Architecture in movies is … background. So usually when the story is not so well thought out, the design is not there either. Not so long ago sci-fis were considered “B movies” so the budgets just weren’t there and sometimes the producers just didn’t have any faith in it – so … why bother, right?
But occasionally a rather goofy movie might surprise you with an interesting design (someone in that department took their job seriously).
Barbarella had some thought put into its set design and costumes. Although they look cheese to the modern eye, they made quite an impression at the time. Later, designer Jean Paul Gaultier used them as inspiration for The 5th Element.
Sometimes speculative technology used in films has inspired researchers to make such devices. A famous example is one of the first mobile phones developed by Motorola – a flip phone resembling the communicator in Star Trek TV series from 1966. Another one can be the automatic sliding door or personal computers, but I digress.
Star Trek is one of those iconic franchises that had a tremendous influence over generations thus the reboot from 2009 was also meant to bring a new generation in touch with this universe and hopefully inspire them too.
I am (and always shall be) fascinated by this world but as an architect I was a little disappointed by the lack of designs especially regarding Earth.
This was of course due to budget constraints.
But the reboot had more (and more… and more) to play with so here’s my two cents on what they did.
I started a new project about architecture in sci-fi film.
This will be an ongoing series, and the first entry is here:
movie: Rogue One
year (of the story): a long time ago
location: in a galaxy far, far away
population: humans + various races (some humanoid)
category (of the story): other worlds – alien mosaic
in true SW fashion we are given various locations, each with its own style but also resembling already known locations.
The moisture farming in the beginning looks a lot like the one from the desert planet Tatooine in the first movie but instead of having a open inner courtyard below ground level here it’s mostly inside a large rock formation.
The trading outpost on asteroids is an interesting and quite unique location, connecting two asteroids with buildings. The physics of it might be debatable (as to how these buildings are not torn apart, how do they have an atmosphere since the buildings and people on the ground are not inside a shell/shield or dome or why does the gravity is not different than any other much larger planet) but it looks very cool from the distance. On a closer look thou the buildings are pretty generic skyscrapers.
We are also treated to a closer look of the rebel base on Yavin 4 and its mayan temple looking structures.
Jedha is a cold desert planet and we see, among several ruins, the fortified temple city up on a rock formation and the hideout of another rebel faction partially inside a mountain, with its entrance carved in the red stone – much like Petra Temple in Jordan. In fact the entire design of this location and its color palette reminds us of the Middle East. The fortified city is densely packed, with narrow streets, domed buildings, arched passages, colonnades with classical details and all in the pretty much the same building materials: stone/limestone or clay
Another location is on the rocky planet Eadu: the weapons research facility set inside a mountain with only a landing platform stretching outside the cliff and several capsule looking elements on the sides with slit openings for light.
We are also given a look at the lair of Darh Vader: a medieval fortress looking building on top of a lava river. It is there to remind us of the battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan on the planet Mustafar, the moment this iconic villain is truly born.
The last act of the movie takes us to the planet Scarif, a tropical paradise, where the main building of the security complex looks like a combination between Burj Khalifa and the brutalist architecture of the ’80s with a dash of industrial elements.
If in most cases (in this movie but also throughout the saga) the buildings are contextualized to the location, creating a natural extension of the environment and looking like they belong there, the last one is in strong contrast with its surroundings. A stern, grey, mostly opaque, massive tall object dominates a small archipelago. There’s nothing comfortable about this association; the tension between structure and context comes in support of the narration – the stakes are high, rebels vs. empire, a battle for the future of the galaxy. A metaphor for the way the empire took hold of the republic, transforming a peaceful (somewhat idyllic?) assembly of worlds into a fascist regime that dominates though brute force, large numbers and fear.
This is a lesson in how architectural design in sci-fi movies help the story, how visual cues such as this dissonance give something extra to the audience and support the narration.
movie: Star Trek Into Darkness
year (of the story): 2259
location: Earth (London & San Francisco) + Praxis (moon of the klingon homeworld Kronos)
population: humans + other humanoid races
category (of the story): technological future + alien world
London – resembles the present day real-estate development with various towers and several low rise buildings and few classic ones in the mix. The towers have various shapes, much like the current competition entries from starchitects, but the color palette and materials are quite limited to shades of blue, black & white, lots of glass and metallic structures with little or no concrete.
San Francisco – besides using the Getty Center by Richard Meier (actually in Los Angeles) as the Starfleet HQ the rest of the city is made of a collection of eclectic towers, more technical and heavier in aspect than the London ones but the same color scheme and materials (but with more steel). Alcatraz has been covered and surrounded with an installation that looks like sun panels (maybe it’s a green energy power-plant?). Some buildings feature elements of parametric design, others just geometric patterns and textures, mostly faceted and only a few are curved.
Praxis – the damaged moon of klingon homeworld Kronos, this is one alien looking place – everything is constructed, almost no natural surfaces are shown, it’s an abandoned city; the built environment is meant to be an energy-production facility that was abandoned due to an accident from over-mining. It is brutish in aspect with solid and angled facets covered with symbols. it’s a decaying world, about to collapse.
movie title: Judge Dredd
year (of the story): 2139
location: Earth, Mega City One (formerly New York)
category (of the story): technological future + post-apocalyptic
the city is a conglomerate of tightly packed blocks and skyscrapers with some colored neon signs, surrounded by a large wall isolating it from the “Cursed Earth” that’s the rest of the land. Although it’s New York, there’s no body of water and the urban sprawled surrounding the Statue of Liberty. Although varied in shapes and sizes and eclectic in style, the buildings have the same metallic + concrete finish, beige (but not dirty), with some reminiscent industrial details and a few deconstructionist touches (especially visible in the aerial view of the city).
movie title: Metropolis
year (of the story): unclear, sometime in the future
location: Earth, city of Metropolis
category (of the story): technological future, dystopia
The city is divided in two parts, one above ground (the rich) and one below (the workers), both depended on the machines. The one below is made of blocks, with no decorations, uniform windows, with very little variations in volumes, no vehicles. The one above resembles New York but with elevated highways and railways and with planes flying between buildings. Buildings with larger windows, some advertising (made only in neon light – text and some shapes). The largest building is also the only one with curved elements and more decorations. Among the towers there’s a small house (the scientist home) but with no windows and somewhat deformed shape. Overall style influenced by Art Deco movement. Materials: concrete, metal and glass.