Q&A: Liam Young

The academic and thinker’s ‘Unknown Fields Division’ runs architectural projects in places like container ships or Chernobyl. Now he’s offering an MA on fiction and entertainment at LA architecture school Sci_ARC

Liam Young
Liam Young

So this MA – how come you’re running it in an architecture school?

Unknown Fields Division does speculative projects – films, installations, essays, drawings that address how we occupy space and that try and instigate change by being propositional. This won’t be some kind of predictive science fiction course; it will be about shaping the future, not predicting it. We want to give designers the tools to sketch out these possible futures.

Isn’t it all a bit high-falutin for people whose day job is building buildings?

Architects in conventional practice have less and less scope and influence in the built environment; we’d argue that there’s another way to practise. We’re not saying it’s about the dissolution of the profession; we’re just interested in what it might mean to practise as a gamer, a storyteller, a film maker or director. These are all alternative architectural career paths we’d like to develop. The constraints on design are not just physical but political, cultural and commercial.

So what’s the course going to consist of?

It’s LA, so we’re planning to co-opt all forms of popular culture. Projects could be cinema or web-based, could be a screenplay or a novel, a public performance or some kind of direct action. The most interesting propositions will use the most appropriate media to express the idea. Our job is to provide the methodological umbrella under which they can research. They can choose whatever research argument or thesis they want – the MA will be the supportive environment in which they can work their ideas through.

With all that emphasis on the intangible, what kind of flat does a futurologist live in?

A too small one! I’m an ironic hipster who graduated to a converted stable in the East End stuffed full of props and with project concept art across the walls. But I have to say, with the travel back and forth I feel I’m living more in airport lounges, my domestic mess is the state of my desktop and I seem to be occupying a whole load of stitched together junk space…

So what kind of people are applying for the course?

We’ve just gone through the first round of applications and they are generally architecture graduates looking at alternative ways to communicate their ideas. It seems architects are becoming a lot more open to discussing ideas about space and the city using different formats. We’re going to build an online community too and look at how we change ways of working collaboratively in virtual space. We want to progress Zaha Hadid’s old idea of running a diploma unit in an airport!