One of the things I tell students in composition courses is this: everything begins as an idea in someone’s head. Every piece of furniture, or article of clothing, or road, or game, or book, all the things we touch and covet and take for granted in our home and community—all of them began first as a dream in someone’s head.
Our human environment is completely imaginary. It’s this shared dream where people who wish to pull ideas out of their head find ways to convince others to make something real. Architecture is a very pure form of that impulse, that makes monumental things and also very quotidian ones. It paints the background of our lives and impacts the environment and community in ways obvious and subtle. As writers and/or readers of the literature that imagines the future, the bedrock of any future human state is going to be written in the walls and floors.
Architecture is also an important reflection of historical times and places. Castles and palaces are more than just a backdrop for adventure—people lived their whole lives inside of them, and around them. There was a material reality to them that reflected the craftsmanship of the period, and thereby speaks to the material possibilities of the past. Realism, in our imaginary worlds, is perhaps too much to ask all the time, but it can fill in the canvas a little more in our minds when we have inside our heads a concept of realism. And, of course, in a time where every stone was laid by hand, and measured in human sweat, nothing is ever truly wasted, and every piece has a purpose. But for now, I’m not going to discuss any of the excellent documentaries exploring the construction of ancient castles or pyramids. I am interested, today, in sharing some documentaries that I found helpful or interesting in terms of reading and writing science fiction….
Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio, directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas (2010)
Architecture and design, as concepts, are often associated with elegance and expense. But, as the film explains, we have a housing crisis in this country, where inadequate housing, or no housing, is omnipresent for huge segments of our population, while architects chase after the small pool of commissions available among wealthy patrons. Samuel Mockbee upended that model with his work, teaching his students to go where the need is greatest and to find ways to use design to improve even the humblest of lives in rural Mississippi and Alabama. Haunted all his life by the specter of segregation, Sam Mockbee, both as an artist and designer, sought for ways to repair the damage of racism in the South.
His great expression of this, his Rural Studio program—a design school for young architects-in-training based at Auburn University—works directly with the most impoverished and neglected communities in West Alabama. It’s fascinating because it rethinks what our small towns will look like, what materials will be used, and how modern styles of design can integrate into a very conservative, rural, and neglected community in ways that actually improve the lives of the community. The documentary doesn’t do a very good job, I think, in giving full credit to the intelligence of the people that are being served, but this only paints the systemic racism in a deeper light. For example, there’s a man in town expressing doubts about the Rural Studios architects, and complaining that they haven’t built the new fire station. Then toward the end of the film, when the station is built, he praises it. In the film, he’s given no background beyond appearing as a local character, while in life, this man actually has a Master’s Degree in Education, and his opinions about the project, and change of heart is never explored—he’s simply there to provide some limited local color.
Still, there are ideas and lines from this film that stay with me. One architect suggests that he doesn’t need to speak or know his clients to design for them. The clients don’t have the training or the knowledge that the architect has. And, no doubt, that particular architect could not even imagine how a client like Jimmie Lee Matthews (better known as Music Man) lives, and how to make Music Man’s life better on the smallest of budgets, without passing judgment or denigrating his lifestyle. Another architect claims that he could design a house, presumably that you would love and think was wonderful, where he can make you get a divorce. And, the more I think about the way the decrepit buildings paint and shape the possibility of rural Alabama, the more I think that architect is right. Systemic racism has built a house that will irrevocably destroy its inhabitants, in every building, in every town. The Rural Studio is certainly Utopian in its vision, and I find that a recurring theme in architecture. Schools and movements and designers are always striving for that pure form of humanist life, where everything is made better, and where design has the potential to heal very old wounds left by old and outdated ways of thinking.
Built on Narrow Land, directed by Malachi Connolly (2013)
Artistic movements in architecture are often Utopian in their impulses, as I mentioned. This film explores the utopian community. Modernism, Brutalism, Bauhaus, all these sorts of things, began as genuinely Utopian visions for how societies could or should be engineered to make homes and buildings a better steward of human energy. This film explores the little community that formed around experimental handmade cottages made by star architects and designers—now abandoned, existing as ruins in a beautiful national park in Massachusetts—and the strong idealist bonds formed there.
So much of American and Australian architecture carries a desire to reject the worst excesses of classism and elitism in European traditions and to build something new, with new materials and new ideas and new social structures. Utopianism is a foundational impulse in both architectural theory and science fiction traditions. People with such good intent never quite see the full outcome of what they may produce, and these proud and eccentric cottages are no exception.
