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ADS4: Legal Fictions

Tutors: Tom Greenall , Nicola Koller & Matteo Mastrandrea

How do we make sense of a year like 2020? A year of profound social, medical, economic and environmental upheaval. A year defined by months of weirdness and grief, lockdown, catastrophe and contradiction. A year that, in short, felt impossible just 12 months ago. 

The consequences of poor planning (or no planning), broken social systems, and isolationist reflexes are explicit. We must be vigilent against the return to those dysfunctional norms after the coast is declared clear. Yet perhaps attempting to make sense of a year like this is actually part of the problem. It suggests we find ways to post–rationalise what felt like impossibilities into possibilities, to deny the ways in which our naivety regarding what is (im)possible fostered the normalities and pathologies that caused mayhem.

The first lesson the coronavirus taught us was also the most astounding: we have actually proven that it is possible, in a few short weeks, to put an economic system on hold everywhere in the world and at the same time, a system that we were told it was impossible to slow down or redirect. As Bruno Latour wrote, "Hence the [virus’s] incredible discovery: already in the world economic system there was, hidden from us all, a bright red alarm button with a nice big stainless-steel handle that the heads of state could pull, one after the other, to instantly stop the ‘train of progress’ with all the brakes squealing. If in January the demand to make a 90 degree turn to land on the Earth seemed like a gentle illusion, now it becomes much more realistic".

Evolving a different and more nuanced vocabulary regarding possibilities and impossibilities is therefore essential in a world where myriad responses (to the climate crisis, global migration, wealth inequality, surveillance, gender inequality, structural racism, the mental health crisis…) are crudely cast aside as “out of the question”. It is a cause for great concern that post-Covid19 economic recoveries currently underway across the world rely on the same dated models and the same destructive systems that brought us here in the first place—approaches that will bring back the same former climatic and political regimes against which we were battling, until now somewhat in vain. Despite the lessons of the virus, once again real change has been framed as impossible.

 Consequently, defining a new ethics of the possible (to steal a phrase coined by Arjun Appadurai) is necessary. We need to wrestle control out of the hands of the “realists” and “pragmatists” whose priority is a return to the status quo. The late American author Ursula Le Guin called for “realists of a larger reality”; creative people experimenting with alternative representations of lived experience, unorthodox social formulations to enable hope in dark times.

 So, how do we make sense of a year like this? We don’t, because the chaos of 2020 has exposed a simple truth: leveraging impossibilities is where real agency lies. As Fiona Raby puts it, "Perhaps, as designers, unreality is the only thing we have left—a tool for loosening the grip on the reality we find ourselves within, to help think beyond known frameworks, and to shift our thinking. In this way, design might begin to contribute to a proliferation of multiple alternative worlds existing in our collective imagination, enlarging it to provide a richer conceptual space of imagining for everyone".

We have to be unrealistic, far removed from any semblance of the world we’re living in now. We have to hope for and envision something impossible before agitating for it, rather than blithely giving up, citing reality, and accepting the way things are. Our definition of what is “possible” should be forever provisional, and constantly changing.

Cartoon Physics

This year, ADS4 will propose that our world is best understood as a cartoon—an irrational landscape of plausible impossibility, as Walt Disney put it, where anything can happen, yet where certain things reliably reoccur. Through the prism of animation, we will examine the formation of these reliable reoccurrences, or cartoon “laws” – everything falls faster than an anvil, anybody suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation, etc. –in order to promote the role of the lawless in the pursuit of a just society. We will examine the laws of “cartoon physics” in order to construct a theory of how we, as architects, can proceed within a landscape, which is complicit in so much injustice and aggressively resists change. 

Cartoons, like other forms of absurd drama, describe through parody, exaggeration and caricature an essentially tragic condition that can be recouped through humour. Architecture operates, to greater and lesser extents, within this tragic condition. The tragicomic condition of practicing architecture perhaps finds its best animated equivalent in the Looney Tunes Road Runner cartoons, in which the cunning Wile E. Coyote repeatedly fails in his attempts to catch the Road Runner, a fast-running ground bird. Instead of using his animal instincts, Wile E. Coyote uses absurdly complex contraptions—all mail-ordered from the ACME Corporation—to try to catch his prey. Each contraption backfires without fail. 

