Dystopian Nightmares
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Dystopian Nightmares

Modernists designed ‘ideal’ cities using the rhetoric of Utopia, but these schemes eventually came to be seen as social failures and proved that the idea of a perfect society may well be impossible. The concept of Utopia spawned the alternative proposition - dystopia. A dystopia is a negative utopia: a malfunctioning world. No one has attempted to actually build a dystopia, but the concept has been used as a metaphor to explore anxieties within culture and society.

My previous article examined the concept of Utopia, the ideal society. Modernists designed ‘ideal’ cities using the rhetoric of Utopia, but these schemes eventually came to be seen as social failures and proved that the idea of a perfect society may well be impossible. The concept of Utopia spawned the alternative proposition - dystopia. A dystopia is a negative utopia: a malfunctioning world. No one has attempted to actually build a dystopia, but the concept has been used as a metaphor to explore anxieties within culture and society.

In particular, it has influenced the way the future has been imagined in science fiction. Science fiction takes trends that can be observed in the present, projects them into the future and exaggerates them in order to comment on them in a metaphorical way. Dystopian representations of the future can be used to explore contemporary anxieties – such as crime, pollution or political oppression. The future worlds of science fiction are nightmarish reflections of the contemporary world.

For example, Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis is a depiction of unchecked technological expansion. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World both envisage totalitarian societies, along with Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. Blade Runner presents a polluted, post-industrial wasteland, reflecting the ecological concerns of the 1970s and 80s. These all depict malfunctioning worlds of the near future and again they reflect contemporary anxieties.

The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Hugh Ferriss created a dystopian vision of New York. Ferriss (1889-1962) was an architectural delineator - someone who creates perspective drawings of buildings. He trained as an architect at Washington University, but early in his career he began to specialize in architectural renderings of other architects' work rather than designing buildings himself. Architects often found that clients could not read architectural plans, so they employed delineators to produce drawings that were more dramatic and persuasive.

Ferriss arrived in New York in 1912 and was employed as a delineator for Cass Gilbert, architect of the Woolworth Building, a skyscraper in the Gothic style. Some of his earliest drawings are of Gilbert’s Woolworth Building.

By the 1920s, Ferris had moved away from creating flattering images of real buildings to a deep imaginative engagement with the city. During the Depression skyscrapers came to symbolize the great discrepancy of wealth in American society. They were citadels of the rich, unreachable by normal people. Ferris produced a series of images in which the city appears cold and abstract. Skyscrapers are bathed in darkness and have a stern monumentality, like prismatic tombs. He presented the buildings at night, lit up by spotlights or shrouded in fog. They express our feeling that there is something cold and inhuman about skyscrapers. They are arrogant symbols of power in which humans have no place.

Ferriss published the images in a book called The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929). They create a powerful dystopian representation of the city. Ferriss wrote the text of the book and it’s very poetic, evoking the symbolic power of the skyscraper. This refers to the crystalline, facetted forms, the lack of historical detail, and the cold, inhuman quality. Ferriss’s work has been analysed in a book by Dietrich Neumann called Architecture of the Night.

Fahrenheit 451

The film Fahrenheit 451 was based on a novel by Ray Bradbury (1953), which was originally published in serial form in Playboy Magazine. The film was directed by Francois Truffaut, a great French director who was one of the founders of the Nouvelle Vague or New Wave, an influential movement in French cinema. It was his first film in colour and the only one he made in the English language.

The film depicts a society of the future in which books are outlawed. The official reason is that books make people unhappy. This world is supposed to be a Utopia: unhappiness has been eradicated; equality has been established and everyone lives a life of leisured consumption; the architecture is Modernist. However, the film reveals the inherent problems of a utopian society. The world is ruled by a totalitarian state. The real reason books are banned is that they encourage individuality, independent thought and creativity – all of which make people difficult to control.

The film was largely shot in England against a backdrop of Modernist architecture. It featured the Alton housing estates in Roehampton, South London and also Edgcombe Park in Berkshire. These environments are presented in a very specific way, and the film thereby contributes to the discourse of Modernism in popular culture.


Modernism had always been controversial in Britain, but by the 1950s it had become the official architecture of the Welfare State. Towns and cities had been devastated during the war. The need to build thousands of new homes had given Modernism a central role in post-war public policy. Alton East and West estates in Roehampton were pioneering examples of British Modernism. The design was a homage to Le Corbusier. Both estates stand in Richmond Park, an area of green space on the outskirts of London. The tower blocks are set amongst trees and parkland, just as Le Corbusier had envisioned.

Alton West imported a version of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation to Britain. The original Unité included recreational facilities, meeting rooms and a central enclosed ‘street’. At Alton West, the plans were less ambitious, but still included gallery access to each of the five blocks in the estate. The aesthetic is based on harsh concrete. There were problems with the environment. Alton East and West were isolated from decent transport infrastructure, and suffered from vandalism in the 1970s.

