Modern Urban dystopias (in film and literature)

I am current doing some research and analysis into the fundamental ideas of utopia and dystopia, with particular emphasis on Modern Urban Dystopias and with specific focus on how these ideas can relate to developments in Architecture and the Built Environment. It is an investigation into the connection and overlap between the fantasy view (in film and literature)and the real (dis)representation of the modern city.

This subject has been explored in film and science fiction for decades, with many grand and yet horrific visualisations of what the future city will or can become.

Films such as:
Die Strasse
Blade Runner
Fahrenheit 451
Taxi Driver
The Fifth Element
Dick Tracy
Dark City
Twelve Monkeys
The Crow
Demolition Man
Total Recall
Judge Dredd
The Matrix
Minority Report

I realise there are many other films in similar genres (Waterworld, Mad Max, Terminator etc…) which look at possible future scenarios, but it is ones dealing specifically with the future of densely populated urban centres (and the creation of the ‘underclass’) that I am really seeking to discuss here.

Most of these films have been seen to anticipate the built forms of future architectural endeavours and at the same time project explicit dystopian imagery of the city as a future megalopolis. Many times these futuristic scenarios, as portrayed on film, will provide purposeful commentary on contemporary realities and trends in urban design.

Firstly, are there other films anyone can think of which have created a vision of a future city, complete with underclass, towering structures and exceptional scale of vision? Can you recommend films which explore this particular genre in interesting ways.

How did the futuristic views portrayed in these films hold with the current reality in the modern city? I hold the opinion that many of the predictions of dystopian film makers have been realised now, much sooner than expected. I also believe that current urban design trends are somewhat led by the fictional designs featured in these films. The predictions made are now becoming true.

For those interested in further detail on the ideas I am exploring, the starting point for my writing is the works of Constantinos Doxiadis (specifically a lecture he gave in Trinity College in 1967) and the drawings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Also the work of Ron Herron, Peter Cook et al. with Archigram (visions of Walking Cities)

I’m not sure if you’re looking for literature suggestions but Michael Bishop’s UrNu (short for Urban Renewal) cycle of stories about a domed Atlanta seem to fulfill your criteria. (I admit to my shame I had to google for the authors name and city location as it’s been years since I read them.) They were excellent stories portraying an enclosed city with a restrictive social order and occupants just trying to get by as best they can within it. I don’t remember specifics about the underclass but I do remember there being a strong preference for how low or high you lived in the city, so there may have been a hierarchy.

Thanks for the recommendation.

I realise I did put literature in the thread title, but I’m not really sure if I am looking for books, rather more other peoples visualisations of the possibility of the future city. Paintings and films may be prove to be a more invocative medium than literature, although imagination is a powerful tool in the latter.

Piranesi’s sketches always interest me. (2)(3)(4)

Roy Herron’s vision of the Walking City is one of the classic images to come from Archigram

The reason I was posting this in Cafe Society was that I wished to discuss the influence of dystopian environments as presented by the film industry; from the early works of Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Raymond Chandler through to the continuing tradition of modern Hollywood seen in many of the films listed above.

What is the extent of the influence the directors, set designers and story board artists working these films have had on real urban design, and how close we are today to realising some of the exceptional dreams forwarded in those imaginative works?

What about the 5th element? The city portrayed is ultradense with massive apartment blocks where everyone lives in tiny uniform cubicles. The rich have to vacation off world.

Also have a look at the Warhammer 40 000 RPG. They have one game dealing with gangs fighting in the lower levels of the massive mile high cities.

You might be interested in a book like Futuropolis: Impossible Cities of Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Robert Sheckley. It’s from 1978, but has a good history of future depictions of cities up to that time. It’s a large-format picture book with many great illustrations.

The answer to the question of how much influence these have had is easy: zero. Le Corbusier and the other modernists were much more influential, to our cost and sorrow. Not that it would be been any different if we look at imagineers for the future. The people who made up cities in sf and film couldn’t design their way out of a paper bag. Not an ounce of reality in the lot. Dreams is the proper word for them, and I speak as someone who put in a decade in city government.

A Clockwork Orange, the book by Anthony Burgess and the film directed by Stanley Kubrick is about teenage boys in a future world where they form gangs. As far as looks go, you don’t really get a good picture, in the movie, of how the city itself looks (it takes place in London, I believe). You do get glimpses of insides of businesses, like the music store and the Milk Bar.

Another example is 1984, the book by George Orwell and the movie starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. This also takes place in London. The look of both is of a very run-down place, like London in WWII. There defintely is a distinction of classes, the highest being the Party members themselves and the lowest being the Proles.