ACME offers a parody of consumerism's unbridled promise. Its product range includes, but is not limited to: Do-It-Yourself Tornado Kit, Dehydrated Boulders, Earthquake Pills, Jet- Propelled Pogo Stick, Triple-Strength Fortified Leg Muscle Vitamins, ACME Future Push-Button Home of Tomorrow Household Appliance Co. We see in these titles the complications of this promise, as they inevitably result in failure. Put in Road Runner terms, we could say that contemporary architecture comprises both Coyote's raging desire and the endless innovation of ACME. Yet there is a latent potential in the cartoon world that Looney Tunes – and by extension architecture – miss. 

What these cartoons overlook is what Quentin Meillassoux has considered as how the world – our world – is one of infinite legal possibility. Laws need not be static, rather they can change. The golden age of cartoons proved a prophetic, short-lived glimpse of the world we now find ourselves within. But not because of the emergence of clownish politicians with a flagrant approach to the rule of law. Instead, the cartoon landscape mirrors our world because there is a logic at work—a logic that is describable by science.

As Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff, he hovers, suspended, until he realises there is nothing to support him, only then does he plummet to the ground. In the cartoon world, gravity affects only those who notice it. Yet all cartoon phenomena, it now seems, can be described by “logical” laws similar to those in our world. In 1980, Mark O’Donnell formulated a set of rules of cartoon physics that summarise this logic: 

I.         Any body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation.

II.       Any body in motion will tend to remain in motion until solid matter intervenes suddenly.

III.      Any body passing through solid matter will leave a perforation conforming to its perimeter.

IV.     The time required for an object to fall twenty stories is greater than or equal to the time it takes for whoever knocked it off the ledge to spiral down twenty flights to attempt to capture it unbroken.

V.       All principles of gravity are negated by fear.

VI.     Certain bodies can pass through solid walls painted to resemble tunnel entrances; others cannot.

VII.    Any violent rearrangement of feline matter is impermanent.

VIII.  Everything falls faster than an anvil.

These rules emerged out of a cartoon landscape where nothing is impossible. As absurd as they are, these rules have, over time, become embedded and predictable. These impossible things have been normalised. In other words, this is not a world where laws change regularly, just a world with different laws. This counter-realistic world is not a chaotic space, however, but a world in which the potential of this difference is often ignored.

Archie Leigh-Jones, Cardboard Anvil, 2018

Plausible Impossible

First coined by Walt Disney, the “plausible impossible” was used to explain how drawings and animations make things that are impossible seem plausible. It is this ability of cartoons — and animation more broadly — that ADS4 will employ as a means to imagine alternative scenarios and more equitable worldviews that are currently dismissed as impossible.

While the scenarios we develop will be speculative, we will be mindful of the pitfalls of “forecasting” or “future gazing”. For a number of years ADS4 has pioneered the use of Critical and Speculative Design in architectural education. However, for too long, the role of speculation (financial, political and cultural) has been held (and continues to be held) by the powerful few, often with the gender, race and class privileges to match. Decisions about how the future will look, how environments are designed, and how social decisions are made, have been taken by a small elite.

Archie Leigh-Jones, Being Followed by Fleischer's Ghost, 2019

This year, our challenge will be to shift the power relations of speculation and to enable the democratisation and decolonisation of it as a form of design practice. So called “futurists” have often spoken and continue to speak of three main classes of futures – possible, probable and preferable. It is precisely this narrow conception of what is achievable that we intend to address through the prism of animation and its logic of plausible impossibility.

Goodbye Uncanny Valley 

The connection between animation and architecture is not new. The ubiquitous use of 3D modelling in architectural practice has allowed any building to be experienced in renders, fly-throughs and virtual reality. After decades of innovation, we are at the point where we can conjure up just about anything with our software. Computer graphics have now conquered the uncanny valley – that place where things are almost real, but not quite. With the battle for photorealistic CGI now won, the question is – what happens next?

Nikita Diakur, Ugly (still), 2017
Nikita Diakur, Ugly (still), 2017

While the computer-generated image was born almost 50 years ago, it took until the mid-90s for anything close to photorealistic rendering. Alongside the personal computer revolution, this body of research helped studios like Pixar pioneer the production of photoreal CGI on an industrial scale. In the process, computer scientists gradually created a library of simulated natural phenomena, one breakthrough at a time. The CGI programme is now a comprehensive off-the-shelf toolkit for the production of natural motion and simulated reality. There is a general consensus within visual effects that now more or less any real-world condition can be simulated realistically. So, what happens on the other side of the uncanny valley? 

