Monday, June 3, 2013

The Politics of Pacific Rim: Giant Robots and the transformative architecture of Lebbeus Woods

July 12 marks the release of Pacific Rim, the highly anticipated monster mash from director Guillermo del Toro.  The film envisions a "near future" in which invading monsters from beneath the Pacific do battle with towering metal robots called Jeagers.  Trailers promise both a healthy dose of ruin porn and the concept of machines melded with human consciousness, "Two pilots mind melding through memories with the body of a machine."

As touched on in a recent SF Weekly cover story, San Francisco has a long history of cinematic destruction, a tradition Pacific Rim celebrates with yet another digital depiction of the Golden Gate Bridge's unceremonious destruction.  Where even the recent Star Trek: Into Darkness chose to depict the city's future as a kind of neo-Manhattan, Pacific Rim fulfills a different, if unintentional, synthesis.  This is giant robots as modern day skyscrapers, pieces of industrialized urban infrastructure that fulfill the dreams of experimental Architect Lebbeus Woods in ways he may never have imagined.

Lebbeus Woods, Zagreb Free Zone, 1991
Woods was an architect in philosophy more so than in trade, designing intentionally impossible structures as a means of exploring the potential for "transformative reinterpretation of the physical world", a place where new forms and structures could arise to combat past conflict and violence, where traditional forms could be deconstructed and replaced by revolutionary abstractions.  In depicting post war Sarajevo as he does in Zagreb Free Zone, Woods was attempting to create a metaphor for how to potentially heal a city's wounds both literally and figuratively.  He aspired to the same ends with Berlin, attempting to create a "city within a city" where the two halves of the once fractured metropolis could rebuild together.

Lebbeus Woods, Berlin Free Zone, 1990
Compare this philosophy to the images of Pacific Rim, where the towering Jaegers blend in so seamlessly with the surrounding cityscape that they become pieces of skyline, albeit mobile ones.

Woods' experimental forms lurk within old structures, stretched like scabs across wounds left by war while simultaneously resembling some sort of impossible spacecraft implanted within.  In contrast, the existing geometric rigidity of the invaded structure seem almost conservative, diminished by the almost violent insertion of radical shapes.  And once again, it is hard not to look at Woods' images and find the aesthetic similarities to Pacific Rim's melange of robot trod streets, the city protected, and therefore healed, by the arrival of new forms.

 In the wake of the destruction caused by the 1989 earthquake, Woods applied his deconstructionist concepts to San Francisco.  He envisioned a looming mobile structurs built to withstand the potential damage posed by the shifting of tectonic plates, whose basis in organic forms make it appear more like a living thing than a building.    

Lebbeus Woods, Quake City, 1995
Here he imagines the reinvention of structures leftover from an abandoned water front.  
Lebbeus Woods, Quake City, 1995
And just as ruined pieces of industrial space are re-purposed by Woods as architectural scar tissue, here is a giant robot using a ruined shipping liner as an improvised bludgeoning device.  

Woods architecture has been called "anti totalitarian", a label attributed to his purported optimism for the fate of our urban future.  But is there an unintended embrace of fascism present in Woods' work?  Taken out of context, one can't help but see echoes of San Francisco's continuing developmental anxiety in the looming glass and metal symbols of works like A City, Sector 1576N.  As high cost developments push the city closer and closer to a developmental (and environmental) crisis, it becomes more difficult to see Woods' work as optimistic.

Lebbeus Woods, A City Sector 1576N

Likewise, del Toro's metallic saviors are greeted with a Patriotic fervor that would be right at home in a Robert Heinlein novel, the heralded stars of ticker tape parades.  Woods famously wrote that, "Architecture is war and war is architecture", and here is the logical end result, robots marching in step as the new symbol of triumphant humanity.  
In both of these visions of a transformed future metropolis, a kind of cybernetic fusion is accepted as inevitable.  The Jaegers in Pacific Rim are not just clanking automatons, but physical manifestations of human consciousness, elaborate prosthetics built in response to the limitations of our physical forms.  Meanwhile, Woods' concept of radical forms are made manifest not as democratically created structures, but towering mechanized soldiers.  "Gravity is the insidious enemy of the inanimate," Woods once said, but the fantasy of giant robots seems to respond to both of these limitations with a fascist punch to the face.