City 17: Through War, We Remember

Half Life 2 is a game which many hold in regard as one of the prime examples of video game storytelling, and a representation of gaming’s evolution as a medium. It was a revolution in storytelling, as the player never deviates from the protagonists own point of view, and the spatial progression of the story is experienced at a 1:1 scale; there are no cutscenes, or movement of the player outside of their own hands. The protagonist is also never seen or heard, unlike traditional first-person stories.

The main character is Gordan Freeman, whom the player controls throughout the events of the main series. The story follows Gordon as he escapes the Black Mesa research facility where he works as a scientist, up until the events of Half Life 2 when the Combine invade Earth, taking over in what is dubbed the “7-Hour War.” The Combine occupy the Earth, and erect a massive structure in City 17 (the main setting for the game) called the Citadel. This structure is basically a giant command station, built as a fortress for the occupying forces. Over time a resistance is formed, of which Gordon Freeman seems to lead, that uses Lambda (λ), the symbol for an element’s half-life, as its sign. The game covers many interesting topics, but what I want to look at is the way in which the world’s built environments play into the story, and what we can glean from City 17 itself.

“The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world. So, wake up, Mister Freeman. Wake up and… *smell the ashes*… “

Viktor Antonov.  That name should ring bells, but it doesn’t.  Who could he be?

Viktor Antonov designed City 17.

(he also designed most of the Combine’s sweet buildings, weapons, and vehicles)

He’s a master planner, artist, lore-master, and architect.  Not literally, or legally, but figuratively.  The way his designs work with the lore of the story create enough of an immersive environment that it engages the player more than some actual spaces, designed by architects, might engage a person.  Were I to ever meet the man, I’d let him know that’s what I think he is.

That city, old seventeen.  A city under occupation by foreign forces, semi-destroyed and rebuilt by armed combat, home to a fierce underground resistance movement headed by a genius scientist and his cohorts.  Seems about right.


Combine tower, in the centre of City 17. Concept art by Viktor Antonov

The tower (above) is built on top of older parts of the city, dropped in place when the Combine took over during the 7-Hour War. Note the walls, varying in height as they crawl across the landscape, not bothering to maintain any semblance of normality. The structure appears to move, undulating within its own imperfect geometry.

The Combine and the Resistance both appear to hold true to an architectural style that implies adapting old materials to suit new purposes: the communications relays are pieced together, the structures seemingly built out of entire sections of destroyed ships’ hulls and pieces of destroyed buildings.  Now that’s all well and good, but what can we learn from this whole occupation situation?

Viktor Antonov, meet Lebbeus Woods.  Woods was an artist and architect known for his views on how to rebuild the city.  He developed what he saw as three principles on how to rebuild a city in response to wartime destruction.  I’m going to look at Lebbeus’ Principles and apply them to a possible post-war reconstruction of City 17, culminating with his “Third Principle”, one that he developed as the proper way to rebuild.

Note that he disagreed with the first two, merely fleshing them out to create three identifiable methods of reconstruction.  The third is his own theory.

Principle 1: Rebuild based on what the city used to be in order to restore it to a state of normality.  The problem is, the prior state of normality almost never applies after the radical change of war: politics change, social fabrics change, and the people usually see the world differently afterwards.  How can you separate yourself from, or completely forget about what changed your culture from its very core into something new?

Let’s propose for a minute that the events at the end of Half Life 2: Episode 2 render the city mostly destroyed, all the Combine are gone or killed, and large chunks of their infrastructure (technology, vehicles, equipment, and architecture) remain.  Following this principle (which isn’t far fetched–it’s what happens in real life), the people rebuild the city to be old City 17: human architecture is rebuilt, bricks are scavenged along with timbers, and buildings are patched together into a post-traditional societal fabric consisting of exactly the same buildings and places as they had before.  This allows the people to “move on” from the disaster, to live in what they all comfortably ignore as being a hollow reconstruction of their old lives, pushing memories of the conflict into books and artwork.  The Combine would live on in museums, their colossal effect on the lives of the city’s inhabitants relegated to literature and exhibits.

