active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Sculpting the future

Artists have always looked toward the future. The obsession is easiest to trace in writing and painting, since these are most closely linked to what we think of as “science fiction.” But it’s equally true of architecture and sculpture.


Arguably, all technology is SF until you realize it. Weaving looms, printing presses, steam engines, aircraft and nylon were all SF in their time, just as future forms of automation are SF today. A box of friction matches was advanced technology of Clarkeian proportions.

The classic SF engineering projects — Atlantic tunnels, O’Neill cylinders, the space elevator, and much more — are merely SF because we haven’t figured out a way to make them yet, just as buildings more than three stories high, the dome on Florence Cathedral, or a span across the Golden Gate were SF until we’d invented the scientific principles, tools, materials and techniques to realize them.

You’ve probably read science fiction stories about mile-high buildings. Is a painting of a mile-high building also SF? And what about an architectural blueprint? The answer has to be yes on all counts. SF isn’t a matter of terminology or perception. A thing either is or it isn’t.

Indeed, the architectural offices, classrooms and apprentice desks of the world are full of fanciful plans for ambitious new buildings. When does the SF of a blueprint turn into something that isn’t SF? Clearly, when it’s actually built. No matter how “futuristic” they look, buildings that exist in the real world aren’t SF.

That’s true of the Burj Khalifa and The Shard in London and the Shanghai Tower. Whereas SF means Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument To The Third International, and Etienne-Louis Boullee’s cenotaph for Isaac Newton — visions that remain SF merely because they were never actually constructed.

What about the Skylon, built on London’s South Bank for the 1951 Festival Of Britain? It was a futuristic structure that had no practical purpose.

And what about the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 New York World’s Fair? The theme of the Fair was “the world of tomorrow.” These two structures, a giant spire and a giant sphere, were its attempt at suggesting the monumental stone buildings of the future, though in fact they were frauds, simply plywood on a steel framework.

And here we’re in a tricky space. If something looks like a building, but isn’t, is it still a building? The Trylon and Perisphere were functional, though not for whatever it was they were supposed to represent. Go to the next auto show and take a look at the concept cars. Do they exist, or are they science fiction? Visit one of Honda’s Asimo demonstrations. Is that a robot, or not?

So what can we say of sculpture? Umberto Boccioni’s walking figure Unique Forms Of Continuity In Space, devised in 1913 but not actually cast until after the sculptor’s death, has a robotic or alien feel to it. The figure looks like something futuristic, slicing through its environment.

For an audience versed in SF, Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill of the same year, though intended as a commentary on the degradation of humanity in an industrialized world, anticipates much of the genre’s preoccupation with the human/machine interface.

Epstein himself described the figure as a “machine-like robot” in 1940. (Of course, the terminology “robot” didn’t exist until 1921.) The monstrous, depersonalized worker in Rock Drill is utterly divorced from the sleek uber-human of Metropolis’s Maria in 1927, which is what (thanks to its copy C3PO) SF has taught us robots are supposed to resemble.

Of all modern sculptors, Arnaldo Pomodoro links closest to how I perceive SF sculpture should look, which immediately makes the association suspect.

To me, Colpo D’Ala, which is a busted-open pyramid, looks like a half-destroyed spaceship just about to make a harsh landing in water. Il Grande Ascolto, two featureless cones slit apart at the base to show their intensely complex inner surface, also resembles a pair of crashed alien vehicles. I’m primed to make these analogies whether they’re true to the artist’s intentions or not.

Most intriguing of all is Sfera Con Sfera, a glossy bronze sphere that has rotted open to reveal a mess of internal components, including a second sphere nestled deep inside. There are versions of this work all over the world, from the UN Building to the Vatican. Pomodoro began churning them out in 1963, and he’s been making them ever since.

The closest to me is housed in the Hakone Open Air Museum, an hour from Tokyo by train (see my photo above). It’s actually poorly placed on a steep grass slope, hard to see in detail. It’s strictly hands-off, too, so you can’t go up to explore that tactile contrast of smooth exterior and mechanistic interior. Most visitors probably don’t even notice it.

You can read Sfera Con Sfera in many ways. Perhaps you see the half-built space habitat of 2001, the Star Wars Death Star, or Roger Dean’s ruptured planet on the cover to Yes’s album Fragile. Perhaps you see a world of possibilities, straining to be released. Or perhaps, like me, you think its gnarly corrosion evokes islands of decay in a bronze sea, and the inner sphere suggests an unborn child in an acid-soaked belly. It feels like it’s about to erupt outwards, or be sucked like a black hole into itself.

Whatever you see, it’s probably not what Pomodoro intended. But it’s the perfect representation of the tensions inherent in much of our SF: the possibilities of future perfection butting up against the fierce and immutable laws of entropy.

Is it science fiction, then? You’ll never find it in a standard SF reference work. But I’d argue absolutely yes — and it certainly makes me think a lot deeper than most of the books and movies that claim to represent this genre.


Robert Maas is the author of the thriller Biome, available to buy at Amazon.


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