Using the real world as its starting point, the sclence- fiction genre creates alternative, radically different and hypothetical worlds, inspired by the conventions of science. As applied to architecture, science fiction Is an imaginative form of design that interprets a fictional vision Into a strategy for approaching a new problem, or inventing for future communities.
The inspiration that science has offered to creative practices this century is its promise to give modern society the power to control its environment and in doing so, to shape its destiny. Classical scientific theory suggests that the cosmos is reducible into its elements and that these can be reconstituted in their original form once their nature and behaviour are fully understood. Using a scientific method based on observation, analysis, reason, and experimentation, creative practices are able to extrapolate on new trends in scientific research and Incorporate their own predictions on the evolution of the human body and technological invention.
Underpinning classical scientific philosophy Is the Cartesian system of rational thought, first proposed by the mathematician, physiologist and philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650). He believed that the processes of human life, with the exception of mental functions, could be explained by the simple application of physical laws, and through an understanding of the structure of matter. He outlined a mechanistic model, which was subsequently applied to all scientifically observable phenomena, that required the homunculus (‘little man’) to operate the mechanisms of life using the new tools and techniques of science. The principles of science promised control over the building blocks of life and enabled designers, artists, and architects to work with scientific researchers to build a new society where, together, they would be able to address those problems that had afflicted people since the beginning of time. Man-made design and ‘unnatural’ Interventions would secure a better quality of life and might even conquer death. In short, humans could play God.
In the light of new human knowledge, scientifically manufactured ‘Edens' were created by human designers, and imaginary new worlds were inspired by the hitherto unknown territories discovered In explorations of the New World. Sir Thomas More’s tract, Utopia (1516), for example, portrayed a civilisation that conducted itself according to the noblest ‘scientific’ qualities of humankind: pure logic and reason. Its architects were the first ecological conservators:
... among the Utopians all things are so regulated that men very seldom build upon a new piece of ground; and are not only very quick in repairing their houses, but show their foresight in preventing their decay: so that their buildings are preserved very long, with but little labor, and thus the builders to whom that care belongs are often without employment, except the hewing of timber and the squaring of stones, that the materials may be in readiness for raising a building very suddenly when there is any occasion for it.
The first novel to locate a Utopian city In the future was Louis Sebastien Mercier’s Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (1771). Taking Paris as his model, he improved the city through anticipated developments In human reason, science, and technology.
In the 20th century, mechanised individuals, under the control of god-like, human scientists were the natural Inhabitants of these rationalistic worlds. The term ‘robot’ was Invented by the Czech dramatist Karel Capeck in his play RUR, initials that stood for Rosum’s Universal Robots. This personal vision of machines that were able to do everything a human could but without error, set the tone for the inhabitants of a scientifically advanced society and underlined the economic dynamics inherent in it.
RUR suggested that the scientific progress driving the industrial revolution was turning human workers into mere components of Industrial machinery, destined either to die out or be physically absorbed Into the factories. An Increasing number of authors showed a similar scepticism In relation to scientific progress, prophesying dystopian provinces based on the real world. Their futuristic visions were provocative social commentaries on the striking inequalities evident In the newly industrialised urban environments.
One such cautionary tale was the silent film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang In 1926. Set in 2026, it portrays a cold mechanical, Industrial city of the future brought to life by the architecturally trained Lang with suspended streets, zigzag buildings and a magnificent orange Olympic stadium. The narrative relies on Imagery alone, painting a complex picture of a world In which the populace Is separated into surface and subterranean dwellers. The privileged elite enjoy a luxurious existence, surrounded by beautiful gardens and arenas, and served by voluptuous yet soulless female robots. The lower class, meanwhile, live and work underground, enslaved by the machines that provide the power to run the infrastructure above. Curiously, this model is reflected In the direct relationship between prestige and elevation in modern skyscrapers.
