PRINT December 1985


Science continuously struggles against the realism of language and the realism of the imagination.
—Maurice Blanchot

IN THE LATE 19th century, and coinciding, significantly, with the formation of the modern myth of the metropolis and the appearance of the skyscraper, a new theme appears in the visual universe of images of the city and its architecture: the way buildings are shown rising into the air suggests an ideal of freeing them from their foundations in the earth. This fantasy of ascension ultimately describes buildings hovering in the sky, released from the constraints of gravity and the ground. The theme, at once both disorienting and Icarian, informs a varied series of images which share a common sense of wonder. Beyond its elements of the fictional and the fantastic, however, the idea of the flying city appears in philosophical and utopian literature long before finding its way into the popular genres of contemporary visual narrative.

As early as 414 BC Aristophanes devised the land of Cuckoonebulopolis, which hangs between earth and heaven, as the site of the ferocious satire on the life of the Athenian polis in his play Ornithes (Birds). More than 2,000 years later, in the vein of utopian novels inaugurated by Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516)—what he called his “libellus vere aureus” (True golden notebook)—Jonathan Swift explored the kingdom of Laputa, a flying island, in Gulliver’s Travels (1726). The scholars who live in this version of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis are apparently devoted to scientific and technological progress, to the betterment of the quality of life; but these academic inventors—possessed by a scientific spirit that prevents them from eating without giving geometrical shapes to their food, and immersed in futile research (how to make excrement edible, for example)—inhabit their flying country in ruin and wretchedness.

These two examples of airborne lands are representative in their diversity. Paradise, or heaven on earth, is lost, so it remains to transport the earth to the heavens: to imagine utopian places suspended in time and space—comforting eutopias, philosophical outopias, distopias reflecting social criticism.

The passage between the Victorian and the modern age was an era of invention, of daring engineering and the promise of a beneficent industrial progress. In this context our theme takes an increasingly technological look. The Promethean extension of technological dominion over the world, the challenge to the envious gods that defines the modern tradition, brings about a change from the flying island to the flying object. The aircraft becomes the paradigm—even if, at first, notions of its structure are taken from ships, from the idea of “floating buildings” at sea.

Images of buildings as flying machines and of the city in space run through the iconography of architecture up to and beyond the mid 20th century, appearing in various media from illustration to comics, from cinema to television, and also surfacing in actual architectural projects. Throughout, however, such images insist on an element of fiction; in the tradition of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, they tend to reiterate hypothetical styles of the future.

Air versus Earth

Architecture in the American superhero comics suggests a manichaean opposition between earth and air, even when it does not literally float. A narrative expedient more than a clever vulgarization of futuristic science, the architecture of the comics develops a rhetoric of the skyscraper as the link between sky and earth, mediator between the crystalline power of the superhero and the impure, earth bound world of the human, the mediocre. The acrobatics of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and others find their scenic counterpart in unnatural representations of buildings that lack a direct perspectival relationship to the ground, indicating and emphasizing an atmosphere, a spirit, of superiority on the part of the hero. Constrained by the Newtonian limitations of gravity, the pedestrian public shares in the confrontations of the main protagonists only through observation, and from a distance. The same distance separates the aerial “flying gardens” of the city in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (927) from the labyrinthine regions below, in the architecture’s shadowy foundations. The film is an unsettling fusion of expressionist distortions and futuristic machines.

Evil Wings

The saga of Flash Gordon is a play on the four basic elements: earth (in the crashing of the spaceship into the planet Mongo), water (the unhappy city of the Sharkmen), air (the prison city of the Hawkmen), and fire (the abyss where the Dragonmen perform their unmentionable rites). The “Kingdom of the Hawkrnen” episode (1934) is the most complex and fascinating of the four. The Hawkmen’s aerial city challenges the inventiveness of the Flash Gordon cartoonist, Alex Raymond, who creates dazzling baroque decors to convey a plausible architecture for flying beings. The openings that are simultaneously doors and windows, the sudden breaks in perspective, the scenic function and therefore patently “false” geometry of Raymond’s city—these recall the hyperdimensional spaces of M.C. Escher’s work. The city of the Immortals in one of Jorge Luis Borges’ stories also comes to mind:

The corridor extended without exit, the high unreachable window, the enormous door that opened onto a cell or a well, the incredible upside-down stairs with the steps and railing at the bottom. Others, in the air adjacent to a monumental wall, ended without reaching any point, after two or three turns in the upper shadows of the domes.

Like the profane architecture of the Borgesian labyrinth, the city of the Immortals, the work of mad gods, is profoundly evil in its “mistaken geometry.” And the Hawkmen are compelled to evil by the very nature of their citadel: to keep it aloft, they must press nonwinged beings into forced labor on an enormous atomic furnace. Amid a swarming mass of workers, the doctor Hans Zarkov explains to Gordon, “Here is the secret of how the Hawkmen support their city, five thousand feet above the ground! They burn radium in these atom furnaces to make great beams of polarized anti-gravity light! Solidified light rays.” Later, Zarkov—a positive version of the academic Laputian—will “free” the Hawkmen by designing a less demanding antigravitational system.

