by Taylor Hood
A quick Google Image search for the term “sci-fi” illustrates that our conception of the world of tomorrow is one in which the sleek, unadorned, and mechanical have taken hold as an aesthetic principle. With industrialisation and, more specifically, since the Golden Age of science-fiction, our dreams of a bright and shiny future have deeply altered the ways we express ourselves. I propose that aspiration toward the machine-like has played the largest role in the demise of traditional forms of decoration honouring not only the natural world but a sense of the storied and the sacred. It is therefore unfortunate that the sci-fi genre, largely concerned with what humanity can achieve, has inveigled itself so profoundly with certain stylistic movements—indeed, has perhaps even influenced them—so as to be virtually synonymous with everything that is inhuman. Because what we see around us directly influences our wellbeing, and the spaces in which we live most obviously reflect our values, the focus of this essay will be on the built environment.
The Ministry of Truth (1984) is described as a glittering white pyramid; Metacortex, the building in which Neo worked (The Matrix), stands as a huge concrete-and-glass spine; Bladerunner 2049 showcases an excess of garish signage in a seedy urban underworld. All of these buildings and environments feature in dystopias, indicating that we know what is unpleasant and unbeautiful. Indeed, one function of these types of stories is to engage with a particular critique of the societies which brought them about in the first place. It is curious, then, that this same visual language is present in almost every depiction of the future one can find, as if the very notion of forward movement means more slick metal and glass, imposing concrete slabs, and vibrant neon. There is nothing whatsoever intrinsic to the word “futuristic” to suggest that we ought always to live in such spaces, yet we bring these with us even when we venture into supposedly utopian futures (Tomorrowland). With the portrayal of tech-savvy entrepreneurs living in luxurious modern houses (Ex Machina) and hip hacker-mercenaries roaming the streets (Cyberpunk 2077), there is the creeping suspicion that sci-fi revels in such spaces because they are considered admirable and something to strive toward.
There have been a number of architectural trends which point toward a mechanical appearance. While pure white and rigid Modernism and rough concrete Brutalism could be construed as being closer to a sense of ascetic spirituality and thus far less mechanical than older, ornate styles, it is precisely the lack of ornament that renders it inhuman—and spirituality is a uniquely human feeling. This world is biological, messy, complicated. Moreover, we have the sub-creative gift of mimicking the complexities and variety of nature through art. Where the influence of technology is most blatant is with Futurism’s desire to emulate the speed, energy and power of machines and Structural Expressionism’s emphasis on transparency of construction. In a Globalist skyscraper city, there exists the very tool-like sameness inherent in a machine’s effective operation, not to mention the monolithic scales involved. When homogenisation is not present, we have to contend with idiosyncratic postmodern projects which fit in nowhere. A lot of postmodern buildings are exercises in artless technical proficiency, paralleling sci-fi’s tendency to envisage different futures through the interplay of technology and human ingenuity. Even biomorphic or zoomorphic architecture representing plants and animals lacks warmth in that there is often little surface detail or colour. In a similar vein, depictions of the future that seek nature-technology integration, for example in the “solarpunk” sub-genre with its glasshouse-like structures, are suggestive of our world being turned into one enormous tool for the acquisition of energy. A surprising amount of plain modernist architecture can be found even in these settings, indicating how attached to this aesthetic complex we have become.
In sci-fi cities, just as in modern ones, one has the feeling of having been shrunk down to wander the inside of a computer case. It is as if we are actively trying to forget our fallibility as squishy animals and the roles we play as actors in venerable societies, instead upholding technology as a new kind of all-encompassing ideal. This is where the central problem lies, if not for others, then for this author and his appreciation of the genre. Humanity moves through gears, circuity, oil, and LEDs, but with each step in this direction we risk leaving behind that which we have evolved to find pleasing and meaningful in natural, archetypal, mythical forms. It is indeed strange to consider that, though our development must coincide with bustling cities, nature-flattening infrastructure, and a profusion of instruments unconcerned with beauty, we are often most moved by that which harks back to an earlier age or incites within us some primordial memory.
The people of the past were more obviously concerned with natural forms because of their closeness to their nonhuman animal brethren, the need to work the land, and the primacy of death. Why, for example, would a Paleolithic man paint a horse in ochre on a cave wall, or a Grecian sculptor fashion acanthus leaves at the top of a Corinthian column if not to honour the horse and the plant in some way? These are beautiful creations, but even the darkest imagery could be poignant. Think of the architects of the Middle Ages carving grotesques when a simple waterspout would do. The human figure took pride of place as the Nude in Greco-Roman sculpture and in the Middle Ages, as Nakedness, it was as a reminder of shame and sin, only to be reglorified in the Renaissance. Even geometric designs enlivened our living spaces and brought to mind the florid and eternal, as in Islamic art. What binds these disparate styles together is the understanding of form being the equal of function, but it is the subject matter which pertains most to our discussion. The pre-modern mind was full of mythical beasts, vigorous heroes, holy and aspirational symbols, and these were often given pride of place. Such creations are not merely the province of millennia ago: even into the last few centuries, with the highly ornamental Baroque period, Gothic Revival and Neoclassicism, there was still an emphasis on decoration and use of traditional materials such as wood and stone.
