The City Imagined on Film

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Unbuilt Washington surveys architectural paths not taken; some seem unthinkable beside the iconic forms actually built. Skyscraper designs appear particularly strange—revealing how a limit on building heights not only altered Washington’s skyline, but also expectations for how the capital should appear. In contrast, the cinematic city of the imagination is a place where limits are usually left in the dust.

Skyscrapers, elevated highways, electronic devices—the 1930s city of the future is not far from that of today. Yet, futuristic films of the Depression era reflect keenly on challenging times, shading the possibilities of technology with a strong dose of ideological zeal. The film that established the design vocabulary for these, and other futuristic films to follow, is Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis—unsurpassed in its artistic vision of a dystopian urban society.

The 1960s ushered in another era in which the city was re-imagined on film. Instead of being a place of technological wonderment, the city is more often a trap from which to escape. This is not surprising given growing fears about population growth, crumbling urban infrastructure, and threats to the environment.

Films of this time express the unease of industrialized society. The modern environments in Welles’ surrealist adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial (1962) and Tati’s satirical comedy Playtime (1962) are both mazelike and maddening, though with very different effects. Similarly, the technological utopias seen in George Lucas’ first film THX-1138 (1971) and the cult classic Logan’s Run (1976) are both efficient to a fault, hiding dark secrets that force individuals to abandon the conformist “prison” of the city for the wilderness beyond.

A tension between wonder and fear appears almost any time the city has been imagined on screen. When the question of the future—of what may be built, lost, or is yet to come—is added to the equation, the tension grows. Beautiful environments are designed, only to be exposed as hostile fronts; scientists and engineers are celebrated, only to have their handiwork rebel or backfire. Science fiction is clearly much more about the present than the future – helping reveal the concerns of an evolving urban reality.