Anyone who has seen the futureshock science fiction movies of the 1970s Sleeper, Rollerball, Parts: The Clonus Horror is likely to find something familiar in the look and sound of the office parks in Northern Virginia. This region immediately west of Washington, DC, has become a kind of second Silicon Valley, a popular location for private firms hoping to do business with the Federal government. The cloistered facilities of the Defense department and government contractors in Fairfax, Centreville, and Sterling are set away from their surrounding communities, their angular glass buildings circumscribed, instead, by Edenic open fields. The employees who work at these edifices for alphabet-soup companies like CSC, SAIC, AMS, and CACI spend their lunch breaks at delis and fast food joints in nearby strip malls, but their work hours are passed in the kinds of otherworldly landscapes that, 30 years ago and before the advent of computer graphic imagery, were evoked to indicate visions of a sterile and foreboding future.
One of the most noticeable things about these corporate landscapes is their placidness. They’re quiet. Through the late ‘90s, for instance, I worked at Computer Sciences Corporation in a development of office buildings called Fairview Park that had the look and feel of a botanical garden. This, even though it is peppered with 12-story highrises and lies adjacent to the intersection of Route 50, one of “NoVa’s” most congested roads, and the Capital Beltway. The gentle hum of traffic stands in for the songs of wild fowl (the trees are mostly free of birds here) but otherwise, Fairview Park feels like it could be hundreds of miles from the city. Or for that matter, it could be buried deep in the center of the Earth. Its buildings, particularly the twin CSC edifices where I worked, tended toward exotic, abstract design; a covered pathway separated one CSC facility from the other, flanked by fountains, elaborate gardenworks, and even a commissioned sculpture that looked like a slanted plane of solar panels. Going from one building to another, you heard only the tinkling water of the fountain, the faint hum of traffic, and your own conversation.
Working at CSC felt like living in the future. And little wonder; back in the cynical, sci fi-happy ‘70s, when our 21st century society was the subject of wild speculation, the cinematic look and feel of the future our present was often enveloped in a similar silence. Take the 1975 Rollerball. A generally raucous nightmare of gladiatorial spectacle set in the year 2018, Rollerball shifts between two primary moods, one riotous and the other tranquil. First there are the rollerball games themselves: all airhorns and roaring crowds and crashed-in heads. Then there is the serene exposition: set on the sparsely populated grounds of the BMW building in Munich. This is head rollerballer Jonathan E.‘s (James Caan) estate, which is so remote it can only be reached by helicopter; in the eggshaped “luxury center” where we first learn that in the future, books are carefully controlled commodities. The contrast between Rollerball‘s action sequences and its dramatic ones is made early: after the first game Jonathan steps out of the coliseum into the nighttime streets, where legions of fans are chanting his name. The camera pulls in on the BMW building in the dark sky and there’s a match cut to the same building in daylight; the chanting fades and no other sound takes its place.
Such silent scenes contrast with the crowded, clangorous, confusing fate more recent movies hold out for humanity. Consider, for instance, Brazil (1985), with all of its exposed ductwork; The Fifth Element‘s (1997) 3D gridlock; and the crime-ridden chaos of other future-cop movies: Freejack (1992), Judge Dredd (1995), RoboCop (1987). Consider also that even when modern movies present less anarchic scenarios for our outlying years, they still afflict the citizens of tomorrow with psychological tumult or petty harangues, as in the case of the holographic advertising come-ons in Minority Report (2002), or the omnipresent ticket dispensers in Demolition Man (1993), which continually emit sirens as they issue citations to anyone using swear words. Since the ‘80s, movies about the future have developed a tendency to drum up a horrible racket.
