LucasWorlds: Urban Planning and Design in the Star Wars Epic

What does the architecture of the Star Wars universe represent? Jack Skelley offers an analysis of the various archetypes on display in the latest Star Wars movie.

May 31, 2005, 12:00 AM PDT

By Jack Skelley

Photo: Jack Skelley

Blade Runner, the 1982 Ridley Scott motion picture, still gets a lot of interest from architects and urbanists for its dystopic depiction of Los Angeles, circa 2019. Here, future-fitted L.A. landmarks such as the Bradbury building and Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House teem with street life and airborne freeway congestion. The movie presents an unnerving extrapolation of an American cityscape.

But when it comes to creating alternate urban worlds in the movies, let's face it, no one can beat George Lucas. The center of action in the most recent episode of his Star Wars space serial, Revenge of the Sith, is Coruscant. (It also appeared in Episodes 1 and 2. Warning: There may be some "spoilers" in the rest of this article.). As conceived by Lucas, and executed by his artists, Coruscant is an entire planet of multiple Manhattans, Vancouvers and Hong Kongs, layered over thousands of years, and stretching 360 degrees. It's real high-density planning.

The planet is realized in broad vistas, with thousands of skyscrapers. Architecturally, the regions of Coruscant vary from Chrysler Building-style Deco tubes, to pointy needles that resemble vast rows of missile silos. This last environment, aggressive and alienating, is the locale for the "rehab center" where Darth Vader emerges from the deformed body and soul of Anakin Skywalker.

But other sectors of Coruscant are more human in scale. There is an apartment perched above a vibrant cityscape. Here, on a veranda with flowing drapes, classical columns, round sculptures and smooth fountains, Padme and Anakin have a final meeting. Pre-Raphaelite and Oriental design motifs abound. Condominium designers interested in carving elegant homes from highly urbanized environments could take a page from this sophisticated space.

Also on Coruscant is the Galactic Senate building. An interplanetary United Nations headquarters, this is a broad, shallow dome on the exterior, with thousands of levitating pods on the circular, general-assembly interior. The pods, which provide a platform for individual Senators to speak, are arranged in sleek, black rows, as if within a giant hive. There is an imposing sense of grandeur here. Much more approachable is the smaller Jedi Council Chambers nearby.

Photo: Coruscant Cityscape
Coruscant Cityscape

Other Lucas worlds are not as devoid of green space as Coruscant. Padme's planet, Naboo, consists of grand temples and gardens that seem lifted from Renaissance Florence. The balance between the "natural," cypress-laden gardens, and the marble arches and domes expresses Lucas' appreciation for classical symmetry. A funeral procession takes place on a grand footbridge around which float gondola-like ships. Naboo is a pedestrian-friendly environment of boulevards and courtyards in which parks and public space share equal billing with palaces.

And there is more. It's as if, in Revenge of the Sith, Lucas could not stop creating worlds. (Many were left on the cutting-room floor.) There is Neimodia, the home of wealthy and decadent space traders. It includes gilded columns in Bernini-like twists with Ming dynasty-ish ornamentation. There is Kashyyyk, planet of the Wookies, made of treehouses with hieroglyphed arches. There is Mustafar, site of a climactic light-saber duel -- an entirely volcanic moon orbiting a giant gas planet. Even within this explosive inferno there is a built environment: a Control Center with catwalks perched precariously above the lava.

Since Lucas has devoted so much energy and money creating such environments, what is his message? As a mythmaker he has drenched these movies in archetypes. So the more diabolical cityscapes, for example, refer to deeply symbolic images in visionary poetry: William Blake's "dark Satanic mills," or the layered self-tortures of Dante's Inferno. Lucas is saying that human creativity -- including the power to create cities -- is far too easily twisted towards instruments of war (just as popular democracy is easily manipulated into weapons of mass deception).

It reminds us that the pursuits of architecture and design are just as susceptible to subversion as any other part of our culture.

Lucas paints some hellish urban worlds, but is he some kind of comic-book Rousseau, yearning for the days of the Wookie "noble savage," or advocating a return to a natural state apart from the city?

No. Look instead to the planet of Naboo. There is a hard-fought nobility here, where gardens and palaces interpermeate, like the Jerusalem of John's New Testament, a divine city built by humans -- a city composed of the human -- a paradise not of nature but of good works, enlightened laws, and worldly sophistication tempered by morality and compassion.

This is the apex of civilization, and it is always, always under threat.

Jack Skelley is Public Relations Director of Roddan Paolucci Roddan Advertising and Public Relations.

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