Have you ever pretended to be Darth Vader? Or pretended to fight with lightsabres? Don't be embarrassed, you are not alone. Star Wars inspired entire generations and has become a fixed cultural reference point. In this article, we will attempt to highlight the design elements of the saga.
There has hardly been a film that has fascinated generations of people like the Star Wars saga by George Lucas. Both visual and spoken references have become fixed elements of our cultural vocabulary, and for many, the films appear to have erased the boundary between fiction and reality. How otherwise to explain that nearly 300,000 adult citizens indicated that their religion was Jedi in a 2011 census in Great Britain? Or that 30,000 people signed a petition in 2012 requesting that the United States government build a Death Star? (Not to fear, the request was officially rejected with a wink and a smile and an apparently respectful acknowledgement of Star Wars enthusiasm). Perhaps the reason for the success of Star Wars is its exciting yet thoroughly trivial plot line in which good-hearted heroes, a stinkingly evil emperor, a princess and golden bikini all play key roles. Or perhaps it was successful because deep inside, we all really want to be Jedi Knights (one word: lightsabre). Or perhaps one of the key reasons for the lasting fascination is the design of the saga. It is precisely this conjecture that we wish to pursue in this article.
As in every work of science fiction, Star Wars seeks to create a highly convincing, coherent universe and employs a host of different visual codes to describe this universe. The variety presented in this narrative is a key feature in the overall design of the saga. There is one thing that the universe developed by Lucas is clearly not: a homogeneous, high-tech, shiny vision of the future. A wide variety of worlds and their inhabitants is depicted which range from archaic, warlike tribes to sophisticated robots and cities in the clouds.
One of the architectural highlights of the epic is Coruscant, the capital of the Old Republic, which looks like a mixture of New York, Kuala Lumpur and Cairo. In addition, Coruscant is a metropolis without borders that covers the entire planet. The idea of the entire world as a city was taken up by the Greek city planner Konstantin Doxiadis in the 1960s, but it is also found in the writings of science fiction author Isaac Asimov and was given visual expression by George Lucas.
The sandcrawlers of the Jawas are just as impressive. Hints of the influence of the giant, rusty vehicles that cruise across the eternal deserts of the planet Tatooine can be found in certain architectural designs. The polygonal façade of the "Casa de Musica" by Rem Kohlhaas is reminiscent of the sandcrawlers, as is a hotel complex in Tunisia.
Rem Kohlhaas also demonstrated his familiarity with Star Wars in a draft of the "Waterfront City" in Dubai. One of the elements of the ensemble shaped like an enormous sphere is strangely reminiscent of the Death Star which functioned as the centre and key icon of the Empire in Star Wars - which is in turn reminiscent of the utopian architecture of
Étienne-Louis Boullées or Claude-Nicolas Ledoux.
The downsized, distinct and primordial shape of the Death Star evokes the incomprehensible power and size of the space station, and the strict symmetry and minimalistic colour scheme of the colossus reinforces this impression. Upon closer examination, we find a rugged surface with sharp, sometimes crumbling edges. The rigorous shape and stringency of the design suggests a hermetically sealed world in which everything is subject to authority and power: In the Death Star, there is no personal or private space, unyielding control predominates.
This contrasts with the design of the Millenium Falcon: Han Solo's spaceship looks worn-out and broken down. Not everything works, most everything is rusty and improvised, and you get the feeling that the individual components were cobbled together (or stolen) from disparate sources across the galaxy.
The design of the Millenium Falcon reflects another characteristic of the Lucas universe. In many respects, the future created by Lucas appears dated, a bit shabby and somehow a relic of the past. Dust and rust are fixed elements of the Star Wars' galaxy, and smugglers, hermits, rag pickers and other marginal figures are just as at home as heroes and emperors. This artfully staged mixture of alcohol, games of chance, flirtation, altercations and heroism in which the spaceship sometimes does not start yields a world with a universal patina of rust that is, however, paradoxically congenial.
