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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Starkitecture: Should We Be Worried About Black Panther's Concept Art?

A few weeks ago we got our first glimpse of the MCU's Black Panther in the form of several concept art pieces. The images look cool at first glance, but does Wakanda's setting design suggest some deeper limitations to the Marvel imagination, and the potential for this film to give us something really original? And what does a movement called The International Style have to do with it?

About two weeks ago some concept art was released for the upcoming MCU flick Black Panther. It's going to be a while before we get to see anything of the film itself, of course, because, Marvel being Marvel, we have to slog through a bunch more mediocre films about white dudes before we can get to anything interesting, but hey, cool to see some previews for the seemingly eternally distant film.

Interestingly, over half the concept art is locations. And those locations are...
Well. I've got some reservations about what we're seeing here. What's more, I think there's something to be interesting said about what this art suggests about how Marvel is conceiving of Wakanda. While it might seem a little clickbaity to dig into a bunch of concept art for a movie we don't have a trailer for yet, this is our first glimpse at the film's world and I think it makes some sense to start analyzing the designs now in order to better contextualize the film once it comes out. We can take advantage of Marvel's hype machine, designed to create a cultural context that will boost the film's box office numbers, to create a cultural context of our own, one that can make sense of what we're seeing, whenever we do finally get to see this movie.

The main bone of contention for me in this concept art is with the designs for urban areas. They're very... The International Style. What I mean by that is that Wakanda looks a lot like... basically any Western city, or more broadly any city on earth. We've got loads and loads of big-windowed skyscrapers towering over the landscape. This minimal functional aesthetic--buildings towering high over the landscape, great planes of steel and glass--is the International Style, and I'm not a fan, not in general and not in this setting.

Now just to be clear, it's not that I'm looking at this and saying this isn't stereotypically "African" enough. I'm not against this because it doesn't fit my no doubt many false stereotypes about "African" architecture, or at least not just because of that. What stands out to me as strange about this, rather, is that it doesn't seem to make much historical sense according to the lore of the setting. The core sort of point of Wakanda is that it's an African nation so advanced compared to other nations--in part because of its Vibranium--that it has never been conquered and colonized.

The International Style meanwhile represents a kind of colonization, one that happens on a deep level of cultural assumption.

Think of it like this. The International Style emerges from a long history of western architectural trends. We can see its start with the development of technological affordances in the late 19th and early 20th century--things like the mass production of steel, development of engineering technology that can hold up skyscrapers, the widespread use of pourable concrete, and so on. We might think of concrete, in particular, as this hard slab substance but in the early 20th century it was perceived by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright as being a flexible material that, unlike stone or wood, could be poured into a mold, thus enabling more complex rapidly produced architectural forms than carved stone could allow.

These affordances developed alongside trends in art and aesthetics that emphasized functionality and minimalism. We can see this with a variety of early 20th century art movements. Cubism, Futurism, the Machine Aesthetic of folks like Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian's De Stijl... all these movements were reacting to industrialization and responding to the development of powerful engines and the automobile and so on. This aesthetic emerges and starts to embrace functionality within aesthetics.

Like if you look at someone like Otto Wagner, architect for the Vienna Secession, his stuff is highly stripped back compared to other architecture during the period. He set out to emphasize the underlying structure of buildings, highlighting the way contemporary buildings depended on engineering and industrial technology. By stripping away lavish ornamentation for functionality, showing the beams and pillars that make the building psossible, he's exposing the underlying geometry that goes into these buildings. It's the engineering itself that is of major interest to these designers.

This is kind of the core, in a lot of ways, to modernism. A large part of modernism is the notion that we can construct a kind of supreme scientific vision for the future, one that is going to help us arrive at a true model for how to order our society. Out of all this, I think that we can see the International Style as a logical follow-on from a lot of the ideas developed during this period. It takes these ideas and extends them globally, with the assumption that this is a style that transcends style--something that stands above and beyond style to arrive at a pure and ideal form.

Here's why this is supremely weird when transplanted to Wakanda. I think it's not unreasonable to say that the International Style spread because a bunch of Europeans and Americans conquered most of the world. Certainly there's plenty of examples of Western architecture being adopted or imposed in colonized nations (the Meiji Restoration in Japan being a particularly fascinating example of this happening a century prior to the International Style's development). But with Wakanda we have a country that's never been colonized and that moreover developed its equivalent "modern" technology much faster than Europe, and has spent centuries largely keeping to itself, isolating itself from the world with the security of its advanced weapons.

