Sanjay Somanath

Apr 22, 2019

4 min read

Science Fiction of Architecture — An Introduction

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
” — (Eliot, 2014)

In the fields of psychology and social sciences, predictions and effects of predictions on people and societies are an interesting and well-documented study. Karl Popper, an Austrian-born British philosopher in his book ‘The Poverty of Historicism’ (Popper, 1964), coined an interesting term, the ‘Oedipus effect’, drawing inspiration from the tragic hero of Greek mythology, Oedipus[1] . The ‘Oedipus Effect’ however, refers to the effect of a prediction on the outcome of the predicted events or the effect a piece of information may have on the situation.(Jencks, 1971)

The theory suggests that the very act of making a prediction inadvertently effects the perspectives of all involved in the prediction, a version of this is also known as a ‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecy’. Robert K. Merton in his 1948 article titled ‘Self Fulfilling Prophecy’ defines it as “a false definition of a situation that evokes new behaviour in those subjected to the situation, which makes the original false conception come true.” (Merton, 1948)

Dystopian Novel (Gould, 2017)

Science Fiction literature in many ways can be interpreted as a form of prophecy, it refers to familiar locations and are often set in the future. The futures depicted in Science Fiction arguably do come true. Technological advancements such as going to the moon in ‘From earth to the moon’ (Verne, 1865) , tablet PC’s in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, (Kubrick, 1968), colour television and so on, were predicted much before any of them were possible or invented. A common perception of Science Fiction is that its authors try to prophesize and predict future events and circumstances; instead, it is a commentary on the present and portrays a distortion of the present, forcing reflection on what is natural, unnatural, right and wrong. (Parrinder, 1995)

Even though Science Fiction does not intend to prophesise, the ‘Oedipus effect’ inevitably does comes into play. The act of commenting on the future inadvertently affects its outcome. The outcome need not necessarily be in the favour or against the foretelling.

Architecture, like Science Fiction, offers a similar service. It tries to transport its users to another world by manipulating space and character of the built environment. It employs the same estranging qualities that Science Fiction uses to create spaces that affect society. Architecture is not an omnipresent phenomenon; it is created by social circumstances and is shaped by society just as much as society is shaped by it. It reflects the needs and wants of a society and at the same time comments on their aspirations and fears. Simon Unwin, in his 2009 book, ‘Analysing Architecture’, says that people make places that they want to do things in; they create places to eat, to sleep, to worship, to shop, and so on. The way in which people perceive these different actions reflect in their Architecture and it changes along with their worldviews. Architecture in many ways is also a form of social commentary. Like literature, it is primarily a social and cultural artefact. (Unwin, 2009)

The Oedipus effect, through a cycle of mimesis and anti-mimesis plays a significant role in shaping Architecture. In the case of Science Fiction literature and Science Fiction film, it is the subtle element of the Architecture within the narrative that has the most substantial impact on contemporary Architecture. Sci-Fi Architecture in parallel to the Architecture of the real world represents an estranged society with estranged forms and spaces. These estranged perspectives of Architecture and the built environment provide architects and designers alike with a unique way of addressing contemporary issues.

Hypothesis

Architecture in Science Fiction illuminates trends in contemporary Architecture and in turn, its relationship to contemporary society; this eventually affects future trends in cultural response through Architecture. Designers may look to Science Fiction to understand various interpretations of design in the future as well as to predict and prepare for changes in Architecture and architectural technology.

Like Science Fiction, if Architecture can have effects on the future, just as prophecies do through the ‘Oedipus effect’, Architects and designers must be sensitive in the approach they take in addressing the future and future technologies.

If Science Fiction is a commentary on the present society and it provides us with insights on social issues and dilemmas, then Science Fiction Architecture should also be looked at for inspirations to solve contemporary issues as well as to gauge societies unfulfilled aspiration.

[1] Oedipus, the mythical Greek King of Thebes is said to have accidentally fulfilled a prophecy that would bring disaster to his city and family.