A fundamental component of the galaxy is those machines which have excited the human imagination in a particular way since the early 20th century: robots. Absolute favourites of many are the trashcan-shaped R2-D2 and his humanoid, golden friend C-3PO that have been internationally honoured in the "Robot Hall of Fame".
As an astromech droid, R2-D2 is endowed with a range of capabilities as a mechanic and navigator that can save and process huge amounts of data, fly if necessary, generate holograms, logon to foreign computer systems and even put out fires. Its design is primarily functional; it is small and compact, and the metal casing protects its wide variety of internal instruments. Its somewhat clumsy mode of conveyance and childish yet expressive beeps render it a target of affection.
C-3PO is modelled on a human template and also possesses a very humanoid character; above all, the protocol droid embodies etiquette and British politeness and is an anxious, squeamish, affected but loyal friend. C-3PO tends to be a bit clumsy, which is surprising in view of his highly developed intellectual capabilities - protocol droids speak over six million languages or "forms of communication": he is unable to fully extend his arms, his gait is stilted, and the incomplete metal casing reveals part of his inner workings.
C-3PO and R2-D2 are so popular because they reflect a favourite human stereotype of automated machines: they are similar to humans, aesthetically interesting, feel emotions and display loyalty. Their appearance does not terrify; rather, they are copies of humans with minor flaws that render them endearing. Perhaps their most important characteristic is their usefulness - they are eager to jump in and assist their human designers.
Films like Star Wars use elements from mythology, history or art which are combined with new elements to create an eclectic yet innovative world. The list of visual, literary and architectural works that George Lucas drew on as inspiration for his saga is long and would be difficult to discuss in full. In addition to Stanley Kubrick's "2001 - A Space Odyssey", films by Akira Kurosawa and Fritz Lang are apparent influences. Original versions of the humming lightsabre can be found in the science fiction of Isaac Asimov as well as in the Star Trek series. Yoda is slightly reminiscent of Einstein, and Darth Vader's costume combines elements of samurai armour with accents from an SS uniform.
Star Wars has served as an inspiration to a countless number of people, and has awoken an interest in technology and design in more than a few individuals. The designer Johannes Scherr confesses: "Science fiction in general and Star Wars in particular actually inspired me to study design. Star Wars created things that had never existed, and staged and visualised them so that they became real in the minds of the viewers. It was an engine of innovation."
Star Wars has also made generations of children enthusiastic about technology, innovation and robotics. Experimental, single representatives of humanoid robots such as C-3PO can be found, but industrial robots are now able to do much more than just assembly line work. The Vienna platform Rob|Arch has, for example, adopted the goal of promoting an exchange between architects, designers and industry and making robot technology accessible to the creative industry. According to Johannes Braumann and Sigrid Brell-Cokcan, industrial robots are able to increase the efficiency of production processes and individualise them, and also relieve designers and architects of a bit of drudgework. In addition, it is becoming easier to program robots, and they can be used for an increasing number of jobs.
Nevertheless in the real world, we are still very far from the near human intelligence of Star Wars robots. In any case, Star Wars has never served as a major inspiration for robotics even if some service robots have adopted the appearance of their relatives from the science fiction saga: A prime example of this is the NAO robot developed by Aldebaran, who shows his skills and greets his ancestors with an impressive Star Wars imitation.
In conclusion, an inspirational offering from Yoda. As rephrased by London designer Luke Pearson, from PearsonLloyd: "For me Star Wars mixed the future world with a sense of the historic and cultural. Sci-Fi had always been polarized being either about utopian ideals and technological advance or destruction of civilizations. Star Wars merged the two. Machines were not just shiny but broken too which gave everything a sense of reality. Some civilizations felt primitive yet coexisted with more sophisticated ones. It was earthy and cool."
In fact, the design of Star Wars reveals certain incongruities and minor errors - why for example do these streamlined spaceships not have seat belts? Nonetheless, George Lucas created a world that may not be the best and shiniest of all worlds, but remains the best of all possible tarnished worlds.