Much of the contrasting silence of ‘70s science fiction can be chalked up to technical expedience. When the opening title sequence of Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979) a low-budget rip-off of the previous year’s hugely successful Michael Crichton movie Coma unfolds over an establishing shot of a sequestered concrete complex in a grassy field, we immediately understand that we’ve been transported into some forthcoming date. And all the director has had to do is set his movie in the futuristic-looking Moorpark Community College in Moorpark, California. When, for his movie Sleeper (1973), Woody Allen needed a house that would look convincingly like it had been made in or around 2073, rather than make a new architectural curiosity he found an already existing one; a “Sculpture House” built by Charles Deaton in Colorado in the mid-‘60s. In all of these cases, using existing locations saved money on special effects and was more convincing on screen [contrast, for instance, the exorbitant and yet still phony-looking model of a domed city in Logan’s Run (1976)].
Still, before these films could shoot the future on location, there had to be a revolution in architectural philosophy. The Deaton house and the BMW building in Munich, for instance, both eschew the rectilinear shapes characteristic of functional buildings, although they do so for opposite reasons: Deaton’s design was “based on the use of shapes found in nature,” whereas the BMW building’s four rounded columns were meant to echo the cylinders of a car engine. In either case, the traditions that had typified building design a primary focus on the building’s purpose, with ornamentation aimed at making the edifice pleasing to look at or to inhabit had fallen away. Taking their place was an abstract representation of concept that permitted buildings to assume any number of unexpected forms, depending on the artistic intentions of the architect. Part of the reason the science fiction of the ‘70s could portray the future so convincingly was that this design philosophy resulted in an unpredictability that could stand in for “the future”, an unpredictability literally unfolding in the era’s commercial and residential space.
By odd coincidence, some of the same architects who worked on Fairview Park also helped design the upscale shopping mall Tysons II, which stands across the street from where I work today. With Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s for flagship stores, Tysons II appeals to a wealthy demographic, but takes some pains not to look as though it does. Its arched entrances are cozy and inviting. Its eatery, primarily sustained by an independently run Greek short-order restaurant while construction is completed on Cheesecake Factory, is furnished with simple wooden chairs and tables. Absent are the floral arrangements and elaborately folded silk napkins one imagines the clientele of Saks Fifth Avenue would be accustomed to.
Tysons II’s design is a manifestation of what’s called the “back-to-the-streets” movement, and serves as evidence of a change in what constitutes luxury. Originally exclusive and opulent, Tysons II was revamped in the mid-‘90s with the aim, as described in The Washington Post in 1996, of giving it “a look more like a row of old-time downtown shops with wares in the windows.” It only takes a quick and unpleasant stroll through the town hosting Tysons II the well-to-do development of McLean, Virginia, a place known colloquially as “Tysons Corner” to understand why the local denizens might hunger for “old-time downtown shops”.
McLean is a place boxed in by its own wealth. It consists of a procession of gated townhouse “communities” with wide gaps between them, serviced by roads with widely curved turn lanes that are hospitable to speeding cars but dangerous to pedestrians. All of McLean is an uninviting place to traverse on foot; the town offers no public space aside from strip malls along Route 7, Tysons Mall and Tysons II, and a bus depot. This last is the Tysons-West*Park transit station, and while it serves as a hub for transferring among buses traveling to and from other destinations, no route ends or begins there. For busgoers (and few residents of McLean are), this reinforces the sense that McLean-Tysons Corner is not so much a place in itself as a means for getting to other places. For all these reasons, Tysons sidewalks are largely barren of people. Tysons II is designed among other things to fill this gap, to sell the street back to us in a place where the life of the real street, if it ever existed, has withered away.
Such desolate avenues are common in America’s vast network of suburbs, as are deliberate efforts to relieve their homogeneity and breathe a little life back into them. The urge to get “back to the streets” manifests not only in the indoor venues of Tysons II, but also in the simulated “old towns” that punctuate the miles and miles of sprawl in Northern Virginia. Here, in Alexandria; Fairfax; and Falls Church, adjacent to Tysons Corner, the dispersed office buildings, apartment complexes, and one-family houses give way to full-block connected storefronts. The major traffic arteries take on homier names, so that Leesburg Pike becomes Broad Street in Falls Church, Lee Jackson Memorial Highway becomes Main Street in Fairfax. The effort in these remanufactured old towns appears to be to make the streets more inviting for pedestrians but with the exception of Alexandria which was explicitly designed to remedy the common pitfalls of suburban sprawl the sidewalks of these old towns aren’t much busier than the ones in residential McLean-Tysons Corner.
