The Architecture of Star Wars: a Fan’s Favorite Buildings, Cities, and Death Star


Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens tomorrow in theaters everywhere (or tonight at midnight for extreme fans) and reviewers are already saying its good.  To help stave off the anticipatory tension for a few more hours, here is a meditation on … the BUILDINGS of STAR WARS.  

First, a love song for Star Wars which beautifully encapsulates fan feelings about the original trilogy.

Who Designed the Buildings of Star Wars?

To step outside the Star Wars universe for a moment, its not an accident that the architectural cultures portrayed in the movies are extremely diverse and often pretty sustainable.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that Lucas (and his design team John Barry and Roger Christian on A New Hope and Normal Reynolds and Michael Ford for Empire and Jedi) were armchair architects of note – but that they were talented mimics.  They borrowed from the material culture of each environment that they shot in – the underground house of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru is very similar to the troglodyte dwellings scattered around Tunisia (where the Tatooine scenes were filmed).

What is remarkable about both Set / Production Design teams is their willingness to built from scratch using real material rather than cheaping-out and shooting scenes in rooms made out of drywall.  The interior of the Millennium Falcon was created from airplane scrap metal; the Lars homestead is a plastered dome built in the desert.  The result is a wide range of buildings shown in the movies that are full of adaptations to local environment that add greatly to the texture and verisimilitude of the films unlike so many banal sets from other Sci Fi of the same era.

1970's scifi

(Clockwise from top left): Terminal Man (1974) – George Segal is turned into the eponymous Terminal Man in an ordinary operating theater in which the nurses have elaborately stupid hats.  Sleeper (1973) – Woody Wakes up 200 years in the future but finds that institutional hallways haven’t aged a day.  Soylent Green (1973) – Charlton Heston investigates a future New York just a little grittier and dirtier than the 70’s.  Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979) demonstrates that the set of a jazzercise workout video is the same no mater the century.

Although I doubt the causal fan would think of it this way, part of the reason we still watch Star Wars is because it doesn’t look like a dated spinoff of the year it was made.  The depth and detail of the sets lets us really believe that it took place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

So … now lets go back into the ‘Verse and consider a few of my favorite buildings from Star Wars.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

Lars Homestead, Tatooine


This simple dome structure set against the sunset is maybe the most iconic image in all of Star Wars to me.  But its much more than that to Owen and Beru Lars (and to Luke while he lives with them.  Its a structure which transforms an arid desert into a livable, even comfortable home with very little energy input.  (The Lars family don’t have money to burn on extra power).  Instead of using intensive AC, they live in protected niche carved out of the desert.  The little domed hut shown at left is just the entry (with a durable adobe dome structure and a very low front door to protect against the elements and other disasters.

What I really need is a droid that understands the binary language of moisture vaporators.

Most of the living and working space are underground cavern rooms carved out from the sunken courtyard that Luke is leaning over to holler at his aunt (above).  The homestead is protected from heat and sandstorms and keeps a low profile (so as not to attract unwanted attention a pretty hard-boiled world.  The one thing it can’t do … defend them from the armed attack of Storm Troopers looking for Luke.  So that’s unfortunate.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Echo Base, Hoth


When the Empire goes looking for the rebel base, they visually scan the surface of countless planets looking for signs of life.  They very nearly come up dry because the Rebel Base isn’t on the inhospitable surface of Hoth – its underneath.  Emulating the ice caverns used by local life forms like the Wampa – the Rebel engineers opportunistically use some larger caves and enlarge and reinforce others to create a covert and complex military encampment that is protected from the extreme cold.

Sir, the temperature's dropping too rapidly.

That's right.  And my friends out in it.

Your Tauntaun'll freeze before you reach the first marker.

Then I'll see you in hell!

Design features of Echo Base include bored tunnels with conduits draped along one side connecting different compartments, inward slanting walls to support the weight of ice above and only the occasional fully built room – like the space where Luke gets medical treatment.  Now that I consider that med unit, it may actually just be an internal compartment of one of the space ships docked at the base or it could be some sort of modular medical unit drop in that was inserted into the base on Hoth.

Maintaining a series of smaller caverns distributes the personnel and supplies in case of an attack (as we see happen) AND reduces the structural needs of each space keeping each cavern as small as possible.   They are carving out ice-utility-spaces not an ice-cathedral.  Still the space has its beauty.  The horizontal lines created by the tunnel boring machine create an exaggerated perspective that focuses attention on Han and Leia having a fight outside the command center (even for the utility grunts just trying to walk past).

Cloud City, orbiting gas planet, Bespin

cloud city

It’s easy to see Cloud City as a beautiful object – a luxury home or pleasure craft – but its actually a mining encampment housing several million people.  For comparison, the City of Chicago had 2.7 million at last count. So try to envision OUR fair city floating in the sky over a valuable gas planet.  I don’t go wild for the interior spaces of Cloud City that we see in Empire strikes back but I can’t get enough of its graceful floating form.

You look absolutely beautiful.  You truly belong here with us among the clouds.

In an interesting case of life imitating art, NASA has recently proposed a floating science installation above the surface of Venus – a cloud city type aerial research base.  That inspiration point seems less startling when you consider that the scientists who head NASA today were very probably the science fiction nerds of yesterday.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

Bright Tree Village, Forest Moon, Endor


Not only are Ewoks adorable but their tree hut civilization connected by endlessly intermeshed ladders and rope bridges is pretty much the cutest thing ever.  It might not be very comfortable for people used to a Tech based society like the one that pervades the Star Wars galaxy but  it seems to work just fine for the fuzzy little hunters who just want to stay under (or in this case above) the radar of the scary Storm Troopers who have been invading their quiet forest moon.

Hello, I think... I could be mistaken. They're using a very primitive dialect.  
But I do believe they think I am some sort of god.
Well, why don't you use your divine influence and get us out of this?

Death Star, Space / wherever the hell it wants to be

death star, architecture of star wars

And the Death Star.  It’s not adorable at all but it is “fully armed and operational.”  As a planet killing death machine, I have to disapprove it but I do really love the design as one of those BIG IDEA architecture concepts.  Its as brutalist as they come – especially with the pret-a-porter functionality of the half-completed facade.  And it seems like you don’t have to worry about drag or aerodynamics in space.  I actually like the second iteration better than the original big floating ball of “that’s no moon, that’s a space station,” fame.   Its such a perfect melding of form and function – it can intimidate the hell out of a planetary population just as easily as it can blast them with green lasers and destroy them (side note – don’t you think Vader would have preferred red laser to match his light saber).

As you can see, my young apprentice, your friends have failed. 
Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station.

In light of our recent posts on Design for Deconstruction and Avoiding Architectural Waste, it seems a really egregious misuse of materials for the Rebel Alliance to explode not one, but two, of these.  Sometimes a building just outlives its function and wasn’t designed to be adaptable enough.  Once you don’t have an Empire … you don’t need an Imperial strong arm Space Station any more.   I’ll just have to imagine there was a booming salvage business picking bits of valuable metal flotsam out of the space around Endor for several generations afterwards.  Maybe we’ll see some of that in The Force Awakens!

Meanwhile … what’s your favorite building of the Star Wars galaxy?  Cast a vote for one of the above or tell us why another is the best.