A simular book to 1984 (it inspired Orwell), but that has not been made into a movie (as far as I know), is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. In this book people don’t even have names, but are known by numbers. The central character is a man named D-503 and the book is in diary form. They live in houses made entirely out of glass so that the police can observe everything that goes on.

Skip, The 5th element was mentioned in the OP, dude. :wink:
Is the War Hammer games similar to comic book visions of Mega City One &Two in Judge Dredd?

Exapno, I disagree they have had no influence, as I have seen the designs of the films above feature in many a students post-graduate thesis in Architecture, and have myself seen the influences of these visionary films appear in some of my own work as an architect, albeit indirectly. I’ll readily accept Modernism as a movement has certainly had a greater influence, but to completely dismiss the influence of Piranesi or Peter Cook is a little…well…premature.

Even my link above lists a building that was, admittedly, directly influenced by the Archigram group : namely the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

My main interest here is that the big ideas of social organisation in this genre of film have begun to come true, rather than the specific design of the monolithic buildings they feature. Many modern cities have begun to develop areas and mannerisms which can be seen to directly relate to previous ‘guesses’ made in decade old films.

Rabid Child, thatnks for the suggestions. I have seen all of Kubrick’s films and have read most of Burgess’s work. I haven’t heard of ‘We’ before though, so will check it out.
You could add Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ to that list too. And anything by Philip K. Dick.

[nitpick]How is Taxi Driver a dystopia? It wasn’t set in the future.[/nitpick]

I would also count Star Wars, Episodes I and II, even though just a few scenes take place on Coruscant.

You mentioned Metropolis. If you mean Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, I would also highly suggest the anime Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis. Actually, there are probably a lot of good anime dystopiae; are you okay with animation?

Perhaps you need to redefine your OP, apo. How does Peter Cook or the Archigram Group fall under visions of future cities as foretold in movies or science fiction? For that matter, how exactly have they had a major influence on cities and their design, rather than a building here or there? I’d put Clifford Alexander and his Pattern Language as a far more powerful influence, and few of his ideas have made it into practice either.

If you want an architect whose ideas truly influenced cities, try Victor Gruen, whose work on malls and belt expressways actually did define the coming decades from that same era. Like it or don’t.

But if you are going to limit your question to movie and sf city designs, my answer stands. Zero influence or effect.

Since you say:

I need you to give particulars. And how is dismissing Archigram “premature”? They’ve had four decades. If they haven’t been influential by now, they never will be.

Make up your mind what the parameters are, and we can have a more useful discussion.

The first thing that came to my mind is the Boston-Atlanta Metroplex Axis of William Gibson.

Johnny Mnemonic

that’s all I got.

So when is Microsoft going to build their giant pyramidal headquarters? They’re really slacking off on their evil corporate responsibilities lately. They haven’t even STARTED their private military ‘security’ forces, and their evil cyborg assassin program is WAY behind schedule. :slight_smile:

Ahh. Memories. Back at UMass, I actually got to take a course on U/Distopian SF. So I got to reread Neuromancer and get credit for it. I even talked some people in the class into playing Cyberpunk 2020. :slight_smile:

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it seemed every anime that wasn’t set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland was set in an urban dystopic hell. I’ll trim it down a bit for ya, though.

If you’re mostly looking for imagery, Ghost in the Shell, (warning! Contains massive talky ‘info dumps’ and a lot of artsy image sequences) Akira, Armatage III, and Bubble Gum Crisis (the very ‘80s original, the ‘90s remake wasn’t very dystopian. Even the original was pretty superhero-ey) were all very pretty. There are a LOT of others, but that’ll start you off fine.

If you’re looking for something that looks a bit into peoples day to day lives, Venus Wars (No, it’s not porn, it’s set on Venus) and the original AD Police (Hard to find. The recent remake was absolutely ghastly) were both good. I LOVED the latter, though I haven’t seen it in years.

If you can stand comics, (hey, they’re a visual medium!) the manga versions of Appleseed (there is an anime, but it’s not good) and Ghost in the Shell are both almost must-reads if your interested in this kind of thing. I’ve heard good things about the Akira manga, but haven’t read it.

As for books, which you may or may not be interested in, Walter Jon Willams’ Hardwired is the best ‘cyberpunk’ book, ever, despite or maybe because of the fact it had almost no computers in it. His more recent Metropolitan, even though it’s actually a fantasy, is set in a planet-wide megacity.

‘No, the garbage can doesn’t stop the 12mm armor-piercing bullets.’


Brazil depicted an extremely distopian urban environment. A toto-bureaucracy misran everything; the simplest repairs could take months or years, and unauthorized repairs were a crime. Living space was compromised to engineering needs, so everyone had pipes and ventilation ducts running through the middle of their rooms (the rich had designer ventilation ducts).