Since we are already dwelling on the past, it may be useful to briefly compare sci-fi with fantasy. Fantasy stories are more often rooted in a distant era or in a secondary world where technological development is limited, and civilisations are separated by great distances. As such, there is an emphasis on the natural, vernacular, and traditional. The protagonists of fantasy tales do not often seek to change the world on a grand scale, but to protect what is already present because it is under threat from some outside, destructive force (The Lord of the Rings). Works in this genre often feature the status quo being upset (Lud-in-the-Mist), or the intermixing of magic and beauty with the mundane (The King of Elfland’s Daughter). Even divorced from the stylistic tropes and trappings of Medieval Europe, there is an inward contemplation of the earthly and the numinous, of wonder and enchantment (Piranesi). Sci-fi on the other hand, while philosophical and ideas-oriented, appears to operate on a more active desire to change, subsume and develop, just as we do in the modern world. Think terraforming (Mars Trilogy) and the erection of megastructures (Star Wars). Sci-fi is often outward looking (Last and First Men) and is propelled by a Humanistic vision of Homo sapiens filtering through the cosmos, making alliances with strange and novel species (Star Trek), or, if staying at home, employing technology for the betterment of the world. And it is technology which is often the true hero of these narratives.
It is telling that the antique aspects of invented sci-fi societies and worlds most readily impart a sense of the sublime, the beautiful and the reverential. Consider the Warhammer 40K universe with its grand Neo-Gothic “knights in space” aesthetic. We root for the Na’vi in Avatar because they hold to higher values of nature, spirit, and community. Dune (2021) may feature Brutalist architecture, but its distinctly Middle Eastern influences grants the setting a sense of potency. Certainly, most sci-fi takes inspiration from the real-world and invents wholly new races and customs, but a more general and stronger point can be elucidated here. It is difficult to imagine any advanced alien civilisation which does not in some way invest into its material culture a sense of origin, e.g., history, ecology, language. Unless, perhaps, the pinnacle of existence is to leave all of this behind.
At the highest level is the idea of transcendence, something upon which sci-fi often dwells. Although the same argument could be levelled at religion’s promise of salvation and an afterlife, hidden in our faith in technology and the hope for a better future is, paradoxically, a world-denying strain which sees this Earth and all its multiplicity of peoples and cultures as nothing more than a steppingstone to some higher, more ascended state of being. If our concerns are with reaching upward (space exploration), escaping the body (augmentation, virtual reality), harnessing the power of the universe itself and learning its secrets (particle acceleration) what need have we to invoke mere beasts and the ideals of ignorant, long-dead people? We no longer feature plants and animals in our designs because they are no longer the focus of our world, nor do we prize time-consuming decoration, because everything is speed, power, efficiency. If in this universe technology can only be as it is due to the laws of physics, everything must tend toward some kind of end state, some form of “culture” which venerates only the purposefulness of machinery and the coldness of the programmable and the synthetic. We cannot, as it were, stay in The Shire forever, but one doubts what value transcendence through technology has if we sever all ties to the Earth and to ourselves.
In light of these considerations, sci-fi may be viewed as anti-traditional in that it favours progress at any cost, thereby exacerbating this disconnect. Equally, it may be said that the oldest tradition of all is the development and application of technology. Logically, our computers, robots and engines should manifest in art and architecture too. It is surely a false dichotomy to compare machinery designed for a specific purpose to art, but if the apotheosis of our species is to be integrated with technology, to the extent that even our architecture seeks to emulate it, why does it all feel so soulless and sterile? Ignoring historical and cultural significance, should we not be moved more by Gropius House than by a Cotswold cottage, or the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral rather than St Peter’s Basilica?
This may appear to have been one long concession to mere aesthetic preference on a subjective matter. In some respects, perhaps it has, but in a future wherein every part of human culture is technologized and mechanised, there will be little room for difference. Even if postmodern architecture reigns and buildings become dynamic and recall the organic, it is difficult to imagine anything except intraspecific variation, i.e., more glass and steel structures but of differing configuration. Those who adore traditional architecture often consider uniqueness to work against visual and community coherence and to be a betrayal of the arduous growth of tradition. They are not wrong, but to suggest that our buildings, even those represented in fictional worlds, follow the specific motifs and guidelines originated by a handful of civilisations thousands of years ago, forever, approaches the absurd. Standards of beauty have always shifted and the fluid, nature-inspired buildings of today are not, one may argue, inherently worse than the rose windows, pagodas, tympanums, and minarets of old because they, at least, have meaning. If anything, the fight must surely be against the soullessness and artificiality of corporate offices, phallic towers of megalomaniacs, drab estate tower blocks, and nauseating neon metropolises plastered over with advertisements.
Although I am a Romantic at heart, such a return is now impossible, and to halt the advancement of our species is to deny whatever destiny lies in store for us. Humanity should be proud of its technological advancements, but we ought not to forget where we came from and who we are. To erase the biological, the cultural and the traditional in our fictional depictions of the future in favour of some sterile technological ideal is to deny all that came before us as worthless. Because Earth is the only home upon which to base our experience, we are necessarily always looking back to it even when we fashion new worlds from our imagination or set out into the cosmos in real spacecraft. On a cold and dark planet newly colonised, will we erect buildings which only glorify the technology that got us there, or will we carve trees, birds, and human faces upon their facades?
Matilde Battistini, Symbols and Allegories in Art, 2005
Mary Beard and John Henderson, Classical Art: From Greece to Rome, 2001
Jonathan Glancey, Architecture: A Visual History, 2017
Neil Oliver, Wisdom of the Ancients: Life Lessons From Our Distant Past, 2020
Roger Scruton, Beauty, 2009
Veronica Sekules, Medieval Art, 2001
Tim Stanley, Whatever Happened to Tradition? 2021
Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 2010
Taylor Hood is a British writer of dark yet largely uplifting fantastical stories about nature, creation and escapism. He is interested in heritage and aesthetics, and has qualifications in wildlife ecology and countryside management. His website is thoodauthor.wordpress.com.