Science Fiction Studies


#116 = Volume 39, Part 1 = March 2012


Umberto Rossi

A Sort of Homecoming: Architecture and SF

David T. Fortin. Architecture and Science-Fiction Film: Philip K. Dick and the Spectacle of Home. Studies in Architecture. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011. 239 pp. £50 hc.

While visiting the Spanish city of Valencia in 2010, I could not miss the opportunity to see Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences. As I walked among those huge, white, futuristic buildings under an enamel-azure Mediterranean sky, a word abruptly came to my mind: “Trantor!” Calatrava’s architecture embodied what I had visualized while reading Asimov’s description of the planet-spanning galactic capital city in his Foundation  trilogy (1951-53). And if I had to use the adjective “futuristic” to suggest to you what Calatrava’s most unabashedly science-fictional buildings—El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía and L’Àgora—look like, it means that there must be a connection between contemporary architecture and sf. Hence, David T. Fortin’s new book, which straddles the (rather porous) border between sf and architecture. In Fortin’s words, “[t]he study of the familiar (home) within the alien (SF) creates a unique cultural lens through which to reflect on our current architectural condition” (6).

Fortin, who teaches architecture at Montana State University, explores the connections between the genre and twentieth- and twenty-first-century architectural practices and discourses in a way that is immensely suggestive for scholars of literary and cinematic sf. By choosing as his core concept the estrangement of “home,” Fortin manages persuasively to tie modernist/postmodernist architecture with the concerns of sf literature. In the first chapter, “Defining Science-Fiction: Darko Suvin and the Genre,” Fortin reads Suvin’s idea of cognitive estrangement as placing readers in a virtual environment where they are not at home, thus making home “a foundational concept of the genre” (21). Yet Fortin does not uncritically subscribe to Suvin’s rationalistic definition of sf (which, being 30 years old, must necessarily be considered as something of an historical artifact), and he enriches his presentation by acknowledging the criticisms that Suvin’s concept of the novum has received since 1979, sketching a wider and more flexible definition that can allow for “the unknown, the mystique and the magic of the SF narrative” (24).

The second chapter, “The Future and Home,” is of interest to those who work in sf cinema as it suggests that there is a strong connection between the rationalist (or modernist) architecture heralded by the avant-garde innovators of the early twentieth century and two milestones of cinematic sf, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and William Cameron Menzies’s Things to Come (1936). Fortin argues (following Vivian Sobchak) that futuristic architecture, far from being relegated to the background, directly embodies the future itself in both movies and has a powerful impact on the imagination of viewers. Whether threateningly hivelike as in Metropolis or gleamingly utopian as in Things to Come, the futuristic cities in both films showed audiences of the 1920s and 1930s what could reasonably be achieved in the not-too-distant future, when a radical transformation of habitation would bring about a radical transformation of society. These movies presented spectators with a future “always clearly distinguished from the past and the present, and strictly not intended to be homely, familiar, or comfortable” (30). The negation of the traditional concept of home ushered in an alien environment, produced by spectacular scientific and technological progress, which could be seen as threatening or benign, but was nonetheless something other.

Things changed after 1960, as Fortin argues in his third chapter, “Postfuturism and Shifting Notions of Home,” when we moved from modernist architecture (and architecture-inspired visual futures) to postmodern architectural design, with its critical rethinking of the architectural rationalism of such modernist giants as Le Corbusier. A similar shift took place within sf, of course, and Fortin strives to summarize the heterogeneous discussion of the genre’s relationship to postmodernism. Fortin’s treatment of postmodern sf (or “postfuturism”) is unavoidably less terse and linear than his presentation of the links between Golden Age sf and rationalist architecture, relying principally on summaries of Sobchack and Jameson. Not all of his arguments persuade me, but I have to admit that no systematic theorization of postmodernism in the arts fully persuades me either, even though one cannot escape the feeling that a lot did change during the postwar decades.             

