Planet city, an entire world in a single city

still, planet city, film, liam young, salone milano

Still From Planet City, 2021. Directed and designed by Liam Young, VFX Supervisor Alexey Marfin

Liam Young, architect and filmmaker, tells stories, imagines future worlds and designs imaginary spaces while taking on major contemporary issues. In his latest work, Planet city, an entire planet is enclosed in one big city

Liam Young is an Australian-born architect and filmmaker who uses the tools of speculative design, critical design and fiction to imagine possible futures for the complex ecosystem that is the city. He has several productions to his credit, the latest of which, Planet city, participated in the last Tribeca film festival. Planet city, as well as a film, is also a book and a VR experience.

In June, the architect took part in the Radical Nature - the design and science of worldbuilding, which Beatrice Leanza held during the 60th edition of the Salone del Mobile in Milan.

Liam young, ted monterey, salone milano

Liam Young at TEDMonterey, courtesy of Liam Young

At a time in history when job titles outnumber existing jobs and etiquette seems paramount, what about you? Are you a filmmaker or an architect?

I would say I am both. Many people call me a speculative architect. I am an architect who makes a film and a filmmaker who designs, imagines and tells stories about how we live, giving life and form to the ways we live. I do not give myself a title; if I had to give myself a title, it would always be reductive to what I do. I am much more interested in how I can tell a story through films. So I do not just design spaces or objects but imagine experiences in and with these objects.


Traditionally architecture and design try to solve, in a pragmatic way, specific problems by designing spaces and objects. In your case, however, you often start by creating the problem. Would you like to tell me about that?

I believe that if you see a nail, the solution cannot always be a hammer. The problem is that many of the problems we encounter in the contemporary world cannot be solved with a building or a chair. What I do in my work is exploring a problem realizing that there are social, political, economic and cultural implications. So I try to chart a different direction.

With Planet city, my latest work, I try to emphasize that climate change is no longer a technological issue. I tried to shape a science fiction city using technologies that are currently available and have been available for at least 10 or 15 years.

What I realized is that climate change, as I said, is a social and political issue, very much related to cultural biases. So we have tried to shape a solution to these biases.

Many projects try to find new technological solutions and wait for some kind of saving magic. We need a cultural and political paradigm shift. That is why I create stories or films using very pop tools to reach as many people as possible, engage them and make them aware of their condition instead of waiting for magic. I believe that technology is never a definitive solution and that my job is to tell the alternatives.

still, planet city, film, liam young, salone milano

Still From Planet City, 2021. Directed and designed by Liam Young, VFX Supervisor Alexey Marfin

Whenever we talk about science fiction or speculative design, we always discuss dystopias. Why do you think, and how did you use this in Planet city?

The dominant pattern in science fiction and future thinking is to create trends and project them into the future. Right now, the patterns indicate that we are heading for disaster, so it is not hard to imagine that future visions are catastrophic. Also, dystopia works very well in fiction, where a hero, usually blond and white, eventually comes along and saves the world. In my work, however, I try to use a counter-narrative.

For a long time, the narrative around technology was ultra-positive, with the idea that every new invention would be able to save us and make our lives easier. So it is natural for me to create dystopias often because I try to complicate the narrative. Drones are not only the technology that will allow us to deliver packages and pizza, but they can also be used to spy on teenagers or to deal drugs.

Planet city is a work that explores what new ways of living can look like while trying to continue to exist on this earth and not become extinct. I tried to recreate a genuine alternative of how our lifestyles could change while preserving our rich culture in its diversity and traditions.

costume, planet city, film, liam young, salone milano

Costume from Planet City. Directed by Liam Young, Costume Producer Ane Crabtree, Photographer Driely S.

Speaking of culture and traditions, In Planet city, we find a deep layer of cultural and religious traditions, which you bring out through costumes and events. It seems that we will have fun at the end of the catastrophe.

Yes, usually when you imagine a dystopian world, in this world, we are all dressed the same, all looking alike, all lined up doing the same things in nice uniforms. In the future, we are all resembling an emotionless, cultureless individuals. However, even in utopian cities or mythological cultures made up of folklore and religion, there is this idea that, at some point, technology saves you in a kind of techno-utopia. In Planet city, we tried to see precisely the opposite: mythology, folklore, and religion are how we cope with strange things. It is how we assimilate new technologies and create new stories by creating new rituals. So, I think the future will be full of cultural exaggerations and rituals.

We tried to imagine Planet city at a time of celebrating these rituals. We mixed and put together every culture on the planet in one place. Imagine NY, where so many things happen simultaneously in such a small piece of land; in that case, it does not all look the same; instead, you can discern the profound differences. By creating Planet city, we realised that thousands of things could have been happening every day; it is like a giant carnival, a 365-day festival that moves and changes shape, smells, sounds, and music; in a perpetual procession.

Moreover, this is perhaps the antidote to techno-utopia or dystopia.

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Planet city VR experience courtesy of Liam Young

Planet city sounds like immense work. Can you tell me how much you put into it?

Well, I must be honest: redesigning a world is a massive and complex project. It is a project that continues to develop. Going back to the original question, maybe I would call myself a world builder. I design imaginary worlds that do not have any exceptional output; you can visualise them through a book, a movie, a story, a VR experience, or a graphic novel. In the end, this imaginary world is a laboratory where you can experiment and prototype new possibilities; in that sense, Planet city is an ongoing project.

However, to be pragmatic, I started in 2020 during the pandemic, and it was my pandemic work in a context where we had to imagine a new world that was a way out. It was also a way to engage a community of friends and colleagues working in Hollywood as costume designers or set designers who had been out of work. We are in America, without welfare, in a world based on freelancing, so we started working on this project. The project has evolved into a video, a VR experience, a book, and museum installations and will continue into a documentary series.

We also plan to create a video game or metaverse for a possible community in this location. In conclusion, it is a world, and as a world, it has all its complexities that a world can have.


You are also a teacher; where and what do you teach?

I created a postgraduate master's program at Sci-Arch in Los Angeles in Fiction and Entertainment, trying to think of a different way of teaching and doing architecture.

I think many students who study architecture will never design a building partly because, very often, the construction world is entirely independent of architects. Many architects nowadays do what I do in different forms, but the university system continues to train people precisely the way it did years ago. So I wanted to create a program that would help those people who are interested in doing architecture in other possible ways. We are trying to develop their skills and shape new ways of working because they can develop those skills.

planet city, film, liam young, museum installation, salone milano

Planet city museum installation picture by Tom Ross courtesy of Liam Young

planet city, film, liam young, salone milano

Planet city VR experience courtesy of Liam Young

planet city, film, liam young, salone milano

Still From Planet City, 2021. Directed and designed by Liam Young, VFX Supervisor Alexey Marfin

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TALK: Radical Nature - the design and science of worldbuilding

27 September 2022