Overgrowth - Isabelle Doucet - Anticipating Fabulous Futures

Anticipating Fabulous Futures

Isabelle Doucet

Cedric Price Architects, Ducklands proposal, Hamburg, 1989–1991, montaged site map. Courtesy Cedric Price fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture.

September 2019

In her book In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, Isabelle Stengers calls into question the dominant perspective of growth, which “identified with progress … continues to impose itself as the only conceivable horizon.”1 Stengers questions the proposition of further growth as a solution to all problems, as if “we must grit our teeth, accept that times are hard and mobilize for the economic growth outside of which there is no conceivable solution.”2 As an alternative, she proposes the term “Objectors to Growth/Economic Objectors.”3 But how to escape the logic of growth, and its accompanying exploitations of labor and nature, its inequalities, injustices, and damages? Can architecture, urban design, and planning, practices otherwise deeply invested in the logic of growth, object at all, or are they unavoidably complicit?

To begin addressing such questions, it seems crucial to imagine different forms of living together, or what Anna Tsing, in her study of the matsutake mushroom, called “collaborative survival” in the ruins of capitalism.4 Multi-species studies commits to thinking the world through connections rather than divisions (between facts and values, science and arts, nature and culture, human and non-human beings), and calls for studying humans as part of multi-species communities. Through the writings of Stengers, Tsing, and others invested in multi-species thinking, we can become aware of entangled existences and of how worlds are co-inhabited with various other critters, which informs also responsibility for those worlds.5 They offer stories of ecological animism, and of survival, but also of dependency and exploitation; stories that, through relationality and openness, can articulate connections and thus induce accountability, or what Donna Haraway calls “response-ability.” Haraway refers to the capacity to respond responsibly and with care for the worlds we co-inhabit; a “praxis of care and response—response-ability—in ongoing multispecies worlding on a wounded terra.”6 For Stengers this means also thinking of “creating a life ‘after economic growth,’ a life that explores connections with new powers of acting, feeling, imagining, and thinking.”7

While this task may seem daunting, architecture, and the history of architecture, can help imagining life after growth. Much of architectural production may be complicit in economic growth. And yet, architects also have proven to have the capacity to imagine alternative futures—to object to growth—in ways that are radical yet pragmatic. Such proposals are easily dismissed for being utopian, naïve, or unrealistic/unrealizable. However, when architects choose to become part of experimental projects that are political and visionary as much as they are context-specific and feasible, they can offer what Stengers calls “resonance chambers.”8 Resonance chambers support the political struggle to break free from the dominant narratives of growth, so Stengers argues, not through representation but through “the production of repercussions” and are essential to ensure that political experiments are witnessed, heard, and their experiences shared, so that “what happens to one group makes others think and act.”9

Architecture, when at its most daring and imaginative in its capacity to respond and be responsible, can act as such a resonance chamber. Architects can offer possibilities and interpretations, stories (real and imagined) of how we can connect differently, how we can resist collaboratively, and how we can challenge the promises of growth, progress, and development that are otherwise considered part and parcel of any architectural brief. When architects develop such radical proposals, these are often surpassed by more powerful scenarios of growth and progress e.g. stories of modernization, sanitation, or regeneration, and as a result struggle to find realization. Yet historians and theorists of architecture can reclaim these architectural and urban (hi)stories of objections to growth, and in doing so, prevent these stories from being permanently forgotten.

One such story can be found in Ducklands, a project developed by Cedric Price Architects (CPA) between 1989 and 1991 for redeveloping the Hamburg Docklands.10 Instead of urban regeneration, which would have resulted in new constructions, CPA proposed to make the development area disappear—literally—by converting it into wetlands. Rather than promising growth, CPA’s proposal, if realized, would have instead given the city of Hamburg some “relief from development.”11

Cedric Price Architects, Ducklands proposal, Hamburg, 1989–1991, skyline montage showing structures to be demolished. Courtesy Cedric Price fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Portraying Cedric Price as an “objector to growth” may raise questions. While Price’s focus on user-driven, flexible design has been celebrated as radical and visionary, it has also become seen as accomodating for unpredictability and adaptivity, traits that would also become embraced by neoliberal development. Daniel Abramson, for example, in his book Obsolescence: An Architectural History, discusses Price in connection to the obsolescence paradigm that dominated architecture and urban design of the twentieth century, where buildings or even entire neighbourhoods would become obsolete when deemed substandard or when new construction promises land values and profitability to rise.12 Abramson argues that even the radical schemes of the 1960s that celebrated flexibility and adaptation, including Price’s proposals for Potteries Thinkbelt (1966–1967) and the Fun Palace (1960-1966), were still designed for, rather than against, obsolescence, i.e. by designing structures that could better absorb change or even be demolished when out of use.13 In Ducklands, by contrast, Price challenges the idea of development and interrupts the process of creative destruction; the endless removal of the old for the profitable creation of the new.