The following chapter, “Learning from Dick: Architectural Perspectives on SF,” shows how late-modern or postmodernist architectural theory and sf have interacted. A key episode is taken from Philip K. Dick’s biography—the unfortunate evening during the 1950s when he met the architectural critic Allan Temko, who “confronted [him] with a drunken song-and-dance parody of the kinds of people who wrote SF” (Lawrence Sutin, qtd. in Fortin 70). Such a scene, according to Fortin, shows the disdain of intellectuals such as Temko, who supported the elitist stance of rationalist architecture, towards popular culture in general. Temko scoffing at sf is not so different from Le Corbusier criticizing the architectonic chaos he saw at work in Manhattan (68-69)—the chaos that has been re-evaluated and somewhat vindicated by recent architectural critics such as Rem Koolhaas. All in all, Fortin’s main argument is that although postmodernist theorists of architecture such as Robert Venturi and Aldo Rossi saw sf as a dangerous influence to be avoided and possibly fought, Dick’s sf moves in a more productive direction. Fortin correctly sees Dick as a writer who is distrustful of dreams of transcendence of everyday reality (home) through visions of dazzling future civilizations; instead, he manages to re-present the everyday in its shabbiness through the very tools of classic science fiction, from time travel to robots/androids (73), displaying a world of trash that is both a dismal future and an anamorphic representation of California (as Dick explained in a famous letter to Stanislaw Lem, which is quoted by Fortin [71]).

Dick’s awareness of the trash in the US urban landscape chimes with Venturi’s praise of Las Vegas or Koolhaas’s vindication of Manhattan, even though those theorists of postmodernist architecture mistrusted sf. What they actually mistrusted, Fortin explains (60-62), was Golden-Age sf, which they conflated with the questionable utopian dreams of rationalist architecture. Attempts such as this to reconnect sf in general—and an sf author like Dick in particular—to the broader cultural context of the century are absolutely welcome: they may help sf scholars to avoid easy generalizations, parochial under- or overestimations, and unproductive readings caused by blindness to what lies beyond arbitrary genre boundaries. And I agree with Fortin’s conclusion that Dick should be considered the most important representative of postmodernist sf, “not because he in some way ‘predicted’ postmodernism through sf but rather because of his intimate interrogation of the human condition through the emergence of the postmodern” (76).

Fortin then moves to an architectural analysis of four films based on Dick’s fiction: Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Minority Report (2002), and A Scanner Darkly (2007). I am well aware that one might accuse Fortin of performing a critical sleight-of-hand: he promised in his subtitle to discuss “Philip K. Dick and the spectacle of home,” but now he shifts to treat four films that, although sometimes quite loosely based on Dick’s novels and stories, are actually by Ridley Scott, Paul Verhoeven, Steven Spielberg, and Richard Linklater. The situation might be even more complicated than this, as we cannot say that the film of A Scanner Darkly is by Richard Linklater in the same way we can say the novel is by Dick. Films are collective endeavors, where the director serves to assemble what other artists—actors, screenwriters, musicians, set designers, even architects—have created. Thus, when Fortin focuses his attention, for example, on the architectural details of three homes in Blade Runner, he should probably have mentioned the names of the visual artists who worked on those imaginary buildings, not to mention the architect (Sumner P. Hunt, 1865–1938) who designed the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, which is prominently featured in the movie.

Fortin seems aware of this possible objection, since he begins the second section of his book with a short introductory chapter, “Re-visioning Home in Dick-Inspired Films,” where he introduces the concept of “cultural resonance” (84; emphasis in original) in order to connect Dick’s fiction with the films based on it and to accommodate the interactions that form such a complex cultural artefact as a high-budget Hollywood film. Fortin supports the idea of cultural resonance through reference to a recent text by R.M. Philmus, Visions and Revisions: Reconstructing Science Fiction (2005), which reads sf as a literary genre whose texts are always re-visions, (re)constructions of other texts; he also works with Adrian Snodgrass and Richard Coyne’s theory of dynamic repetition, positing any “reactive” act in architecture as the reinterpretation of something from the past. Fortin thus sensibly argues that

Blade Runner is not solely by Philip K. Dick or Ridley Scott. Nor is it exclusively about futurist Syd Mead, production designer Lawrence Paull, screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, or leading actor Harrison Ford. It is not exclusively about androids, endangered animals, retrofitting, corporations, vision, world wars, or colonization. Instead, all of these things combine to form a cultural resonance that is ultimately shared with architecture. (86)

Blade Runner is, in Philmus’s terms, a (re)construction of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969); in Snodgrass and Coyne’s terms, it is “a working out of the possibilities inherent within the ‘text’ of the past” (85).

