Is there an architect who would turn down the chance to build a floating stadium? Or a spire on the moon? What sort of abode would you build for magical creatures who don’t need to eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom?
That’s what the background designers for Steven Universe ask themselves when constructing the show’s environments. Currently in its fifth season on Cartoon Network, the series revolves around a teenage boy named Steven who lives with three alien superheroes and fights alongside them to protect the Earth. A big part of its charm lies in the heightened attention it pays to backdrops; it uses architecture in delightful and highly innovative ways to advance the messages at its core: Recent episodes, for instance, show Steven and his friends navigating a strange mix of Earth and alien landscapes while pushing themselves to become braver and accepting what makes them different or imperfect.
Steven’s companions, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, especially exhibit these qualities. They’re sentient gemstones who can take humanoid form and summon personalized weapons. The amusing and familial interactions between Steven and the Gems, as well as the cuteness of the character designs and the futuristic alien technology, help to explain the show’s enthusiastic fan base: It’s beloved by kids and adults alike and has earned plaudits for its radical takes on gender roles, family dynamics, and diversity. Celebrity voice actors (Patti LuPone, Nicki Minaj) and original music (a soundtrack was released in June and quickly topped Billboard charts) add vibrancy from season to season.
But in many ways, the show’s built environments—one of the subjects of a new book, Steven Universe: Art & Origins—are the star. The setting of the show moves throughout the universe, eventually reaching the Gem Homeworld. Along the way, viewers might see anything from geodesic domes to disappearing sand castles to human zoo satellites. Many backgrounds are colored with unexpected, complementary palettes (pink sky, purple trees) and traced in outlines that are slightly off-registration and rough. The architecture is intricate and surprising, and it takes a lot of inspiration from video games. Eschewing styles that resemble watercolor or oil paintings, the show instead looks like something that could only be created on a computer, while maintaining elegance and subtlety. And far from being passive, the design assists in the storytelling: The two distinct kinds of architecture on Steven Universe—Gem and human—ingeniously double down on the show’s messages about coexistence and self-transformation.
The Gems that Steven lives with, called the Crystal Gems, are rebels who’ve fought to separate themselves from a vast space empire that serves as the show’s ongoing menace; they act as the Earth’s protectors against corrupted Gem monsters and Homeworld invaders. As a result of an earlier colonization attempt, there are Gem spires and temples hidden throughout Earth—a unique blend of Ancient Greek and Art Deco styles, they’re rich with ornamentation. The show’s crew had to carefully create structures both alien and aged; just as in the Star Wars prequel movies, these environments had to dazzle with sci-fi sparkle while seeming less advanced than their contemporary counterparts.
Luckily, they had magical alien technology for an assist. Gem buildings are able to defy gravity, creating very unusual tectonics—ways in which structural loads are carried and expressed. Steven, in his adventures, thus encounters floating platforms, impossibly twisted columns, and an upside-down pyramid.
Some of these architectural elements were thought up by Joe Johnston, a supervising director on the show. Steven Universe, like many animated shows, is storyboard-driven: Artists conceive the plot and write it as they go. This method might contribute to the strength of the backgrounds; instead of starting with a script, the ideas come from sketches.
That visual-centric storytelling is apparent in a sequence that Johnston storyboarded toward the end of Season 2, in which Steven and the Crystal Gems go to the moon for information about a weapon growing deep within the Earth. The Gem moonbase there is topped with what Johnston confirms is a geodesic dome, like those of the futurist architect Buckminster Fuller. “My dad is an engineer,” he says, laughing. “He’s always been the person in our family to point out interesting engineering things. That’s probably where that came from. I think I watched a PBS program on Buckminster Fuller at some point.”
Like Fuller, the Gems strived for utopian perfection. But also like Fuller, they never quite got there. Geodesic domes, initially designed as the ideal solution to a post-WWII housing shortage, never quite worked. They leaked and didn’t age well. As viewers learn over and over on the show, perfection—whether it’s Amethyst upset about her diminutive size or simply Steven’s friend Lars’s attempts to be an effortlessly cool teen—is impossible, and striving for it can come at a great cost. This recalls one of the show’s delightful mantras: “If every pork chop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs.”
But the Gems were aiming for flawlessness when they built their colony on Earth. Peridot, a newly recruited Crystal Gem, explains that what was actually erected was “maybe 5 percent of what was originally planned.” She shows a hologram of Earth that’s been completely hollowed-out—a husk of a planet covered with Gem spires and temples. Garnet states the obvious: “Completing this colony would have meant the extinction of all life on earth.”
In contrast with the precision sought by the Gems, the human-built structures on the show are about change and growth, warts and all. “It’s real,” says Steven Sugar, the show’s lead background designer and brother of the series creator Rebecca Sugar. (He’s also the inspiration for the title character.) “There are wires, and pipes, and signs, and cracks in the sidewalks and that kind of thing. So it feels worn and it feels imperfect in a way that’s relatable.”
