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Behind the Urbanism in Science Fiction

Exploring the ideas of 20th century city visionaries and how they shaped the genre.

When science fiction writers envision the future, few of their ideas spring fully formed from individual imaginations. They look to the latest reports in the columns of Science and Nature, to cultural trends, and to the ideas of social prophets and creative designers. As I’ve explored science fiction cities, a handful of architectural visionaries of the mid-20th century stand out for the breadth of their impact in shaping our vision of the urban future: Hugh Ferriss, Constantinos Doxiadis, and Paolo Soleri.

The iconic science fiction film Blade Runner (1982) opens with a nightmare scene of future Los Angeles. Aircars maneuver through darkness lit by fire and explosion among monolithic office towers. These commercial ziggurats house and embody the corporate powers that dominate the city. They rise like vast pyramids over the shadowed streets, with the bulking pyramid of the Tyrell Corporation looming like an immense jukebox.   

Blade Runner’s visual imagery has inarguable power, but its vision of the urban future was already a half-century old. The grandfather of the film’s design choices is architectural illustrator Hugh Ferriss. His Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929) collected depictions of an extraordinarily exaggerated New York. His unrestrained imagination created a city of the future in which step-pyramid towers rise from vaguely glimpsed streets, shimmering in artificial light against or evening skies. To illustrate “projected trends” and “an imaginary metropolis,” he drew dozens of fantastic views, filling them with hypertrophied Chrysler Buildings and superscaled Rockefeller Centers.

Ferriss followed a host of other observers who had tried to come to terms with New York’s new architecture—including a highly impressed Leon Trotsky who called the city “a triumph of cubism”—but his drawings have had a staying power far greater than verbal descriptions. The closest contemporary vision was the science fiction classic Metropolis, made after director Fritz Lang had visited New York City. Metropolis of Tomorrow has continued to shape the look of future cities—Batman’s Gotham City, 23rd century New York in The Fifth Element, and Neo-Tokyo in the Japanese anime thriller Akira.

It’s an easy move from picturing vertical cities of towering skyscrapers to envisioning horizontal cities that cover entire continents, or even entire planets. The architectural visionary here is the Greek planner Constantinos Doxiadis, who combined practical work in developing regional plans for places like Detroit and a visionary career as the proponent of Ekistics, the comprehensive study of human settlements from the dwelling through neighborhood and city to the ultimate world city. As global population would grow to the tens of billions, he saw world urbanization linking megalopolis to megalopolis in a single globe-spanning city. Urban tentacles would interlock across every continent like a rhizomatic root system to create Ecumenopolis, a term that he coined in the 1940s and popularized in the 1960s. Describing “Ecumenopolis: Tomorrow’s City” in 1968, he wrote: 

All cities will be interconnected in major urban complexes where no distinction between large and small will be possible; they will all have become one… Such cities, growing dynamically over the next two or three generations, will finally be interconnected, in one continuous network, into one universal city which we can call the ecumenic city, the city of the whole inhabited earth, or Ecumenopolis.

Coruscant is an ultimate ecumenpolis. Appearing in glimpses in Star Wars I, II, and III, it has a population somewhere around one trillion. The Phantom Menace gives us endless towers marching to the horizon. Revenge of the Sith shows an entire planet-city as backdrop to a space battle. Fans and spinoff novels have filled in the details of the endless city at the heart of the Galactic Republic and Galactic Empire.

It’s hard to be more spectacular than a world-girdling city, but Paolo Soleri tried to meet the challenge. An Italian-born architect who settled in Arizona in the 1950s, Soleri coined the term arcology to emphasize the potential marriage of architectural design with ecological goals. He took this seemingly reasonable idea and drew pictures of vast, self-contained cities. Arcology: The City in the Image of Man (1969) is a compendium of drawings of Babeldiga, Novanoah, Babelnoah, and a couple dozen other fanciful cities accompanied by realistic-looking invented data on surface area, density, and total population (6 million for Babelnoah).

The extra large, self-contained city has been immensely appealing to sci-fi writers already accustomed to thinking about the challenges of balancing the ecology of spaceships and space stations. “Arcology” is now fully at home in science fiction, as much an sci-fi term as an architectural term. Rising 1,000 stories and housing 800,000 contented residents, the self-contained Urban Monads in Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) are arcologies. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle set Oath of Fealty (1981) an arcology covering two square miles of Southern California. In the story, its population stands at 247,453, close to the design goal of 275,000. The arcology functions under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles, but just barely, using its huge economic clout to fend off the city’s rules and regulations.

In the current era of New Urbanism, arcologies may have lost some appeal as practical options, but they remain front and center in science fiction. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015) imagines a drought-devastated Southwest where the elite have taken refuge in arcologies that rise above the tattered, desperate suburbs of Phoenix and Las Vegas. The “water winners” in the arcologies enjoy abundant, recycled water while drought refugees scramble for survival on the parched streets outside. In a recent interview, Bacigalupi commented:

“[T]hese are highly engineered systems and they’re built for the people who can afford to buy-in. So if you can buy your condo inside one of the arcologies up in Las Vegas or whatever, or in the Taiyang arcology down in Phoenix, you’re kind of sitting pretty… You’ve got good air filters, so of course forest fires, smoke and the dust storms outside don’t bother you. You’ve got wonderful organic food grown in your aquaponic vertical farms. You’ve got all of these things and then right outside there’s people like the Texans [displaced refugees] or other less fortunate people from Phoenix who can’t afford to get in.” 

Bacigalupi’s take highlights science fiction’s addition to the urban imagination. Narratives add action to static images. Writers and filmmakers create thought experiments that test and enliven architectural ideas by putting them into dramatic motion and turning scenarios into compelling stories. If they are skilled at their craft, they populate the stories with believable characters who navigate the possibilities of new worlds, surfacing contradictions and problems that don’t show in a drawing.

Niven and Pournelle don’t share many political values with Bacigalupi, but they are equally aware that building an arcological world will take time. Soleri’s images have no history; they’re simply there on the page. The settings of novels require backstories and attention to economic and political process. When and if we start to build arcologies, privileged people will move in first, giving physical shape to class distinctions. In Niven and Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty, the arcologists are libertarians who turn their back on the less fortunate. In Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, they are the exploiters at the top of the political and economic hierarchies.

Let’s return to Hugh Ferriss and Blade Runner. Ferriss drew cities as viewed from high above or as seen by someone looking upward to a dizzying height. There are no streets—at least no streets filled with people. Blade Runner gave life to the same sort of city, sending Rick Deckard through vibrant, teeming, multi-ethnic streets in his search for rogue replicants. The towers set the stage, but the film reminds us of the inequalities that we’re likely to find in even the most antiseptically abstracted city. In director Ridley Scott’s backstory, Tyrell is one of four super-corporations that bestride the future worlds “where the poor get poorer and the wealthy get wealthier.” Even so, the streets teem with vitality, the mostly Asian faces and food stalls suggesting the city’s attractions for entrepreneurial immigrants. Given the choice, I’d rather live in Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles than Hugh Ferriss’s abstract metropolis.

About the Author

  • Carl Abbott
    Carl Abbott is Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University and author of Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)