• Ivan Jordan RIBA

Out of this World?- sci-fi, movies and architecture

Updated: Aug 6, 2018

When film makers use architecture successfully, it is because it is real. Architecture is one of the things you can't fake.

Darth Vader would be an extraordinary client, but I don't think he was consulted on the design of Death Star. No-one with such coherent sartorial style would have accepted those underwhelming interiors. The largest piece of architecture in the Universe, a moon-sized cathedral of destruction, with a planet-melting laser eye, is incredibly dull inside.

The Death Star - Space Brutalism?

Corridors connect to more corridors. Walls littered by access hatches and fuse boxes. No hierarchy, no variety, no staircases, or.. windows. The disconnect between its intimidating exterior (space brutalism?) and grey-beige interior is so dissonant, it undermines the suspension of disbelief required (for me) to enjoy the movie. Who puts a liquid filled garbage crusher next to the control suite anyway? And what's with the sliding garage doors everywhere? Why no glass?

The Death Star - ruthlessly, relentlessly dull,

So what should we expect of the Death Star Interior? One of my guiding principles is that of the "hymn sheet" - everything has to be from the same source, harmonising together, singing the same song. Exterior must become interior in continuum, referencing each other. With that in mind, I turn to the 2005 movie Aeon Flux, which uses Berlin crematorium as a set. Cold, dramatic, hard, high-contrast, eerie. The sort of place where Darth and the Emperor might actually plan the death of billions.

The Berlin Crematorium - the interior the Death Star was waiting for.

While we are on the banality of the Death Star interior, one cannot of course omit Eddie Izzard's brilliant Death Star Canteen sketch ("That's Jeff Vader, that is..")

The point here is that the movie interior to the Death Star was designed by someone with a limited (or no) understanding of the experiential qualities of architecture, whereas, the Berlin Crematorium was designed and built by an actual real life architect. (Axel Schultes. Here's some fan-blogging on the building itself)

More recently, and continuing a Harrison Ford theme, the half ruined cityscapes of Blade Runner 2049 were a let-down. It is a safe bet that tall buildings of the future will be mostly pyramidal, stepped-pyramidal, and vertically fractured. A comparison of today's London skyline (likely to be definitive for the 21st century as New York was for the 20th) tells us so, although how these buildings will survive the disaster that destroys the infrastructure around them is a mystery.

Blade Runner 2049, fractured pyramidal? How come the roads are demolished but the buildings remain?

London 2018, fractured, pyramidal, inverted, streamlined. Does it get much more exciting?

The (real) London skyline is obviously the richer, the more dynamic and intriguing. Is it a fair comparison, is it reasonable to compare an imagined city with one that has been in development for 2000 years? There's the rub: Sci-Fi and fantasy have self-proclaimed missions to present alternative realities to us. But when they have to deliver tangible, realised worlds, more often than not, they find it impossible. Instead, we get pessimism, At street level, Blade Runner 2049 is basically a grotty bus station.

Blade Runner 2049 - A big bus station

So far, so dystopic cop-out. But with 2.5 hours of movie to fill, something had to look great, which is when Blade Runner 2049, instead of reaching forward in time to blow our minds, went back. To Las Vegas, casino lounges and holograms of Elvis.

Blade Runner 2049 - a future stuck in our past

That's right: back in time, to look forward. Is that the end of history? Or is it that inventing a truly impressive fictional future aesthetic is not possible, because one would have to get ahead of a half-century of semiotic understanding of things that haven't even happened yet, requiring: theorising the cultural development of the west for next half-century, including the schools of art and design, the fashions, the phases, the waves of interconnected zeitgeists, the extremists, the reactionaries, issues of gender, peace, war, all of which would, in the scenario, reference each other in overt and nuanced ways. I'm getting anxious just considering it.

Sadly, you can't ask a CGI person to design you a city. She won't be able to. The only faintly plausible result is silhouetting of a dysfunctional mess, because it is more achievable to conceive of systems that don't work. But there is no shortcut to reality.

You want a futuristic environment that is believable? You need real architecture by architects - Try Frank Lloyd Wright's Marin Civic Centre (1962) in GATTACA (1997 - depicting a "not too distant future")

Marin Civic Centre, representing the future since 1962

For my closing argument, I give you: Waterworld. Never has so much been spent, by so many, on something that looked so ridiculous.

Waterworld. That is how it's going to be, right?

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