At the time of the project, the city of Hamburg was starting to seek new opportunities for its redundant inner-city harbor in the historic Speicherstadt. For this purpose, city authorities hosted an architectural masterclass titled “Port City / Hafencity” from September 4–8, 1989 as part of the Hamburger Bauforum, which was being held in commemoration of the 800-year anniversary of the Port of Hamburg. Sixteen project teams were invited, each of which were led by renowned architects (in addition to Price, Will Alsop, Massimiliano Fuksas, Kees Christiaanse, Oswald Mathias Ungers, Michael Graves, Josef Paul Kleihues, and Zaha Hadid), and paired with a local partner and students. Cedric Price led Masterclass 13, with project team leaders Chris Wilson (from CPA) and Jan Stürmer (local partner).14 CPA’s radical take on urban development was already present at the very start of the masterclass. Instead of creating an area of urban development and expansion, CPA prepared a series of questions for Hamburg asking about their (presumed) desire for development and growth: “What is making Hamburg grow? Is it Growing? If not—is this considered BAD; if so, why is such growth good?”15

Cedric Price Architects, Ducklands proposal, Hamburg, 1989–1991, drawings showing several scenarios for the gantries and adjustable walkways. Courtesy Cedric Price fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture.

When published in Building Design in 1991, the “Ducklands Experiment” was described as repurposing the docklands not through housing, offices, and other functions typical of post-industrial regeneration projects, but instead proposed the creation of a large nature reserve, a river marshland in the center of Hamburg, to become a resting place for migratory birds.16 The entire site was to be gradually submerged by water. Existing buildings and structures were to be demolished, with the exception of key railway links and listed buildings of the historic city. The riverbed was to be cleansed from rubbish and river silt down to its sandbanks. Collages included in the article, and many more also in the Cedric Price fonds, show the scale of this operation; gradually all structures would disappear from the harbor skyline. A key design invention was the adjustable gantry. Initially they would remove soil from the riverbed. Subsequently they would be used for planting and husbandry, and eventually they would serve as adjustable walkways for visitors.

In proposing a nature reserve that was also to be a visitor attraction in close connection to the historic city of Hamburg, Ducklands negotiated the fragile co-existence of birds, people, river, and city. The walkways were designed as flexible and mobile in order to adjust to the needs of cultivating plants and the resting and breeding of birds. The CPA team seems to have made extensive studies of the walkways, trying to find the right height, movement speed, width, and location. They would not allow direct access onto the wetlands, but provide optimum viewing oppportunities, all the while being wheelchair accessible.17

This balance between context-specific and relational in ecological terms seemed fragile but doable. One drawing in particular shows a series of “smileys” expressing the different possible rapports between visitors and birds; from “welcome through but leave us alone” to “so where’s the view?” (the latter showing a dissatisfied face). Price seemed confident that visitors would refrain from disturbing the birds. The walkways connected to the historic city at one end but had no destination at the other. According to Price, this meant that people would go into the wetlands only “because they want to. It would be their wish not to disturb.”18 And with its pre-existing nature reserves and available expertise in hydrology, Hamburg was deemed particularly suited for the scheme. Price and his team hoped to reconnect this “town of proud citizens” to their river, and “enable the Elbe to make yet another gift to Hamburg.”19

Cedric Price Architects, Ducklands proposal, Hamburg, 1989–1991, drawing anticipating various ways in which visitors would encounter birds. Courtesy Cedric Price fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture.

In imagining future worldmaking between animals and humans, ecological and commercial strategies, urban and eco-friendly tourism, Ducklands offers an example of what Price called “anticipatory architecture.” Anticipatory architecture is an architecture capable of accepting that, over time, it may not turn out to provide the best possible solution, and is therefore “concerned with reactions, not merely initial appetites.”20 In a lecture at Columbia University in November 1995, Price argued that other professionals such as doctors, “druggists,” and lawyers are quicker than architects to accept that they have to work on a hunch, that they have to anticipate the unpredictable, and that they may ultimately be proven wrong.21