Metropolis betrays an anxiety about the uncontrolled expansion of the human population on earth. As early as 1863, with his series of Voyages Extraordinaires, the visionary Jules Verne had already fantasised that travellers could embark on adventures to the centre of the earth, the bottom of the sea, or to the moon. The first use of special effects to depict a lunar landing was made by the avant-garde filmmaker Georges M6ll6s in Trip to the Moon, 1902. His use of expressionist techniques away from narrative and realist modes of representation was to influence sci-fi designers In the building of experimental worlds out of unconventional materials.
In the latter part of the 20th century, classical science has evolved into a pluralistic modern science drawing new inspiration from scientific discovery and a diversity of non-scientlfic disciplines. The greatest changes have taken place in physics and mathematics, accelerated by space travel, the advent of computers and the discovery of a new universe in virtual reality or cyberspace.
The construction of the built environment in uncharted territories came under serious consideration with the advent of missiles, rockets and space exploration in the 1960s. Following the first lunar landing in 1969, other major extra-terrestrial milestones included the successful orbit of the space station, Skylab, in 1973 and the first reusable space transportation system, the Space Shuttle. These events were anticipated by an explosion of fic-tional space adventures, most notably Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. This painterly film not only influenced many subsequent movies including the Star Wars trilogy, but also Inspired contemporary architects and designers. Kubrick’s odyssey symbolises the next leap forward in man’s evolutionary destiny, heralded by strange, alien obelisks. The prospect of life in space represented an ideal that gave humankind the chance to start yet again without the baggage inherited from the existing physical limitations of earth’s environments.
The figure of the alien has been a dominant cultural element since the 1950s. Arthur C Clarke’s Rama and Ian M Banks’ The Culture trilogy portray alien civilisations as a complex relationship between societies and their architecture. Whilst Rama’s inhabitants are reminiscent of primeval life, The Culture describes an advanced society located on an artificial planet. The inhabitants adopt thinly disguised socialist principles, enjoying leisure, and intellectual challenge as motivation.
The successful television series 'The X-Files’ highlights the emerging ‘New Age' science versus classic rationalism in the relationship between its main characters, Fox Mulder and Dana Sculley. The central premise is that the FBI has accumulated a group of dossiers relating to bizarre incidents, whose data reveals a set of basic patterns relating to alien abduction. Although the events have been known for decades, there has been a cover-up by the political and military establishments. The precise motives and extent of this are unclear, but the conspiracy is wide enough to constitute a 'secret government’ of the USA. The FBI facilitates the obsessive quest of Agent Mulder to prove the existence of aliens. The sceptical Sculley assists him, keeping a cooler, more rational approach to each crisis by applying methodological analysis to every improbable event. Sculley is more than another female sidekick: she represents the classical scientific approach that contrasts with Mulder’s new- age acceptance of the possibility of emotional, improbable and imaginary events. The slogans 'Trust No One’ and ‘The Truth Is Out There’ are ironic statements on the nature of observed phenomena, implying that there is no system of investigation that can determine The Real Truth.
These later sci-fi works convey a highly integrated relationship between human, machine, artifice and nature in inner and outer space. In this new interaction between humans and their environment, a more fluid relationship is portrayed, in which the homunculus is not in control but is absorbed into the matrix of these systems.
The increasing automation of future cities is taken to extremes in a number of narratives in which cities continue to thrive after their inhabitants have returned to a more primitive existence. Such near-deserted cities are featured in Strength of Stones (1981), by Greg Bear, and in Elizabeth Vonarburg’s The Silent City of the same year, whilst cities that have undergone radical transformations using nano-technology are described in Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz (1994). These prophetic environments suggest that a new form of science fiction is emerging that will continue to inspire architects. New edifices will operate according to fresh, interconnected scientific theories and ‘soft science’ disciplines, prompted to move beyond the conventional designs of Modernist, mechanical structural shells that are under the direct control of homuncular human operators. An evolutionary transition in architectural design will replace classically scientific fossils with intelligent, responsive, fluid interfaces that both inform and learn from their organic inhabitants.
In: Architectural Design: Sci-Fi Architecture. Vol 69 No 3/4 March-April 1999, pp. 20-21.
In: Architectural Design: Sci-Fi Architecture. Vol 69 No 3/4 March-April 1999, pp. 20-21.