The replication of physical laws, lighting and lenses from our world seems to overlook the potential of the medium of animationand a space of infinite potential – in a similar way to the Looney Tunes cartoons. Animation offers much more than just a different set of laws. It means we can tweak those laws. With the conquering of the uncanny valley, there is now an emerging set of animators who are returning to first principles to explore how the tools used to replicate reality might be augmented to create something new.


Our interest in animation is part of a wider exploration into the relationship between architecture, the moving image and other performative art forms. In previous years, this has seen the studio investigate television (serial architecture), postproduction (simulated architecture), documentary film (classified architecture) and theatre design (staged architecture). As in previous years, animation will act as a critical lens through which to consider the design of architecture, as opposed to providing a medium through which to represent it. No prior animation skills are expected, or required, and the studio output is not anticipated to be cartoons. Our aim is to produce an architecture that offers a glimpse into social and physical scenarios that might currently be considered impossible to achieve – an “Extro-Architecture”. 

For all its theatricality, obvious setups, and stylised aesthetic, absurdity is still concerned with a form of truth. Absurdity implicitly admits to the limits of a situation and articulates the tension between the desire to transcend and the failure of this ambition. By this measure, architecture is absurd as concept, as process, as product. Yet a chronicle of absurdist architecture – or what we will term Extro-Architecture – would form nothing but a small pamphlet or footnote in a history of our profession. Though architecture often operates within the realm of absurdity, it rarely recognises its own absurdity.

For us, this will be an architecture that is unified by an approach to the world rather than by a style, tectonic or aesthetic sensibility. As architects and designers, we need to change and break laws to speculate about the future, while using absurdity as a rhetorical device to describe the simultaneously idealised and doomed condition of architecture.

Alan Warburton, Escape Velocity, 2015
Alan Warburton, Escape Velocity, 2015

Live Project

Working alongside the artist and animator Alan Warburton, ADS4 will use this year’s Live Project to explore the key ontological difference between live-action (film) and animation. Working to a brief developed by Warburton, students will explore the limits of plausible impossibility offered by the cartoon landscape.

The global lockdown has called into question what we consider to be ‘live’. We are in a moment when virtual reality has become indistinguishable from its double – a believable image needs to look imperfect, or else it will be unconvincing. Just as ZOOM tutorials have replaced conversations, animation inverts our conception of movement in a manner that destabilises our understanding of conventional natural laws. For instance, the act of projecting live-action cinema takes a movement that occurred in space and turns it into a series of static frames, which are then projected at a rate of 24 frames per second to reconstitute movement. Animation on the other hand generates the illusion of movement where there was none. Building on Warburton’s work in contemporary visual culture, in 2020/21 we will set out to break this illusion. 


Tom Greenall has completed award-winning buildings with DSDHA, whose Christ College Secondary School was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2010. He has taught Architectural Design Studio 4 (ADS4) at the RCA since 2011. Tom studied architecture at the University of Sheffield and the RCA, qualifying as an architect in 2011. Tom was made an Associate Director of London-based architectural practice DSDHA in 2013. His work has been published in over 20 languages, he has exhibited internationally, and has written for both Building and Building Design magazines.

Nicola Koller is a designer working for acclaimed fashion designer Sir Paul Smith, designing and commissioning retail spaces worldwide and running design projects of special interest to Paul. Nicola heads an in-house multidisciplinary studio of furniture designers, interior designers, industrial designers and architects. Nicola has overseen and completed over 300 projects from concept to completion with Paul Smith in 24 countries. Including major flagship projects in London, Paris, New York, Antwerp, LA, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and Shanghai. She graduated from Oxford Brooks University with a BA in architecture in 2000. She continued her education in architecture at the RCA, graduating with an MA in 2003.

Matteo Mastrandrea is a designer and researcher who works as an associate at Es Devlin Studio in London. He has taught Architectural Design Studio 4 (ADS4) at the RCA since 2016, and studied at the University of Cambridge (2010), University of Oxford (2013), and the RCA (2016).

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