Forms in Light
A hellish landscape populated with flowing rivers of lava and harsh towers and bridges constructed with bone-like materials.

Hell on Earth

The cacodemon behind Doomguy, in a hallway full of dead demons.

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #153. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


Architecture and games.


The first level in DOOM Eternal is quite appropriately called Hell on Earth. Take a look around the place and you’ll come across all kinds of infernal architecture. I’m not talking about the iron spikes and pools of blood, though. I’m talking about the office buildings.

When you stop to think about it, DOOM Eternal basically has four different types of architecture in its levels. You’ve got horror, science fiction, fantasy, and . . . office buildings. Well, if you want to be specific, most of these are in fact products of the architectural movement known as internationalism.

While it got started in the 1920s, internationalism rose to prominence shortly after World War II. The most official definition currently out there is “the style of architecture that emerged in Holland, France, and Germany after World War I before spreading throughout the world, becoming the dominant architectural style until the 1970s. The style is characterized by an emphasis on volume over mass, use of lightweight, mass produced, industrial materials, rejection of all ornament and color, repetitive modular forms and the use of flat surfaces, typically alternating with areas of glass.” You know those gleaming skyscrapers in just about every city around the world? Think along the lines of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. That’s basically what I’m talking about. In case you’re wondering, there’s a subtle distinction between internationalism and modernism, but the movements are very closely related. The idea that form follows function is common to both movements.

DOOM Eternal takes you to several different planets apart from Earth including Nekravol, Exultia and Urdak. These are all characterized by a particular type of architecture. Urdak looks like it belongs in a science fiction series on account of its floating platforms and bridges of light. Exultia could easily have come from a fantasy novel given the massive domes and stone towers. With its cathedrals covered in skeletons, Nekravol seems like something from a horror movie. These planets are all placed in relation to Earth which is basically nothing but a bunch of office buildings. While this could be a coincidence, I’m inclined to believe that DOOM Eternal is trying to comment on this type of structure. The fact of the matter is that office buildings have a little bit of science fiction, fantasy, and horror in them all at the same time.

A metropolitan cityscape being taken over by hellish forces, juxtaposing glowing fluorescent signage with fire, floating skulls and pulsating slime.

The goals of internationalism and to an even greater extent modernism were entirely admirable. The point was to produce architecture that would serve the needs of society, providing everybody with plenty of light and space along with some air and just a little bit of sun. The movements on the other hand both failed to live up to these lofty ideals, resulting in structures that made very little sense in terms of how people actually lived or worked. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier produced wonderful symbols of what they believed was going to be the beginning of a new age, but it never occurred to them that people would have to inhabit any of the places they created. The best example that I can think of is the structure called unité d’habitation by Le Corbusier. While the beauty can’t be denied, when it comes to important points like privacy, the structure was nothing short of a disaster.

The symbol of modernity is no doubt the skyscraper. While they definitely inspire awe, the reality is that most of them are completely impractical. The ones made from steel and glass in particular. These are not only expensive to maintain because of their high consumption of energy, but they’re also structurally unstable. Skyscrapers can often be found groaning and croaking as they sway from side to side in the wind. This can sometimes become so bad that window panes pop out and girders have to be replaced on account of metal fatigue. Skyscrapers deflect a huge amount of wind, meaning that pedestrian plazas at their bases tend to be so windswept that people can barely get across them. When these are used as office buildings, they typically have an open floor plan, creating the same sort of problems with privacy that plagued the unité d’habitation. Sounds rather hellish to me. But then again, I’ve never been much for cubicles.

The levels in DOOM Eternal provide a reminder that despite being the predominant forms of architecture for the better part of a century, internationalism and modernism are not without their problems. Sure, they have a little bit of science fiction and some fantasy to them, but the movements also have their fair share of horror.

How many times have you dreaded going into work? I don’t know about you, but a lot of what keeps me trying to stay away is the fact that I have to spend so much time inside of an office building. There was definitely a time when I found the concept appealing. With their sense of majesty and modernity, something about those gleaming skyscrapers makes them seem pretty appealing, but when you actually have to work in them, the structures quickly lose their luster. What I dislike the most is the feeling of being watched. I don’t appreciate having managers making sure that I’m spending my time on the right things. With an open floor plan like the one in the office building where I work, there’s not much you can do, though. You just have to learn to live in Hell on Earth.


Justin Reeve is an archaeologist specializing in architecture, urbanism and spatial theory, but he can frequently be found writing about videogames, too. You can follow him on Twitter @JustinAndyReeve.


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