Last week, Google revealed updated renderings of its forthcoming campus. The BIG and Thomas Heatherwick design has seen its fair share of updates since it was first announced in early 2015, a normal occurrence for such a large and high-profile project. This new rendition swaps the building’s transparent roof for an opaque canopy. One Co.Design staffer’s first reaction to the new, more ominous and compact design? It looks like the Death Star.
George Lucas’s planet-obliterating space station is a favorite metaphor for designers and users of buildings. I’m a guilty offender, too. But I want to change my ways. Some buildings do look like the Death Star, but the vast majority that get compared to it do not. And in the rare event that a building actually is perfectly spherical, there are usually so many more apt descriptors than a 40-year-old fictional weapon.
When I was a student at UC Davis, everyone called the Social Sciences and Humanities Building–a 1994 design by Antoine Predock–the Death Star for its irregular configuration and labyrinthine network of corridors and courtyards. Never mind that it looked nothing like its Star Wars namesake. Here are a few more buildings that get the comparison: Herzog & de Meuron’s addition to the Walker Art Center; Morphosis’s design for the Cooper Union; the Dallas Cowboys Stadium; the Taipei Performing Arts Center by OMA; the Broad Museum by Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, in Los Angeles; and the Ryugyong Hotel, in North Korea. Even a small-town in rural Mississippi has its own “Death Star” in the form of a football stadium. Even though none of them bear the slightest resemblance to the spherical space weapon.
So why do we keep re-using the same comparison? The reason it works is because Star Wars is one of those rare cultural touchstones that millions of people around the world understand. Secondly, calling something a “Death Star” is a well-worn way to disparage a structure for its ominous, foreboding, and confusing design. The Death Star is a awe-striking, futuristic structure, a marvel of the Empire’s technological prowess, and a trap for those who are trying to infiltrate it. Plenty of modern buildings embody some of those characteristics, too.
Buildings that get saddled with Death Star comparisons tend to express futuristic design ideas, employ new materials and tech in their construction, and have ambitious structures that are only possible because of recent engineering innovations–just like the Death Star. As with most experimental things, modern buildings are frequently met with skepticism and derision. The classical is considered beautiful, while the contemporary is an acquired taste. So when a building looks like it descended from outer space, or if it’s ugly in the eye of the beholder, invoking the Death Star is a quick way to communicate that relationship between old and new. It has become a crutch to describe modern spaces we don’t like.
For instance, this Miami skyscraper is not the Death Star.
Neither is the Barbican Center, in London.
Dulles Airport, in Washington, D.C., is not the Death Star.
There’s no way could this Seattle dome could demolish a planet.
The Westminster Underground station? I think not.
Just because a structure is spherical doesn’t make it the Death Star.
Or an aperture in the facade.
Or a long hallway.
Of course, in some situations, buildings do bear an uncanny Death Star resemblance, and the comparison holds: OMA’s proposed design for the RAK Convention Center, in the United Arab Emirates; Jakob + Macfarlane’s Orange Cube in Lyon, France; the Technosphere, a conceptual design in Dubai; and NASA’s new garage can wear the badge.
While these structures might make a few sci-fi fans beam, they’re often out of scale, often out of context, and generally provoke a feeling of impending doom. Perhaps it’s time to retire both kinds of Death Star references–literal and critical–and take a page from this year’s Pritzker Winners, the Spanish firm RCR Architects, by designing with a sensibility that’s more down to earth.