First of all other films/literature:
A.I. (if you can sit through it)
Alien (granted you mostly see ships and space colonies but it paints an interesting view of the future)
Brave New World (there’s a movie too)
Judge Dredd (movie and comic)
Soylant Green
Star Wars
There seems to be a number of constants in most dystopia/utopia fiction:

-Massive architecture that dwarfs even the largest modern skyscrapers
-All the problems of old are either gone but replaced with new, worse problems or are themselves 1000 times worse
-Technology is integrated into everything and often times everyone-cybernetics, robotics, AI, wireless, fly cars, computer networks, genetic engineering, etc

A lot of the stuff they portray in these films is unrealistic and impractical and obviously designed for the benefit of the plot - What architect intentionally designs a large public space to be dark and oppressive? Maybe I could get the wireless conection instead of having those jacks implanted in the back of my head? WTF, Those Wyland-Yutani Aliens[sup]TM[/sup] are cute when they are small but you can’t really keep an adult in a tiny NY studio in the 5000 block.

Of course everything seems strange and bizarre if you aren’t used to it.

I know you said mostly movies and I don’t think it was ever made in to one, but it’s so perfect I have to mention it:

“When the Sleeper Wakes”

a lesser known book by H.G. Wells.

Lots of archetecture, lots of towering structures, lots of attention paid to the way the city is built and and it’s realtionship to the dystopia and the underclass. Lots of moving walkways :slight_smile:

Writen in 1899.

I can’t believe nobody suggested Blade Runner yet…

Also, you may wish to read (the book) The Wanting Seed , although it examines overpopulation on a much larger scale than just in urban centers…

Psst. Check the OP. :slight_smile:

It’s Aro :wink:

Not as foretold by Sci Fi, but as a separate category on their own. I was interested in how any best ‘guess’ of the shape and scale of the future city has guessed correctly or shown paths towards something which we are now experiencing in reality.

They influence the thinking of many young architects who then go on to work on major urban design projects. Many of the works I have mentioned have formed parts of syllabus training, lectures and dissertation writing an many UK universities. This generation of young architects are only now becoming of age to bring their ideas to fruition in the workplace.

Thank you, I will. I know nothing of his work.

Ok, we’ll drop the word ‘influence’ from the discussion. What ideas, from books or film, can be seen to be happening, or may happen? (regardless of the influence or not of the images of popular culture).

The city has always occupied a privileged place in the architectural dream. It is a place where all orders are possible. A place of dreams and nightmares, deepest darkness and ultimate light. Within five years, current estimates suggest that over half the worlds population will be living in urban centres. That is approximately 3.2 billion people living in cities not readily designed or completely suited for their needs. What is to become of these people, and how will the current gregarious rush to urbanise affect the manner in which we live in future? In 3rd world countries where the cities sprawl for many miles as people rush to join what they feel will be a marked improvement from where they currently are, the cities are growing at an enormous rate. What is to happen to those incomers if adequate housing and upgraded fundamental services are not in place? Sanitation levels could be thrown back to the middle ages. Disease will be rife. Employment non-existent. Will the existing middle-class in these cities wish to remain living in the same area as the poor and uneducated? Will they take to the high rise life, like in Fifth Element or Judge Dredd? (or the Jetsons? ;)). What will happen to man within these monstrous future cities, and ultimately what will become of the city itself?

Will the city streets become the new underground, the haunt of the underprivileged classes, populated only by low-lifes, murderers, prostitutes and police? (as we see in the likes of Bladerunner). Will the rich never choose to venture to the city floor, instead living their lives in th ehigh-rises?

It is the possibility of these visions becoming reality within our cities which I am trying to explore. But I have no fixed ideas at present, it’s all fluid.

I really had about five or six separate and distinct questions on this topic and rather than start multiple threads tried to condense them into one, so I can see how it is coming over as incoherent. I apologise for that.

I am interested to see if peoples visions of the future are really a symptom of the choices made in the name of progress. The desire for money and constant growth through the Capitalist state and the consumer society is creating a definite break in the conception of how the city ultimately develops. We are creating a many-tier political and social system which will ultimately leave a ‘classless’ elite, above and below. The underground city will grow more squalid as the population increases and the competition for limited resources increases. Does Capitalism have the intrinsic nature of causing the divide between those who have and those who do not, or can capitalism prove to be the light as well as the darkness?

In short, how will the visions of the past, and of today, be bourne out in the design of the cities of tomorrow?

(Now I’m going miles of the OP.)