Caleb (Aaron Paul) and his construction sidekick
Courtesy HBO Caleb (Aaron Paul) and his construction sidekick

What does dystopia look like? In the third season of Westworld, HBO’s hyper-violent, sci-fi exposition on the nature of free will, we are introduced to Los Angeles 2058—at first glance, all smooth-flowing luxury, a land of towers draped with vertical gardens and generous public spaces, self-driving taxis and snarl-less freeways (the ultimate fantasy for locals). “It almost looks like it makes sense from up here,” says Liam Dempsey Jr. (John Gallagher Jr.), as he surveys future L.A. from a drone-style helicopter early in episode one. “All you see is the order of it, the plan.”

Dempsey, the CEO of a company called Incite, sells the promise of a better life through the power of big data and algorithms—a sucker’s bet, not unlike the allure of this imagined city. Because something disquieting, something ominous, lurks beneath the veneer. “Sometimes it seems like the world looks all right, like they put a coat of paint on it,” intones Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame), a construction worker looking to move up in the world. “But inside it’s rotting to pieces.”

Westworld has always feasted on the disconnect between appearance and reality, between glossy façade and sinister underbelly. The show’s namesake Old West–style theme park beckons like a kind of Disneyland, but it devolves into a playground for sadists who exploit the park’s android hosts. As for the hosts themselves, they seem captivatingly human—until a technician exposes their internal mainframes.

Union Station in Los Angeles as seen in "Blade Runner"
Flickr/Creative Commons License/Pineapples101 Union Station in Los Angeles as seen in "Blade Runner"

In the current season, newly liberated from their theme-park servitude, the hosts have descended on L.A. in search of vengeance, but what they find isn’t the dystopia of Blade Runner (1982), perhaps the most indelible portrayal of a futuristic City of Angels. It was cinematically sublime, that haunting tableau of belching smokestacks and rain-soaked, ruinous buildings; but as a prediction of what 2019 would look like, it was a flop. Westworld’s production designer, the Emmy Award-winning Howard Cummings, and the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, an unofficial consultant this season, had something different in mind. “Even if [we] are describing a kind of dystopian future, with the darkness of mind control and illusion of freedom of choice for humans as well as hosts, it shouldn’t look gloomy on the surface,” says Ingels. “It’s very rare that the villain really looks like a villain, like in a Disney cartoon.”

Ingels drew inspiration from his firm’s ongoing work on the Woven City, a kind of living tech lab Toyota is constructing in Japan. He also suggested Singapore, land of the realized smart city, as an ideal set location (most other filming took place in L.A. and Spain). As far back as 1993, in Wired, William Gibson had identified how Singapore’s prized efficiency is predicated on the threat of violence: “Imagine an Asian version of Zurich … an affluent microcosm whose citizens inhabit something that feels like, well, Disneyland. Disneyland with the death penalty.”

Santiago Calatrava's Arts and Sciences complex, home to Delos in season three
Courtesy HBO Santiago Calatrava's Arts and Sciences complex, home to Delos in season three
Inside Delos HQ
Courtesy HBO Inside Delos HQ

You could make a game of season three architectural bingo (even if some landmarks are just digital renderings): the Broad Museum; the completed L.A. River project; One Wilshire; Marina One by Ingenhoven Architects in Singapore. Santiago Calatrava, Hon. FAIA’s City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia enjoys a star turn as the headquarters for Delos, the company that built and operated the theme park; the complex's white-ribbed skeleton appears enticingly au courant as the backdrop to a gun battle between Delos security staff and a Transformers-style robot. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a host who's inciting the revolution against her human oppressors, claims her first victim in episode one at a Wallace E. Cunningham–designed house in Encinitas, Calif.—death by swimming pool drowning. (The house faintly echoes the design of John Lautner’s Elrod House in Palm Springs, Calif., itself the cinematic backdrop to swimming-pool fisticuffs between James Bond and a bikini-clad Thumper and Bambi in Diamonds are Forever.) La Fábrica, a cement factory outside Barcelona that the architect Ricardo Bofill converted into his home and studio in the 1970s, also gets favored billing as the site of Rehoboam, Incite’s orb-like server that processes user data and helps determine the fate of the populace. (We can thank Ingels for La Fábrica’s inclusion: He connected the show’s producers with the architect.)

Maeve, a host, in La Fábrica
Courtesy HBO Maeve, a host, in La Fábrica
Marina One in Singapore
Courtesy HBO Marina One in Singapore

Astute viewers may also spy the scattering of BIG-designed renderings that crop up in the skyline, buildings plucked from the trash heap and imbued with small-screen immortality. “We did open our digital files—20 different 3D models that Howard and company have been throwing in as they saw fit. They’re mostly a combination of lost competitions and lost commissions, or the first of two options where the second got built,” Ingels says. “Any architect has a pretty vast cemetery of projects that died in their embryonic stage. In this case some of them got a second chance in Westworld.”

The show can be viewed as an admonition against Disneyland-with-the-death-penalty-style smart cities—who controls the data that citizens generate? What kind of dystopic bargain are we making in our relentless pursuit of efficiency? But there’s also a subtler critique at play. When Caleb, an army veteran with PTSD, visits a shrink, the camera captures him from below, revealing the drop-ceiling above—an unexpected intrusion of old-world mundanity, like a blip in the operating code. In fact, the only moments when Caleb achieves any emotional clarity occur on the city’s periphery: He rescues Dolores in a dark tunnel beneath an underpass, and when he decides to join her revolution he’s on a pier overlooking the Pacific Ocean, outside the shimmering reach of the skyline. “You are the first real thing that has happened to me in a long time,” he tells her, and in that plaintive note one also finds a longing for some personality, some quirkiness, some architectural character amid the fine polish of the metropolis, its corporate sheen. In that sense, the imagined future is not all that different from the present.

The L.A. skyline of 2058
Courtesy HBO The L.A. skyline of 2058
The midcentury Modern furniture of the future
Courtesy HBO/John P. Johnson The midcentury Modern furniture of the future

Where are the moonshots, the outsize leaps of imagination? (Even the midcentury Modern furniture endures: a café is outfitted with Bertoia diamond chairs and Petal coffee tables.) Ingels had suggested using “large robotic 3D printers that can be taken to a construction site and then unleashed, fed material and digital drawings,” but what we get instead is Caleb at his construction job, building a banal concrete tower with a robot that performs basic façade work. During break time man and machine sit together on a steel girder overlooking the city, not unlike those Depression-era photos of the workers who built New York’s skyscrapers. Maybe that’s the point: despite all our perceived progress things haven’t changed that much. The city is smarter, the buildings more evocatively shaped, the quality of life ostensibly improved, but still the masses don’t share in the abundance. Still the soul goes wanting.