Dlandstudio, Hybrid Urban Base for Queens, N.Y., from the "Glimpses of New York and Amsterdam in 2040” exhibition.
I’m something of a science fiction geek. While you won’t catch me at Comic-Con dressed as a Wookiee, it is true that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies, and that I have owned three successive copies of Frank Herbert’s Dune, each of which has fallen to pieces after multiple readings.
I generally keep this particular set of enthusiasms to myself—there are topics of conversation with broader appeal than, say, the theme of decay in Katsuhiro Otomo’s epic manga series Akira—but being a fanboy does have its benefits. Like whenever I catch up on the news. Because these days I find science fiction can be my best, and sometimes my only, frame of reference.
Credit: Warner Bros
Science fiction isn’t such an odd preoccupation for designers. After all, central to the genre is the conceptualization of entire worlds. Director Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is no less powerful—and was no less influential—than Le Corbusier’s contemporaneous Ville Radieuse. To be clear, however, there is science fiction, and there is science fiction.
Credit: Universum Film (UFA)
Le Corbusier's Radiant City
I’m not much interested in the Predator movies, for instance. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line from the first installment, “If it bleeds, we can kill it,” sums up the empty first-person-shooter attitude toward violence—that it’s free of moral consequence. Never mind that the target from outer space is usually just a stand-in for communism or feminism or illegal immigration. If it’s a metaphor, we can kill it.
Nor, by contrast, am I a fan of the Star Trek school of wide-eyed utopianism. Too many of humanity’s core causes for conflict and self-improvement—politics, sectarianism, resource limitations—have been miraculously resolved in the giddy rush to go where no one has gone before. (What fuels that warp core? Hugs?)
No, the subgenre that really grabs me is the dystopian, in which science fiction mirrors our own society, warts and all. Particularly the warts. One such work, Flood by Stephen Baxter, follows the near-collapse of civilization in the face of rapidly rising seas. Never mind that seismic activity, not climate change, is the author’s scientific explanation for the calamity. The book was published in 2008, and, at the time, its descriptions of London and New York flooding read as science fiction—which is to say, implausible—even though Hurricane Katrina had happened just three years before.
Dlandstudio's Willett's Point Sea Level Study: Harvard University Design Studio
Then a pattern began to emerge. In 2010, floods in China left thousands dead and forced millions to evacuate, while an intense monsoon season left one-fifth of Pakistan underwater. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy whalloped the Eastern Seaboard. Last September, Colorado exceeded its average annual rainfall in just five days, with horrifying results. And last month, record rainfall and 100-mph winds drove thousands from their homes in Southern England.
And don’t get me started on the droughts.
I hope the worst events in Flood never come to pass, but science and science fiction seem to be falling into ever-closer alignment. In October, the journal Nature published a report that compiled 39 different peer-reviewed climate models into a single forecast of the dates for “climate departure,” when the lowest temperatures in a region are warmer than the average highs of 1860 to 2005.
Credit: University of Hawai'i
As National Geographic puts it in an article about the report,“The coldest year in New Guinea after 2020 will be warmer than the hottest year anyone there has ever experienced.” New York City and Washington, D.C., are scheduled to depart by 2047, with a five-year margin of error.
This is why we need more architects who focus on resilient systems, like Susannah Drake, AIA. (See our profile here.) It can be exciting when science fiction becomes reality—like when man walked on the Moon—but visions of the future can be both positive and negative. When science fiction’s downsides ring true, architects need to stand up and take note.