Architectural imagination is undoubtedly an inevitable part of science fiction. The authors write intricate descriptions of spaces and settings to build an image in the mind of the reader. Each description perfectly fits the context of the instance and the theme of the novel. These detailed accounts of spaces are carefully incorporated in the sets of movie adaptations too. Most of the literature on the architecture of science fiction limits itself to these movies and represents architecture as a backdrop to a narrative.
The notion of taking inspiration from the story along with its context and theme to define new boundaries for the present-day architectural practice is a rather new and under-discussed concept. A basic beginning of this discussion would be to address the following questions. Why is there a need to take inspiration from fiction at all? What is it that one looks for? How does one go about searching for relevance?
It goes without saying that science fiction as a genre is extremely awe-inspiring. In addition to knitting fascinating stories which are unputdownable, many sci-fi novels look deep into scenarios to predict and formulate crazy hypotheses. Be it the condemnation of utter surveillance in ‘1984’ by George Orwell, or the emphasis on the importance of identity in the ideal society of ‘The Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley.
Sci-fi literature often comes as a warning or a satire on various present situations and possible developments in the future. The spaces described in such narratives are a product of similar insights too and are hence either reflective of solutions or indicative of design failures for probable future issues. The architectural setting along with socio-political and economic references from the novel can help inform the decisions of a contemporary architect.
Long ago in 1910, much before the advent of hyper loops and tech cities, HG Wells, in his novel ‘The Sleeper Awakes’, discussed the bemusing intricacies of a high-tech city, 200 years in the future. It gives in-depth descriptions of moving pathways and roads, massive buildings with automated doors, artificially lit skies, and covered cities all under the purview of social, economic, and political aspects. This book is said to have inspired the famous sci-fi movie ‘Metropolis’, which in turn has inspired many modernist architects. HG Well’s dystopic imagination of the city and its well-thought criticism of such a city still holds relevance today.
The first-ever science fiction is believed to be written 400 years back, in 1616. After that, several novels have explored a plethora of themes and possibilities. Many still hold relevance, many have become obsolete; many are famous, many not so; many similar to reality, many sheer fantasies. Many might not hold any importance from an architectural perspective at all. Hence, it is necessary to read to understand the system and its relations through such novels, rather than just looking for straight forward solutions.
Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller ‘The Andromeda Strain (1969)’ mainly addressed the outbreak of disease due to an extraterrestrial bio-weapon attack. The events in the story, though unrealistic, give detailed insights on the amalgamation of various factors including but not limited to economics, socio-political, architecture, and biology to fight the outbreak. The imaginary world thus created offers a creative systemic approach to problem-solving which includes architecture as a component in the form of underground research laboratories and isolation centers.
Many prevalent concerns need immediate attention, not only from an architectural outlook but also from other disciplines. Many contemporary science fiction have been trying to explore these concerns. The emergence of the sub-genre ‘Cli-Fi (Climate Fiction)’ is exemplary of the constant quest of science fiction writers to responsibly imagine the future world. These modern-day novels quite often discuss the complexities of future cities based on the multitude of data available, scientific predictions, and in-depth analysis of social sciences. As literature, they provide insights to all the above in a narrative that is easy to understand and is most relevant in today’s context.
‘New York 2140’ definitely sets a benchmark when talking of such novels. It’s a ‘Cli-Fi’ based in the future Manhattan where the entire city has submerged due to Climate change, a future scenario which does not seem unlikely at all. It is simply astonishing how Kim Stanley Robinson elaborates on the city. Talking only of architecture, the book discusses in detail the design of Carbon negative buildings to give an example. It discusses the socio-economic aspects of the built-environment by detailing even the demographics. This book single-handedly points out the direction in which the architects, designers, economists, builders, etc., must take quite urgently when it comes to climate change and its repercussions. The best part is that it’s utopian!
Image Sources: Vincent Mahe’s illustration of underwater New York as per ‘New York 2140’ ©www.newyorker.com
Into a Fictional Future
Especially with the recent turn of events, it becomes rather clear that the future is highly unpredictable. With changing possibilities and eruption of new scenarios, it becomes necessary to train ourselves as architects and designers of emergencies. Science fiction almost always looks at these unprecedented emergencies and tackles them in unusually creative ways. There is a lot these books can thus offer to a designer, both for personal growth and professional comprehension.