A massive ‘Thank You’ to everyone who attended Monday’s Fantasies of Contemporary Culture symposium at Cardiff University, either in person or on Twitter. I enjoyed the day (and all the papers) immensely, and feel very honoured to have been a part of it.
I’ve compiled some of the images, tweets, and Facebook posts into a (very long) Storify thread. Browse them at your leisure. Here’s how it all starts:
This week at Cardiff University, delegates gathered from around the world for the Fantasies of Contemporary Culture symposium. The event was an opportunity to explore the political and cultural functions of fantasy, in all its forms.
‘How might the fantastical characters and environments that populate our contemporary cultural landscape be informed by the experience of twenty-first-century metropolitan life,’ asked the event’s call for papers, ‘and how do such texts (in)form that experience in return?’ Delegates answered this question in many different ways, over two plenary talks, eight panel sessions, and numerous informal discussions throughout the day.
A lot of people were enthusiastic about doing this kind of thing again next year – and in fact we’ve already had a chat with a couple of delegates who might like to bring Fantasies of Contemporary Culture to their universities in the future. If we’re going to do this, however, we’d like to know what you thought of this year’s symposium.
We’ve compiled an anonymous survey of 10 questions. If you can spare the time (it should take about 2 minutes), we would love to hear your honest thoughts and points for improvement.
This week a lot of work has gone into the Fantasies of Contemporary Culture symposium that I’m organising with Tom Harman. The event will take place at Cardiff University on 23 May, and the programme and registration will hopefully go live sometime next week.
Today, the finishing touches have been put to the event poster (pictured left), which features a rather abstract black-and-white image. This image is of an architectural model – more specifically, a model for Cardiff Bay Opera House. It can’t be found on most websites about the Opera House, however. You also won’t find this building anywhere in Cardiff today.
What is the story behind this image, and why have we chosen to use an architectural model on the poster for a fantasy symposium? The obvious answer is that, as both a Welsh monument and a structure that today exists purely in the imagination, the Opera House applies directly to our location and theme. But beyond that there’s a slightly more convoluted story that bears telling.
Back in the early ’90s, as part of the UK’s massive Millennium Commission, it was decided that Cardiff needed a landmark building to put it on the map. An opera house would be built as part of the ongoing renovations to Cardiff Bay, and various architects would compete to design this iconic structure. Alun Michael, a former Cardiff city councillor, even made a link between the ambition of the Cardiff project and the famous Sydney Opera House:
Sydney, as a city, was an empty space in people’s minds until the Opera House was built. We need a similar sort of building in Cardiff for us to make our mark.
The project was announced and the proposals rolled in. Our poster image comes from a proposal by Greg Lynn’s architectural firm FORM, which, in the lofty language of this paper in Assemblage (April 1995), highlights ‘biological processes of growth and change to trope traditional architectural design assumptions[, and takes] the computer as a generative instrument for systems of symmetrical and asymmetrical organization using theories of biological variation’. In simpler terms, the Opera House they imagined taps into the popular trend of ‘sustainable architecture’, maximising the building’s integration into its location and minimising environmental impact. It strives to build something as aesthetically close to a living organism as possible.
This is not the proposal that ultimately triumphed, however. The project went to Zaha Hadid’s lovely ‘inverted necklace’, planned to at once adorn the crescent of Cardiff Bay and become its crown jewel.
It was not to be, however, and Hadid’s plans were announced to substantial media controversy. When the funding bid for Cardiff Bay Opera House was officially rejected, three days before Christmas in 1995, Hadid cited prejudice against her gender and race as a primary cause. Author Nicholas Edwards (a.k.a. Nicholas Crickhowell) writes:
If she had been male, white and Welsh would it have been different? I do not know. I hope not. There are those who tell me I am naive. I really don’t know … I suspect that if it had been a young Welsh-speaking architect who had suddenly produced the design, the Western Mail might have taken a different line.
Others cited lack of public support for the design, and the push for sports over the arts with the construction of Millennium Stadium. Perhaps the most common word thrown around about the Cardiff Bay Opera House was ‘elitist’, a label that was perhaps understandable given the cultural connotations of opera today, but largely under-informed when applied to this project.
Whatever the reason for the project’s failure, it is now (again in the words of Alun Michael) ‘the most famous unbuilt building in Wales.’ Indeed, in 2011 it became the most famous rebuilt building in China, as Zaha Hadid’s rejected design was eventually applied to the Guangzhou Opera House. The Wales Millennium Centre (in Welsh: Canolfan Mileniwm Cymru) now stands where the Cardiff Bay Opera House would have.
Before it was even built – or to put it in the terms of our symposium, while it was still a fantasy – the Cardiff Bay Opera House brought a whole slew of the social and political issues in Wales to light. For us, then, this image serves as a striking visual reminder of the way even our unrealised ideas have power, and remain with us. For whom do we build culture, and what impact can seemingly innocuous and apolitical projects have on our society?
The problems and discussions surrounding the Cardiff Bay Opera House are echoed in various ways through much of contemporary fantasy. What kinds of fantasies are currently at play in our culture? Join us on 23 May at Cardiff University and find out!