Five Compelling Works Of Architecture Fiction

Walking cities, underwater urbanism, and more: We have a look at the most spectacular examples of recent architecture fiction.

As far as we know, the writer Bruce Sterling coined the term “architecture fiction,” in 2006. He was referring, of course, to speculative projects in which architects use ideas for the built environment to express themselves in a way that’s analogous to how storytellers use words. It’s a longstanding architectural tradition. Sterling cites the polemic work of the 1960s British group Archigram; the canon includes Lebbeus Woods’s drawings from the two decades that followed and Greg Lynn’s digital imaginings (one of which accompanied a short story by Sterling, in Metropolis’s 2003 Fiction Issue).

In the last few years, we have seen a groundswell in the genre. The usual reason given to explain the profusion of these fictitious works is that the recession made it hard for young architects to find “real” work, but there are probably other factors at play. Ethical concerns are back in the zeitgeist for a contradictory generation that’s equally into Occupy Wall Street, iPhones, and hipster shops selling single-source coffee. Their utopias and dystopias are more easily imagined with 3DS Max and Photoshop, and far more quickly disseminated online. All of this has made for some pretty rich storytelling.

Commenters on blogs still rail about the “uselessness” of architecture fiction. To answer them would be akin to mounting a defense of the short story—one surely could, but it would be a self-defeating exercise. The very nature of fiction is to be less bothered with usefulness than with possibility.

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In that spirit, here are five recent projects that I found compelling, in both imagery and the stories they attempt to tell.

drawing of speculative architecture project

“The Magic Realist Novel”: Bees no longer harvest honey but “liquid light,” a highly valued zero-carbon energy source.

Courtesy Viktor Westerdahl

On an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which was once cleared of indigenous inhabitants to make space for a US military base, bees have forsaken honey to start collecting “Liquid Light,” a renewable source of energy unparalleled in the history of mankind. What kind of community would grow to manage this new industry, based in a troubled tropical paradise instead of a desert in the Middle East? Westerdahl’s delicate line drawings depict, among other things, a Center for Nature Rights and the underbelly of a floating village (above), all kissed by the golden grace of a zero-carbon energy source.


“The Exotic Travelogue”: A North Indian City is augmented by a supercomputer that lets residents remake their environment at will.

The title of this piece translates to “Hide-and-seek,” the game in this case being played by children in a digitally enhanced version of a North Indian city. A giant supercomputer (indicative of India’s future as a “technological and economic superpower”) controls the environment, allowing the kids to manipulate their surroundings in real time, creating staircases out of ancient walls, for instance.

The teaser is a fascinating watch, but using a eastern locale to suggest some sort of exoticized mashup between past and future is a trope that should have been jettisoned long ago. The cultures of Asia aren’t available to be appropriated with only a passing understanding, especially by would-be auteurs who can’t get the Hindi spellings in their opening frames right.

archigram rendering of moving city

“The Grand Epic”: Essentially, Archigram’s Walking City retooled for a new century.

Courtesy Poliedro

Dominguez proposes a city that’s a machine, on wheels. Actually, it’s on a set of caterpillar tracks that can roll over and crush anything in their path, as though a city that’s an enormous machine wasn’t menacing enough. But this is a benign urban concept—Very Large Structure relocates regularly so as to not deplete the resources of its surroundings. In fact, it’s something of a nurturing terraformer, leaving behind ecologically rejuvenated areas when it moves on. Archigram came up with a similar idea in 1964 with Walking City, but their nomadic structures didn’t have the same environmental concerns. They also didn’t look like giant oil rigs mounted on tanks.

rendering of giant vacuum cleaner machines disassembling a concrete wall

“The Essay”: This project imagines a vacuum-like robot capable of breaking down and recycling reinforced concrete walls and floors.

Courtesy Omer Haciomeroglu

Haciomeroglu’s proposal is a serious solution for a pressing problem—the immense amounts of energy required, the logistics necessary, and the pollution caused when a simple building is torn down, as buildings are, all the time. EROs use a mix of technologies to assess a building, break down its materials, and render them into a form that can be recycled for new construction. The technologies all exist, and the ERO might soon be built, so it won’t be fiction for long. But the idea of anti-architecture robots that eat away at constructions should be ripe material for some future stories.

Liam Young Specimens of Unnatural History image

“The Anthology”: A spread from “Landscape Futures” depicting a robo-futurist version of the Galapagos Islands.

Courtesy ACTAR

On his site BLDGBLOG, Geoff Manaugh has been a relentless collector and commentator on architecture fiction, so if you looking to better understand the state of the genre, this is probably the best place to start. A companion to his exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art last year, Manaugh’s tome is a catalog of excellence in the field, along with essays, commentary, and specially commissioned projects.

Recent Projects