Surreal Bricolages

The aerial polis of the Hawkmen remains intimately connected to tectonic gravity and the earth’s grip upon construction. Just as the flying fortress of Verne’s Robur le Conquérant (Robur the conqueror, 1886) is closer to a steamship than to an aircraft (the author simply translates the vocabulary of nautical science to the skies), so the Hawkmen’s city comprises a series of urban fragments that hover in space not because of their unique composition, but through the ex machina expedient of shining, luminous pilotis, tall supporting columns. This antigravitational city, structurally a far cry from the scientific engineering of space stations, is a sort of architectural bricolage, then, with a clear surrealist influence. Later comics continue the surrealist theme; a good example is a ’60s episode of Sidney Jordan’s Jeff Hawke comic, in which an ordinary car—an old Morris Mini, in fact, roughly sealed with adhesive tape—probes interplanetary depths. The driver of this odd bricolage vehicle has discovered the secret of conquering gravity by use of a gyroscope.

Science Fantasy

Spaceships artificially simulate gravity through revolutions on their own axes. In Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) the crew of the spaceship Discovery exercise by running in a huge circle along the wall of their wheel-shaped craft; the Cartesian structure of floor and wall, horizontal and vertical plane, is altered, with large implications for traditional ideas of order and hierarchy. Antigravity, on the other hand, in which cities or buildings simply lift off, with no change in form, decontextualizes without affecting hierarchies. For example, the science fiction novelist James Blish’s cycle of “Cities in Flight” stories (1955–62) goes no farther than decontextualization. As Magritte, in Le Château des Pyrénées (The château of the Pyrénées, 1950), floats an uprooted mountain and castle in the sky, so Blish imagines that once the trick of antigravity has been discovered, “moving a small boat or a mountain does not entail much difference: entire cities will rise up in flight and will be transported to other planets.” Blish thus detaches the island of Manhattan from the ground and places it at the command of the Falstaffian John Amalfi, whose astonishing feats end with the annihilation of the universe, followed by its demiurgic reconstruction. Consistently with a certain cryptographic taste typical of the science fiction of the ’50s, the flying city’s antigravity machines are called “spindizzies”: “spin” refers to the magnetic polarity of electrons, “dizzy” indicates vertiginous rotation. Thus a “spindizzy” captures electrons and spins them in such a way that other magnetic fields repel them.

Wanderers in Space

If Blish coined the term “spindizzy” in an attempt to give scientific credibility to the idea of the antigravitational city, the title often colloquially applied to his “Cities in Flight” cycle clarifies the nomadic implications of his thought—the word “Okie,” the name given to fugitives from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma in the ’30s. In contrast to later antigravitational ascensions—in Cecilia Holland’s book Floating Worlds (1976), for example—Blish’s “history of the future” is powered by a utopian tension, the idea of the search for a better world. It is worth noting that his classic work A Case of Conscience (1953), the description of a confrontation between humans and an extraterrestrial race that has created a perfect society, is on solid utopian turf. For Blish, whose last book before he died, in 1975, was about Roger Bacon, the 13th-century English doctor mirabilis, the significance of antigravity is that it detaches the metropolis from the ground; it preserves the shape and size of the city, but condemns it to wandering. Back on Earth it’s different: while John Amalfi’s Manhattan is out in space, penetrating the Magellanic Large Cloud but retaining its physical shape, the Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982) shows a chaotic rearrangement of air and earth, light and shadow.

The Floating ’20s

Occasional developments in the avant-garde art and architecture of the early decades of the 20th century touch on our discussion. The utopian ideas propounded in Germany after World War I by architects such as Bruno Taut, in his Die Auflösung der Städte (The cities’ solution, 1920), reflect a kind of late-romantic yearning, which in fact runs through all Taut’s work and through that of his spiritual brothers in the Gläserne Kette (Glass chain) group—Hermann Finsterlin, Paul Goesch, Walter Gropius, Wenzel Hablik, Carl Krayl, the brothers Hans and Wassily Luckhardt, Hans Scharoun, and Max Taut. For the most part the group’s ideas found outlets only in graphic works. Their drawings were inspired by the medium of glass—a material whose use was expanding through new industrial techniques, and whose transparency seemed to hold a moral and ethical promise; by the polish of the noble metals, which the architects imagined condensed into starlike structures, flying carousels, and floating colonies; and by the organic shapes of nature, which suggested an architecture that replaced the usual geometries with unstable biomorphisms or with rocky, crystalline forms, receptacles for the Erdgeist (the earth spirit). The thinking of the fantastical writer Paul Scheerbart, in his book Glasarchitektur (1914), was a strong influence: here Scheerbart wrote of “the beauty of the earth when glass architecture will be present everywhere. . . . We will have paradise on earth, and we will no longer feel the need to look with nostalgia at heavenly paradise.” This same Scheerbart was the author of many visionary stories, including Der Kaiser von Utopia (1904), which describes a future of movable cities in which people meet in aerial restaurants transported by balls that “continually [go] up and down in the air, forming interesting combinations and giving the precise sensation of a mobile architecture." In the preface to Cyclus Architektur (Cycle architecture, 1925), a selection of his graphic work, Hablik concurs with a medley of the ideas that nourished the Gläserne Kette group:

Constructions above and below the earth, in the mountains, in the desert, in the sea, and in the air. Victory of technology and industry over the superficialities of everyday life and business. Great tasks for everyone. . . . Buildings for the struggle against the resistance of the elements.

