Dystopian Blueprints: Architecture as Narrative in Blade Runner and The Fifth Element
From the simplest of storefronts, to the most ambitious skyscrapers, architecture expresses the institutions and structures that define and confine a society. With its ability to remain and tell its designers’ truths, comes its great capacity to tell their lies. Over the past, let’s say two centuries or so, architectural curiosity has been cautiously excavating our future. Our cities are populated by simulacra structures, built to resemble the future we envision, but cannot yet exist; copies with no originals, copies of copies of copies. Built for what may come, and not what is. But let’s leave real cities aside for the moment, there’s more than enough written about them, and I’m more partial to fictional ones, which are just as able, if not more so, to expose the desires and lies of their builders.
Blade Runner (yes, the 1982 one, thoughts on 2049 are incoming…) directed by Ridley Scott, and Fifth Element (don’t even ask me about Valerian) directed by Luc Besson, are two classic examples of sci-fi that uses architecture to compose the blueprints for their worlds, giving the audience the allusions (and illusions) of greater social and visual constructs. Blade Runner and Fifth Element present future dystopian versions of two famous cities, Los Angeles and New York by manipulating recognizable architectural styles, light, transportation, and structures and systems that connote danger, pleasure, luxury, and oppression.
In the opening scenes of Blade Runner the city emerges in blasts of fire from smokestacks, illuminating various industrial structures. The cinematically experienced have been conditioned to understand different environments and signifiers in design that communicate political and social structures. This is usually unconscious, and manipulating these skills in the audience subtly eases their transition into new worlds. Chaotic industrial cities were very present in film and television during the 1980’s: Robocop, Escape from New York, Max Headroom, to name a few. American cities were still recovering from the 1970’s, and were fighting new social battles. Amid the sea of light emerge two enormous ziggurats made of skyscrapers tipped on their sides. A man smoking in a hazy cubicle stares through a slit in the ceiling, a small part of the ziggurat. En-masse anxiety-inducing homogeneity.
Blade Runner and Fifth Element both appropriate ancient architectural styles to emphasize iconic central structures, much like the Greek and Roman inspired monuments in cities today. Science Fiction is often criticized (and rightly so) for its appropriation, architectural and otherwise, of “exotic” or ancient cultures to lend an air of grandiosity or mystery to its worlds and narratives. In Mesopotamian society the ziggurats were the dwelling places of the gods, and only the high priests who served them were allowed to enter. This is the architecture of absolute power.
Blade Runner is set in 2019 LA, and after today’s SpaceX launch and the increasingly noticeable effects of climate change, off-planet colonies and acid smog in a year doesn’t sound too farfetched. The city is illuminated by a neon glow that settles like smog over its streets. A glittering swarm of advertisements and familiar brand names brings the city uncomfortably close. It is a nostalgic future, the nightmares and visions of a decade that feared crime, drugs, overpopulation, and over-industrialization. The city has been vertically expanded to accommodate a population of 90 million, and the old buildings have been retrofitted to support new structures above them, creating dark, industrial crevices and neighborhoods. The physical makeup mimics or possibly creates, oppressive social hierarchies.
Let’s leave Decker aside for a moment and get to the world of the orange-haired icon who is still a comic-con go-to after all these years - Leeloo. Fifth Element is set in New York City in the year 2259. Like Blade Runner the city has been sliced open, creating canyons of urban flurry descending below the streets, allowing buildings to extend vertically both ways. These ravines expose the inner workings of the city giving it a raw mechanical feel. Old buildings and traditional skyscrapers have been refurbished with chaotic exoskeletons. 90’s dream Leeloo, (Mila Jovavich) begins uptown, but when she shoots down in a hover taxi we see more of the city: a building was added here, a subway track along there, that building is old and this one is new. There’s light, steel, and glass, people are functionally going about their lives. As we move downward from the elite levels, there is less glass and more concrete, heavy dark tones coated in smog.
Urban dystopias in films generally fall under one of two categories: the city as chaos or the city as a controlled “paradise”, with peace maintained at great social and moral cost. Los Angeles in 2019 is irregular and chaotic, while New York in 2259 is a little closer to home: structured chaos, waste, and pleasure. Hence Mr. Zorg’s famous quote, “Life, which you so nobly serve, comes from destruction, disorder and chaos.” Cue squishy blob desk-pet, the true star of that scene.
The makeup of a city or even the design of a single building controls, oppresses, empowers, harms, or facilitates the different bodies that move through it. Fictional cities and buildings draw from and exaggerate these associations to create the outlines of a society. Just like real cities, they vacillate between the real and hyperreal to reflect and create a society. Taking a closer look at science fiction cities and imaginary architecture allows us to better understand how these visual and sensory associations inform the ways we decode real societies. Even at its most problematic, and sci-fi can get pretty bad, it exposes something; even if it’s just its own creators.
The city in recent science fiction seems to lean towards the controlled utopia end of the spectrum, a symptom of the shift over the last thirty years in what science fiction aims to critique. Now our fears are related in large part to identity, gender, race, class, control, information, the Internet, over-connection, and our decaying earth among many (many) others. Man, we’re scared. While science fiction continues to evolve in response to our changing set of fears and questions, it seems architecture and “the city” remain our foremost storytellers.