The idea behind old towns is noble more so, at least, than the sterile, pedestrian-hostile and profit-mongering Tysons II but they miss the essence of the problem. Daily life for many Americans, probably most in the “NoVa” office parks, holds little call for sidewalks, and instead consists largely of a vacillation among vehicles, screens (the computer workstation at the office, the television at home), and shopping centers. Many of us are so habituated to the perpetually enclosed suburban lifestyle that we scarcely know what old towns are for, or how we are supposed to use them.
The supposed mobility of the American lifestyle, something taken as assumed since the nation was founded on the comforting myth of manifest destiny, has in recent years come to seem a bit phony. This is true of “upward” mobility, as the easy rhetoric of American prosperity has given way to talk about a squeeze on the middle class; it’s also true of “outward” mobility, as more and more people are cornered into resorting to their cars for any and every errand, but in an environment where there is no place meaningful to go.
This phony mobility, and the caged-in reality that it masks, have long been a source of commentary for concerned social critics. Of the suburban boom following World War II, Lewis Mumford wrote that “the end product is an encapsulated life, spent more and more in the car or within the cabin of darkness before a television set.” James Howard Kunstler, who provides this quote from Mumford, elaborates elsewhere about the painful commute of the typical office worker (who in Northern Virginia has to contend with roads as congested as those in New York City and Los Angeles). Having fought to get home from her office where as often as not, she has spent most of her day in front of a workstation or laptop she must, in order to have a social life, “get back in the goddamn car” which she has just fought to get out of, whereupon follows “the low-grade experience of driving up and down the highway strip in the pall of night.” This is so meager a prospect that for many, the competing “blandishments of the boob tube” at home win out. Such a lifestyle has become so deeply ingrained, few know what to do with the pedestrian-friendly “old towns” of Northern Virginia.
And meanwhile, what’s playing on the boob tubes in these cabins of darkness? Among other things the noisy remake of Rollerball, available on DVD, in which the dreamy, futuristic location shots of the original are cast off in favor of the crowded streets and nightclubs of some vaguely defined city in Central Asia. Any comment the original might have tried to make about the narcotic of spectatorial violence is cast aside too, in favor of an interminable popcorn actionfest that only gets noisier and more nonsensical between rollerball matches. In erasing the original movie’s point, the remake could scarcely do a better job of validating the original’s prediction: that the future would consist of corporate oligopolies, mollifying their commoner subjects with bread and mindless circuses.
By now Northern Virginia’s corporate and commercial topography has been around so long it seems to be a part of nature, or at least inevitable. The quiet of its streets is scarcely commented on, by writers or by residents. The deserted sidewalks feel like part of the design. When one strolls through the suburbs at dusk glancing in at the few houses whose living room curtains are open and noting the number of TVs that are on, viewers’ backs to the windows one gets the impression of insular contentment, the impression that withdrawal into the cocoon of the commuter-centric lifestyle yields a happiness that is wholly free of complaint. There are no communities, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, only families and individuals.
But this may just be an appearance. The insistent cacophony of TV’s “blandishments” masks a growing discontentment, as Americans become the world’s most overworked population in a country where the top one percent of the people hold 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, and surveys tend to find the proportion of workers saying their company does not genuinely care about them hovering at about 50 percent. In his book on political activism Why Bother?: Getting a Life in a Locked-Down Land (Feral House, 2001), Washington-area writer Sam Smith cites Bertold Brecht’s concern that “culture would turn out to be just an escape valve through which political concerns could be diffused without being confronted.” If this is true, then the ever more numbing intensity of TV’s spectacle signals that this escape valve is open wide.
And of the corresponding quiet streets: “The silence,” Smith says, may only be “the sound of something getting ready to happen.”