By Gordon Rugg
This article is the first in a short series about what people would like their dream world to be like. Finding out what people would really like isn’t a simple matter of asking them. Most people only know about a limited number of possibilities, so their dreams tend to be correspondingly limited. When you introduce them to new possibilities, their dreams usually change dramatically, in scope and nature and aspiration. That’s what I’m exploring in this series of articles.
One way of introducing people to what’s possible is to show them pictures. The pictures don’t need to be of real scenes; often, the most interesting possibilities are the ones that are completely feasible, but that haven’t been built yet. So, one place to start is with images of imaginary scenes, in the form of fantasy landscapes and of architect’s drawings. In this article, I’ll look at common features in those scenes, to see what they tell us about those dream worlds. Some of the answers are surprising.
I envy the people in architect’s drawings and in the happier type of fantasy world (I’ll look at dystopias some other time). Their world is sunny and pleasant, full of contented people walking and standing elegantly in broad, inspiring plazas, in front of tall, impressive buildings that are clearly destined to win architectural awards. It’s a world where nobody gets caught in the rain, a world without graffiti or grime or the hassles of trying to negotiate a buggy and two small children through a narrow shop doorway in a crowded street.
It would be easy, and unkind, to write a humorous article on this theme. The full story is a lot more interesting, and has deep implications for how we think about the design both of buildings and of the human systems within which those buildings are located. It’s a story of the mathematics of desire, and of physical constraints, and of why we can’t know what we really want until we see it, and of what we can do about building this knowledge into the design process.
The easy targets
I’ll start with fantasy cities. Fantasy cities were not designed with bicycles in mind. Most sword and sorcery cities appear to have been designed by someone who saw a near-vertical hillside and thought: “Now that’s what I call a place to build a city”. Most high-tech ones feature superhighways and/or aircraft flying between the kilometre-high skyscrapers. Either way, if you’re on a bicycle, you’re not going to have a good day. The same goes for anyone with a wheelchair, or with a buggy plus a child or two, or with dodgy knees.
The buildings within those cities aren’t usually much better, when you start to think about the logistics of getting the shopping home, or doing the school run, or getting up the stairs with the shopping. They’re seriously big buildings. There’s an entire fascinating genre of fantasy paintings involving enormous doorways as the main feature, where the size of the building that goes with the doorway doesn’t bear thinking about.
Here’s an example. I’ve taken an arbitrary example of a doorway from that genre, and superimposed some indicators of scale over the doorway’s octagonal outline. (I got the approximate scale from some people in the foreground of the original painting; I’ve included a human silhouette of the same size in the bottom right of the doorway.)
It’s quite a doorway. You could set up Cleopatra’s Needle in it, with the Temple of Hephaistos alongside, and still have room for people to pass by. If you felt so inclined, you could fly a Learjet through it. Quite why you’d need a doorway that size is another question, but clearly there’s a good reason, since you see numerous similar-sized doorways, complete with doors to fit them, both in low-tech and high-tech fantasy worlds. As for the practicalities of repainting those doors when they get a bit tatty, or polishing the doorknob, or what happens when you lose the key, the mind starts to boggle.
In case you’re wondering about real-world doorways and gateways that were designed to impress, yes, there are some pretty impressive ones around, but when you look at them closely, you notice that most of the architecture acts as a big frame for a quite modestly sized space. How modest? Well, when Pompey the Great decided to have an elephant pull his chariot during his triumphal procession through ancient Rome, his plan went wrong because the elephant wouldn’t fit through the gateway into the city, much to the amusement of his political rivals. That’s the main triumphal gateway into the biggest city of the Western world at the time.
When you stop and think about it, having manageable-sized doors and gates makes a lot of sense from a practical viewpoint.
The same goes for buildings in general. Before the invention of the mechanical elevator, the maximum practical height for an office building was about eight floors, and the maximum practical height for a building that people lived in was about four floors. Beyond that, the amount of effort involved in slogging up and down the stairs was prohibitive, even aside from the structural engineering issues involved. It’s no accident that in eighteenth century mansions, the servants’ rooms were on the highest floor; the poorer you were, the more stairs you had to climb.
So, there were some sensible, practical limits to the heights of traditional architecture. However, realistic-sized edifices aren’t as dramatic as lofty towers and awe-inspiring huge portals wrought by ancient civilisations, so they don’t tend to feature much in fantasy cities. Life’s like that sometimes.
This, however, raises one of those issues which are so familiar that we seldom think about them. Just why are lofty towers and huge portals awe-inspiring in the first place?
Part of the explanation involves inbuilt biases in the human brain. That will be the topic of the next article in this series.
Notes and links
You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.
There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:
Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese
Overviews of the articles on this blog: