 10 million species which surround us, in order to develop forms, materials and processes which respect the living world and ensure that our civilisation, and the biosphere which sustains it, can survive in the long term. Understanding the way that living things and living creatures work thus provides us with a scientific base which we can use as a launch pad for innovations which are compatible with the planet: if we take our inspiration from the way living organisms work and adapt it, this gives us an inexhaustible source of sustainable ideas. This may open the way for us to use totally new tools for reflection, for synthesising materials and for managing interactions between cities and their environment.
Public opinion can also be modified – by developing new ways to discover what people know, by daring to imagine new hypotheses, by studying possible ways of adapting the living world to create the material relationships which are essential for us to live better in our habitat, while continuing to preserve our natural surroundings, and by inventing new systems of travel.
Luc Schuiten is not offering an illusory solution in the shape of some pre-packaged city based on a single truth. He prefers a “renewable” operating system which can be used to make changes in what already exists. This visionary approach does not claim to offer any seminal solutions, and will no doubt be enhanced and made more complex and diverse over the next few decades, but this will take the form of “negotiations” between old and new ways of doing things. This creative work will allow us to escape from our facile Manichean judgments and will show that individual and alternative creativity is necessary for the group and provides it with something to think about. Luc Schuiten has no intention of training acolytes to accept a particular concept. He wants to show that a threat doesn’t have to become a reality – not once we all start doing what we can to influence our future.
Making changes possible in communities which can sustain them could lead to the birth of a veritable Utopia. Archiborescence is thus an ecology which, by making living things and environmental factors operate in harmony in an inter-dependent relationship, is intended to provide us with an alternative, and a way of making a difference…
The transport systems within cities are an integral part of the problems of urban living. They are inseparable from the very concept of the city. The traffic systems we use today have emerged from the historic – indeed, prehistoric – mechanisms defining human behaviour. The need to travel has become bound up with social imperatives, usually based on the desire to impress people and to demonstrate one’s elevated position in society. Vehicles are intended to win their owners the respect or admiration of the community, and social status can be gained by what they represent, by their sparkling sheen, by what they demonstrate about their owners. Paradoxically, the real power of cars which correspond to these criteria is nowadays restricted by laws imposing maximum speed limits on the roads. The common sense which has led to the imposition of safety regulations to protect those using vehicles has not prevented industrialists from continuing to manufacture fast and heavy vehicles, even though making full use of their high-performance capabilities is prohibited. On the other hand, the speeds at which vehicles travel mean they have to keep well apart to make sure there is no contact between them. If vehicles are too close to each other, there is a risk of an accident, and so this generates a range of aggressive attitudes among drivers. It should be noted that, following the principles of superiority and dominance which mean we all try to make ourselves feel safe, the less macho driver usually comes off worse in a collision. In view of these factors, when travelling, we have to be permanently alert, which generates stress, with everyone trying to stay safe, whereas city travelling, which is vital to urban life, should be organised fairly and accessible in the same way for all.
Moreover a few decades from now, the overuse of the fuels used to obtain the energy which makes the engines of our vehicles work will have exhausted the reserves of oil which have been built up over millions of years. Luc Schuiten is putting forward a vision which is more in balance with our real travel requirements, in the hope that another form of energy can be used. In order to reduce our energy consumptions, he is reducing the weight of the box we travel in. So, in contrast to the individual vehicles which we know today, he imagines small units, more flexible and lighter, operated by an electric motor and picking up their energy through contact with a rail integrated into the traffic lane. Other means of transport can be proposed to complement this type of vehicle and fulfil all our transport needs, in terms of both private travel and freight transport: pedestrian-friendly systems, cycle rickshaws, elevated transport systems, etc. These suggestions form the subject of some current research projects, which are aimed at improving all possible travel systems which use less energy. We have a duty to look for new operating concepts. The good news is that we are simultaneously in a position where we have no choice and where we also have the chance to create a different way of life.
The sketches reflect a quest. They highlight the basic foundations of a visual perception based on reflection allied to research into the problematical issues which certain urban situations present. The spectator is invited to share in a long journey from the very start – a journey through notebooks of recycled paper. The outlines of sketches in black lead pencil and white crayon emerge, suggesting shapes, volumes and lights. Images which leap out at you flash across your mind for a few seconds like fleeting visions of an idea which appears and then disappears. These images are created immediately, without any searching for an aesthetic effect, by an artist whose mind is always as open as possible to what he sees, while his mastery of the graphic arts allows him to draw as if he were on automatic pilot. This approach of Luc Schuiten’s is the essence of his creation.
“When I form a vision of something, an idea, when I can see it appearing in my mind’s eye, I immediately make a sketch of it, with the aim of keeping as close as possible to my vision.”
In a way, the notebooks are collections of material to be used. The sheets which follow one another in a notebook keep pace with the ideas which they represent. They become the space in which we are gradually able to trace our visual path, creating continuity in the imagination. For the artist, graphic representation is the most faithful and the clearest way of pinning down the initial concept of something which is sometimes complicated to express. An artist’s first sketches are not tools of communication. They serve to freeze those moments of creativity which will be used later – reviewed, reworked, utilised, retained or rejected. They allow us to enter into the understanding of something new, the adaptation of which will make it possible to examine the first idea more deeply in order to create a more elaborate project. As we move from page to page, the artist tries out one idea after another. Shapes become more and more precise, and lines grow firmer and gain coherence. The critical way in which artists view their first attempts to portray something pushes them into looking for another reality, putting their visions into context in a more finished form in which the drawing can perform its role of acting as messenger. The new forms of habitat, the structures, the means of communication – everything that makes up the cities was brought into being in this way, following a procedure of selection, adaptation, uniformity, combining disparate elements into a coherent whole, making it possible to create complicated projects.
For several years, the increasing number of environmental catastrophes, coupled with the international reports on climate change and biodiversity, has given greater and greater prominence to negative, scary visions of a planet, the integrity of which is menaced by the aggressive behaviour of humanity. All that seems to be on offer for society is fear – fear of a horribly dark future. The Utopian visions of Luc Schuiten, supported by the initial approaches to a solution already emerging from biomimetics, on the other hand, suggest we should unite around a positive creativity, open up the possibility of desirable futures which make us impatient to enjoy them, to dream of cities where it’s a positive pleasure to breathe in the air – places where we can smell the dead leaves, where there are beehives, where the birds are singing, places with cottage gardens and winding rivers – to create spaces which embody one of the fundamental principles of living – life creates conditions favourable to life. And beyond that, these visions can even suggest ways of breaking down the barrier between the artificial and the natural, and of reconciling the attackers and the victims, uniting them in a re-awakened consciousness of a vast interdependent network of respect through which we can all gaze in wonder at life on Earth.
“Once we can cross the gap that separates human beings from other living things, what remains is just one big family with thousands of millions of members, linked to one another in time and space. What remains is just a huge family tree which is almost 4,000,000,000 years old, with its roots in a tiny little planet …”
Gauthier Chapelle, “Archiborescence”