And yet:

We have a centerpiece here that looks different, to be sure. Imaginative even in a way I can dig. And yet, the surroundings are all plate glass and steel. What does it say that the International Style is here in Wakanda so prominently, to the point of being ubiquitous?

Well, to me it suggests that either the International Style is so good inherently that Wakanda couldn't help but adopt it--that even though they weren't conquered they had to borrow the International Style because it's just that excellent, a true style beyond styles--or that they developed the Int. Style on their own inevitably once they hit a certain technological point, because... it's just that excellent, a true style beyond styles.

Both of thse possibilities suggest that the Int. Style is the one obvious endpoint of architectural and stylistic history. This is certainly high modernist rhetoric in a lot of ways, the assertion that all civilizations will rationally trend towards a way of doing things that just happens to be very, very Western (and arguably more specifically very American). We've reached the End of History and there's really only one choice: the International Style and western neoliberal capitalism.

This stamp is everywhere in these images. I mean sure there's some interesting things happening in this large meeting hall image:

But there's something about the shape, about the texture of the stone, the mix of glass and hard rock, the circles paired with strong rectilinear blocks... There's something about the aesthetic that's, oh what would you call it...


This makes some sense. Everything in the MCU technologically speaking is in one way or another Starktech, whether explicitly designed by the Stark family or done in imitation of them. Wakanda is necessarily structured around the modernism of Stark Tower--it can only ever be a kind of reflection.

I think what's unsettling about this to me is the implication that the West's way of doing things is so universal that they can be extended to any other civilization on earth. This is bizarre, if you think about it. A friend pointed out to me as I was working on this that the massive windows of the Int. Style don't make a whole lot of sense in a part of the world where you're going to be flooded constantly with sunlight, for example. And yet in these images what we see is Wakanda just naturally turning into New York City (or Toronto depending on where you're filming) once it and by implication anywhere else reaches a certain level of development.

This is disappointing because part of what makes Afrofuturism as a genre so interesting is that it often presents alternate paths, alternate ways of addressing science fiction materials. What we seem to be getting with these images is not an afrofuturist film, but a generic Marvel movie nominally set in Africa.

I again have to be careful here because I'm not an afrofuturism expert, I'm just a fan of Janelle Monae and clipping.. What interests me with these artists though is the presentation of alternate vision. It's the particular shifts of history and context and positionality that make this genre such a remarkable breath of fresh air in speculative fiction. And while I don't want to suggest a kind of transcendental african or afrofuturist aesthetic that can be generalized, I think that suggesting there's a universal superhero narrative that can be dropped into any setting is... pretty shitty?

It's not like there's no afrofuturist architecture, either. I mean. Again, I'm not an expert on this at all. But it took me five minutes of googling to find some really interesting architecture based on afrofuturist concepts, stuff that looks radically different than what we get in these images. 

Consider for example the incredible collaboration between Olalekan Jeyifous and Wale Oyejide that juxtaposed a contemporary menswear line with future visions of African cities, Jeyifous designing some truly incredible, vibrant buildings that are in communication with modernism, with the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier and Mondrian, without ever being subsumed to them. Putting aside the obvious mastery of both artists over their media, conceptually these pieces are remarkable too for the way they  play freely with existing ideas in order to generate a speculative future.

Or consider Bodys Isek Kingelez, who from what I gather through admittedly cursory research (unfortunately my knowledge of modern and contemporary African art largely sucks) created his astounding architectural sculptures as part of a project of speculative urban design, a way of plotting out alternate possibilities for renewal and community wellness? These buildings are certainly utopian, but is Wakanda also not utopian in conceit? Why not explore these utopian architectural possibilities within Wakanda? If it took me so little effort to find things like this, what the hell is holding Marvel back?

Mostly the designs just don't seem to have had much effort put into them. One shot has a bunch of skyscrapers in the background and then a bunch of huts encased in glass, for example:

There's something very weird about this for me. It's eerily, hauntingly familiar. Toronto is a city that looks like a bad photoshop, full of buildings, often historical buildings, that have just sort of sprouted weird tumors of plate glass. Obviously there aren't mud huts in Toronto, but the strategy of the new sort of exploding strangely from the old remains very familiar, and while often in my adopted city I think the aesthetics have worked out remarkably well, here they just seem like a lazy attempt to slap a veneer of the new on the old.