A scene shot at Roehampton

The film is useful for our purposes because of the way it represents Modernist architecture. By the 1960s Modernism was seen as a revolution that went wrong. There was a popular and critical backlash. Modernist environments were seen as dehumanising and impersonal. The film taps into these concerns. Modernist environments are associated with a repressive regime in which individuality has been crushed.

Montag lives in a Modernist suburbia. The houses are regimented and identical. This was filmed at Edgecumbe Park in Berkshire. The interiors are also significant. Montag’s house is full of modern consumer goods. They have a wall screen which features only one programme, The Family. The programme creates the illusion that viewers can interact with it. The dream is to have four wall screens to be completely immersed in the programme, which suggests that it is used for brain washing and propaganda. This is not too dissimilar from our preference for wide-screen TVs and reality shows.

The film's sinister TV announcer

In contrast, Clarisse lives in a quaint Tudor-style house, which looks like a relic in the context of the film. They do not have a TV (Montag notices that there is no aerial on the roof). Instead, the inhabitants talk to each other, which suggests close family relationships. Montag’s relationship with his wife seems emotionally distant (even though she’s played by Julie Christie). The other characters who continue to read books live in old houses as well. The past is associated with emotion, independence and freedom.

The ban on literature suppresses independent thought and imagination. Everyone is docile and childlike. Another method is medication. Linda controls her emotions through self-medication. The drugs are not labelled; they’re just colour-coded like children’s sweets. This emphasises the notion of a naïve, docile populace controlled by a paternalistic authority. The state also uses propaganda. The state controls the media and broadcasts fake footage of Montag’s capture to show that transgressions are punished.

The public perception of Modernism was that it was authoritarian, repressive and that it denied individuality, so the film reinforces this perception. It used British Modernism as a backdrop of a repressive, totalitarian regime in which individuality has been crushed. The film suggests that a utopian, rationally-planned environment inevitably becomes a repressive dystopia.

Film Noir

Dystopian representations of the city occur in cinema, especially in film noir. Film Noir was a cycle of films made in America in the late 1940s and 50s. The term is French for ‘black film’. During the war, American films were not shown in Europe, but afterwards these films were seen for the first time. French critics were surprised by the new tone of cynicism and the new visual style in these films, so they labeled them films noirs.

Bogart gets into a scrape with Bacall in The Big Sleep, but at least he's still smokin'.

Film noir has fatalistic storylines about blackmail, murder and corruption. The characters are victims of fate; they are powerless to change their situation and usually end up dead in the gutter. Film noir is usually set in the city and it depicts the underside of urban life. The iconography revolves around city streets at night, neon lights, lurid clubs and alleys. The streets are usually slick with rain, even in LA. The city is portrayed as a den of vice, crime and corruption.

The Hollywood screenwriter Paul Schrader wrote a brilliant essay on film noir. He defined the visual style and the dark, cynical tone. The visual style was inspired by German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s. Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had a unique visual style: stark black and white with deep shadows and jagged compositions. Forms were distorted to suggest psychological derangement.

Many German film technicians fled to Hollywood to escape persecution by the Nazis. Directors and cinematographers began to use expressionistic techniques in American cinema. This influence can be observed in horror films and in film noir. The characteristics of film noir are the stark lighting with deep shadows. The composition is often broken up by sharp diagonal lines, making it unstable, suggesting that characters are caught in a trap. Characters are often hidden in shadow, as if they are overwhelmed by their environment.

Gotham City

The influence of film noir spread to comic books. We tend to think that comic books are unworthy of academic study, but they are part of culture and contribute to cultural discourse. The Batman comic began in 1939 and it was much grittier and more urban than any other comic of its time. Batman is set in Gotham City, which forms a powerful image of dystopia. The word ‘Gotham’ actually means a huge, oppressive city.

These are panels from 1945, showing a strong film noir influence. They depict the city at night, with the iconography of the full moon, silhouetted buildings and expressionistic use of shadows like film noir. But it’s also very gothic. The city is populated by gangsters and grotesque, violent psychopaths.

By the 1970s Batman had become more sophisticated. The artwork was expressionistic. This is a panel from the 70s. A city street is presented as a gaping chasm, murky and mysterious. The text conveys the noirish atmosphere of the city. This is very arcane and gothic. Batman writer Dennis O'Neil said that ‘Batman's Gotham City is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November.’

In 1989 Gotham City was visualized in Batman the Movie, which was directed by Tim Burton. Burton has a strong visual sensibility and a unique vision. He said that he wanted Gotham to look as if hell had erupted through the streets and kept on going. The cinematic Gotham was designed by Anton Furst, who was born in London and studied at the Royal College of Art. This is a matte painting of Gotham City, which was actually used in a shot of the film.

