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Architecture, Philip K Dick and Science-fiction Film

Architecture has been both creator and muse for science fiction. David Fontin’s new book dissects this shifting dynamic, writes Sam Jacob

Architecture has a strange, almost flirtatious relationship with science fiction. In the phrases it uses to describe itself and the imagery it deploys, architecture strikes poses that suggest an intimacy with sci-fi. At the same time, architecture keeps its distance, unwilling to become too engaged with a genre, wildly popular in places, that also has a reputation of being provocative and troubling.

Despite architecture’s surface attraction, both the straight-laced world of architectural practice and its so-called avant garde find it difficult to stand toe to toe with the literary and intellectual culture of sci-fi. Which makes David Fortin’s Architecture and Science-fiction Film: Philip K Dick and the Spectacle of Home a welcome publication, as it represents a chance for architecture to rethink its relationship with a genre that might be regarded as its speculative shadow.

Fortin shows how modern architecture laid the foundations for the imagery used in science-fiction film. He cites the influence of Bauhaus on the aesthetic of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and HG Wells’ invitation to Le Corbusier (sadly refused) to work on the film, Things to Come (1936).László Moholy-Nagy instead contributed images of the underground city of Everytown.

In the 1950s and 1960s this was reversed and architecture re-absorbed the imagery it helped to create. The Independent Group’s featuring of Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot at its This is Tomorrow exhibition in 1956, and Archigram’s combining of sci-fi, pop art and architecture show the trajectory of the re-appropriation of sci-fi imagery.

When sci-fi is used within architecture it can appear cut loose from the role it performs within wider culture, science and politics. But Fortin notes that one of sci-fi’s key themes is also a fundamental architectural concern: the idea, the question and the identity of ‘home’.

Sci-fi, he suggests, uses its vast leaps in space and time as a way to address our everyday condition. Its method of making the familiar strange helps us to look again at our own circumstance. And what might be more familiar, more everyday, than home? Fortin believes the genre’s obsession with home runs concurrently with our own. From ET’s sentimental croak of ‘Phone Home’, to the Death Star’s destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet Alderaan, to the epic, multi-season quest to rediscover Earth in Battlestar Galactica, science fiction addresses a terrible sensation: that we might never be able to go home again. Even worse, that there may never have been any home in the first place.

Sci-fi examines the forces that erode our sense of domesticity or privacy. Its narratives explore the effect of technology on the home as well as the socio-cultural pressures that warp our traditional notions of domesticity.

Architecture sees modernity and technology as a way of delivering comfort and freedom from domestic chores, and as such are seen as solutions. The irony is that while sci-fi understands its use of fiction as a device for addressing the present, architecture believes its own fiction that technology is a benign force.

The early Modernism that helped form sci-fi’s image can be excused from this. Le Corbusier’s ‘house as a machine for living in’ is a deliberately alienating strategy where any sense of home as a nostalgic or sentimental entity is estranged by mechanised cyber-domesticity. Making the domestic landscape strange was a statement of inevitability, since after industrialisation and the First World War, home was never to be the same.

Too often, architecture’s proposals fall flat. Houses of the Future are simply over-styled techno-utopian resolutions stuffed with prototype consumer goods. Which is why Fortin’s drawing of Philip K Dick into architecture’s orbit is significant. Of all science-fiction writers, Dick describes a wonky, barbiturate-laced, eccentrically weighted kind of world, where the intersection between the familiar and the unfamiliar is hardest to determine. The narrative arc is dragged from its predictable parabola by some giant gravitational source just out of shot.

The fiction that architecture has created of wholesome, excitable, well-meaning technology is a world away from Dick’s warped, paranoid and intense vision. Architecture retains boundless enthusiasm for solutions, concentrates on a narrow band in the spectrum of modernity, and retains a belief against all evidence that it can make the world a better, more homely place. The evidence is however, that architecture as an agent of modernity can only ever alienate us more.

Science-fiction writers, and Dick more than most, suggest that the relationship between the familiar and the alien, between home and its opposite, is a tactical and productive way to approach modernity.

Welcoming back this past idea of architecture-made-strange might help us to understand the modern terrains that we occupy now.  

Sam Jacob is an architect, designer and writer

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