On the one hand it feels like at least they're trying but on the other hand it's so lazy in execution because it's like... we'll throw some glass over these huts which all seem to be from different architectural traditions and stick a bunch of skyscrapers in the background and call it a fucking day. It just ends up feeling like ah, here's the token "African" architecture, without really showing much interest in extrapolating or working with architecture beyond the very cursory.

This isn't to say that connecting modernist traditions to other aesthetics are bad. Certainly Jeyifous is obviously influenced for example by De Stijl. But there's an interest in his illustrations in architectural paths not taken. In their best moments these images do capture some of this. The image with the big spiralling terrace structure is pretty cool if only because it looks so different, ornamented in a way that looks possibly influenced by North African mosque architecture. It's doing something that if nothing else is not The International Style and that alone is notable. I don't know that I actually... love it, of course. Nothing about the design actually stands out much to me. It feels pretty Generic Sci Fi to me. But at least it's trying, my god.

But again it's surrounded by a bunch of random skyscrapers (or the same 3d model from a bunch of different angles copied and pasted a few times). Maybe they're doing this to save time. Fair enough. But that's not how you get, say, Star Wars or Bladerunner or Alien. Like it or not, people like Ralph McQuarrie were not copying and pasting shit, and the result is distinctive, meaningful settings. Designs kind of like...


Like this:

This is, apparently, Wakanda, a Wakanda we never saw, one from Civil War, designed by Andrew Leung. And holy shit it is so much more interesting than what we're seeing in these other pieces of concept art. I mean it still has a bit of a Generic Future City feel to it in some of the skyscrapers, but look at that landscape, the web of green across a wide swath of water, the way the city hubs are integrated into this greenspace, the way the buildings seem to flow and bloom. It feels like an actual example of the much-hyped, little-realized "Solarpunk" aesthetic, actually, which is pretty cool.

Most notably, it feels like one of these paths not taken. Rather than postulating the International Style as the style-beyond-styles, the aesthetic end of history, it shows an alternate development, one that can rival Stark Modernism. I don't want to go too far in positioning Wakanda as an ideal opposition to neoliberal starkism--after all, they're a monarchy, and even Ta-Nehisi Coates can't quite grapple with what that means for present day narratives about the nation. But just the presentation of alternatives is a breath of fresh air.

One that sadly it looks like Marvel isn't that interested in taking.

Maybe it's unfair to critique a film that currently exists only in the form of seven pieces of concept art. But on the other hand, there's plenty of precedent for concern here. Marvel doesn't like visionary directors, and they don't like things not conforming to their (h/m)ouse style. That's why they keep firing talented people and also Joss Whedon. I also don't think in the MCU we've had a leap as remarkable as the one that somehow slipped under Disney's corporate radar, the shocking distance between Star Wars and Rogue One. Maybe if you put Iron Man III at one end and Guardians of the Galaxy at the other you could get a similar shift, but I kind of doubt it. Certainly if you look more broadly at the wide potential of the MCU it's clear that there's a very narrow band they're interested in working with.

In this sense the International Style--the same skyscrapers over and over, literally copied and pasted--is a solid symbol of Marvel's repetition of the same damn story over and over: Iron Man 1, Iron Man 2, Thor 1, Dr Strange, and the upcoming Fist Of Punch Man or whatever this shit is called, have largely the same contentless narrative about the same posh white dude being humbled but then ultimately proving they were A Hero All Along and learning a Valuable Lesson at least until the sequel when they do the same damn thing all over again.

Telling the same fucking story with a black man instead of a white man as the lead isn't progressive in the same way that Supergirl is not feminist just because it features a bunch of women spouting quasi-fascist lines instead of men.

And yet we have these images designed to build up the hype machine by showing Wakanda's setting, which lean heavily on a style that turns all cities into a westernized ur-city. It becomes this totalizing project that cannot allow for diversity but must press that diversity fully into an existing archetype.

The problem with Marvel's increasingly homogeneous designs and its similarly repetitive and cowardly storytelling is that they position all experiences as just pallet swaps of the white western male position... a position that stands atop a skyscraper of plate glass and steel.


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