Through the Lens: Sci-Fi & Architecture

You would think that of all film genres, Science Fiction would be the one least likely to feature real buildings. It stands to reason that production designers would want to avoid connections with things so grounded in reality. But in fact, there is somewhat of a tradition of using modern architecture as a foundation for the creation of fictional film worlds.

Science fiction relies on an audience believing in the world they are presented with. Clever camera work, perspective design, and temporary materials can only do so much. What often tips the balance in favour of using real, Modern buildings - rather than a temporary set - is the authenticity and atmosphere they provide the Science Fiction genre.

Read about Modern architecture in Sci-Fi films Blade Runner, Gattaca, Aeon Flux, and more, after the break...

In the past, set designers have had to choose between building a temporary set or finding a suitably cinematic existing space. But there was always a trade off: a purpose built sound stage is expensive and the scale is limited, but shooting on location is always problematic due to time pressures and permits. Then there is the problem of not just what to build but how to build an environment of the future. 

Luckily those in the architectural profession busy themselves with this very conundrum on a daily basis and occasionally an architect will come up with a solution so radical and unconventional that it is also fit for Hollywood. This was the case for Woody Allen's 1973 sci-fi comedy Sleeper, which featured a revolutionary structural experiment by Charles Deaton.

Charles Deaton's experimental house (called the ‘Sculptured’ house), which appears in Woody Allen's 1973 film Sleeper. Image via Flickr CC User Jerry Lewis. Used under Creative Commons

This experimental house (he called the ‘Sculptured’ house) projects the kind of purist simplicity that is associated with buildings of the future. The Sculptured House's white molded forms suggest a level of streamlined structure, integrated services and advanced materials that hadn’t yet been achieved by the industry, let alone the ability to imitate it on a sound stage. The solidity of this permanent structure gave a credibility to the set design, which would have been difficult to achieve using temporary mock ups.

Ennis House / Frank Lloyd Wright. Images © Flickr Users Troy Holden (left) and curls q (right). Used under Creative Commons

Ridley Scott’s 1982 release Blade Runner, a film whose oppressive built density forged a new era of production design and spawned a whole generation of computer games graphics, featured the distinctive architectural language of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House (a building which has a list of TV and film credits to rival any of those on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), using the house’s Mayan-inspired textile blocks to create a world which spoke of ancient decay and a civilization past its prime. The hugely popular film Gattaca, also incorporated a Frank Lloyd Wright original - this time the Marin County Civic Centre, which stood in as headquarters of a futuristic aerospace corporation. A surprising choice, considering it was completed in 1957.

AD Classics: Marin Civic Center / Frank Lloyd Wright. Image © Flickr User CC kara brugman. Used under Creative Commons

Of course, the (relatively) recent emergence of animation technologies means that there are now a host of digital alternatives available to production designers to create fictional worlds - which you would expect would reduce the reliance on tangible structures in film. While this may well be the way things go, we are still seeing a prevalence of modern architecture in contemporary sci-fi films. 

Aeon Flux, released in 2006, made use of Berlin’s Baumschulenweg Crematorium (also seen in 2011's Cloud Atlas) and the Tierheim Animal Shelter to create a home for a future utopian society - glossy and calm on the outside but greatly troubled beneath the surface. These buildings’ characteristic simplicity was emphasised by the production team to create a sense of artificial calm in this carefully manufactured society. The absence of hustle and bustle, the lack of clutter and disorder here creates an unnerving disquiet. Again, the authenticity afforded by these fully realised structures gives credibility to Aeon Flux's world.

Crematorium Baumschulenweg / Shultes Frank Architeckten. Image © Mattias Hamrén

Contemporary architecture can even be seen in big budget films which make full use of CGI technologies. Michael Bay's 2011 release Transformers 3 features Milwaulkee's beautiful Art Museum by Santiago Calatrava, surrounded by animated action scenes on a colossal scale. The polished sculptural space provides some aesthetic relief from the grisly mechanics of the Autobots and certainly the operable brise soleil gives Optimus Prime a lesson in grace.

These unique pieces of contemporary architecture sit easily within a vision of the future because that is exactly where they were intended to reside. They are the result of unnerving questioning of conventions and the extension of conventional boundaries. They also provide the films in which they have featured a level of authenticity and realism which convince and engage an audience. Although in most cases these buildings are involved with a future gone wrong - from the dark foreboding environment of Blade Runner to the clinical and menacing world of Aeon Flux, the regular referencing of modern architecture in Science Fiction can also be taken as a compliment. It shows that contemporary design is seen as having a part in our future and acknowledges that the architectural profession is an important leader in shaping that future.

About this author
Cite: Charlotte Neilson. "Through the Lens: Sci-Fi & Architecture" 12 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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