Visionary Digitalia: Filthy Games and Pernicious Beauty

City of Los Santos, Grand Theft Auto V, Courtesy of Rockstar Games / Modderfontein New City, Shanghai Zendai Development Co.

Bonier, C., “Visionary Digitalia: Filthy Games and Pernicious Beauty”
Fantasy in Reality: Architecture, Representation, Reproduction / The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House / London, UK, June 2017

“The concept of physical beauty as a virtue is one of the dumbest, most pernicious and destructive ideas of the Western world, and we should have nothing to do with it.”[1]

Contemporary architectural fantasy reaches in several directions, each trajectory floating on the language of digital software. In terms of volume and extravagance, today’s most powerful visions are generated by video game designers, who carefully render realistically weathered, materially weighted “assets,” the term for architectural objects placed into game environments. At the same time, architects contribute to a proliferation of imagined buildings and instant cities, which appear at the early design stages to escape the frictions of material, time, gravity, and violence. The apparent weight of game architecture negates the traditional critique of digital design, namely the ease with which flimsy forms and entire cities can be extruded, lofted, and warped into generic existence. The virtual cities which reside within game engines may soon exceed the actual area of built cities on the globe. Within this context, it is important to examine the political implications of the spatial and formal structures of architecture’s visionary twin.

This paper focuses on today’s most influential architectural fantasy, analyzing Grand Theft Auto 5, a game most notorious for its problematic relationship to violence and sexism. “GTA5” has sold approximately 70 million copies, making it a pervasive grand tour. At this point, the game’s central character, the city of Los Santos, is one of the most widely shared digital landscapes in the world. Against this filthy game, I pose the pernicious beauty of “smart cities,” such as Shanghai Zendai’s Modderfontein New City, a planned Shangri-La outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. Violent game-world cities crafted to facilitate ease of navigation and personal attachment provide an odd antithesis to the new green cities sold as beautifully smooth oases of environmentally-friendly escape.

[1]    Toni Morrison, “Behind the Making of the Black Book,” Black World 23 (February 1974):  89.