What does the architecture of tomorrow look like is a question plaguing the minds of many an architectural critic, historian, or theoretician and even the occasional thinker. Pop culture (especially film) has always had an interesting insight into this realm with a dystopian imagination (think BladeRunner or the Hunger Games) but HBO’s Westworld promises a more “grounded” vision of an architecture of the future.
HBO’s Westworld is a study in the human psyche and condition. Its exploration of the human experience in telling a story of anthropoid robots (‘hosts’ as referred to as in the show) in a theme park of the future has led to accolades and scholarship around the globe. Earlier this year, the third season of the series aired, beginning to explore the world outside the theme park, our world, the human world of tomorrow.
Clearly not the first attempt in film/TV, the show comes with an arsenal of talent and prestige: HBO (which produced Game of Thrones), Jonathan Nolan (Memento, Interstellar), and world-renown architect Bjarke Ingles as an uncredited consultant of sorts on architecture. This results in the show being populated by many familiar architectural icons and a few unbuilt BIG projects.
A little background of this world. As philosopher Georg Hegel suggests architecture is the representation of the zeitgeist, a brief understanding of this world is needed.
The show suggests presenting our own world in 2052, imagining a “grounded” future. Referencing research and philosophy like Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, dataism and biotechnology are the new “religions” of the land coupled with the usual flying vehicles and self-driven car/bike for a “future” effect. This “new” world brings a new architectural paradigm- an architecture ruled by data and biotechnology, an automatic architecture, one where design thinking is driven by data and not instinct. This is the suggestion of future architecture.
The series showcases several locations across the globe from Spain to Singapore to showcase the future of architecture from the perspective of trends being seen in buildings today.
The third series begins somewhere near China (we are told) in a coastal home with modifications and augmentation worthy of an Alexa fan’s wet dream. A voice command system to alter your living, a kitchen that listens to instructions, and a lot of surfaces that change at the touch of a hand. Floating concrete staircases. Extensive use of glass. The lines and curves blend into a grey and translucent sort of material palette. The lightness and sinuous quality in the space are not far from the minimal technological aesthetic that has developed in design post the iPhone. The home in which this scene is filmed is architect Wallace Cunningham’s Crescent House in Encinitas, California but with several liberties. This aesthetic is not far from a popular imagination of the future of buildings. The homes of the future could possibly be as seamless and “light” as much of the devices they house. In a technology-driven world, domestic architecture might give more importance to the aesthetic of devices over anything else. Every period has its paradigm and architecture reflects that (the medieval age had churches, the industrial revolution a machine aesthetic) since technology is undoubtedly going to rule our lives, the architecture of tomorrow will eventually become a touchscreen device in itself, much like Corbusier’s machine for living.
Many other filming locations are also real-life buildings and not fictional creations. One is actually a little too famous for architects and architecture enthusiasts: the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia designed by Santiago Calatrava. This building functions as the headquarters of the corporation Delos that manufactures the previously mentioned humanoids, hosts.
When the Science Museum in the complex was open to the public, many architecture critics pointed out the immateriality in the structure of the building. The structure is the architecture but the material used becomes so insignificant, it takes on this fluid white plastic-like quality. This is in part due to the design of the remarkable structure- it mimics the exoskeleton of an unknown creature of sorts with the white plastic-like material (which is concrete) and cables becoming its bones. The building material is pushed to such an extent it no longer resembles how it was originally used. There is precedent in history for this with stone: gothic cathedrals had the stone (a familiar material for millennia) in such an undulating fashion that it lost its materiality. In the future, materials and forms might reach their apex in expression becoming subject to only imagination as 3D printing has proven.
Another factor coming into play here is this biomimicry in structural expression (which plays into the show’s themes of biotechnology eventually taking over our world) or rather a heightened sense of structural expression, wherein buildings no longer are limited by the traditional construction practices. The curvilinear and sharp-angled forms are seen extensively throughout with the Marina One in Singapore, the Lasalle College of Arts, and more featured in the series. The show features robots in construction that can handle far more strenuous tasks than humans with more efficiency. With a vision like Zaha Hadid, Calatrava, or Libeskind already capturing the imagination of our world that is obsessed with dramatic images, the architecture of the future can be expected to become even more adventurous when it comes to structures that defy gravity and our collective expectations.
Other than spectacle in architecture, Westworld hints at another possible future trend by featuring Ricardo Bofill’s La Fabrica, a seminal work of adaptive reuse of a factory. With expanding cities and needs, it is plausible to think of adaptive reuse to become commonplace like it already has across European city centers.
To show the city of Los Angeles, the makers look to Singapore of today, a greener and “futuristic” look at the urban model. The city features streets that are not far from arboretums (like the Esplanade Park, Ion Orchard, Wisma Atria, and the Marina Bay complex) and skyscrapers that are covered in greenery (the ParkRoyal Pickering and the Oasis Downtown). The focus on a greener and more sustainable future has been in discourse more than ever due to the ever growing threat of climate change in our environs. Our cities will have to become greener in order for us to sustain life. This vision is the most necessary requirement in architecture today and tomorrow.
The series can and perhaps should be enjoyed for what it is, the story, the extraordinary performances but when a show is that good, the architectural imagination often wanders to other nuances built-in, when one doesn’t really get what is going on, cue the Interstellar soundtrack. (or Westworld’s, it’s honestly one of the best).
Note: the production design of a film is primarily a device of storytelling, it has no obligation to be true to the “real” world, it must only hold true to the reality of the “created world”. Also, Spoiler Alert!