Turn the bend and the foreignness of the thing reveals itself, with its gunmetal-colored facade, surfaces jutting at oblique angles, and curves and lines that suggest automotive racing streaks or cooling pipes at a power-generation facility. It would fit right in with a fleet of Star Destroyers blasting some unfortunate rebel ship with turbolasers. -- The Atlantic Cities’ John Metcalfe, describing Zaha Hadid’s Library and Learning Center in Vienna
When architecture and Sci-Fi are mentioned in the same breath, it’s usually only to achieve an amusing, surface-level comparison. Zaha’s library? A “Star Destroyer.” OMA’s Casa da Música? A Sandcrawler. And while these unlikely likenesses certainly speak to Sci-Fi’s hold on architecture’s imagination, they don’t really delve into the potential Sci-Fi holds as a source of architectural inspiration.
Enter CLOG: SCI-FI. As does each issue of CLOG, SCI:FI “slows things down,” taking a good-hard look at architecture and science fiction’s long, fascinating relationship. And while it certainly provides many entertaining meanders into comics, literature, and film (including a peek into 2001: A Space Odyssey by ArchDaily contributors INTERIORS), SCI:FI really shines when it’s digging below the surface, exploring how both architecture and sci-fi reveal the dilemmas, fears, and desires of our society today.
More than a mere “matter of imagery”
In the introduction, the editors set up the central argument of SCI-FI:
“Rod Serling, creator of the 1950s television series The Twilight Zone, defined science fiction as ‘the improbable made possible.’ The same might be said for the practice of architecture. After all, architects by trade conceive of spaces, places, and worlds that do not (yet) exist. Furthermore, the ability to make the improbable possible is held in especially high regard today and is oftentimes what defines an architectural practice as ‘innovative’ in the first place.”
So, if architecture is indeed at its most innovative when it’s making the improbable possible, then what does that mean? What counts as innovative, futuristic, sci-fi like?
Sci-Fi’s authors all seem to suggest that it should be more than a mere “matter of imagery” (47). In “Science Fiction in Architecture: Mask or Fissure?” Nathaniel Coleman points out that it’s not enough to characterize the work of Zaha Hadid, or Libeskind as “sci-fi,” because, as novel or technologically complex as their forms may be, they contain no deeper critique, no true leap into uncharted territory.
Softlab’s article "Distracted by Fertility: Sci-Fi and Speculative Architecture" offers a similar argument, noting how both science fiction and architecture have become so preoccupied with technology, in fact sensationalizing it (as any undergraduate professor suffering through visually stunning, but substantially empty, thesis presentations can attest to), that they’ve lost sight of what they’re both really about: “questioning the normative condition.”
“[T]echnology has all too often shifted from a catalyst for design to a mechanism of design [...] we need a method to distinguish plausible risk from comfortable sensationalism and focus on speculation motivated by agendas that operate alongside—not through—technology” (135).
And this - according to Sci-Fi - is exactly where sci-fi is at its most potent for architecture: when the sensational imagery, the technology, is secondary to a deeper, more probing purpose. In Pedro Gadanho’s words: “at its best, both architecture and science fiction are willing to look at the potential future as a way to explain and solve present dilemmas. Ultimately, both answer, in fact, actual needs. The most challenging answers, however, have only one thing in common: the power of imagination to transport us to another reality” (23).
The same could be said of the articles of CLOG: SCI-FI -- the best are those which offer powerfully imaginative, yes, maybe even impossible solutions, to present-day dilemmas. Those articles that, as Casey Mack writes in “Sci-Fi R&D” are, like good science fiction writing, really “about ‘envisioning scenarios’” (53). So what scenarios does SCI-FI envision?
Some truly fascinating ones.
Take for example, Matthew Messner’s article “It’s Bigger on the Inside,” which explores impossible spaces (think Narnia inside a wardrobe or the never-ending closet inside Mary Poppin’s bag) and how they could “expand the possibilities of the discipline.” Or Sean Burkholder’s “1929” which speculates on how the moon would be the perfect tabula rasa to put Modernist principles into practice. Or Simon Kristak’s “Dude, Where’s My Floating Car?” which rather ingeniously questions how architecture would be, “both tectonically and programmatically,” if it were “unencumbered by the typical infrastructural imperatives.” While we may be centuries (or universes) away from teleportation, what would this infrastructural freedom mean for architecture? It’s a fascinating thought.
