Architecture Lab

Architecture: How buildings are used in sci-fi films

Architecture: How buildings are used in sci-fi films

‘House of the Future’ at the Ideal Home Show in 1956

There are usually four types of homes in science-fiction films: futuristic, retro, dystopian or modernist.

The futuristic, space-age dwellings are mostly white, in which tables and chairs might hover above the floor and doors slide open automatically with a hum. This was the default style of the mid-20th century. It has been used less frequently in recent years.

Retro homes, in which the architecture of the future resembles a version of the past, embrace everything from steampunk Victoriana to the kind of fantasies in which other planets look like Tolkienised England or Tunisian mud brick villages. More commonly, though, the look is some kind of art deco revival, which is probably to do with the extraordinary skyscrapers of 1920s and 1930s New York still looking like an ideal city of the future.

Dystopian homes, meanwhile, tend to show a world of ruins and apocalyptic landscapes.

The fourth type of home in a sci-fi film is often the location scout’s favourite: the already built, real-world modernist house – not too well-known, strange but also familiar enough to correspond with some futuristic vision.

The first type is, unexpectedly perhaps, most often the dullest. This is because it is generally the most predictable. Nothing, the cliché states, dates faster than the future. Take Alison and Peter Smithson, arguably Britain’s most intellectual and influential modernist architects, who designed a “House of the Future” for the Ideal Home Show in 1956. It looks laughable enough on its own, but with the “futuristically” dressed actors inhabiting it, the projection becomes a hoot. It shows just how difficult it is to get it right.

The classic image of this kind of screen futurology comes from the 1936 film, Things to Come, based on the HG Wells novel. This is a pretty weak film, except for its uncomfortably salient predictions about the nature of the coming world war and its impressive visions of a subterranean world carved out beneath the ruins of the now uninhabitable cities on the surface.