Was Blade Runner Right All Along?
I grew up with a very fixed idea of what the future looked like, architecturally speaking. Off-world it would be ‘2001’, at home it would be ‘The Jetsons’. What I failed to appreciate was that the future would not eradicate the past and be less ‘Tomorrowland’, more ‘Blade Runner’.
I’d seen something similar in the first Tim Burton ‘Batman’. Its designer, Anton Furst, once explained to me how the future should look. Rolling out an immense plan of Gotham City, he showed me how the futuristic world had grown on top of the old one because ‘the rich always want more light’. So if you lived at the base you were half in darkness, cramped and trapped, but if you were clever you could make the best of it.
This is, in a word, Tokyo; a series of mysterious boxes, one inside the other, that suggests the future will simply grow up and around what already exists. And just because one era is butted up against another, it doesn’t mean that the whole is incompatible. Tokyo suburbs can feel untouched, although the centre shows that neon and steel will eventually supplant everything else.
It’s something most written SF got wrong too. ‘Fahrenheit 451’ feels firmly set in the 1950s just as Joe Haldeman’s SF soldier sagas reflect the 1970s. But the future will be a more exaggerated version of the present, polymorphous, polyglot, poly-everything.
Some examples: In Barcelona a 14th century market called Encants Vells, or the Mercat de Bellcaire, got an extreme futurist makeover, with cantilevered walkways under a glistening metal roof that plays tricks with sunlight.
Yet its interior, which needed to entice passers-by into shopping for bric-a-brac and antiques, is completely hidden from the road, and manages to be as traditional as it gets. It’s a very neat trick that combines two worlds.
In London, the Square Mile of the old financial city is being swallowed up by glass boxes, but many have been forced to keep to the traditional layout of alleyways and courtyards. The problem is that the old and new styles do not complement each other, because developers have been allowed to trample history flat. In London, money is king and it doesn’t matter if everyone else is shoved out.
The contrast with other European cities is striking; Much of Italy and France has been disfigured by random blocks of futuristic nothingness, the most shocking being the grotesque rebuilding of Les Halles in Paris. In some ways protected towns have suffered the worst. In Luca and Rome, the ground floors of old buildings are stuffed with high-end trash shops that accidentally remove all trace of heritage.
In Spain the residents are largely in control. Whenever a new park or market opens in Barcelona (a surprisingly frequent event) it caters to its barrio, less to big business, which is carefully managed. Here’s another example of the future touching the past. Sandwiched between 19th century buildings and modernist housing is a century-old railway terminal, so that three distinct eras are revealed in a backstreet.
And if we haven’t quite managed jetpacks and floating cafés we do have hoverboards and futurism nestling nicely beside the refitted buildings of the past. But the future must be managed with intelligence and not allowed to build itself.