By renaturalizing river islands and placing them in the geographies of migration birds, the anticipatory architecture of Ducklands was supposed to slow down hasty development decisions. It is unlikely that it would have had the capacity to effectively prevent development, but it surely hoped to forge new opportunities, new ways to cooperate, and new alliances—between birds and tourists, between citizens and the river. Price warned that Hamburg could become like London, where the Docklands had been turned into an enterprize zone under Margaret Thatchers’s government, and where, according to Price, “last minute greedy band-aid urban renewal is producing selfish and soul-destroying building and land use.”22 To protect the citizens of Hamburg against such greed, the scheme provided a “breathing space” that would respond to the needs of today while also creating the necessary time and space to think of “beneficial futures for Hamburg.”23

I interpret this proposed “breathing space” as providing both a literal lung for the city (the nature reserve) and time to think carefully about the city’s future. In a talk at the Architectural Association in 1990, Price observed: “Have Ducklands, never mind Docklands! Ducklands. In the middle of Hamburg. You know. A wonderful new link, a new lung! What a wonderful generosity of the city—hasn’t cost a thing! Saved us a fortune!”24

But no Ducklands were had in Hamburg. Today, the HafenCity, which had been under construction since 2001, provides a residential and mixed-use development, including the HafenCity University and the landmark Elbphilharmonie by Herzog & de Meuron. The HafenCity masterplan was developed throughout the 1990s and approved in 2000, modelled obviously not on CPA’s visionary proposal, which would have introduced animals and wetlands into urban design, but on the winning entry to the international competition held in 1999 by the design team led by Kees Christiaanse.25 The masterplan used as the basis for this competition presented an opportunity “to provide the urgently required space for growth within the city core.”26

What does it mean, in writing this piece, to reclaim the Ducklands project today? What purpose can it serve? Let us return to Isabelle Stengers’s depiction of growth as “what presides over everything else, including—we are ordered to think—the possibility of compensating for all the damage that is its price.”27 To resist growth then requires imagining different ways of connecting and restoring ways of connecting that have gone lost. In ignoring the alliances typically at the heart of regeneration projects—involving city developers, tourists, entrepreneurs, land owners, tax incentives—Ducklands imagines new connections between birds, tourists, water, mud, citizens, and migration routes. The project reads as an anticipatory tale that, had it been realized, could have prompted waterfront developers with different questions. What if we would indeed give space to birds to breed, and allow tourists to only selectively be part of that process as interested witnesses? Could such a development strategy serve as a valuable alternative to the commercial use of land?

I do not intend to mobilize Ducklands to offer criticism at the address of the HafenCity development. Instead, I believe that reclaiming alternative (hi)stories like Ducklands and the 1989 Bauforum today can add thickness to a story that seems to have retained only few memories.28 Revisiting projects such as Ducklands today invites one to consider again the possibility of alternative scenarios, and to complicate the seeming inevitablility of the logic of growth and development. Moreover, through reclaiming projects that propose alternative scenarios for planetary survival, architectural historians and theorists can plant seeds of inspiration for the future, allowing a process of healing to begin.29 Past projects such as Ducklands show how architecture can inspire formulating alternatives to growth. With the mounting pressures of climate change and its risks of extinction, inequalities, and the deterioration of conditions of life on earth for both humans and non-humans alike, it may no longer be a choice or privilege, but rather a necessity to become receptive to such alternatives.


Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times. Resisting the Coming Barbarism (Open humanities Press with Meson Press, 2015), 20.


Ibid., 18.


Ibid., 24. Stengers avoids the term degrowth and instead refers to “objecteurs de croissance” after “objecteurs de conscience,” which translates as “conscientious objectors,” a status (sometimes legalized) referring to someone who objects to military service based on religious, political or moral grounds.


Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 4.


See for example Isabelle Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism,” e-flux journal 36 (July 2012); Deborah Bird Rose, “Connectivity thinking, animism, and the pursuit of liveliness,” Educational Theory 67, no. 4 (2017); Thom Van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, “Lively Ethography. Storying Animist Worlds,” Environmental Humanities 8, no. 1 (May 2016); Donna J. Haraway, Staying with The Trouble, Making Kin in the Chtulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016); Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction. The cultural meaning of endangered species (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).


Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 105.


Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, 24.


Ibid., 153.




I first learned about this project thanks to its inclusion in Samantha Hardingham, Cedric Price Works 1952-2003, A Forward-Minded retrospective – Volume 1: Projects (Architectural Association and Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2016).


Cedric Price Architects, memorandum dated 13 July 1990, Cedric Price fonds at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal (File 153: Duck Land, folder DR2004:0876). Added italics.


