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Welcome to sci-fi city

The architecture of science fiction is entertainingly explored at a new exhibition in Glasgow

Metropolis III  by Piotr Sell. Directed by Fritz Lang, the 1927 film was the inspiration for many subsequent visions of future cityscapes.
Metropolis III by Piotr Sell. Directed by Fritz Lang, the 1927 film was the inspiration for many subsequent visions of future cityscapes.

What architectural style is most popular in science fiction? Gothic, or maybe Bauhaus? Turns out it’s streamlined modernism by a mile according to Jon Jardine, curator of Adventures in Space, a new exhibition on science fiction and architecture at The Lighthouse in Glasgow.

‘Stream-lined modernity crops up again and again. I think it’s because it represents speed and progress,’ he says.

Originally suggested by former Lighthouse director the late Dr Stuart MacDonald, the subject is instantly appealing as it spans film, television and literature and takes in everything from Frankenstein to Blake’s 7. But it presented Jardine with the onerous and prohibitively expensive task of clearing rights to all the film stills and other images for inclusion in the show.

The solution was something of a brainwave – commission artists to produce 200 pieces of new artwork based on the films and books, adding a new graphic-novel-type layer of interpretation that rather suits the subject matter. 

  • Futurism III – Chiattone by Piotr Sell. Italian futurists Mario Chiattone and Antonio Sant’Elia produced seminar utopian visions in early 20th century Italy.
    Futurism III – Chiattone by Piotr Sell. Italian futurists Mario Chiattone and Antonio Sant’Elia produced seminar utopian visions in early 20th century Italy.
  • Bauhaus  by Piotr Sell.
    Bauhaus by Piotr Sell.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright by Douglas Prince.  Lloyd Wright’s work inspired many sci-fi films including Blade Runner.
    Frank Lloyd Wright by Douglas Prince. Lloyd Wright’s work inspired many sci-fi films including Blade Runner.
  • Dan Dare 2 by Piotr Sell. Frank Hampson’s 1950s series envisaged a London skyline of shard-like skyscrapers.
    Dan Dare 2 by Piotr Sell. Frank Hampson’s 1950s series envisaged a London skyline of shard-like skyscrapers.
  • Geodesic Dome II – Spaceship Earth by Piotr Sell. Geodesic domes were a recurring theme in sci-fi imagery.
    Geodesic Dome II – Spaceship Earth by Piotr Sell. Geodesic domes were a recurring theme in sci-fi imagery.

‘We didn’t want it to be exclusively about architecture and wanted to broaden the appeal and make sure kids of eight would be excited about it as well as fans of science fiction,’ says Jardine.

The show starts with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and early visionaries such as Jules Verne and HG Wells before moving on to the golden age of sci-fi of the 1920s–50s, the era of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Dan Dare.

We learn how Metropolis director Fritz Lang went on a formative visit to the United States with architect Erich Mendelsohn in 1924 before making the film, which was highly influenced by the skyscrapers of America as well as the fashionable deco moderne style of the day and emerging modernist architecture in Germany. With its futuristic elevated highways and glass and steel towers, Metropolis became the template for sci-fi cities and a symbol, according to the exhibition, of what unchecked expansion and industrialisation might lead to.

Another popular element was the geodesic dome, sometimes shown towering over whole cities. Popularised by Buckminster Fuller, this came to instantly represented the future in films and television programmes such as Logan’s Run, Silent Running, You Only Live Twice, Blake’s 7 and Dr Who. A special collection of Fuller’s work, including rare printed materials and first edition books, is on display.

The exhibition, part of the Festival of Architecture 2016, is packed full of references to familiar futuristic and often dystopian classics such as Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Brazil and Minority Report, coming right up to date with The Hunger Games and Ridley Scott’s The Martian.

  • A Clockwork Orange by Piotr Sell. The 1971 film featured the elevated walkways and modernist housing blocks of Thamesmead in south east London.
    A Clockwork Orange by Piotr Sell. The 1971 film featured the elevated walkways and modernist housing blocks of Thamesmead in south east London.
  • Blade Runner 1 by Ciana Pullen. As well as an oppressive, dense cityscape, the film featured Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House.
    Blade Runner 1 by Ciana Pullen. As well as an oppressive, dense cityscape, the film featured Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House.
  • Futurama by Ciana Pullen. Named after the 1939 New York World Fair Futurama exhibit, the turn of the century television series  is set in 31st century New York.
    Futurama by Ciana Pullen. Named after the 1939 New York World Fair Futurama exhibit, the turn of the century television series is set in 31st century New York.
  • Star Trek by Ciana Pullen. The 2009 film featured a starship influenced by the designs of Antoni Gaudi.
    Star Trek by Ciana Pullen. The 2009 film featured a starship influenced by the designs of Antoni Gaudi.
  • Alphaville by Jon Jardine. The set was inspired by the 1960s modernist buildings in Paris.
    Alphaville by Jon Jardine. The set was inspired by the 1960s modernist buildings in Paris.
  • Adventures in Space exhibition.
    Adventures in Space exhibition. · Credit: Sandy Young.

Scenes for sci-fi classics are juxtaposed with drawings of actual and proposed buildings that proved influential on the fictional representations. These include the utopian visions of Italian futurists Mario Chiattone and Antonio Sant’Elia, Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and mid-century modern Californian architecture such as that of John Lautner. Another important influence was Frank Lloyd Wright, who collaborated with set designers on The Day The Earth Stood Still and whose architecture influenced a host of sci-fi films including Blade Runner and Gattaca.

Visitors who leave the show pining for the original can always source the film, programme or book for themselves. Blake’s 7 box set here I come.

Adventures in Space, until 2 October, The Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow.