Retro-futurism

23 Nov
An example in Shanghai of a retro-futuristic design in architecture. Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai In consumer culture.
     
Retro-futurism, retrofuturism, retro-future or retrofuture, terms combining “retro” and “futurism” or “future”, can refer to two distinct concepts: A style of design or art or a sociopolitical ideology.

Retrofuturistic design is a return to, and an enthusiasm for, the depictions of the future produced in the past (most often the 1920s through 1960s), both in science fiction and in nonfiction futurism of the time, which often seem dated by modern standards.[1] The ideology combines retrograde sociopolitical views with techno-utopianism. This article focuses entirely on the first definition.

Etymology

The word “retrofuturism” was coined by Lloyd Dunn in 1983, according to a fringe art magazine published from 1988-1993.

Characteristics

Retro-futuristic settings fall into two main categories. The first is a total vision of the future as seen through the eyes of the past, often a utopian society characterized by high technology (relative to the base time), unusual or exaggerated artistic, architectural and fashion styles, and an abundance of consumer goods; its spirit of optimism and embracing of the status-quo is a contrast with cyberpunk, although in many cases the utopianism is presented in an intentionally ironic or camp light.

Several films and television series of the past, which can be characterized as straightforward futurism in their own time, have been mined by artists and authors of the present to evoke retro-futuristic styles.

The second type of setting are altered but recognizable versions of the past in which the exaggerated technological innovations which science fiction writers and illustrators imagined might be compatible with their own times (e.g. as created by a brilliant scientist) were indeed real. Examples include Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, set in an alternate 1939 which includes ray-guns, robots, and rocket-ships, which are rare and not characteristic of the technological fabric of the society as a whole; The Rocketeer, set in 1938, whose “futuristic” element is an experimental jet pack.

There are also many works which take styles and genres of past eras and place them in a futuristic setting, such as the Old West elements in Firefly or the 1940s film noir elements in Blade Runner, but these would not generally be seen as retro-futuristic because they are not based on a specific past era’s vision of the future.

Retrofuturistic elements have appeared in games such as BioShock (2007)[3][4] and Fallout 3 (2008).

Design and arts

A great deal of attention is drawn to fantastic machines, buildings, cities, and transportation systems. The futuristic design ethic of the early 20th century tends to solid colors, streamlined shapes, and mammoth scales. It might be said that 20th century futuristic vision found its ultimate expression in the development of googie or populuxe design. As applied to fiction, this brand of retro-futuristic visual style is also referred to as Raygun Gothic, a catchall term for a visual style that incorporates various aspects of the Googie, Streamline Moderne and Art Deco architectural styles when applied to retro-futuristic science fiction environments.

Although Raygun Gothic is most similar to the googie or Populuxe style and sometimes synonymous with it, the name is primarily applied to images of science fiction. The style is also still a popular choice for retro sci-fi in film and video games.[citation needed] Raygun Gothic’s primary influences include the set designs of Kenneth Strickfaden and Fritz Lang.[citation needed] It is thought that the term was coined by William Gibson in his story The Gernsback Continuum: “Cohen introduced us and explained that Dialta [a noted pop-art historian] was the prime mover behind the latest Barris-Watford project, an illustrated history of what she called “American Streamlined Modern.” Cohen called it “raygun Gothic.” Their working title was The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was.”[6]

Architecture

An example in Shanghai of a retro-futuristic design in architecture.

Retro-futurism has appeared in some examples of postmodern architecture. In the example seen at right, the upper portion of the building is not intended to be integrated with the building but rather to appear as a separate object – a huge flying saucer-like space ship only incidentally attached to a conventional building. This appears intended not to evoke an even remotely possible future, but rather a past imagination of that future, or a reembracing of the futuristic vision of googie architecture.

Further reading
Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space ISBN 0-8122-1847-7
Future Perfect ISBN 3-8228-1566-7
Out of Time: Designs for the Twentieth Century Future ISBN 0-8109-2939-2
Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future ISBN 0-8018-5399-0
The History of the Future: Images of the 21st Century ISBN 2-08-013544-9
Futuropolis: Impossible Cities of Science Fiction and Fantasy ISBN 0-903767-22-8
Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays ISBN 0-7893-0822-3
Where’s My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived ISBN 1-59691-136-0

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