Towers and the Babel tradition in Science Fiction media

With the movie Metropolis we are now entering the wide worlds of Science Fiction. Let me take a moment to summarize some points about illustrated towers in the tradition of Babel so far: towers and urbanism belong together as the towers are architectural marvels overtopping a city. So far, the towers are shown as megalomaniac and solitary buildings that are mounted out of a more or less even housing. They are expressions of human ingeniousness and the will to push boundaries. But also they are shown as monuments of power on multiple levels.

Before we will discuss two other examples of urban, futuristic cities and their connections to art and architecture from high budget productions, I want to show you two images that belong to the category „Science Fiction Fan Art“. While doing some research, I found them more or less by accident. They are also good examples to show that the Tower of Babel iconography still lives on.

The first example is from Deviant Art and dated in 2013. The title is, what a surprise, „The Tower of Babel“. You can clearly see that the gigantic tower stands out urban housings, with a broad base and reduced upper parts. It seems to be the center of the surrounding city with transportation ways heading to it.

Sadly, I could not find any further information about the second image. But it shows, in my opinion, a modernistic version of the Renaissance towers we have seen before. The housing around the tower in the center could be from our present time as the solitary standing towers are futuristic additions.

Let us leave now the lineal connection to the Babel motif in forms or titles and see how towers, now really skyscrapers as we now them, are used to future-up a Science Fiction urban setting. Of course the iconographic aspects that we already discussed and that are based on the Babel motif will follow us.

The first Science Fiction example brings us to the 23rd century, where the plot of „The Expanse“ is settled. Mankind colonized the solar system and there are three power blocks: Earth, Mars and The Belt. Earth is united under the government of the United Nations with its headquarter in New York City as it is today. Lower Manhattan is shown when the plot of the tv show is settled there. We can see a combination of the current skyline with its famous skyscrapers like the World Financial Center, the Woolworth Building, the Empire State Building, the United Nations Headquarter and the One World Trade Center. But it seems that the position varies compared to the reality. Especially when you notice the gigantic version of the Transamerica Pyramid that should be in San Francisco.

In „The Expanse“, around two hundred years in the future, we can see a combination of real and well-known buildings to the audience with modern and futuristic skyscrapers that overtop them easily. But forms and styles and sizes are not too extreme to keep it realistic. They seem to be architectural studies and designs that could already exist and they do. Without going too much into the details of the story, earth is shown as a modern, powerful and wealthy society in its architecture. In the same way these aspects are shown nowadays too when skyscrapers are built. This example is not leaving reality and our current technological level very much when it comes to towers.

Our next example is set at the end of the 24th century, right here in the Bay Area that turned into one megacity. The tv show „Altered Carbon“ started this year and deals, among other things, with the topic of almost certain immortality.

The dystopian image of the city with its jungle-like, narrow skyscrapers, flooded with hologram ads everywhere creates a feeling of overflow, namelessness and depression. Like in „Metropolis“, the masses of the people are living and working there with the opportunity that their consciousness and memories are uploaded into a new body only at the end of their lives. Most of them choose to die after the first resurrection as going through the whole aging process is very hard to take.

However, in this society you also have the so called Methusalems, super rich and powerful people with all the technological possibilities of their time to stay young and immortal. One of the protagonists is an over three hundred years old Meth who built a skyscraper for his family, the Aerium with his mansion Suntouch House on top. Out of the almost ever dark city this tower lifts him literally on top of the world, close to the sky. It seems that the bone-like structure of the tower only exists to put the mansion as high as possible as there are no other apartments or offices visible. Only in the middle is a structure that could be for the transportation of water, electricity and goods. So this tower example has only one purpose: to reach the sky and, literally, touch the sun. The Meths call themselves the new gods due to their power, their wealth and their eternal youth and immortality. Building these towers and their posh domiciles on top raises them over the masses they look down on. It can be compared to the Greek Olymp where the ancient gods lived, out of reach of the mortals. A tower, touching the sky, and a house, touching the sun, emphasizes this mentality even more.

Our last example is from one of the biggest Science Fiction franchises and shows maybe the maximum a city can turn into: the city planet Coruscant from the Star Wars sequel trilogy from 1999 to 2005. The whole planet is covered by a miles thick layer of urban infrastructure. When you look at the panoramic images of some city parts, you can see, that this man-made infrastructure eliminated all natural forms like mountains, valleys and rivers. It formed a totally new, artificial surface that seems to be more or less even and structured by deep cuts. Monumental towers and domes stick out of this new surface. In the towers and skyscrapers that are luxuriously equipped live the richest and most powerful people of the Star Wars galaxy like industrial leaders, senators and other politicians. Just like in Metropolis or Altered Carbon before, the great mass of the one trillion inhabitants live on the lower levels, the poorer the deeper to the ground without any sunshine.
With this new, artificial surface of the planet, the panoramic views and matte paintings for the movies seem to show us a skyline like we know it: lower housing around impressive and monumental towers. But if you take under consideration that these skyscrapers are already built on structures that are a couple of miles high, we can see towers errected on very compressed towers. Coruscant shows the maximum skyscrapers can reach without really showing it: an architectural structure from the planet’s foundation to the sky.

Unfortunately, in the movies the highest building, namely the Presidential Palace, later the Imperial Palace, is not shown. It is the largest and highest building on Coruscant and counts as one of the Seven Galactic Wonders, referring to the Seven Wonders of Antiquity. The palace was widely enlarged, restructured and fortified into a representative but also intimidating monument under Palpatine, who turned the Galactic Republic into a totalitarian dictatorship. Its highest level is outside the planet’s atmosphere and under the reign of Emperor Palpatine turned into a private sanctuary for him. This resembles with the story of King Nimrod, who wanted to use the Tower of Babel in the same way.

Towers and skyscrapers are marvels of human imagination and inventiveness. For millennia they are a symbol of technological progress and economical power. But with their height and structures overtopping and dominating the surroundings, but also the skylines, they can also be seen as a symbol of dominion and separation. The Tower of Babel is maybe the oldest source for this hardly outlined iconography of towers as it turned into a legendary inspiration for artists, authors and movie makers over centuries. We have seen the direct and the indirect influences this motif has for making the future in Science Fiction, may it be in the architectural form and style, or in the representative way or in the utilization and function.
Towers and skyscrapers are essential and necessary elements to create a futuristic setting and there are almost no examples in the visual Science Fiction where they are not part of any urban structure.
The stories and images of the Tower of Babel and their iconographic descendants in Science Fiction are still icons, in good and in bad terms, for what mankind is able to do, for human curiosity and the will to go further. And in my opinion, this makes it perfectly ‚Science Fiction‘.

Thank you very much for your attention and I am looking forward to our discussion.

Part 1: The Tower of Babel as Motif – Origins, Art and Science Fiction

Note: I do not own the copyright of the images, they belong totally to the copyright holders.

About the Author Dominic Riemenschneider

Independent scholar & PhD candidate in Art History with research about the Fantastic, its reception and roots in art and architecture. Also offering services, workshops and lectures about the Fantastic and the connection to real world events, society and developments.