10 Buildings That Changed American Architecture (2013 PBS documentary)
For the person who doesn’t know very much about American-style vernacular building design, this very fast-paced documentary paints broad brush strokes around some of the most influential buildings and figures on vernacular American style, leaving stylistic fingerprints all over your city and community. It includes Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia State Capitol, the first invention of the American mall’s failed utopian vision, and a building probably most people outside of the architecture field don’t know, the Vanna Venturi House, that has helped paint vast swaths of Middle America with corny concrete curlicues and cornices and whatnot—all pure ornamental facade. Once you see this film for the first time, it’s hard to unsee the influence of these ten buildings in the cities all around us. It’s hardly as in-depth or detailed as it could be; much information is pressed into tidy packaging that leaves out a lot of important details. However, it’s still a useful place to begin. And, it demonstrates how the influence of one design, at the right moment, with the right materials and the right team, can transform the way all things after it are made for a good, long while.
“Bjarke Ingels: Architecture”—Episode 4, Season 1 of Abstract: The Art of Design (Netflix, 2017)
Current expressions of forward-thinking design are not just trying to build big, impressive structures, but to build sustainable buildings that bring the lived human experience closer to nature, to community, to tranquility. It’s a strange thing to consider when looking upon the massive mounds of glass and steel boxes designed by the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and his team. But in all of his major works, Ingels always puts his utopian vision of human connection to nature and each other at the heart of his big, angular, and muscular structures.
For example, he has built a green power plant for Copenhagen that doubles as a ski slope for the community. His first famous structure was called, by some, the “Tetris” building for how it incorporated different shapes of apartments to save costs around a corridor, but the building is officially called “The Mountain” and it looks like one, with every apartment having a terrace with a garden and grand views off to the horizon. Ingels’ very futuristic-seeming designs speak to, I think, the coming era, where every new monumental structure must be extremely carbon-conscious, and seek creative solutions to make sure that access to nature, to community-building, and old ideas of villages and public greenspace will transition successfully into the near future, at least, of building design.
Monty Don’s Paradise Gardens (BBC All3, Acorn TV, 2018)
Landscape architecture is architecture, and a significant part of architecture. Altering the ground to shape it into something more amenable to human habitation is a very important thing, indeed. In this series (trailer here), venerable television host and garden enthusiast Monty Don goes on a tour of historic and beautiful “paradise gardens” across the Islamic world, trying to understand and learn from them and see what modern designers can glean from these extraordinary oases in the dry and hot regions of Africa and the Middle East. It’s at once a history lesson and a design lesson, which makes it fascinating to both my interest in historical design and futurism.
The way gardens were integrated with palace design both out of necessity in a dry climate, and as a bold statement of power and influence, is fascinating to see from the clean-cut grass of the vacuous suburban lawns around my home. When Monty Don walks along the raised pathways above the orange trees in a palace older than Spain, I can easily imagine him on Mars, in some colony setting, and everything in the scene looking about the same. We take so much inspiration as designers and gardeners from those designers and gardeners that came long before us, who solved the very same problems we need to solve. I suspect, when we finally set foot on Mars, our gardens will eventually be indistinguishable from the gardens of Earth in all the ways that matter.
I almost chose the 2018 documentary about horticulturalist Frank Cabot’s garden in Canada, The Gardener, as #5, which explores one man’s private garden, his thinking and philosophy about gardening and design, and how he worked years constructing it, but though it is absolutely fascinating as a study of an artist and his private expression of vision and beauty and emotion in landscape architecture, it’s not quite as applicable to the work of science fiction and fantasy readers and writers as Monty Don’s lesson in both history and current expressions of culture. It’s a difficult choice, indeed, though, so I mention Frank Cabot, here, as a bonus addendum.
Also, fans of the author Douglas Copeland would be well-advised to watch the architecture documentary Coast Modern, where he appears to talk about his family’s love of mid-century Modernism, and the ever-present specter of utopianism in home design appears again and again.
As writers and readers, we are always pushing up against the edges of structures real and imaginary, and exploring how those structures push back against us, in their way, can be a useful exercise. That this is such a short list, and so US/Eurocentric, is a bit of a disappointment, though—I hope readers can share with me excellent books and documentaries that can teach me more outside of the European and American tradition!
Joe M. McDermott is the author of nine books, including The Fortress at the End of Time (Tordotcom 2017), Never Knew Another (Night Shade 2011) and Maze (Apex Publications, 2014). He also co-owns the small press Vernacular Books where he edits books, including Evil in Technicolor (2020), which was on Kirkus Magazine‘s Indie 100 Best List of 2020. He lives in San Antonio, TX, in the same basic suburban house for many years.