Chapter 5, “Killing Home: Blade Runner’s Strange Obsessions and Omissions,” analyzes three homes as they are visualized in Scott’s movie: Eldon Tyrrell’s neo-medieval mansion on the top of his corporate pyramid, J.F. Sebastian’s decaying bourgeois apartment in the Bradbury Building, and Rick Deckard’s high-tech bachelor pad. These are actually non-homes that bespeak a condition of radical homelessness that dominates the film, differentiating it from the novel, where there is an opposition between Deckard’s private domestic situation and the public world where his android-hunting takes place (94). Fortin suggests that such a homelessness is rooted in Dick’s own problematic childhood, characterized by familiar instability and a nomadic lifestyle, plus his being sent to a boarding school in California. We may deduce from Fortin’s previous discussion of cultural resonance that the desolate world where “no one can be ‘at home’” (104) was already present in the novel, being extracted and refined by the screenwriters, the director, and the artist who designed the futuristic homes/non-homes of the film. Fortin’s conclusion is that “Scott accomplishes a true sense of homelessness … by … killing two of the things essential to male identity—notions of home (origins) and the presence of the female” (104). Unfortunately Fortin does not connect this displacement of the female—which is indeed present in the film, especially in the Director’s Cut—with the tradition of film noir (surely a genre where urban architectural space plays a key role), from which Scott unashamedly and brilliantly borrowed. Making such a connection would have strengthened Fortin’s analysis.

Chapter 6, “Relinquishing Home: Identity through Architectural ‘Otherness,’” tackles Verhoeven’s Total Recall. An architectural analysis of the real buildings in Mexico City used as the settings for several scenes (due to their “alien” quality) leads Fortin to wonder whether their Brutalist style functions as a subtext in the movie. The idea of home is discussed at the beginning of the chapter in connection with the “tourist gaze” that pushes the protagonist, Quaid, to embark on a virtual-reality trip to Mars. Fortin then proceeds to a discussion about spectacle, in which he quotes the theorists one might expect: Debord, Bukatman, Haraway, Baudrillard. Not that such names are inappropriate; but the added value of this discussion is limited for those who have already tackled the topic of Dick and postmodernism. More interesting is the section about “The Frontier Hero and Voluntary Domicide,” where Fortin connects the adventure on Mars to the American ur-myth of the frontier and reads Quaid as a postmodernist frontiersman (one who, in Fortin’s opinion, commits a “voluntary domicide” by destroying his home and killing his wife [124]). Summarizing, Fortin says that “it is within the home that the identity of the dweller is formed through the mechanisms of the spectacle,” so that we have a postmodern subject “increasingly absorbed in the process of home-making, of defining and redefining the self through the spectacle of the home in a series of hero/tourist/frontier narratives which are intimately tied to their consumer identities” (133). No wonder then that “domesticity and spectacle are merged,” a conclusion Fortin strengthens by citing Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966); however, the author misses the opportunity to place Verhoeven’s film in the sociocultural context of the 1980s, which saw quite pointed debates regarding the implications of simulacra, postmodernity, and the mass media.

The subsequent chapter deals with a film I do not particularly like, yet Fortin’s analysis of Spielberg’s Minority Report is so rich in insights that it made me think twice. “Resurrecting Home: Scattered Boundaries and Domesti-city in Minority Report” addresses Spielberg’s attempt to exploit Dick’s name by turning one of his short stories (not one of his best) into a Spielberg Movie™. Here we are presented with a resurrection of the home countering the gloomier collective and individual “domicides” displayed in the previous films. One cannot disagree; but Fortin oversimplifies the issue when he hypothesizes that the reunion of Anderton, the protagonist, with his wife Lara is grounded in Dick’s purported “sustained reverence for the domestic” (140), which mitigates his “postmodern ambiguity.” Five failed marriages are proof of Dick’s personal unease with domesticity; Dick could not cope with the daily routines of married life, repeatedly celebrated with mawkish enthusiasm by Spielberg, and we know all too well how marital crises, gender struggles (sometime deadly ones), and abiding unhappiness are hallmarks of Dick’s fiction, both sf and mainstream. The enshrinement of marriage is unadulterated Spielberg, not Dick, and Fortin should have better analyzed this instance of “reconstruction.” I am also not persuaded by his reading of the film’s ending as staging the defeat of a masculine logic of total control and domestication (meaning domination and assimilation of any possible otherness that may intrude not only upon the domestic space but upon the entire urban environment under PreCrime control) and a consequent emancipation of the female characters (159). I suspect that Fortin is reading too much into the typical Spielberg happy ending.

