Moving buildings

The Migrant Skyscraper from Yanko Design.
The Migrant Skyscraper from Yanko Design.
Designers: Damian Przybyła by Rafał Przybyła

The World on a Wheel: Moving Buildings in Steampunk
One of the great joys of steampunk lies in making everything a bit more mechanical. Whether it’s a steam powered prosthetic arm, a gun with extra pistons down the sides, or just jewellery made of gears and levers, everything’s better with a little layer of nineteenth century technology.

When it comes to mechanising, it doesn’t get much bigger than buildings. But the buildings of the Victorian era were already starting to be filled with mechanisms. So how can we take this further and make steampunk buildings really distinctive?

By making them move.

Words by Andrew Knighton

A flying fortress
Given the popularity of airships, it’s no surprise that we see flying buildings in steampunk. The film Steamboy contains a classic example of this, as the film’s steam castle takes to the skies for the climactic act, in which this vast flying fortress threatens to crash, bringing ruin down upon London.

Gail Carriger’s Finishing School books similarly feature a flying institution, this time the finishing school of the series’ title. Mademoiselle Geraldine’s is the ultimate place of learning for young ladies preparing for a life in high society and a career in espionage. Where better to learn the arts of tea and subterfuge than out of sight of the rest of the world, up above the clouds? And this creates great opportunities for excitement, with characters hanging from the side of the flying building or caught in the crossfire as it’s ambushed by balloon-riding highwaymen.

Put some wheels on it

While flight might be a more romantic way to travel, the reality of the Victorian era relied on wheeled vehicles. Fortunately that has also inspired some great escapes from reality, with artists in particular adding wheels to buildings to give them that steampunk edge. Google ‘steampunk moving house’ and you’ll see what I mean.
Perhaps the most impressive example is Neverwas Haul, a house on wheels built for the Burning Man festival in 2006. It’s an incredible contraption made largely of recycled materials, made all the more remarkable because the creators didn’t just draw or write about it – they made their moving building a reality.

Whole cities

Most of these examples are just a single moving building in a setting where the rest are still. How much cooler would it be to have a whole moving city?
Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series may be set in the future, but its technological aesthetic is still a very steampunk one, full of smokestacks and airships, boiler rooms and billows of steam. Most gloriously steampunk of all is the core concept of the books – that the cities of the world all now moving, roaming the globe on vast soot-spewing engines. It’s a city-eat-city world of municipal Darwinism, combining steam power with the brutal evolutionary ideas that also first sprang up in the
Victorian era.

In my own story ‘Urban Drift’, available in the Riding the Mainspring collection, I’ve also included a city where everything moves, though this time it’s buildings moving around each other within the city, all parts of some great machine. Where better to set a chase scene than in streets that take part in the chase?

Why stay still?
In steampunk we can modify anything, move anything. With so much potential, why would you ever want to live in a house that just sits still?

About the Author:
Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. His collection of steampunk stories, Riding the Mainspring, is available through Amazon and Smashwords and he is planning a science fiction collection for later this year. He blogs about science fiction, fantasy and writing at and can be found on Twitter as @gibbondemon.

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