Cyberfiction and architecture

The work of British group Archigram, among others, shows that science fiction and architecture share a fascination with the future and influence each other. Will developments in science fiction spawn new tendencies in architecture? OASE 66 examines the relationship between on the one hand architecture and on the other science fiction and cyberfiction. Descriptions of such films as Metropolis, Blade Runner, The Matrix and Minority Report bring the reader up to date with the relevance of this subject.

The machine age brought about the birth of science fiction. This genre in literature and, later, film offers us a glimpse of a future dominated by the machine. The information age saw the emergence of cyberfiction, an offshoot of sci-fi in which the world is dominated by computer culture.

OASE editors Pnina Avidar and Lara Schrijver examine the relationship between science fiction and architecture and argue that cyberfiction encourages architects to reconsider their ideas about space and form. In five texts they describe the shift from science fiction to cyberfiction, drawing on numerous films and books to back up their argument.

The industrial revolution and the machine age gave us highly concrete images of a future full of big steel structures, awkward robots and bulky spaceships. The image of the modern city in Metropolis (1926) was a huge source of inspiration for many architects when the film was released. The computer and the information age have changed how we see the future. Dematerialisation is the key word, but it’s a word that appeals to few architects. Almost all the scenarios result in an urban culture marked by glaring discrepancies (inside/outside, real/virtual, human/artificial, urban/rural, poor/rich). The spaces of the future will change from real to virtual environments and the forces that dominate society will be invisible and unassailable. Places and bodies face losing out to cyber sites and artificial bodies. Will the architect and urban designers lose out or can they still fulfil a role?

The most relevant texts for architects are those by Lara Schrijver, on the development of the modern city and the relation with cities in science fiction, and by M. Christine Boyer. Boyer is the historian who coined the term ‘cyber city’. The complexity of virtual reality and the difference between the machine city and the cyber city are both fascinating and frightening. The dematerialised urban surroundings offer nothing in the way of an acceptable future image. The situation in the cyber city is marked by the constant movement of people, vehicles, images and data. Cyber city is composed of buildings with streamlined, smooth, shiny surfaces capable of displaying projected images to advantage. Architecture is reduced to wafer-thin surfaces.

An interesting contribution is the interview with Bruce Sterling. Sterling, one of the best-known cyberpunk authors, tempers the idea that the role of the architect as designer of the built environment will disappear as cyberculture becomes more influential. He argues that fear of the future is a permanent way of life. The architect will continue to fulfil his role in the future, believes Sterling. But he has in mind heavyweights like Gehry and Sir Norman Foster, whose buildings already form the decor for cyberfiction films. The most interesting view posited by Sterling concerns the exodus from today’s cities. Thanks to sustainable architecture – just think of Buckminster Fuller’s Domes – people will increasingly live in places that have been inaccessible up to now. The downside will be the emergence of cities that resemble refugee camps, full of structures that can be erected very efficiently wherever necessary. Sterling emphasises that radical change in architecture was often preceded by major catastrophes, and that the heyday of architecture still lies ahead. He cites the tabula rasa condition in many European cities after World War II. After the dominant systems had failed, architecture reduced to rubble was cleared away by women, after which a fresh start could be made.

Most of the films discussed aren’t obscure art-house productions but ordinary box-office hits. The relation between the built environment and the films described in the articles is so familiar that the urge to hire a stack of DVDs grows as you progress through this issue of OASE.

But the attempt to link cyberfiction to an architectural issue in an understandable way is, with the exception of the interview with Bruce Sterling, not entirely successful. That’s the impact of cyberculture on our view of the future goes far beyond architecture and reaches the scale of urban design. What’s clear is that the vision of the city and the role of its designer needs revision. The creator of the Matrix, a virtual urban world, in The Matrix Reloaded, is called the ‘Architect’.

Forget about wood, concrete and steel. Hardware, software, asphalt, networks and cameras are the building blocks of our cyber future.