Beach City, the show’s primary locale, for example, is inspired by the three Delaware beaches that the siblings grew up going to. According to Steven Sugar, its look came together after multiple research trips during preproduction. It wasn’t enough to just copy the basics of any beach town. “One of my goals while working on these backgrounds has always been to really capture what makes those buildings look like that part of the East Coast,” he says. “There were certain things we tried to always fall back to, like the look of the trees and that kind of stuff. We always wanted to make sure that the sun was rising over the ocean in the East.”
Beyond the attention to detail, the town’s landscape reveals an internal logic that persists throughout the show. The viewer gets a good sense of what kind of place Beach City is: It’s perhaps more welcome-feeling and small-towny than the real-life spots it’s based on, but then again, it gets attacked by aliens a lot. The name of a blog on the show, Keep Beach City Weird (cribbed from the Austin slogan), feels right.
For the architectural centerpiece of the show, the creators went to a friend’s beach house, took reference photos, and studied them closely to create Steven’s home and the entrance to the Crystal Gems’ temple, a statue of a giant stone woman carved into a hillside. The result is a headquarters for the team and a domicile for Steven, who despite being part-Gem, needs to eat and sleep. The space is often flooded with light from three directions. All the shelving and seating are what Frank Lloyd Wright called “built-ins,” and the split-level roof is partly supported by a suspension system, opening the space below it by removing the need for columns. And it really is open: The various domains of the room overlap, including Steven’s lofted sleeping area. If he ever gets cold, Steven can use his version of a classic 1960s Malm fireplace.
The mid-century architects who first built homes like this were changing the idea of the “house” and its function. Le Corbusier wrote in 1927 that “a house is a machine for living in.” This idea, that a home should be built in accordance with the things you want to do in it, as opposed to just being a variation of the ideal house design, was a new concept. On Steven Universe, the house functions, just as Steven himself does, to integrate humans and Gems. Many episodes begin inside it or on the beach in front of it, and that’s where we see the main characters struggle with their self-images and evolving roles. In an extended version of the show’s theme song made for the web, viewers learn that the Crystal Gems and Greg, Steven’s dad, built the space when Steven was ready to come live with the Gems: The alien warriors, each thousands of years old, adjusted their lives to raise a little boy. The house—in all its hybridity, whether as a staging ground for Gem fights or familial meeting place—facilitates its inhabitants’ development throughout the show.
Meaningful change is thus at the heart of Steven Universe’s ongoing message to its audience. On the Gem Homeworld, each Gem has one purpose according to type (Zircons are lawyers, Rubies are fighters) and carries that out for thousands of years. Earth is the one place in the universe where Gems can decide to become something besides what they are expected to be. For the Crystal Gems in Beach City, that has meant becoming a family.
Earth, it turns out, has changed the Gem empire as well. After a protracted war with Earth, the Gems’ resources are so drained that society—and even its architecture—has been transformed. The new style can be seen on Homeworld in recent episodes of Season 5. The geometric filigree and murals seen in earlier seasons have been simplified; modern Gem ships and space stations are fully wrapped in geometric patterns, not unlike the “Bird’s Nest” stadium built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Once baroque, the buildings have become brightly colored and brutalist, seemingly taking cues from biology for its fully integrated systems. According to Steven Sugar, the backgrounds team looked at circulatory systems for clues on how to portray the fully Gem planet. “I’ve always aimed to make it feel very perfect,” he says. “Sort of eerily perfect in contrast to the human world, where everything needs to have that element of loving grossness.”
That eeriness Sugar describes pervades the Homeworld scenes. These physically imposing spaces lack the safety of Beach City and give off the feeling that something could really go wrong. This feels like new territory for the show, physically and emotionally. But over the course of more than 132 episodes, the idea of change—of evolving personalities and relationships—has become familiar for the show and those who work on it. Sugar noticed this when reviewing material for the Steven Universe book. “We got to, all together, as a crew, look back at the preproduction art and the early episodes, at how the show has grown,” he says. “And growth has always been a big underlying thing with the aesthetics.” The resulting book is jam-packed with process and development sketches that fans are sure to love.
In the second episode of the current season, Steven and his friend Lars make their escape from the Gem rulers trying to destroy them and blast away in a stolen vehicle. As they get their first glimpses of Homeworld, viewers see it too: bold, vibrant colors with a heavy dose of black. Surfaces are coated with semi-transparent layers and there are structures we’ve never seen anything like before. Yellow Diamond, one of the show’s Big Bads, shouts after them: “You stood your ground on that little speck called Earth, but you’re on our world now.” It’s a moment that makes clear that even after so many episodes, there’s plenty of the show’s universe still to be discovered. Yes, there will be lovable characters, undeniable earworms, and mesmerizing space drama, but there are also sure to be built environments that make the show seem real, and special.