The Architecture of Science Fiction

The Architecture of Science Fiction: Urban Planning, Utopia, UC Irvine

Presented at UC Irvine’s Critical Theory Conference, 2011

Inspired by Alain de Botton, this essay explores how designers’ blueprints are hypotheses on ideal living.

The University of California, Irvine opened in 1965, four years after the first man traveled into space. The campus was designed in the late 1950s during a decade whose public imagination was dominated by technology and futurism. In the 1950s and 1960s, “science fiction writers, architects, and advertising mavens all thought that technologies could solve social problems,” a philosophy rife in contemporary media (Benford 21). The idea of a malleable future led those who constructed the narratives of mainstream consumer culture—like magazine publishers and city planners—to suggest vague ideals of progress as well as elements of social reform through their products. This philosophy is especially evident in the advertisements and speculative articles printed in domestic science-oriented publications. Issues of Popular Mechanics published in the 1950s, for example, used the allure of a technological future to both sell products and shape ideas. In an article from 1950 called “Miracles You’ll See in the Next Fifty Years,” Popular Mechanics used the framework of a hypothetical city called Tottenville to structure the social order they hoped for in 2000. This reading can be applied to the 1959 master plan of UC Irvine, which architect William Pereira conceived as a miniature city seamlessly joined with the surrounding town. Looking at imagined cities such as Tottenville and UCI conceptually—by focusing on the master plan and architectural school— shows how using a city to organize and express social ideals extends from the fiction of magazines to the reality of urban planning. Pereira, who designed the layout of UC Irvine as well as several core buildings like Langson Library, explicitly built these contemporary ideals of progress as well as his own values of nature and balance into the master plan of UCI. The way these ideals are presented to the public portrays the relationship between architecture and fiction in suggesting a narrative for an ideal life.

The Popular Mechanics article “Miracles You’ll See in the Next Fifty Years” introduces the city as a text to the domestic reader, forging a connection between built environments and narrative structure. The magazine encourages current-day citizens who have questions about the year 2000 to “read the answer in your home, in the streets, in the trains and in the cars that carry you to your work,” even “in the bargain basement of every department store” (Kaempffert 113). The emphasis on streets, trains and cars echoes the values of movement and communication inherent in the era. They are also commuter words, and when linked with the consumer details of bargains and department stores they emphasize the process of commerce as well as the role of transportation. The connection between movement and capitalism immediately sets up two contemporary social values hoped to manifest in the city of the future. By encouraging its audience to construct the future from the physical world of their current city, Popular Mechanics elevates those objects to symbols that suggest a narrative social guideline: in the city of the future, the current daily rituals of work and consumption will be easier to perform due to the efficiency of enhanced technology. Popular Mechanics suggests this by following the image of the current city with the main body of the article, which is a detailed look at a conceptual “new and improved” city of 2000.

Popular Mechanics uses this city, called Tottenville, as a rhetorical device for organizing the concept of a typical, ideal future. The article fictionalizes the environment further by introducing the Dobson family as a narrative device, a way of “visualizing the new world of A.D. 2000” and its “hypothetical metropolitan suburb” (Kaempffert 113). Within the city, the fictional characters guide the reader through the vision by giving readers a space to project into, a point of comparison. The family navigates modern living for the reader, and in doing so models what the article calls the ideal “pattern,” or plan, “of tomorrow’s world” (113).

The City of the Future in Popular Mechanics, 1950

The more physical master plan for Tottenville partitions space and assigns districts according to the performance of social roles. The airport, a network that symbolizes the ideals of movement and communication, is literally the core of the city’s circular master plan. The placement of the airport locates the designer’s ideals of movement and technology at the heart of Tottenville, amplifying the contemporary cars and trains currently integrated into most 1950s cities. Around the airport is the business district, and around the business district the residential areas expand in concentric circles. Citizens occupy the planned residential areas only. Mrs. Dobson does her shopping in one highly developed commercial area, while Mr. Dobson goes to work in a district hemmed in by factories. The plan includes nature; in Tottenville, “parks and playgrounds and green open spaces” abound, a detail that seems at odds with the technological ethos Tottenville has constructed (Kaempffert 113). However, it aligns with the master plan of the city in that Tottenville assigns the natural world designated squares around every building. There is no unassigned or spontaneous space in Tottenville. The conceptual master plan of this “sootless garden city” organizes social ritual into planned spaces associated with specific ideals, such as commerce and movement, deliberately structuring the behavior of its citizens (Kaempffert 113).

This city becomes like fiction through offering a specific narrative interpretation of social spaces and the social life that takes place within them. Tottenville especially mimics fiction by channeling the public imagination, synthesizing group idealizations of technology and the future into the rhetorical device of a city, ultimately proposing a pattern for the future. A master plan that places symbols of ideals progress and commerce at key locations suggests an awareness of contemporary values, and then projects those values into a future city organized and elevated by ideals.

