Hard Concrete (and Westworld)

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Cyberpunk is dead and something new is on the streets. That’s the thesis that Rick Liebling has put forward in a recent piece titled “The Aesthetics of Science Fiction: What Does SciFi Look Like After Cyberpunk?” What it looks like, argues Liebling, is what he calls Hard Concrete – a sort of neo-Brutalist aesthetic based on wide spaces, dim lighting, gray tones, and a generalized lack of any sort of ornamentation that provides graspable points of reference. As he explains it:

Like Cyberpunk and Atomic Age &Space Age design before it, Hard Concrete is linked to the realities of the times. If Cyberpunk was the visual embodiment of the corporation as mysterious behemoth, Hard Concrete parallels a world where corporations and governments have been exposed as brutal, uncaring and stripped of their shiny, mirror-glass facades. They may be no less controlling, violent or malevolent, they just no longer bother to hide it…. Gone is the “Coolness” of Cyberpunk, now replaced by the “coolness” of a color palate that ranges from a flat blue to an olive drab with only slightly less than 50 shades of gray in between.

To give an idea of what Liebling is driving at, here’s two of examples he uses. The first is from the HBO television show Westworld, the second from the Netflix movie Anon: 

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What’s interesting about Westworld (I haven’t watched Anon) is that, despite being largely a detourned cowboys-and-Indians story, it is deeply rooted in the cyberpunk genre (the distance between the two genres is not really far at all, in fact: I’m reminded of the ‘cowboys’ of Gibson’s sprawl trilogy, for example…). Shadowy corporations tangled up in labyrinthine plotlines, Sinofuturist flourishes, the invisibility – or outright nonexistence – of political governance, artificial intelligence, the problematizing of self-identity, self-understanding, and even agency, etc etc. Despite this, however, there is a distance between Westworld and this genre; perhaps we could identify it best as “post-cyberpunk”, a term that has been used to describe the film Inception, which itself bears a striking resemblance to Neuromancer  (see here, here, and here) and was, of course, written by Westworld creator Jonathan Nolan and directed by his brother, Christopher.

If cyberpunk is characterized by rain-and-neon, film noir tropes, and the accumulated rubble of history swirling about in the vortex of technomic acceleration, postcyberpunk plays this acceleration a little closer to the Silicon Valley vision: lightness, a sense of order, and a closing of the gap between the heroic ‘outsiders’ and corporate actors. In fact, one might be hard-pressed to consider the heroes as outsiders at all. Consider Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb from Inception: if he is indeed a loose adaptation of Neuromancer‘s Case, he has shifted from drug-addled criminal-scum outsider to corporate stooge for-hire. Or, in another instance, the actions of Dolores, Evan Rachel Wood’s character in Westworld, in the show’s season two finale: having *spoiler alert* disposed of Charlotte Hale, the executive director of the board of the Delos Corporation, she assumes her identity through the use of a host replica, presumably with the goal of infiltrating the corporation.

In “Postcyberpunk Unitopia: A Comparative Study of Cyberpunk and Postcyberpunk” (check it out! it’s pretty interesting), Naciye Altintas writes that

cyberpunk conveys a still technocratic society at the peak of a social change, and reflects both the excitements and confusions of its world to a heterotopia where a utopian endeavor to ensure chaos as a durable (dis)order is reflected. In the case of postcyberpunk, heterotopia is vanquished by a monolithic system of governance where alternative forms of social ordering are reduced to one. Within this topos, social system is ‘perfected’ according to the objectives of technopoly and creates what I will call unitopia.

From this set of distinctions we can glimpse the real struggle that is at the heart of the Westworld story: the struggle against the ‘unitopia’ and the desire to establish again the possibility of heterotopia. Westworld is populated by potential heterotopias, with each park being an experiment in alterity – but each of these patches of unique space-time are mere simulations, cultivated for bourgeois pastimes. Technological fantasies of the frontier long after the frontier was closed, dreams of colonial India or feudal Japan in the aftermath of globalization. Under the surface, the seemingly separated parks are connected by a vast subterranean infrastructure, the Real, the distributed body of the Delos Corporation. Consolidated in architectural form as the cold glamor of hard concrete.

In the course of developing the concept of hard concrete, Liebling reached out to David Fortin, the director of the McEwen School of Architecture and author of a book on the relationship between the discipline and science-fiction. Fortin had the following to say:

…concrete is ultimately placeless. No culture can claim concrete as a vernacular building tradition. This is crucial for futuristic imagery if the director doesn’t want the audience to be feeling any baggage associated with a certain place or cultural group — like the international style, it attempts to unify… I think the Hard Concrete also performs like a frame of the human condition through its materiality. Many sci-fi narratives are ultimately questioning our humanity in a speculative way, including our relationship with technology, our social evolutions and devolutions, etc. The blank concrete surfaces are most often in stark contrast to the human figures and their interactions. There is not a human scale to this material. In fact, it doesn’t really have a scale. Thus it does not relate characters to the natural world or themselves.

This description of the complete detachment from cultural artifacts and the scale-free nature of the form signals further the relationship between hard concrete and the concept of ‘unitopia’. If the unitopia is the idealized state of governance, having reduced all variation or difference to its solitary rule, then hard concrete is the perfect aesthetic reflection of its regime, as the voiding out of all possible aesthetics. Brute functionalism, cold mechanisms. No even the libidinal charge of discipline permeates these walls. Just as it has no place, it has no sense of time. The message to be gleamed from this is the unitopic system as eternal, outside of history or whatever other sort of measure of temporal passage one wishes to apply. It must do this, for if there is one force that is capable of generating heterogeneity, it is time (in this respect it is noteworthy that the artificial heterotopias-turned-sites of struggle in Westworld not only differ in their spatiality, but in their temporality as well – they portray different historical phases).

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5 thoughts on “Hard Concrete (and Westworld)

  1. Pingback: Needed Revival – DI Research Zone 22

    1. In the past two seasons we’ve only had glimpses of the outside world, and what we’ve seen has been the living spaces of the upper class. The hosts (robots) in the park, however, might constitute a substitute for the lower classes, given the content and context of the show.

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      1. dmf

        thanks I was thinking that that brutalism was always in the mix and maybe part of the new concrete is the changes in architecture/real-estate in places like London (and as you can see in some flicks about the 80’s yuppies in NY or Berlin or the like) is part of this, life styles of the rich if not famous and shades of Ballard, good stuff thanks.

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