Visualising Alternate Futures of a City

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The excitedly extravagant plots of future, with skyways chattering with flying vehicles and exquisite virtual beings has always struck a chord in our hearts. The charm of these surreal scenarios have survived not only in architecture, but elsewhere and mostly so in movies. It is through movies that the uncommon feeling can be encountered with the most dynamic outcome. But what is it about these future landscapes set out by film makers that engages us so much?

This can be best stated by what Nicolai Ouroussoff said in 'Future Vision Banished to the Past' diligently rivalling the bulldozing of Nakagin Capsule Tower, “ all great buildings, it is the crystallization of a far-reaching cultural ideal. Its existence also stands as a powerful reminder of paths not taken, of the possibility of worlds shaped by different sets of values.”

For students like me who are occupied in the perception and inquiry and architecture of spaces, and in the comprehension of people using these spaces, I presume it to be reasonable to say that we oft view these spaces from another’s perspective, but overlook their context and portrayal. We can say that cities are tangible compositions, but as Lefebvre (1974) remarks, the social construction of cities and places is a vital element in how people see the environments that surround them. Representations of places evoke the imagined as well as the real; Calvino (1974) in his Invisible Cities states, “The eye does not see things, but images of things that mean other things.” The city and its portrayal in cinema provide unique vantage points from which we can deconstruct public spaces in ways that long-established sciences do not allow us.

The city is a character. Its history is romanticized. Its future is fantasized. Its present form contains at once a static record of its history and the dynamic elements which shape its future. The character of a city is determined by a synthesis between its physical structure and its social complexion it evolves out of a dialog between the forces of past and present. It expands, holding its own form in memory while being thrust into an uncertain future. And now, to this noise of forces at work on the character of the city comes a new voice. One which brings vision to the process of evolution: film images and future environments.

Architects and planners have traditionally focused attention on the present physical and social needs of the urban environment. With the dynamic technological and social changes of the 19th and 20th century it became increasingly necessary to conceptualize the future of the city beyond the incremental changes which had characterized its historical development. While clearly a self-conscious act of faith in the viability of the city as a cultural institution, future visions were also an affirmation of our potential to create the future. We can predict economic impacts and industrial outputs, forecast population trends etc but statistics do not create a vision for the future.

The process of visualising alternate futures of a city is phenomenon specific to the 19th and 20th centuries. The heritage of this contemporary form, born out of the radical transformations of the industrial revolution emerged in the mid-19th century as an intrinsic process in shaping the form of the city. Presented though a range of formats- literature, drawing media and in films, these visions created a means to assist decision making about the future of the city. These images represented theoretical, speculative or even imaginary visions of what the city could be. In the evolution of the pre-industrial city, the future was essentially an extension of the past. In the 19th century, the future of the city took on an identity of its own which could be moulded by the visions of its society. For the first time the urban environment was conceived as a dynamic for without a definitive future, its society collectively engaged in the process of its own evolution. The need for finding an appropriate future of the city became a process of inventing the future of the city.

In 1939 New York Worlds Fair, inspired by the epic them, “Building the World of Tomorrow”, presented an array of futuristic images and forms. The future of the city was detailed in the “Futurama”, a vast scale model of a typical urban centre in the year 1960. Produced by industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, this exhibition was to influence a generation of urban planners.

The future of a city continues to a theme of literature and architectural rendering. Following traditions established contemporary visions while limited in public accessibility, continue to suggest their viability in shaping our conception of the urban future.

Although providing an important role in our understanding of the city up to this very day, print media is inherently limited in its scope and influence. Motion pictures have the potential for rendering the future in such a provocative new way. Unique to this medium are three mechanisms which empower film with an exceptional ability to transmit ideas.

The first relates to the essential nature of the film experience. While demanding of the viewer a suspension of disbelief, cinema creates a state of mind which heightens the reality of the time and place rendered in the film. Although not a substitute for real-world experiences, the effect of the film is to capture the essence of a story and render in a tangible context. By allowing us to ‘live’ in the future as if it already existed, film provides an opportunity to evaluate the social and physical consequences of a particular vision.

A second attribute of cinema is accessibility. Cinema is a democratic medium which invites participation by a wide public audience. The visions of architects and other designers working in print media communicate mainly to other professionals leaving the public largely unaware of their work.