More than anyone else it is Finsterlin who recognizes the Promethean implications of the “nostalgia for the future” in these fragments of utopia:

But tell me, is the fairytale not an eternal nostalgia with all of us—the eternal morningsong of advancing history, our most fruitful incentive for an image of the future Earth? Does not the fairytale harbor all prototypes of the superman? Have we not forced the winged steed of steel with steering rod from the Thousand and One Nights into the daily reality of our life and snatched the lightning out of Zeus’ godly hand?

Antigravitational Agitprop

A different inspiration feeds constructivist work, from Holland through Germany to the Soviet Union, from Theo van Doesburg to El Lissitzky. The constructivists’ investigations of formal objectivity use the signs of technology to reinforce their depiction of modern productivism: dirigibles and airplanes, trellises and jutting metal structures populate images of objects engaged in their own “construction.” Similarly, these artists borrow scientific formulas and phrases to give their work the aura of objective truth. To discuss a four-dimensional entity in terms of a mathematical model is not to say that one believes in its presence, any more than telling stories about unicorns means that one assumes the real existence of such creatures; it is interesting, however, that van Doesburg, in 1924, explicitly refers to the poly dimensional ideas of the 19th-century mathematician Charles Howard Hinton, a convinced believer in four-dimensional space, to clarify certain ideas in the artist’s Towards a Plastic Architecture:

The new architecture is anti-cubic, i.e., it does not strive to contain the different functional space cell in a single closed cube, but it throws the functional space . . . out from the center of the cube, so that height, width, and depth plus time become a completely new plastic expression in open spaces. In this way architecture . . . acquires a more or less floating aspect which, so to speak, runs counter to the natural force of gravity.

Van Doesburg’s vision of a centrifugal antigravity finds a reverse echo in a late constructivist manifesto by Iakov Chernikov, who sees a centripetal dynamism in constructivism: “The elements, uniting into a new whole, form a construction when they take root in one another, grapple together, jam against one another—that is, when they manifest active participation in the motion of unification.”

Megastructural Imagination

It wasn’t until the late ’50s and early ’60s that an architectural movement revived an interest in these themes and in the visual tools of the early avant-garde, tentatively reiterating a “futurist reconstruction of the universe” on an urban scale. These are the years of the English group Archigram (Peter Cook, Ron Herron, and their associates), an angry young generation in radical opposition to the metropolis as it had come to manifest itself. Manfredo Tafuri has written (in L’arte moderna, 1977),

Yet the problem is no longer to introduce fragments of built utopias into environments that are only marginally touched by them, but to overturn the laws of formation of that very environment, through projects that refute every mediation of reality. . . . Thus we are faced with a nostalgia for the future which, however much it is expressed by ironic graphic divertissements, rejects in myth those same dynamics from which it draws inspiration.

Resistance to the contemporary metropolis is ultimately impotent, however, and is sublimated in exploration of the hypertechnological chaos. To counter the barbarisms of Moloch, the pages of Archigram’s magazine are full of references to comics and science fiction, from the biomorphic “Walking City” 1963, to the ephemeral “Plug-In City,” 1964. The group’s varied repertory of architectural fantasies, unstable settlements for the nomadic communities of the global village, embodies a mystical but playful interpretation of the universe of new technology. The popularity and rapid spread of these mechanistic fantasies suggest the significance of a theme that recurs in the suspended cities of Paul Maymont, the undifferentiated grids of Yona Friedman, the surreal structures of the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa and the Metabolist group, the metaphysical exercises of the Italian groups Archizoom and Superstudio, Stanley Tigerman’s instant cities, Ettore Sottsass Jr.’s festive plants, the post-Frank Lloyd Wright tectonic organicism of Paolo Soleri, and the solitary investigations of R. Buckminster Fuller. As a reaction to oppressive urban dynamics—a kind of delayed exorcism of them—these architects and designers indulge in an orgy of different structures: suspended, flying, spiral, cellular, elastic, tensile, pneumatic, geodesic. Icarus is lost, disappearing in the labyrinthine babel of a metropolis that is beginning to dissolve into images of itself.

Sergio Polano teaches architectural history at the Istituto Universitario d’Architettura Venezia and is currently working on a book about exhibition design. Pierpaolo Vetta is a graphic designer who lives in Trieste; he is currently working on “Trouver Trieste,” an exhibition for the Centre Georges Pompidou, in Pans.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.