But beyond these imaginative detours, I found myself most intrigued by those articles that tackled topics a bit “closer away,” if you will.
Virtual Architects: Designers of Architecture?
In an interview with Ryan Church, a “world creator” for Hollywood films, Church describes his job title like so:
“The job of Architect is very specific and regulated, and therefore, by definition I’m not an architect. But I am a designer of architecture” (99).
A “designer of architecture” could very well be the not-so-distant title of the architect of the future, as new technologies begin to overlay the virtual on to the physical built world. Consider (as Alpna Gupta does, in “Is Google the Next Starchitect?”) how technologies like Google Glass will completely upturn our idea of “programmed space” (as any space could be virtually doctored to complete any program at all).
And while Gupta takes a particularly cynical perspective on the matter, suggesting that, if architects aren’t careful, in the future they “will be reduced to designing background noise behind the virtual screen of an augmented environment,” other authors see the potential role for architects in a new, exciting world of visual architecture.
For example, Connor Callahan and Shana Opperman describe the phenomenon of virtual space as “not a devaluation of physical space but rather the restructuring of the psycho-geographic plane - a total manipulation and compression of time and location and a complete permeation of the virtual” (145). And while they mention the potential for visual architecture to be pirated and copyrighted, the focus is on this new form’s potential. Perhaps Kristak’s ideas about teleportation and “unencumbered” architecture aren’t so far off after all...
Kellen Qiaolun Huang takes an even more upbeat, and somewhat more practical, perspective in “Architecture Through a Sci-Fi Lens.” She suggests that architects trained in architecture schools with “digital technique-intensive curricula” could find themselves more in demand as architects of the visual world - particularly in times of Recession (131). And, considering how many architects prefer focusing on the concept, form, and atmosphere of their designs - rather than the mundane technicalities and pitfalls of everyday practice - this could be no bad thing.
On Cyborgs & Super-Storms
As any of the dozens of recent apocalyptic movies can attest to, our society has considerable anxiety when it comes to our destruction of the earth - although we’re certainly not the first civilization to feel this way. As Nathaniel Robert Walker points out in his article “Citizens of Earth, Cities of Heaven,” the Tower of Babel was actually one of our first sci-fi stories in which architecture is emblematic of our human hubris, our “unquenchable desire to conquer nature” (11).
Walker asks: could our future be informed - not by Babel - but by Eden?
But I would refine that question even further. As architecture moves away from conquering Mother earth and towards co-existing with her, perhaps our future’s prevailing symbol will not be of pastoral Eden, but rather of the urban cyborg.
While Katy Barkan offers an interesting ode to the curve as architecture’s cyborg (representing both “the technical, gravity-defying difficulty of structural and material resolution and the organic, biomorphism of the body,” 107), I would extend Barkan’s definition to other - more interesting - architectural potentials.
In “Analog - Digital - Organic,” Jared Banks offers a fascinating look at the ways that future technology in architecture will be imbued with a higher purpose (and not just used to make sensational curves). He describes the potential of 3D printing to “create objects using the building blocks of life: DNA, RNA, and proteins” (137), a future that scientist Andrew Hessell has also contemplated. In this future, the architecture studio merges with the genetic lab. And, as Matthew Johnson describes in “Future Animals,” “on a screen in that future laboratory, the bright lines separating human, organism, architecture, and technology are already dimming” (139).
As Banks points out, however, more important than this hybridization, is how each of these new organic materials will be purposely designed to complete a certain, specific use, turning buildings into organisms “as complex and computationally powerful as any living creature” (137). The vision brings to mind the work of Neri Oxman, and others at the MIT Media Lab, who similarly see the potential of this technology to not only create an architecture in sync with our natural environment but also free from our current, binding concepts of what architecture is.
