Worldbuilding can be tough. Creating new cultures and civilizations. I’ve talked a little before on how to add a little flavor with the 3 Ms (Merchants, Mercenaries, and Mauraders), but today I want to look at how architecture and environmental design can inform the reader about your society.
There were a few books that made me really think about this. The Bobiverse series has an alien species that build massive ships with large cargo holds and compartmentalization. In Children of Time, the spiders build with silk and their structures are in a constant state of change. But what really made me think of architecture as a worldbuilding aid was in Space Team. In that book, when the main character first arrives on the alien ship, he sees what he describes as “chairs and not chairs.”
Now many creatures have the ability to change their environment to better suit their needs. Any creature capable of creating a complex society would have to have this as well as the logistics of providing for large numbers require it. This environmental change can be as complex as creating weather machines, or building cities, or it can be as simple as irrigation or making a boat. Even making a chair or not chair is a level of environmental change.
But the question is how do these changes and designs inform the reader about society? Well, let’s look at some of our previous examples.
In the Bobiverse series, the aliens use giant ships with compartmentalization. They also travel from planet to planet, stripping it of its metals to return to their homeworld. The function of the vessel is to carry large amounts of raw material, hence the size. The compartmentalization is reminiscent of life we find here on Earth…insects. Bees and ants tend to have compartmentalized structures. They are also hive minds, a trait shared by the Bobiverse aliens. That little detail draws a parallel that the alien physiology did not.
In Children of Time, the spiders build their structures with silk, a material naturally produced. They designed their homes as large chambers to house several members of a peer group. They also change the layout of their homes and other structures at will and as necessary. This shows that not only is their society based on biological technologies, but it is also highly adaptable. At several points in the story, the spider’s society changes completely to adjust to new developments.
Even in our own history and societies, we can see examples of how building design can inform us about a society. When I think of ancient Greece, I see open plazas and forums that promote the exchange of ideas and thought. The courtyards and lack of walls, while not historically accurate, give a sense of community.
Rome was a mix of military function and highly developed social forms. A vast bureaucracy and military power, many of its buildings were designed to be standardized. A Roman fort was a Roman fort, regardless of if it was located in Germany, Britain, or Carthage. Its temples, however, were quite elegant due to its observances of highly developed rituals.
The Roman Catholic Church has amazingly designed cathedrals full of some of the best paintings and sculptures in the world to both show glory to their God and to display its wealth and power. American skyscrapers reach towards the heavens as a symbol of industrial might and independence. The Japanese developed intricate joints to connect support beams due to a lack of metal for nails that offer the feel of precision and discipline. Russian towers have a distinctive bell shape to prevent snow accumulation, hinting at their hardiness and resourcefulness.
How you design your world’s buildings and furnishings can offer a lot of insight into the culture and can give the reader clues as to what that society generally feels. But what other examples can you think of? How do you use building design to add not just distinctiveness, but character, to your world? Let me know in the comments, and as always, I mustache you to stay fantastical.