Third, the genre of science fiction provides a format for non-traditional designers to continue engaging in the process of visualizing the future of the city. While artistic visions of the future were popular in the 19th century, the effect of their work began to decline with the turn of the century. The projections of architects and other traditionally responsible for the form of the city began to take hold in the early part of this century. While providing a more rational outlook on the future, these visions also began to take the form of actual proposals for the city. Within the realm of science fiction cinema, directors, set designers, industrial designers and host of other ‘visual futurist’ could engage in proposing alternative future for the city.

In exploring the impact of film, it is important to understand that visions of the future in every medium are works of fiction. In developing a framework for the rendering of a story, film creates a setting in time and place. Essential to our understanding of the story, the physical environment of the film typically form a backdrop to our events which are more meaningful. In films which with future environments, the setting may become as important as the events which occur within it.

The advent of film allowed society to explore possible futures are placed in the category of Science fiction. Although a cinematic extension of traditional visionary projections in other media, the genre of science fiction films have been misunderstood and delegated to the role of fantasy. The intent of this study is to explore films which focus on the physical and cultural aspects of the city. While in many cases films suggest advances in science and technology, it is clearly not the primary motivation within the context of the story.

However they are categorized in the cinematic medium, specific sci-fi films have had a galvanic effect on our conception of urban future. Fusing concepts and images from disparate sources- traditional renderings of architecture and urban design, advances in science and technology, art, literature and other medium from the 19th century, these films created a vision which influenced the form of the city in the 20th century.

In tracing the nature of this influence, it is possible to relate concepts and images from specific films directly to built examples in the city. For example, the vertical scale and plastic articulation of the interior spaces in the film Things to Come (1936) is strikingly similar to atrium spaces of the hotel developed by the Hyatt corporation along the east coast of United States of America. However, this attitude underestimates the generative effect these films have on our understanding of the future.

The influence of these visions affected both the general public and those professionals involved in the design of the city. In forming public expectations about the future, these films provided a benchmark which professional designers are obligated to respond to.

“As the mist began to clear”, wrote German director Fritz Lang on his first visit to Manhattan in 1924, “a city of immense proportions began to emerge. Filled with light and energy. The towering spires of buildings pierced the clouds while everywhere people and machines raced about…”

For Lang, the city of New York became a symbol for the social conflicts inherent in a modern city, and the inspiration for provocative urban vision he was later to present in his film.

While there exists a range of Science fiction films which articulate the formal composition of the future city in depth, two examples maybe be singled out for the intelligence and influence of their vision, as well as the contrasting historical positions which they occupy in the development of this of this genre of film making.

Viewed together, the films Metropolis (1927) and Blade Runner (1982) encompass virtually the entire spectrum of cinematic visions of the city. In these films the city emerges as an integral character within the framework of the story. It is the very nature of this character- both the strength of its physical setting and the particular relationship which the actors have to this environment, which create a realistic context for imagining the future of a city. The physical and social urban environment which these two films project is at once familiar and radically different. The dynamics generated by these enigmas gives the films a three-dimensional texture, a quality which moves the experience of the film beyond the individual images it represents.

Fritz Lang’s vision of the city in Metropolis established cinema as the definitive medium for articulating the future of the urban environment in the 20th century. The theme and visual language of the film have influenced virtually every other film on the subject to date. The urban future of Blade Runner, a vision of Los Angeles in the year 2019 is borrowing in theme and image from Metropolis, the use of technology and contemporary production techniques sets Blade Runner apart from other films of its generation.

In developing an understanding of the mechanisms which effect change in the composition of the urban environment, it is clear that films play an important role in shaping its future. The need for visualising the future, emerging out of the social and technological transformations of the industrial revolution, found an appropriate vehicle for expression in the contemporary medium of science fiction cinema.


Arnheim, Rudolf, Film as art, UoC Press, 1957

Banham, Reyner, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, MIT Press, 1960.,

Beck, Geogary. City in the image of science fiction cinema, MIT Press, 1986

Ferriss, Hugh, The Metropolis of tomorrow, Oxford, 1929.

Jensen, Paul, The Cinema of Fritz Lang, Barnes & Company, 1969

Tewdwr-Jones, Mark, Modern Planning on Film: Re-shaping Space, Image and Representation, 2013