Nine Worlds: The City in SFF

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Panellists discuss the architecture of SFF – how cities are represented and how they can flavour a story. The discussion will range from the dystopian feel of cyberpunk urban jungle to the various flavours of fantasy as well as examining how real world cities are seen in fiction.
Panellists: Amy Butt, Jared Shurin, Al Robertson, Verity Holloway

Welcome to my favourite session of Nine Worlds 2017, by some considerable margin. I wrote twice the amount of notes for this panel that I did for any other, and came away buzzing with ideas.

It’s worth citing credentials for this one. Amy Butt is a practicing architect and architectural design tutor at Brighton University; Jared Shurin works for a creative agency and has been involved in marketing projects ranging from book launches to the renovation of Battersea Power Station; Al Robertson and Verity Holloway are writers whose books are focused around cities. The question they started with was how do the spaces we occupy help to inspire and engage, but the conversation got considerably deeper straight off the bat. Brace yourselves, because I’m about to go on a bit. 🙂

The Metaphorical City

First off, the panel used the term ‘psychogeography’ which I hadn’t heard before. Apparently it means the impact of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. This is something that played heavily into the whole discussion. There are power dynamics to how you move through complex contested spaces, which we’ll go into in more depth below. The panel took psychogeography a little further, though, to talk about how built spaces have rights to us (not just a behavioural impact) – something which can be overlooked. Environmentalism is a prime example. Parks and rivers have a claim on our duty of care, which we often fail to live up to. How does this then feed back into the psychogeographical impact those spaces continue to have on us? It’s a slow downwards spiral.

This suggests the city is a spiritual entity – something William Blake strongly bought into. He wrote a considerable amount of poetry about the spiritual version of London (which he called Golgonooza), essentially saying it had a soul. This has been an enduring idea throughout history, actually. The Romans believed every place had a guardian spirit called a lares; the Ancient Greeks believed the physical and spiritual aspects of a place had different names (the river at Troy, for example was called Scamander for the water and Xanthos for the spirit); both Old and New Testaments talk about territorial spirits (possibly fallen angels) with responsibilities over certain geographical areas. There’s tons of polytheistic religions that assign individual spirits to physical areas. If you think of the city as a living entity, something with a soul, how does that impact design, usage and atmosphere? Does that change how people live in it, or how you write it? Does it change how the city itself evolves? As one of the panellists said, “a place doesn’t exist purely in the present. There’s also what it wants to be, and what it used to be.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as that because there’s not just one version of the city. There’s the version we see, and the version other lifestyles see. There’s always someone serving coffee at 5 a.m. at Heathrow Airport, for example. What is their city like? How do they get to work before public transport is running? Where do they get their breakfast before the cafes are open? Cities never sleep because there’s always part of the population awake. That means the city is multiple places simultaneously, all of which feel and operate very differently.

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This makes them challenging to write. We consume books and stories in an orderly, linear way – utterly unlike living in a city. It’s almost impossible to capture that feeling on the page. This is a very similar sentiment to the one made in the ‘realistic characters’ podcast two weeks ago, which lends weight to the idea of a city being alive. So perhaps the best way is to let the two entities explore each other, and thus throw light on both complex creations. It’s therefore just as important to write convincing spaces as it is to write realistic characters.

We can use the built environment as a metaphor for the cultural setting. Walls and doors, for example, can tell us a lot about local attitudes towards privacy, security, politics, economics, class structure and relationships. A single constructed geographical feature is able to demonstrate multiple cultural layers. Genre fiction can also use the built environment to socially critique the real world in this manner. Culture generates architecture, after all, and fictional architecture can be used to explore non-fictional uses.

The panel broke this down in an interesting fashion for the different genres:

  • Fantasy is things that will never happen – cities that can be extreme metaphors and social critique
  • SciFi is things that might happen – cities that explore what would be necessary to bring that future into being, or avoid it
  • Horror is things we don’t want to happen – cities that showcase the dark spaces where things don’t work or aren’t safe

Certain areas of the city have acquired tropes as a result, particularly in the horror genre. Suburbs are frequently shown as psychologically evil, for example, where everyone is watching all the time but no one speaks out. High rises are the modern castle, impenetrable for anyone unfamiliar with the space. That makes them perfect places for illicit activities, safe from surveillance.

Victorian mental asylums are a particularly interesting example. They were originally intended to be wonderful spaces that solved the mistakes of past hospitals. Verity Holloway’s ancestor was heavily involved in their design and she’s seen letters that he wrote in which the importance of soft towels and large windows was heavily emphasised. They used concrete because it was the cutting edge of construction technology, not knowing that it retained smells and damp. Despite all their good intentions and efforts, they failed – they failed so badly, in fact, that the meaning of the word ‘asylum’ itself was changed.