Daniel M. Abramson, Obsolescence. An Architectural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).


Ibid., notably chapter 4 “Fixing Obsolescence” (79–106). See also the recent critical analysis by Corinna Anderson, “Good Life Now: Leisure and Labour in Cedric Price’s Housing Research, 1966-1973,” Footprint Journal (Spring/Summer 2019): 11–30; which provides also a good overview of scholarship on (unwanted) affinities between architectural avant-gardes and neoliberalism.


A note on authorship: When consulting the material related to the Ducklands project in the Cedric Price fonds at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, it was not always possible to determine authorship unambiguously. The project initiated at the Bauforum masterclass, but was subsequently further developed within the Cedric Price office. Within the timeframe of publishing this paper, it was not possible to establish, and credit, individual authorship of all ideas developed in those teams. I therefore refer, unless individual authorship is clearly stated, to Cedric Price Architects (CPA) throughout, which allows me to acknowledge both Cedric Price’s presumably strong authorial presence but also the collective authorship of a fluctuating team.


Cedric Price, “Questionnaire nr. 3,” memorandum signed by Price, addressed at the office, dated 2 September 1989, Cedric Price fonds at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal (File 153: Duck Land, folder DR2004:0877). Capitals in original.


Building Design 1071 (January 11, 1991): 18–21.


As shown by memos and drawings found in the Cedric Price fonds at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, including a collaged tourist postcard.


Cedric Price Architects, memorandum dated 31 August 1990, Cedric Price fonds at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal (File 153: Duck Land, folder DR2004:0877).


Untitled project / conceptual summary, signed by Cedric Price and dated 30 October 1989. Cedric Price fonds at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal (File 153: Duck Land, folder DR2004:0877).


Building Design, Friday 11 January 1991, nr. 1071, pp. 18-21, p. 19.


Cedric Price, “Anticipatory Architecture”, lecture at Columbia University, New York, November 1995, published in Samantha Hardingham, Cedric Price Works 1952-2003, A Forward-Minded retrospective – Volume 2: Articles & Talks (Architectural Association and Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2016), 460–467, 461.


Untitled project / conceptual summary, signed by Cedric Price and dated 30 October 1989, Cedric Price fonds at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal (File 153: Duck Land, folder DR2004:0877).




Cedric Price, “Crystal Balls: A Speculation Into Immediate Futures,” lecture at Architectural Association, London, October 31, 1990, published in Samantha Hardingham, Cedric Price Works 1952-2003, A Forward-Minded retrospective – Volume 2: Articles & Talks (Architectural Association and Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2016), 423–434, 432.


See .


“Masterplankonzeption / master plan concept document,” 37, . The masterplan was approved by the Senate Commission for Urban Development, Environment, Economy, and Transport in December 1998, and published in March 1999.


Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, 61.


While the Bauforum format as a precedent for development is recognized in Bauforum editions as recent as August 2019 (see ), the only Bauforum 1989 proposals cited in the HafenCity masterplan are those by Kees Christiaanse and Michael Graves. See: “Masterplankonzeption / master plan concept document,” 36, .


I use “reclaiming” following Stengers, drawing from US activists, in terms of “healing operations that would reappropriate what we have been separated from, recovering or reinventing what that separation has destroyed.” Isabelle Stengers, Another Science is Possible. A Manifesto for Slow Science (London: Polity Press, 2018), 121). I recognize such reclaiming effort also in Angelika Fitz and Elke Krasny, eds., Critical Care. Architecture and Urbanism for a Broken Planet(Cambridge: Architekturzentrum Wien and MIT Press, 2019), 12.

Overgrowth is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and the Oslo Architecture Triennale within the context of its 2019 edition, and is supported by the Nordic Culture Fond and the Nordic Culture Point.

Urbanism, Nature & Ecology
Human - Nonhuman Relations, Animals, Collaboration
Return to Overgrowth

I thank Kim Förster for his detailed feedback on a draft version of this paper. Also, the development of this paper coincided with my participation in the Multidisciplinary Research Program titled “Architecture and/for the Environment,” organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. I am grateful for the intellectual exchanges during that project that have inspired this paper. I also thank colleagues at the CCA for their support with the consultation of the Cedric Price fonds and the reproduction of images.

Overgrowth is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and the Oslo Architecture Triennale within the context of its 2019 edition.

Isabelle Doucet is professor of theory and history of architecture at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. Her research focuses on the relationship between politics, aesthetics, and social responsibility in architectural and urban projects after 1968.


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