Mark Childs
Mark Childs, professor, UNM School of Architecture and Planning.

If you ask Mark Childs, professor in the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning, what an architect can learn from science fiction he'll tell you that the genre presents a lot of urban landscape ‘What if’ scenarios that stir the imagination of the architect and help inform the creation of cities.

In a recently published paper in the Journal of Urbanism, Childs examines ‘world building’ drawing from three 21st century award-winning science fiction novels: Perdido Street Station, Windup Girl and The Dervish House. What the books all have in common is how authors of future worlds give voice to, and believably shape and reshape, images of ‘the city’ the place where climate, culture, economy, politics and environment are integral to determining the urban design.

The city in Perdido Street Station is a squalid, multi-layered Dickensian steampunk place called New Crobuzon. It is inhabited by humans, hybrid races and re-mades: people surgically rearranged as punishment. The book blends and alters conventions of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and the districts and inhabitants of New Crobuzon reflect this mash-up

The Windup Girl is set at the end of the 22nd century in the city of Bangkok, after the world has been devastated by deadly viruses, the extinction of entire species, the rising of the oceans and the loss of all power based on petroleum. Bangkok, still a massive urban sprawl, reflects these changes with skyscrapers now covered in vines and mold and shattered windows. Without elevators or air conditioning, the towers stand uninhabitable and blistering in the sun.

Set in near-future Istanbul after the terrorist bombing of a commuter train, The Dervish House is a story about neighbors who occupy an old building once belonging to a religious order. Its inhabitants are as varied and complex as the city itself, where an upheaval of worlds, cultures and ideas collide.

Childs said that he chose these books because they illustrate a variety of perspectives on the city. “I found them illuminating of urban theory,” he said. “While all fiction may be enlightening for designers, science fiction should be of distinctive interest for three overlapping reasons: it reflects and shapes popular culture; the world building propositions of writers and the work of urban designers and architects share significant concerns; and sci-fi offers poetically rich thought experiments that can help designers understand the nuances of theory.”

According to Childs, the three novels offer ‘cities of feeling’ that reflect current topics in the academic and professional design literature including layering, hybridity and aesthetic action.

Some modern day cities are layered. Parts of ancient Rome still exist below as well as above present day Rome, as layering can also occur at the level of individual buildings. Made real in Manhattan by Hurricane Sandy, the science fiction approach of the skyscraper without electricity is credibly layered in the Windup Girl with a character accessing his dwelling by a human-powered elevator. According to Childs, “this depiction of adaptive reuse, layering the shell of one use with the life of another, could inspire designers to consider potential reuses of their designs in general and more specifically how their built forms could perform ‘unplugged’ from our electrical grid.”

Hybrids are the offspring of two unlikely species, and in a metaphorical expansion of the term ‘cultural hybrids’ includes the blending of diverse styles, genres, traditions or cultures. The creative power of hybrids is an explicit theme in Windup Girl and Perdido Street Station. In the latter, a creature fashioned of various parts from different species, says, “New Crobuzon’s architecture moves from the industrial to the residential to the opulent to the slum to the underground to the airborne to the modern to the ancient to the colorful to the drab to the fecund to the barren. This is what makes the world. I believe this to be the fundamental dynamic. Transition. The point where one thing becomes another…The zone where the disparate becomes part of the whole. The hybrid zone.”  

On the whole, these novels are also works of aesthetic action and design. Their atmospheres and settings, eye for compelling and resonant detail, balancing of multiple storylines, formal structures and other aspects of craft can inform and inspire today’s designers of built form.

All three authors use their city’s mythic, narrative history as a manuscript on which to set down their story. “Like these novelists,” Childs said, “urban designers should be fluent in the stories that undergird a settlement, as they can reflect people’s deepest values and belief, provide storylines to frame current actions, and may condition the public’s and the designer’s own design judgment.”