Radical Futures from the Sci-Fi Canon

Understanding future landscapes requires a view of the past.

By Zach Mortice

Image courtesy of the collection of Nicholas de Monchaux.

California is omnipresent in the world of science fiction. George Lucas filmed Star Wars: A New Hope in Death Valley, and the redwood forests of northern California sat in for the forest moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi. Perhaps the most influential sci-fi document in terms of futurist urbanism, Blade Runner, showed us the megacity Los Angeles with its rain and neon-slicked streets unmistakably reminiscent of a polyglot Chinatown. Larry Niven’s Ringworld books drew their prescription for a sun-orbiting space station—a million miles tall and 600 million miles across—from California’s own impressive history of infrastructural development.

Because of its historic reputation as the final, unspoiled end to the American Western horizon, California has always looked ahead into bracingly new futures. But as espoused by a studio to be taught at the University of California, Berkeley College of Environmental Design, unpacking California’s contributions to sci-fi urbanism and landscapes is also a look back.  BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh and the Berkeley architecture and urban design professor Nicholas de Monchaux will lead this Studio ONE master’s program, which will begin next school year.

“We have already terraformed one world whether we like it or not,” says de Monchaux. “We are living science fiction to some extent. We might as well acknowledge it and mine it.” Their studio asks: Are the melting glaciers and climate refugees wrought by carbon emissions really any more otherworldly than Lucas’s cuddly rebels-in-arms and their forest canopy home? In science fiction, Manaugh and de Monchaux have located a body of work that meets extreme conditions with extreme solutions, a playbook applicable for the days ahead. “Because of the radical nature of what is happening to the Californian ecology thanks to climate change,” says de Monchaux, “we have no alternative but to imagine very radical futures.”

“When you look at things like the hydrology of the state of California,” Manaugh says, “making sure that this many people can live here with this much agriculture and industry requires an enormous design undertaking and an enormous amount of infrastructure that, to an earlier generation, would have been indistinguishable from a science fiction proposition.”

California has long been a frontier for determining the relationship between technology and urbanism. It’s a trend accelerated by Silicon Valley’s ascendance.  And de Monchaux says that the ways Apple and Google organize information will do more to determine cityscapes of the future than any one architect or firm.

The studio’s goal (via a course description) is to “work with students to imagine a set of radical, accessible, and more equitable futures for California, responding as much to the threat of climate change as to an urgent need to re-imagine our public infrastructure.” It will untangle the knotty media and culture feedback loop between the built environment and designed landscapes and sci-fi critiques of them. Sci-fi has always been about addressing the present by writing about the future, and de Monchaux and Manaugh’s course will add a layer of contemporary critique that’s inherent to postulating new environments.

There’s a deep well of information on how California’s land and cities have influenced sci-fi, but Manaugh and de Monchaux are also interested in the ways this canon has influenced the real world. “It’s always a two-way street,” says de Monchaux. While researching his 2011 book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, an architectural and urban history of the Apollo space suit, he discovered that Mercury spacesuits were initially spray-painted silver. This was not for any functional reason, but because that was how people expected spacesuits to look. (The original suits were green). But Gemini astronauts realized that silver paint was distractingly bright and reflective, “like wearing a disco ball in a tanning salon,” de Monchuax says, so they were then painted white. Within two months, a new line of Flash Gordon action figures sported white spacesuits. “The military has looked at control rooms in science fiction and said, ‘Why can’t I have that?’ After Dr. Strangelove, the war room for the joint chiefs of staff became much bigger and better lit,” he says. “And it wasn’t a coincidence.”

This connection between technology, sci-fi, and landscape happened in more specific places than the swirling ether of media. Some model photography techniques developed for Star Wars were invented at Berkeley in the basement of the College of Environmental Design’s Wurster Hall. Researchers built a 40-foot scale model of the Bay Area (1 inch:30 feet), and moved a model scope joystick camera through its topography. These camera images were cobbled together with a primitive computer that could formulate multi-directional views, like you might see through a car windshield and windows. These views to the landscape could be seen independently from the vehicle’s trajectory. A Berkeley researcher, John Dykstra, met George Lucas at a party in Los Angeles, and sold him on this new video technique’s ability to simulate the view from “inside an X-wing,” says de Monchaux. Dykstra and other Berkeley researchers eventually designed and built the Death Star trench model that hosted Star Wars: A New Hope’s exhilarating finale.

And at a time when recent elections have caused widespread speculation on  future dystopias, Manaugh and de Monchaux have envisioned their studio with an implicitly political point of view, namely that infrastructural cooperation in the service of equity is mandatory for survival.  They want solutions serving broad swaths of the populace, not proposals for “fortresses for people who can afford it while sea levels rise,” and “Rupert Murdoch on his fire-proof ranch,” Manaugh says.

“The best science fiction has always been about politics,” says de Monchaux. And similarly, the most incisive design propositions are inherently political critiques.

Guests to the studio will be the writer Allison Arieff, the aerial photographer David Maisel, the sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson, and the Mythbuster’s Adam Savage, who started his career as a model builder at Industrial Light and Magic, which Lucas founded.

With this instruction, students will learn animation, digital fabrication, and rendering methods to communicate their visions in more cinematic ways. Beyond the standard sections, plans, and static renderings of architectural and landscape representation, Manaugh says that teaching more filmic techniques is the key to communicating urban futures to broad audiences, as is required by architecture and landscape architecture. There’s a narrative quality to science fiction media that’s just not as richly developed in design. “If we want our students to think like science fiction novelists, to think like filmmakers, then they have to learn how to use different tools to represent their ideas,” Manaugh says.

And as students get a chance to think and create like filmmaking auteurs, they’ll be living like sci-fi explorers. Manaugh and de Monchaux are planning field trips to California’s most dramatic landscapes: the Mojave Desert, redwood forests, the volcanic Mount Lassen, and more. And they’ll travel there in an RV. “The idea is that we all get into the most science-fictional of all vehicles,” de Monchaux says, “and the studio itself will become mobile.”

 Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram

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