Dredd’s Mega City One is one of the most interesting urban design projects ever attempted, writes Rory Olcayto
Watching Dredd last weekend with my brother and dad was a treat. Based on the comic book character Judge Dredd from British sci-fi weekly 2000 AD, I’ve been following the adventures of the future lawman for the best part of four decades now. I began reading Dredd’s adventures in 1977 and, while I quit reading the comic at the end of my teens (honest!), I’ve always kept an eye on what’s going on. There’s a good reason why: Mega City One.
The comic, and Dredd in particular, has been as significant as the Eagle and Dan Dare were a few decades earlier in shaping a generation’s vision of the future. But whereas Dare’s futuristic technologies inspired architects, most famously Norman Foster, Dredd’s stomping ground has been a bigger hit with visual scenographers in video games and film set design. This is a great shame, because Mega City One is one of the most interesting urban design projects ever attempted.
‘Masterplanned’ by writer John Wagner and ‘built’ by artists such as Carlos Ezquerra, Mike McMahon and Brian Bolland over the past four decades, Mega City One is the ultimate comic book city: exuberant, absurd, shocking, prescient.
Week after week for 35 years, often in pithy six-page strips, contemporary issues are amplified and explored in a vast conurbation of 800 million inhabitants that stretches across America’s eastern seaboard. Often Dredd is a bystander in the story, as the writer and artist highlight the vast urban playground instead.
This is a city without democracy, where the Statue of Liberty is dwarfed by the Statue of Judgement. Where employment is just 13 per cent. Where reinforced structures house two-tonne ‘fatties’ gorging on synthetic foods and the ‘smokatorium’ is the only place left where smokers can light up. Where Resyk, a huge coffin-shaped building, processes a thousand dead bodies an hour, extracting useful parts to be used again. Where cleaning robots malfunction to become rebellious graffiti artists. Batman’s Gotham City and Superman’s Metropolis seem like one-note wonders in comparison; their townscapes little more than simple reflections of the essence of the superheroes who inhabit them.
In Mega City One, prisons are located on traffic islands at the centre of a vast highway of lorries speeding by at 200mph (recalling J.G Ballard’s Concrete Island). 18 million people live in mobile homes, never stopping, refuelling on the move. A mile-high concrete wall lines its western flank, closing the city off from the irradiated heartland of old America and the mutated humans who live there. And, when manufactured weather systems fail, entire ‘sectors’ with populations numbering in the millions are plagued by wild storms. Sectors contain kilometre-high blocks that house up to 60,000 people. Most residents spend their entire lives without leaving them.
It is in one such block that most of the action in the new Dredd movie, directed by Pete Travis, takes place. And while this is both a clever way round budget constraints, and a smart introduction to the fractal city itself, it is also loosely based on the six-page Block Wars episode, first published in 1980: this is a faithful adaptation. It is also a triumph for production designer Mark Digby. His heavy metal version of Metabolist and Brutalist architecture (along with Cape Town, where it was shot) brings Mega City One to life. Yet, unlike my five-year-old self, I really wouldn’t want to live there anymore.