“We must invent and rebuild the Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, agile, mobile and dynamic in every detail; and the Futurist house must be like a gigantic machine.” (Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, 1914)
The turn of the 20th century was a significant and dynamic time in global history. The transformative effects (on mass-production, the culture of work, science, technology, transportation, communication, and countless other things) of the Industrial Revolution were fully integrated into Western society, resulting in continuing expansion of cities, consumer culture and globalized capitalism.
These significant changes impacted art, architecture, and design, as artists and designers operated in a world that was increasingly looking forward to the bright promises of an industrialized and technology-driven future. The subject matter, art theory, techniques and visual expression of art and design increasingly rejected the codified “rules” of the past, including incorporation of ornament, the copying or reinterpreting old artworks or architectural motifs, representation of the natural world, and adherence to academic hierarchies.
The connection between the dynamism and ideals of early Modernist and Futurist architecture, especially in the work of the avant-garde Italian Futurists architect Antonio Sant’Elia, with his visions of future architecture and the future city, were fueled by technology, a rejection of the past and integrated with the rapidly accelerating pace of life and urbanism. All of this was bolstered by the evolution of industry, transportation, ever-faster and more powerful machines.
Some of the key tenets of Sant’Elia’s Future City
-The City is a multi-layered, fast-paced experience with multi-modal transportation routes and hubs seamlessly interwoven within the architecture.
-The City is a vertical space, experienced not just at the ground level of the pedestrian in the fabric of traditional city planning
-The City is a product of technology and industry built of new materials, with new structural possibilities allowing for enormously tall and structurally daring forms.
-The drivers of dynamism- power, industry and transportation hubs- represented by power plants, industrial architecture, bridges and train stations or airports should be represented at a heroic scale, as the new representatives of future culture.
The first part of the 20th century also saw a parallel development in the rapid growth of cinema, both as an art form, and a form of popular entertainment- increasing in scope, budget and reach. Advances in cameras, techniques and special effects multiplied opportunities for viewers. The storylines became more complex, and directors saw the medium as a new and impactful way to make political or social commentary. The emphasis on movement and building and urbanism seamlessly integrated with machinery and technology and the image of the “vertical city” were all reflected in the writing and architectural design of Sant’Elia, and these ideas formed a core visual expression of the future city, which has been consistently expressed in film from the early 1920’s and persists until today.
This essay suggests that Sant’Elia’s images had an impact on the imagery and portrayal of cities in science fiction and superhero movies such as Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, Just Imagine, Tron, Judge Dredd, Bladerunner, Bladerunner 2049, Batman and many others. Metropolis is most often named as the key historical film which influenced the representation of the future city, but I will argue that Lang drew direct inspiration from the Futurists (as well as other architectural movements).
Futurism was launched by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. He published the Manifesto of Futurism in 1909 and partnered with the artists Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini, and others.
The Futurists not only declared war on existing historical art, architecture and design but also against long-established political and social conventions, announcing that they, “…want to glorify war - the only cure for the world - militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.”
Futurism was exceptionally vehement in its denunciation of the past- as Italian artists and designers, they felt the heavy weight of Italy’s splendid, but faded history. They wrote, “It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries. (Futurist Manifesto, 1909)
Marinetti asserted that “we will free Italy from her innumerable museums which cover her like countless cemeteries”.
They proposed an art that celebrated the modern world of industry and technology: A key focus was the depiction of movement, or dynamism. The group developed several novel techniques to express speed and motion, including blurring, repetition, and the use of lines of force, also seen in the work of the Cubists. (Tate Gallery, n.d.) “We declare…a new beauty, the beauty of speed. A racing motor car…is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” (A celebrated ancient Greek sculpture in the Louvre Museum in Paris.) (Tate Gallery, n.d.)
Some additional quotes from the Futurist Manifesto attest to the passion of their convictions:
Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.
What can you find in an old picture except the painful contortions of the artist trying to break uncrossable barriers which obstruct the full expression of his dream?
To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past, from which you will emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?