L0011787 Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, Southgate, Middlesex: panoramic

Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Southgate, London – designed more like a spa than a prison

The Evolution of Architecture

In contrast to Blake’s approach, the architect Le Corbusier considered the city to be more of a machine with every individual house operating as a single cell or cog within it. He designed his buildings to be almost uniform – lots of white walls and no decoration – to encourage uniformity in living. “You became a more useful human being because of the way you slotted into the city.” His fascist politics were a key driver to how he designed buildings.

Political intent has always had an impact on urban development. It dictates patterns of behaviour and styles of living. If houses are designed with limited storage, it encourages minimalism; if they are designed with small kitchens, it increases the chances of people eating out a lot. Similarly, structures and areas getting run down is a political statement, whether deliberate or through neglect. It tells the occupants that nobody cares about those areas, which suggests the residents and the things that happen there are equally unimportant.

Cities are constantly renewing and rebuilding. They are inherently environments where things get broken down and changed. Sometimes this is a deliberate attempt to obliterate the past; sometimes it’s done to prepare for the future, and those preparations give a strong insight into what the future is believed to involve. This de/reconstruction isn’t just on the physical environment, either. Human relationships and interactions are equally disrupted as a result. The Grenfell Tower disaster of June this year left over 100 families homeless, and plans were made to rehouse them in various locations around London. The survivors were dismayed by the prospect of having their community broken apart. Many of their living styles were dependent on remaining in that area. They had children at local schools, for example, or family carers living nearby.

One of the problems with Grenfell Tower was that it wasn’t fit for purpose, and that’s a common issue with built environments. There’s an increasing trend amongst contemporary architects to try and tackle this problem by using Virtual and Augmented Reality whilst designing. It enables them to explore the space and how it might be used, looking at evolving society requirements. It also allows them to take influence from fictional architecture – there’s a fascinating article on DesignBoom about fairytale urban designs, and what they tell us about the interplay between people and space. This includes some serious questions about identity, privacy and access.

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The Great Wall of America by Carly Dean & Richard Nelson-Chow

Urban Identity & Privacy

Let’s start with access. The high rise castles mentioned above are a great example of how public access to private areas can be controlled. There was discussion about police access to trouble-spots in high-rises, and how in certain places they just don’t bother because they can’t control the ground. That’s individuals limiting access by public entities. On the corporate side, it gets a bit more Huxley-an.

There’s a large number of pseudo-public spaces – areas that appear to be public until you transgress the invisible rules and are excluded. These are mostly controlled by corporate entities, and you are incentivized into certain lifestyles or jobs in return for access. This isn’t new – gentlemen’s clubs are the classic Regency-era example. Now we have semi-private gardens and member’s bars. There’s no particular basis for reason in these invisible rules, they are simply put in place by the controlling entity. There’s no essential modern difference between ‘you can’t eat meat on Fridays’ and ‘you can’t eat sandwiches here’. Corporations become the arbiters of behaviour and morality, allowing us only the illusion of choice. We are managed into a position where spaces push us into the role of either spectators or consumers, because the corporate architecture funnels us into that behaviour. Even our social lives are corporately owned and data-mined by social media corporations like Facebook.

Jared Shurin, who is a self-styled American immigrant, observed that he can clearly see places where the class system wields even more power over space. Fox hunts, for example, go wherever they like with scant regard for the occupation of public or private spaces.

As an individual, your experience of the city depends on routine and other people. If either of those things change, your city changes. On a personal note I recently changed dance studios, moving from Liverpool Street to Borough. That means I now take a meandering walk through side-alleys that (when it gets dark earlier) will feel distinctly less safe than the bright lights and busy streets of Liverpool Street. The atmosphere of my routine has changed as the bits of city I visit changed.

Then there’s the issue of privacy. The UK has a higher percentage of CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the world. How does that impact our patterns of behaviour, our psychology, just knowing we’re being watched? Al Robertson conjectured that it was a major contributor to urban paranoia: “Everyone’s watching everyone else but no one’s talking to each other.” Yet, despite this constant scrutiny, cities remain places where you can get lost. There’s a weird dichotomy between surveillance and invisibility, and the gaps allow people to reinvent their identity or become completely anonymous.

The spaces of a city, and the life within it, is created by people constantly moving through – either from one place to another, or from an old state to a new one. The population is often transitory but the city endures. As (I think) Robertson said, the measure of London citizenship isn’t where you’re from because everyone’s from somewhere else. What makes you a citizen is what you contribute, which brings us back to Le Corbusier’s idea of ‘useful human beings’. This is a very different dynamic to old villages inhabited constantly by the same families, who belong to the place by dint of occupation rather than contribution.

So how do we make these transitory, changing, controlling places our own? We write about them.

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Or draw them, of course

Next week: the mathematics of zombie epidemics

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