Gotham is presented as a generic American city, but one without building regulations or zoning laws. Instead, it represents unchecked development. The production design is very eclectic – it refers to many architectural styles and movements of the 20th century. This is one of Furst’s production sketches. It uses the film noir iconography of slick city streets and glaring neon lights. The architecture is a grotesque hybrid of styles. You can see a traditional brownstone being overwhelmed by these gargantuan modern structures.

Much of the city has a heavy-duty industrial aesthetic. These buildings have a guts-on-the-outside look, with exposed pipes, ducts and external structural frames. This echoes buildings like the Pompidou Centre in Paris. This is the Axis chemical plant, where Jack Nicolson becomes the Joker. The industrial aesthetic was also influenced by Italian Futurism and the technological cityscapes of Antonio Sant’ Elia.

Fascist architecture was another component. Gotham’s civic architecture features oversized bombastic statues are typical of Fascist architecture, recalling the heroic statuary of Arno Brecker, Hitler’s favourite sculptor.

At the same time, the film has a strong Gothic atmosphere, which is appropriate for a city called Gotham. A key influence was the American architect Frank Furness, a Gothic Revival architect of the 19th century. His work was very muscular, with overbearing forms and crushing masses of stone. This is the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

The film ends with a climax reminiscent of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is the design for Gotham cathedral. Here the traditional Gothic cathedral has been exaggerated to form a weird skyscraper. It was inspired by the fantastical work of the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi. This is Gaudi’s cathedral of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

So the production design synthesizes all of these elements to form a fantastical city.

Mega City One

A dystopian future can be found in the British sci-fi comic 2000 AD, in which the main character is Judge Dredd, a lawman of the future. It’s set in a violent city where uniformed judges combine the powers of judge, jury and executioner. Judges are empowered to arrest, sentence and execute criminals on the spot. Judge Dredd was created by the writer John Wagner and the artist Carlos Ezquerra.

This is a post-apocalyptic world – society has been destroyed by a nuclear war. A new city called Mega City One has been built on the ruins of New York. Mega City One is a huge city-state covering much of the Eastern United States. It has a population of 800 million. This speculates on the possible consequences of the Cold War.

This is a dystopian vision of the future, but again it reflects the fears of the present. 2000 AD dramatises the anxieties associated with postmodernism. Different cultures have merged together to form one disorientating hybrid culture. The architecture is a hybrid of ultra-modern skyscrapers and industrial structures. The city is a polluted, post-industrial wasteland. This reflects a growing concern with the environment. Science fiction films of the 1970s were concerned with ecological issues.

2000 AD was founded in 1979. This was a time of political unrest with the riots in Brixton and Toxteth. The punk movement was at its height. The Thatcher government was calling for more powers for the police. Police in riot gear were highly visible during the 1984 Miners’ Strike. Judge Dredd was a satire on this situation. Dredd is presented as a near fascist and his uniform features an eagle. The uniform was designed by Carlos Esquerza, who is a Spanish artist. The eagle was the emblem of the Spanish Fascist party. So Dredd is not a hero; he’s a satirical figure.

Mega-City One's population lives in gigantic City Blocks, each holding fifty thousand or so people. The blocks are huge; each is like a city in itself. Each has a hospital, school, shopping district and so on. This echoes the Modernist ideal of mass housing blocks. We’ve looked at examples like Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habition in Marseilles, supposedly Utopian housing blocks that embodied the ideal of communal living. In Judge Dredd, this concept is pushed to a nightmarish extreme.


In conclusion, dystopia is an important concept. Many writers, artists and filmmakers have imagined dystopian worlds as a way of exploring contemporary anxieties. Film noir presented a dark vision of the city, which was echoed in Batman. Judge Dredd reflected the concerns of the 1970s and 80s – overpopulation, ecological crisis and cultural disorientation.

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Comments (10)

Very, very cool! Exceptional presentation.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, James.

Fantastic. Not everyone has the instinct to write a piece like this. Boy, I'd love hanging out with you.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, Ileen. That's a very nice comment.

I've always found the Dystopian branch of science fiction particularly thought-provoking. I've never watched the Fahrenheit 451 film, but I've read the book, and it's one of my favorites.

Great piece of work! The futuristic action film, 'Demolition Man' (with Sylvester Stallone) also conveyed how nightmarish a dystopia might actually be. Wonderful pictures, thanks.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, Naveen. You're right, Demolition Man is a great example ans Sandra Bullock's character is named Huxley, after Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, Caitlynn. The book is much better than the film, but I'm fascinated by the way the film uses Modernist architecture.

Michael, seems you've hit quite the live wire with this one! Good for you!

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, James. It's strange that people prefer dystopias to utopias, at least on this evidence!