Although not directly associated with the Futurists until 1914, Sant’Elia shared many of their ideas - importantly that the city was a mechanized hybrid with both man and machine at its heart. His drawings depicted towers, bridges, lighthouses, laboratories, transportation infrastructure, airplane hangars and power stations, which led to his Manifesto of Futurist Architecture (1914), where he expressed his utopias but also about the incorporation of technology into architecture, for instance, the idea of locating elevators on the outside of buildings (away from stairs) “Elevators shouldn’t be compressed like worms by sets of stairs. Stairs are now useless and elevators need to climb up façades like iron and glass snakes.” He also wrote, “Houses should be made of concrete, glass and iron, without paintings or sculptures, but rich in lines and mechanic simplicity. They should be as tall and wide as possible, ignoring the limits set by municipal laws. Roads will no longer be linear but will develop on various levels, connected by metallic runways and treadmills.” Historically, architectural design, even the newly emerging Modernism of Adolf Loos (and its rejection of ornament) was built based on manipulation of Platonic solids. For the Futurists, that tradition was dead and the machine, with its awesome speed and power energized the world and architecture itself. Sant’Elia wrote, “just as the ancients drew their inspiration from the natural world, so we…must find our inspiration in the new mechanical world.” New buildings should reflect the aesthetic of, “giant locomotives, spiral tunnels, ironclads, torpedo boats, Antoinette monoplanes and racing cars…” and should be transitory and impermanent.
Sant'Elia produced designs for La Citta Nuova (The New City)- a show of 40 drawings under the same title- showcasing his innovative ideas in which cities were characterized as "gigantic machines".
This commitment to incorporating technology is clear. External elevators are attached to the skyscrapers, interconnecting walkways and tunnels run through, under and around the buildings and transport is organized into three levels: pedestrian overpasses, roads for cars, and tracks for trains and trams. Movement of vehicles and people de-emphasizes the autonomy of buildings within his designs and it becomes difficult to tell where one building starts and another one ends. (Theartstory.org, n.d.) His vision was for a highly industrialized and mechanized city, which he saw not as a mass of individual buildings but a vast, multi-level, interconnected and integrated urban conglomerate. The city, its inhabitants and its machines (automobiles, trains, trams and aircraft) had to continuously move. This can be linked to the cinematic tendency to depict future urbanism of the “mega-city”- vast and machine-like. These ideas about the interconnectivity of the city, massive scale, verticality are all typical elements of future cities depicted in 20th and 21st century science fiction films.
An iconic image, summarizing all these views is of his design for the New Central Station in Milan. Not a building in the usual sense, the new station formed the transport hub of a city, intersected by a network of movement - roads, bridges, rails, pedestrians - with an airplane runway integrated into the scheme.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there is a clear tendency in science fiction and superhero films to depict Earth-bound cities of the near- or mid-future as dystopian- chaotic, congested, dark and/or crime-ridden. This was diametrically opposed to the early Modernists’ Utopian aspirations- which saw future urbanism as sweeping away the chaos, filth and social hierarchy of the past. Two typical depictions of the city in sci-fi are “the vertical city” (Metropolis) and cities of the “future noir” (Bladerunner) and increasingly in the 21st century, the “virtual city” (The Matrix, Ready Player 1)
Cities in the films of these genres tend to take on the verticality, size, density and frenetic sense of movement that Sant’Elia anticipated. A “megalopolis” is a giant continuous urban region, and science fiction sometimes depicts cities getting so large, they ultimately merge together. In Judge Dredd much of the Eastern seaboard of the USA has merged into one massive entity. Coruscant in the Star Wars universe is a planet taken over by one massive single city. It could be called an “ecumenopolis”, the hypothetical concept of a planetoid city (Gold, 2001)
The machine-dominated environment of Metropolis, 1927; Just Imagine, 1930; Alphaville, 1965; or Logan’s Run, 1976 project cities that are technological marvels but with dramatic asymmetries in society. Almost as soon as science fiction cinema latched onto the idea of the city as the hope of the future, filmmakers also saw in it a metaphor for social ills. (Gold, 2001)
Many writings on the subject of early Modernist architecture’s influence on film (correctly) reference Metropolis as a primary influence, but Lang and his set designers were clearly aware of the works of Sant’Elia, especially La Città Nuova, inspiring Metropolis’s airborne pathways and high-rise buildings, freeways and flying vehicles as a hybrid of futurist, art-deco and gothic architectural styles, well-represented in Heinz Schulz-Neudamm’s iconic film poster. Lang wrote about the influence of the vertical growth of modern New York City, “Metropolis, you know, was born from my first sight of the skyscrapers of New York in October 1924 [...] while visiting New York, I thought that it was the crossroads of multiple and confused human forces, blinded and knocking into one another, in an irresistible desire for exploitation, and living in perpetual anxiety. I spent an entire day walking the streets. The buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotise. At night, the city did not simply give the impression of living: it lived as illusions live. I knew I should make a film of all these impressions. (Fritz Lang)
The blend of urbanism, industry and transportation, shows the strong reliance on the machine, the man-machine interface the structure of power, both real and implied.