In 1959, it was William Pereira’s object not just to design a university but also to create a contained and self-sustaining society. One year before the land purchase was finalized, a reporter for style=”font-size: medium;”>Time magazine followed Pereira around as he walked the empty Irvine Ranch. The writer is charmed by Pereira, who is called “the handsome man who can play such a godlike game,” a man who is “neither conqueror nor commissar, but one of a new breed of artisans arising in the world: the regional planner” (Time). This article explains the role of urban planner, emphasizing the job’s significance to the wide Time audience housed in the suburbs and tract towns. The article also ascribes attributes of omnipotence to the job with words like “godlike,” elevating the “plan” aspect of urban development to a guided way of thinking and living. Here, the job of the regional planner was to construct an intentional community in which residents could easily pursue ideal lives that united nature and technology. Pereira embraced this description. He said that “ideally, the new city will be a place in which the majority of people can work, sleep, eat and enjoy beauty in their surroundings” (Pereira 109). This dialogue with the popular media of Time magazinealludes to an almostutopian narrative of urban planning by casting Pereira as the reforming force behind the construction of the city of Irvine and UCI, which he envisioned as one unit.

Irvine was produced by a balance between nature and technological futurism, two halves meant to be integrated. Pereira absorbed the vague concepts of future represented by “Miracles You’ll See in the Next Fifty Years” and also envisioned a harmonious, nature-oriented campus. Pereira consciously used this binary of values as architectural material. In a manifesto on design called Architecture, Nature and the City, Pereira defined the architect’s role as a “reformer, interpreter of new needs, a critic of yesterday’s misconceptions” (Steele 22). The interpretive responsibility that Pereira places on the architect elevates him into the construction of social frameworks. The city/nature balance that Pereira valued prescribed the nature of those who would fill the campus, fulfilling Time magazine’s concept of the reforming regional planner. The campus itself was designed as an “urban forest” influenced by the architect Le Corbusier’s contemporary city (Anteater Antics). Pereira admired the balance of nature and sought to mimic it in towns, saying of Irvine that “experience has shown that in a properly balanced community” there will be a “daily influx of scientists, artists, technicians etc who will shop in the town center and participate in the activities of the university,” and “prove a great advantage” (Steele 121). Pereira’s master plan resembled fiction in that it not only constructed a world but also populated it with archetypes that Pereira thought would best embody his ideal of balance.

UCI from the air, 1966, via UCI Libraries

The design parallels between the concept sketches of Tottenville and Pereira’s early master plan for Irvine suggest similar influences and thought patterns but ultimately varying core ideals. Like Tottenville, UCI is organized in concentric circles. Rather than center a achievement feat at the heart of Irvine, as Tottenville did with its airport, Pereira chose a park as a symbol of nature and balance. The circle around the park contains the core academic buildings, which are partitioned by discipline; undergraduate housing lies near the academic buildings on the outer circle. The residents’ proximity to academics and the inclusive nature of the circular layout refers to Pereira’s ideal of integration and balance.

In the original Popular Mechanics feature on Tottenville, the writer emphasizes the nature of the city as an ever-developing template for life in a new millennium, calling each technology a piece “automatically dropping into their places to form the pattern of tomorrow’s world” (Kaempffert 113). Pereira’s own image of the architect as reformer synthesizes his own values with the public’s ideals and scientific speculation into his plan for UCI. However, architecture is not a malleable medium that lends itself to constant renewal. The architectural plans of progress and popular fiction seem to address this by building change into the design as a value. Pereira defined a failed city as one that looks the same as its master plan a century later, pushing the final evaluation beyond his own lifespan and drawing future generations into its judgment (Steele 139). This continuation of the ideal of motion and the transformative nature of imagination is ultimately in tension with the reality that buildings are inherently immobile, forcing contemporary dissidents as well as more removed generations to live under the roof of potentially unshared or outdated ideals. Whether or not the current campus retains the dynamic nature its architects intended, examining how popular speculative media narratives are expressed in the architectural plans for UCI suggests how the physical and imaginative structures a society builds around themselves reflects where they want to live in the future as well as the values of the present .

Works Cited

De Botton, Alain. The Architecture of Happiness. New York: Pantheon, 2006. Print.

Pearman, Hugh. Airports: A Century of Architecture. Lawrence King, 2004. Google Books. Web. 11 Dec. 2010. < pereira pearman&hl=en&ei=viEDTZ60GoHRngfnltHlDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false>.

Johnson, Scott. “William Pereira.” Web. 11 Dec. 2010. <>.

Kaempffert, Waldemar. “Miracles You’ll See in the Next Fifty Years.” Popular Mechanics Feb. 1950: 113-20. Google Books. Web. 9 Dec. 2010. < mechanics tottenville&hl=en&ei=Aq3-TPCVBI72tgPfzLSvCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCQQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false>.

“The Land: The Man with The Plan.” Time 6 Sept. 1963. Web. 9 Dec. 2010. <,9171,870487,00.html>.

Le Corbusier. The Ideas of Le Corbusier on Architecture and Urban Planning. Ed. Jacques Guiton. New York: G. Braziller, 1981. Print.

Pereira, William, Julius Shulman, and Ray Watson. William Pereira. Comp. James Steele. Los Angeles, CA: Architectural Guild, 2002. Print.

“Pereira’s Early Campus Plans.” Anteater Antics. UC Irvine Special Collections Archive. Web. 9 Dec. 2010. <>.