“The trend toward organics will be about the essence of the material and not the physical appearance that describes its creation. The form of a grown object will no longer be constrained by our views of what organic matter looks like. Instead of a shallow stylistic visual shift in our environment, the future of organics will be a fundamental leap forward and a deeper change in how our world is built and operates” (Banks 137).
And when that future arrives, all the impossible situations that SCI-FI has conjured up will suddenly seem not just possible - but oh so necessary.
10 CITIZENS OF EARTH, CITIES OF HEAVEN
12 ON DEFINITIONS
14 SCIENCE ARCHITECTURE FICTION
16 THE WEAPONS OF THE METABARON
18 METABUNKER'S IN DA HOUSE (SCHERZO)
20 SCIENCE FICTION RANT
22 THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE FUTuRE AND THE FUTURE OF ARCHITECTURE
24 SIDEWALK BRIDGES
26 "IN THE FUTURE" CITY POSTCARDS
30 MONUMENTAL PUBLIC ARCHITECTURE OF THE INTERWAR PERIOD AND THE DYSTOPIAN IMAGINATION
32 MODERN URbAN PLANNING IN POST-WAR SCIENCE FICTION
38 WE NO LONGER PREDICT TOMORROW. WE ONLY CRITIQUE THE NOW
40 BANHAM + PULP
42 DHSTOPIAN LONDON CA.1988: MAX HEADROOM
44 WHEN IS THE FUTURE?
46 SCIENCE FICTION IN ARCHITECTURE: MASK OR FISSURE?
48 HOME SWEET SPACE
50 THE MEGASTRUCTURE IN SPACE!
52 SCI-FI R&D
54 FUTURE PERFECT APARTMENT BLOCK
56 INTERVIEW WITH JOSEPH KOSINSKI
62 WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS
64 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY ANALYSIS
66 IT’S BIGGER ON THE INSIDE
68 DUDE, WHERE’S MY FLOATING CAR?
70 A LANDING PAD ON EVERY ROOFTOP: YESTERDAY’S CITY OF TOMORROW
72 OPENING THE DOOR TO ROBOTS IN AMERICA
74 ALIEN AFTERPARTY
76 A SURFEIT OF SURFACE
78 PROGENERATIVE INTELLIGENCES
82 WE CAN REMEMbER IT FOR YOU
84 TOTAL RECALL
86 A DUNE THAT DID AND DIDN’T HAPPEN
88 ELEVATOR TO THE WILDERNESS
90 SAVE THE LARS HOMESTEAD
92 “A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY...”
94 THAT’S NO MOON. BUT IS IT ARCHITECTURE?
95 RESISTANCE IS FUTILE
96 INTERVIEW WITH RYAN CHURCH
100 ZERO G
102 LOOK, I AM YOUR FATHER
106 THE SHAPE OF THE FUTURE
108 A STAR IN A BOTTLE
110 DECONSTRUCTING THE DEATH STAR
112 “HEY... IT’S A BALL...” AN EYEWITNESS ACCOuNT OF THE BIRTH OF OMA’S DEATH STAR
114 FIVE THESES FOR THE CITY OF SPHERES
116 SCI-FI URBANISM
118 CONTEMPORARY REPRESENTATION OF THE DYSTOPIAN CITY IN SCI-FI FILMS
122 SHANGHAI SCI-FI SKYLINE
126 UNDER TOMORROWS SKY. A PROJECT FOR THE FUTURE CITY.
128 HOLOGRAPHY FOR ARCHITECTURE – A MISSED OPPORTUNITY
130 ARCHITECTURE THROUGH A SCI-FI LENS
132 IS GOOGLE THE NEXT STARCHITECT?
134 DISTRACTED BY FERTILITY: SCI-FI AND SPECULATIVE ARCHITECTURE
136 ANALOG – DIGITAL – ORGANIC
138 FUTURE ANIMALS
140 WHAT DOES ARCHITECTURE KNOW?
142 ZONA ARCHEOLOGICA
144 CONSTRUCTING THE VIRTUAL + PIRATING SPACE
146 100 YEAR STARSHIP
148 SCIENCE FICTION AS A MEANS TO CREATE MOMENTUM FOR RADICAL CHANGE
156 IMAGE CREDITS