Principle 2: Tear down everything that was affected by the destruction and build a new city on top of its remains.  The problem with this one is that instead of rebuilding their old lives and using that to ignore the bad times, the inhabitants build a bright, shiny, false prospect of a better tomorrow on the corpses of their fallen comrades.  While Principle 1 is denial, this one is a combination of anger and denial; the previous city didn’t work well enough, so we should build a new one.  A patch on the society’s wound, barely holding it shut but convincing them that everything is fixed.  Now City 17 in this situation: tear down and destroy the Combine architecture, as well as the human architecture and infrastructure that they left broken.  After the wound is staunched, bandage it.  A new city is built, the “7 Hour City” it might be called, to cover even the name of the “7 Hour War”.

Ah, Principle 3.  It gets me every time, with its simple yet intricate web of metaphor, meaning, and pragmatic sensibility: it’s like Plato teaching you the three R’s of recycling.  In Lebbeus’ own words:

“We’ll call it the Third Principle: 

The post-war city must create the new from the damaged old.”

Beautiful, isn’t it?  The objects in 17 — mainly the Combine ships, technology, and architecture — embody this sense of rebuilding.  They look like they’ve been running from something, like they’ve already embraced Lebbeus’ third principle and used the remnants of previous suffering to build their current image.  If they didn’t do it literally, by using recycled pieces in their architecture and equipment, there’s a definite nod to a time when things weren’t as… successful as they are now.


Gehry’s proposed towers (which have since changed, but nonetheless).

So if 17 were to be destroyed and rebuilt in the manner of Lebbeus’ Third Principle, it might look something like Frank Gehry’s proposed condominium towers in Toronto (above).  These structures resemble a bone structure being covered by flesh, muscle, and other organic material.  Incidentally, the buildings are proposed to be built on the grounds of the historic Mirvish Theatre, and so are embodying the rise of a new structure from the remains of an old one.  The new buildings of City 17 would take the old, collapsed Citadel and part it out to be used on new constructions.  Combine technology, mainly vehicles and fortifications, would also be deconstructed and used in fixing the socio-physical fabric of the city.  Using the Third Principle allows a people to move on from a disaster by accepting what has happened and assimilating it into their everyday lives.  It would be better, I think, to be subtly reminded of a historical event rather than have a solitary monument blatantly proclaiming victory, defeat, or suffering.


Lebbeus Woods


Lebbeus Woods

The design of the Combine machinery, ships, weapons, and architecture, if viewed through the lens of Lebbeus’ Third Principle, open a world of possibilities as to whom the Combine really are. Their structures look refined, if scrapped together. The overall impression that I get of the Combine civilization as a whole is one of realism.  Their technology feels grounded, it feels real. Their communications and power networks consist of vast amounts of cables, their hardware looks used and dated. There doesn’t seem to be anything that needs a “because sci-fi” explanation. The way the technology is presented, from buildings to weapons, is that given if everything were true (energy weapons, striders, gravity guns, etc.) then this is what they’d look like. Sure, it’s not realistic in the conventional sense that one might consider Battlefield and Arma realistic, but it is real in its own skin. Older parts have been repurposed and given new life, and nothing has that Apple product vibe that a lot of games fall prey to. I think this is what sets good science fiction apart from great science fiction–the things we consider boring and commercial in real life are what make these fantastic situations more immersive. In the universes of Star Wars and Firefly, there are a broad range of styles. Mainly, they fall into the realm of realistic and gritty, just like Half Life.


Razor Train, by Viktor Antonov

Lebbeus developed a series of works dedicated to his Third Principle, of which a gallery follows. I think it’s important to look at these images now, after understanding what they mean. Without an understanding of why these forms came about they mean nothing but an attractive piece of artwork. Imagine these not as just a cool way to build buildings, but as a method of remembrance, as everyday monuments woven into our lives. I strongly encourage you to read his blog post in the link that follows.

lwblog-wa-12  lwblog-wa-7

high houses  HighHouses

A few of the above images are from Lebbeus’ High Houses series, of which a link also follows. Funny enough, comments on the site reference City 17 and Half Life.

Architecture and design can be something more than mere business or sculpture.  There can be meaning, and I encourage you to look for it.

- badfish

About Aaron Cote

– STUDENT: UW Architecture – AUTHOR: – CONTACT: – HANDLE: badfish