Metropolis’s futuristic city served as a template for the Cyberpunk genre, while Lang’s connections with German Expressionism influenced the evolution of film noir. Lang and other German filmmakers escaped Nazi Germany to Hollywood bringing German Expressionism with them. Visually, film noir is characterized by stark lighting and dark shadows: a high-contrast mise-en-scene. (Amaurea Creative Productions, 2020).
If Metropolis captured the portrayal of the vertical city and the proto-noir city, then Blade Runner (1982) became the template for the future noir city. “It appealed to postmodern sensitivities in its handling of multilayered texts and parody” (Bruno, 1990) but also contrasts the contemporary “glamorous” sheen of Los Angeles (beach, Hollywood, great weather) with a grim potential future.
The central city contained tall buildings, symbolizing power and control - the police headquarters and the enormous headquarters of the omnipotent Tyrell Corporation. Elsewhere was a vast industrial wasteland of oil refineries, and processing plants and industrial towers. The signs of technology and machinery are everywhere- ducts, signs and service pipes run over the faces of the structures and cables, generator and access tubes crisscross through open space. (Bruno, 1990)
While Sant’Elia’s aspirations for the future city did not project this dystopia, the formal (monumental scale, emphasis on sloped forms and elevated bridges and walkways) and thematic (multi-level transport, hybrid industrial architecture) similarities can be recognized.
English production designer Anton Furst worked with director Tim Burton on the visuals for Batman with a special emphasis on creating the appropriate atmosphere for Gotham City. In depicting such a complex urban environment, Furst noted many stylistic influences, including Hugh Ferris, Metropolis, Brutalism, cyberpunk, Gothic, Gothic-revival, Shin Takamatsu’s locomotive-influenced buildings and notes Antonio Sant’Elia and Futurism specifically. (sciarc channel, 2019)
As the movie takes place mostly at night, or in dark places, the concept art more clearly shows all these different influences, with their emphasis on verticality, the blending of industrial and other architecture, bridging, overlapping and intersecting levels of multi-modal movement and visual complexity.
In the scenes involving the Axis Chemical plant, one can see references to Sant’Elia’s monumental depictions of industrial architecture, including rounded tower-like elements, and powerful geometric expression of solid forms. Incidentally, both of these designs are also related to water in different ways- the Axis Chemical plant on a river, and the powerplant harnessing water to produce electricity.
For columns at the foot of Gotham Cathedral’s entrance, Furst took sculpted heads Sant’Elia designed and stretched them into columns.
There are many other examples of 20th and 21st century science fiction and superhero films where cities or mega-cities are central to the plot, but there is not space to discuss all of them. Other films include Tron City and Argon City from the Tron franchise, Neo-Tokyo from Akira (1988), Megacity One from Judge Dredd (1995) , New Port City from Ghost in the Shell (1995), future New York City from The Fifth Element (1997), Coruscant from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005), Yorktown in the Star Trek franchise, Bay City in Altered Carbon (2018) and many others. While most of these films do not specifically “quote” the Futurist urban architecture of Antonio Sant’Elia, and as well find design influences from a wide additional array of sources, they do recall many salient elements of Sant’Elia’s oeuvre, including flying vehicles and multiple levels of transport or circulation, hybridization of industrial and non-industrial architecture, extensive use of bridges and elevated pathways, monumentally scaled buildings and overt expressions of technology (power infrastructure, elevators, antennae, highlighted structural elements and an emphasis on verticality.