For decades designers have used film to explore and document their ideas and in turn filmmakers have incorporated design and architecture as integral components of their work to create atmosphere and drive narrative.
An Academic Exercise
What makes film a good medium for exploring architecture? Well it depends on many aspects of the directors’ approach. The ‘social life of small urban spaces’ (1980) is a film which analysis a series of plazas in New York City and attempts to define what makes a good plaza (why do people avoid certain parts of plazas and go to other side?). There are slow frame rate shots of people walking through the plaza – to give you a sense of how people are moving through the plaza over time. The visual documentary allows you to analyse how people move through and relate to the environment. So at its first and fundamental precept – film as a means of analysis and research becomes the anthropologically inspired architects tool for design.
If we are looking at architecture as just an aesthetic experience, film offers an unparalleled ability (as compared to any other medium) to present architecture in a very particular manner. Shapes, lines, negative space, the impact of lighting and how sound affects the emotion, and effectively reinterprets the space – film creates a new dimension and understanding of what architecture is, and could be. Think Inception (2010).
Filmmakers understand how crucial architecture and design are to the social landscape. Films set in a post apocalyptic or adversely, utopian world often depict the built environment as a product of a positive (for the utopia) or negative (for the post apocalyptic) social environment.
A Cinematic Experience
Discussions about design in feature films frequently focus on set design: backdrops, textures, furnishings and outfits that lay the foundations upon which the action takes place. But the often-neglected opening title sequence can also be a powerful tool for setting the mood.
The original Superman film released in 1978 has a picturesque opening title sequence that hovers over the fictional city of Metropolis. The title sequence acts as a bridge between the world of production design and the more traditional fields of typography and graphic design. Importantly, it crafts an unquenchable thirst when, as an audience, we first arrive on the planet Krypton.
However, architecture is more than just a backdrop. ‘High-rise’ a dystopian novel by J.G. Ballard in 1975, follows the rise and demise of residence that live in a monolithic Brutalist concrete tower. The architect ‘Royal’ lives t the top of his tower and describes his creation as a crucible for change – but societally the pecking order manifests itself as a hierarchy, with the upper class occupying the top levels.
Royal resides in a penthouse and has turned the roof into his country house garden, with a white American Quarter Horse and a folly for his wife. The film is a commentary on the macro and micro manifestations of society and how its reflected with the built environment – just look around. There are also many parallels between this film and the way British architect Erno Goldfinger (namesake for the 1960’s Bond Film) took an apartment to the top of Balfron tower in London, (Goldfingers Brutalist masterpiece).
Alfred Hitchcock was a master of scenography and manufactured architecture specifically to work with the narrative of his films. Think of ‘Rear window’ (1953), in which a whole apartment block and a street beyond are in a single scene and were physically constructed at 1:1 scale to accommodate the story. Hitchcock was well known for his single-set films, for instance ‘Rope’ (1948) also featuring James Stewart, in which an apartment interior was carefully designed to allow for the movie to be filmed in one of two continuous takes.
Architecture is integral to the films themselves and you can even extend this further into realms of architectural popularizations and creation. In ‘North by Northwest’ (1959) Hitchcock creates an astonishing contemporary house in the films final scenes, a vast highly modern building with a contemporary cantilever and prairie style interiors – evidently inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Jump 5 decades later to 2014, you have Wes Anderson and the ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014) in which Anderson, as a director, starts to play with the ambiguity of scale that architecture and set-design forge – using real interiors and scaled models (which are clearly models), and at times are very realistic. This gives the director a freedom to make scenes that otherwise would require CGI. Anderson’s development can be seen as an evolution of Hitchcock methods and something more tangible and architectural. Architecture is the scenery of the cinema. The following list is a personal selection of films where architecture plays a key role in the storytelling or forms the background for the storytellers. (In no particular order)
- Inception 2010 - Power of 10 1968 - High-Rise 2018 - Blade Runner 1982
- Superman 1978 - A Space Odyssey 2001 - Rear View Window 1954
- North by Northwest 1959 - The Pruitt-Igoe Myth 2012 - Grand Budapest Hotel 2014
- The social life of small urban spaces 1980