Dystopian Citiesby MJ Sunderland in Architecture
My previous article examined the concept of Utopia, the ideal society. Modernists designed ‘ideal’ cities using the rhetoric of Utopia, but these schemes eventually came to be seen as social failures and proved that the idea of a perfect society may well be impossible. The concept of Utopia spawned the alternative proposition – dystopia. A dystopia is a negative utopia: a malfunctioning world. No one has attempted to actually build a dystopia, but the concept has been used as a metaphor to explore anxieties within culture and society.In particular, it has influenced the way the future has been imagined in science fiction. Science fiction takes trends that can be observed in the present, projects them into the future and exaggerates them in order to comment on them in a metaphorical way. Dystopian representations of the future can be used to explore contemporary anxieties – such as crime, pollution or political oppression. The future worlds of science fiction are nightmarish reflections of the contemporary world.
For example, Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis is a depiction of unchecked technological expansion. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World both envisage totalitarian societies, along with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Blade Runner presents a polluted, post-industrial wasteland, reflecting the ecological concerns of the 1970s and 80s. These all depict malfunctioning worlds of the near future and again they reflect contemporary anxieties.
The Metropolis of Tomorrow
Hugh Ferriss created a dystopian vision of New York. Ferriss (1889-1962) was an architectural delineator – someone who creates perspective drawings of buildings. He trained as an architect at Washington University, but early in his career he began to specialize in architectural renderings of other architects’ work rather than designing buildings himself. Architects often found that clients could not read architectural plans, so they employed delineators to produce drawings that were more dramatic and persuasive.
Ferriss arrived in New York in 1912 and was employed as a delineator for Cass Gilbert, architect of the Woolworth Building, a skyscraper in the Gothic style. Some of his earliest drawings are of Gilbert’s Woolworth Building.
By the 1920s, Ferris had moved away from creating flattering images of real buildings to a deep imaginative engagement with the city. During the Depression skyscrapers came to symbolize the great discrepancy of wealth in American society. They were citadels of the rich, unreachable by normal people. Ferris produced a series of images in which the city appears cold and abstract. Skyscrapers are bathed in darkness and have a stern monumentality, like prismatic tombs. He presented the buildings at night, lit up by spotlights or shrouded in fog. They express our feeling that there is something cold and inhuman about skyscrapers. They are arrogant symbols of power in which humans have no place.
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