Much more interesting is his discussion of the different architectural materials that characterize homes (wood) and public spaces (metal, glass, etc.) and how he connects these to another specimen of interaction between sf and architecture, Bill Gates’s high-tech home (151-53). This leads the author to depict an interpenetration of private and public spaces, because “while traditional divisions between comfort/home/wood and brutality/city/concrete have been dissolved, technological modes of ‘protection’ and ‘comfort’ have been established that have apparently usurped architecture’s former role in these capacities (networked security systems, surveillance, motion detectors, and so on)” (162). The space that was traditionally public, the urban space that (according to fifteenth-century architectural theorist Leon Battista Alberti) should belong to men—while women were relegated to the domestic sphere—is now saturated by controlling technologies that are meant to recreate home anywhere. But with security comes surveillance, a form of power; no wonder then that Fortin defines it as an “ambiguous non-I protecting the I” (163). One has to wonder, however, whether media mogul Spielberg is on the side of the problem or of the solution (if there is one).

The final analytical chapter, “Becoming Home, Darkly: Identities, Insects, and the Dirty Dwelling Dilemma,” deals with an authentically Dickian movie, A Scanner Darkly. Its faithfulness to the novel is at some moments embarrassing —and may have made it less successful as a stand-alone work of art than the previous three films. Here Fortin gets undoubtedly closer to Dick himself, articulating a persuasive argument pivoting around the concept of the “dirty home” (Bob Arctor and friends’ house seen as a rebellion against the routines and conformism of middle-class suburbia). The dirty home is “one no longer conforming to any rules of familial hierarchy and order and instead reflecting the coexistence of three adult men now resembling stereotypical teenagers” (176). This is a promising interpretive move, and one that chimes with our biographical knowledge of Dick. What follows, however, is a massive barrage of quotations from Adorno, Heidegger, Deleuze and Guattari, Caillois, and Lacan; what these philosophers, psychoanalysts, and critics might have to say about the predicament of the characters in Scanner, as outlined by Fortin, seems sometimes strained. What I find more productive for future Dick scholarship is Fortin’s conclusion that “the home is neither subject nor house, nor it is a separate entity from either of them, but precisely that between them” (192; emphasis in original). Such an intermediate space between the physical reality of the house and the human subject is the home proper, and that is something that movies (and novels) may capture and render in a peculiarly effective fashion. I am not sure, on the other hand, of the usefulness for literary criticism of the concept of “becoming home” that Fortin, from his architectural point of view, finds highly rewarding at the end of this chapter (195-96).

All in all, it is clear that Fortin wrote this book for architects and architecture theorists. By choosing to focus his analysis on the movies based on Dick’s fiction, he has made plain that visual/spatial elements are paramount in his discussion. Yet the text provides valuable reading for sf scholars who are interested in cinema, in the burgeoning discourse on cinema adaptations, and in P.K. Dick the writer and unorthodox thinker, because the borderline between the written text and the cinematic artefact (with its virtual architectures) is as porous as the postmodern home envisioned by Fortin (209). I would only add that Fortin should consider writing another study of architecture and sf, this time focused on the work of J.G. Ballard. I am sure that such a discussion would be even more productive and compelling than the work under review here.


Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. 1978. New York: Monacelli, 1997.

Philmus, Robert. Visions and Revisions: (Re)Constructing Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2006.

Snodgrass, Adrian, and Richard Coyne. Interpretation in Architecture: Design as a Way of Seeing. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas. 1972. Rev ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2001.


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