Climate change, an exploding population and massive growth in our cities should not cause Australians to fear the future but should stimulate exciting improvements in how we live, leading architects say.

They were speaking before a landmark exhibition that imagines floating and submerged cities, sky-high residential platforms and irrigated Venice-like urbanised tracts in the desert by late this century.

The fantastic concepts of Australia's future appear in Now and When: Australian Urbanism, which opens in Perth this week after featuring at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale.

It is a timely addition to the debate about migration, population growth and urban life.

Last week, Linley Lutton, the new chairman of the Australian Institute of Urban Studies WA, said Perth's modern architecture was conventional and boring, and the city would lag behind the world unless creativity was embraced.

Now and When throws down challenging perspectives on housing an Australian population projected to reach 50 to 80 million by 2100.

A 16-minute 3-D film takes viewers up to 90 years into the future, flying over and zooming in on cities as conjured by 17 teams of Australian architects, designers and planners. It includes present-day aerial views of east coast cities and the enormous mining pits of Kalgoorlie and Newman by photographer and exhibition curator John Gollings.

Co-curator and Melbourne architect Ivan Rijavec said the images were designed to unshackle conventional thinking rather than be prescriptive maps for the future.

The public was on the edge of a cliff of uncertainty about climate change and the exhibition's "visionary extremes" might provide pathways for people to look ahead, Mr Rijavec said.

A Melbourne University team proposes the Fear Free City with its interlocking towers and walkways.

Edmond & Corrigan's City of Hope imagines a self-sufficient desert city; NH Architecture instead pushes cities out towards Tasmania and Indonesia, and Arup Biomimetics suggests cities floating in the sea like jellyfish.

Hassell team's Terra Form Australis predicts digging channels to let the rising oceans flood into Lake Eyre and change weather patterns over the interior.

University of WA architecture professor and director of the new WA Urban Design Research Centre, Richard Weller, said rapid urbanisation was the single biggest change in Australasia this century.

Professor Weller's landmark 2009 book Boomtown 2050 sketches a series of development scenarios for Perth out to 2056, when the city's population is projected to hit 4.2 million.

Professor Weller says Australia is the world's most urbanised nation, per capita, just as the world reaches a tipping point of having more people living in cities than on the land for the first time. But Australian urban population densities are extremely low in the sprawling suburbs of Perth and other cities, a model that he says is ultimately unsustainable.

"We just don't know what the sprawl is going to run on in the future," Professor Weller said.

"Innovation is going to have to happen as we run out of fossil fuels and so on. Cities always change their forms when there are major technological shifts. The challenge is to design our way through that challenge creatively as opposed to it happening by crisis."

If Perth was well designed, it would become a great city, not just a nice suburb, he said.

Now and When: Australian Urbanism is at the Urban Design Research Centre, 1002 Hay Street, from Friday until December 16.

The West Australian

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