Architecture: How buildings are used in sci-fi films
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There are usually four types of homes in science-fiction films: futuristic, retro, dystopian or modernist.
The futuristic, space-age dwellings are mostly white, in which tables and chairs might hover above the floor and doors slide open automatically with a hum. This was the default style of the mid-20th century. It has been used less frequently in recent years.
Retro homes, in which the architecture of the future resembles a version of the past, embrace everything from steampunk Victoriana to the kind of fantasies in which other planets look like Tolkienised England or Tunisian mud brick villages. More commonly, though, the look is some kind of art deco revival, which is probably to do with the extraordinary skyscrapers of 1920s and 1930s New York still looking like an ideal city of the future.
Dystopian homes, meanwhile, tend to show a world of ruins and apocalyptic landscapes.
The fourth type of home in a sci-fi film is often the location scout’s favourite: the already built, real-world modernist house – not too well-known, strange but also familiar enough to correspond with some futuristic vision.
The first type is, unexpectedly perhaps, most often the dullest. This is because it is generally the most predictable. Nothing, the cliché states, dates faster than the future. Take Alison and Peter Smithson, arguably Britain’s most intellectual and influential modernist architects, who designed a “House of the Future” for the Ideal Home Show in 1956. It looks laughable enough on its own, but with the “futuristically” dressed actors inhabiting it, the projection becomes a hoot. It shows just how difficult it is to get it right.
The classic image of this kind of screen futurology comes from the 1936 film, Things to Come, based on the HG Wells novel. This is a pretty weak film, except for its uncomfortably salient predictions about the nature of the coming world war and its impressive visions of a subterranean world carved out beneath the ruins of the now uninhabitable cities on the surface.
Vincent Korda, the film’s production designer, first approached Fernand Léger to design the sets but was unhappy with the result. His next choice, Le Corbusier, declined to be involved. So Korda (the brother of director Alexander) turned to his fellow Hungarian émigré, László Moholy-Nagy, who was then living in London. The sets feature extraordinary curved atria criss-crossed by sky bridges, with elevators in glass tubes rising through them. It was a remarkable vision, at once abstract but also owing something to Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Moholy-Nagy’s former colleague at the Bauhaus. (The sets also prefigured the spiralling interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum in New York.) In this vision of the future, the house has disappeared, the living is communal. This world more closely resembles one of John Portman’s vast Atlanta hotels than a conventional house of the future. It is a common future fantasy, part communitarian dream, part nightmare, in which privacy and ownership have been lost.
It is also a fantasy that, in our own hyper-connected world, seems to be a decent metaphor for contemporary life. The world of Wall-E (2008), with its futuristic fat camp, made a similar point, as did Logan’s Run (1976) in which accommodation is luxurious 1970s modernism. This year’s Oblivion and After Earth have featured characters living in strikingly uninspired modernist dwellings that tell us little about our ambitions for the future, except that its interiors will be, of course, very white. Many film-makers return to familiar landscapes, instead, believing that the partial destruction of the kind of landscapes we inhabit is more disturbing than some notion of a minimalist suburbia.
From Stalker (1979) to The Road (2009), characters are depicted in the kinds of houses that we know, although they are incapable of repairing them or building the world anew. These decaying homes indicate a dying, dysfunctional society; often inhabitants only take shelter in the ruins, moving on to find food or escape danger. In this way, the houses lose the most important thing they give us (beyond shelter) – a sense of belonging, safety and of home.
Interestingly, that sense of decay – the flaking walls, bare bricks, leaking plumbing and puddles on the floor – has also become a staple backdrop of the horror genre, the interior indicating a state of moral as well as physical decay. Our inability to imagine the aesthetic of the future is partly a result of our saturation with images of the future from the past, often from our own childhoods.
The future looks like outer space to us (the assumption being that the world has been destroyed or at least polluted beyond repair), so it can be difficult to imagine the earthbound house of the future. That is why production designers have used either those collective memories and placed us in a version of the future filtered through the past or in an actual building that was either ahead of its time or so weird it doesn’t seem to fit into the existing world.
The tagline of Sleeper (1973) was “Woody Allen takes a nostalgic look at the future”. The house used in the film to represent the future was actually built a decade before the film was released (by architect John Deaton on Genesee Mountain in Colorado) and looks more futuristic than most of the sets built specifically to suggest the future.
Even more interesting, though, is one of the 20th century’s oddest masterpieces, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1924 Ennis House in Los Angeles, which crops up all over Hollywood history, from The House on Haunted Hill (1959) to Twin Peaks (1990). Most memorably of all, Ennis House features in Blade Runner (1982). Here Wright’s precast, Aztec-influenced concrete blocks appear in the background introducing a decorative density and shadow that is the diametric opposite of the pure white houses of traditional futurology.
This is an architecture predicting technological complexity. Deckard, the central character, is a tracker and killer of replicants (genetically-engineered robots) and he himself may, or may not, be one himself. His apartment is permanently in shadow.
This film noir homage is even clearer in the block in which JF Sebastian, reclusive maker of freakish replicants, lives. His grand, high-ceilinged, but neglected apartment (also a place of dripping darkness) is situated in Los Angeles’s wonderful Bradbury Building, another architectural star in its own right. This is the building in which the greatest noir of all, Double Indemnity (1944) – a tale of deceit and double dealing, told in retrospect by a dying man – begins and ends. The influential 1893 building is based around a striking central atrium lined with filigree ironwork, and was itself inspired by an architectural description in an early science-fiction novel, Edward Bellamy’s 1887 Looking Backward set in a utopian society in the year 2000.
Both characters in Blade Runner – creator and hunter – live in the relics of an intricate version of modernism that was both very American in its fabrication of new identities and profoundly prophetic in its prediction of new preoccupations, many of which we haven’t caught up with yet.
The Los Angeles of Blade Runner has become a kind of hybrid Asian city. The fear at the time was of Japan taking over, whereas now it is China, but the fantasy dystopia holds. It is clear that these figures live in a leftover world, in the remains of a city that was somehow better, grander in the past, when architects and builders had time for decoration.
In the present world, by contrast, all that energy is expended on technology instead. The streets and skies are full of moving billboards. Craftsmen spend their time building fake animals rather than beautiful houses.
And the technology comes back to bite. Dr Eldon Tyrrell, the chairman of the corporation who has built the robots-gone-rogue lives in a huge high-tech pyramid (an echo of the Ennis House here). His apartment, decked with columns, becomes his mausoleum when the robots return to make their maker meet his maker. Yet even this grandest of futuristic buildings is tamed by familiar motifs – the columns, the curtains, the candelabras and the four-poster bed.
What do these interiors tell us, these strange reoccurrences of the familiar in the future? The white and glass futurism of the space house is too far removed from our everyday experience. To make us feel truly unsettled the future needs to take place in homes we recognise, yet are different – decayed or ruined, perhaps, or with added high-tech devices. In other words, the perfect blend of fantasy and the familiar.
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