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Architecture on the Silver Screen

Architecture on the Silver Screen. Like many people I have grown up being captivated by movies, often not viewed on the ‘silver screen’, more likely late night on TV. But it wasn’t until I was involved in the world of construction that I really started to look at how architecture, buildings, space, and place form such a central part of some films, with directors using architecture as a central element of the story telling.

Hitchcock is a great example of a director who uses architecture on the silver screen, both iconic and every-day, to both enhance the viewer experience and as the pivotal element of the story. In ‘Rear Window‘ the elaborate multi-storey set based around a residential courtyard provides a microcosm of life for James Stewart to spectate upon whilst convalescing. A narrow alley providing just enough of a glimpse to the ‘outside’ world beyond for it all to feel real, whilst the neighbouring windows provide a tantalising view into the everyday lives beyond. In Vertigo the largely cold, desolate and heavily shadowed streets of San Francisco create a constant feeling of unease and loneliness. By contrast however, ‘North By Northwest’ sees Cary Grant traversing North America on a whistle stop architectural field trip, almost as a promotional ‘come to America’ travelogue. The (at the time) newly completed United Nations Building being one of the landmarks.

Alfred Hitchcocks Architecture on the Silver Screen in Rear Window

Many horror movies rely heavily on place to create a feeling of unease. I wonder just how many haunted house (or hospital) films there are? These films usually prey on our instinctive fears about darkness or unfamiliarity, but in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining‘, the Overwatch Hotel is anything but the regular cobweb-festooned, dilapidated mansion house. Instead Kubrick creates a warren of over-large spaces and harshly lit corridors with heavily patterned carpet, places that appear strangely familiar and yet, in this context, produce disorientation whilst providing nowhere to hide.

The Shining Film on the Silver Screen

In similar dystopian fashion, many sci-fi movies portray the city of the future as an enormous entity spreading almost infinitely upwards, outwards and even downwards. Rarely are these places depicted in a good light, instead choosing to portray our fears of becoming an ever-smaller cog in an increasingly big wheel. In the film ‘High Rise’ the drama unfolds in a single high-rise mixed-use apartment building that represents a microcosm of society. Based on a book by J.G. Ballard the inhabitants of the building are inserted at the storey level that reflects their social standing, with the most affluent enjoying the best views. But when the building’s systems start to fail, and the single supermarket runs out of stock and everyone becomes embroiled in the resulting carnage as society is seen to unravel.

Ben Wheatley's High Rise Architecture on the Silver Screen

On a lighter note, the architecture on the silver screen in Jacque Tati’s 1967 film ‘Playtime‘, sees his character, a Clumsy Monsieur Hulot, perplexed by the intimidating complexity of a gadget-filled near-future Paris. The city acts as a backdrop for a series of physical comedy gags, but the message is real enough. Our manmade world is often far more complex, messy and ‘clever’ than it ever needs to be, whether by design or accident. The film is beautifully shot and the sets well-conceived, but this version of Paris seems incredibly devoid of the natural world, instead appearing regimented, designed and controlled to an extreme.

Jacques Tati's Playtime and its Architecture on the Silver Screen

As movie producers increasingly look to computer generated imagery and how that can influence architecture on the silver screen as a way of creating whatever world the director can imagine, nothing is impossible. Take ‘Inception‘ as a great example. The ability to use spaces, buildings and places seem limitless and opportunities have opened up for architectural designers to apply their skills in a purely conceptual way. However, the use of real locations will always appeal to the audience as place, film and culture all become intertwined into our collective psyche. There is nothing quite like actually visiting the places that appear in our favourite iconic movie scenes, when fiction and reality coexist for a moment.

Christopher Nolan's film Inception with fantastic Architecture

Christopher Nolan's film Inception with dramatic interior Architecture

What becomes clear from our reaction to the scenes in these movies is that the world we design around us, whether imaginary or real, has a marked impact upon our emotional state. The places we inhabit can instil fear and unease if not aligned to our human sensibilities. They can produce conflict and confusion if not legible, and when they fail to work at all and start to fall apart the very fabric of society starts to unravel also.

Really good spaces don’t just provide the requirements for habitation, they provide security and sanctuary, promote physical and mental wellbeing, allow flexibility of use and relate to our humanity through scale, access to sunlight and inclusion of the natural world. It’s hard to place a physical value on this, but when these requirements are not properly considered the negative results are plain to see.

Dale's experience spans a wide range of project sectors, sizes and stages and has particular interests in environmental design and earth-sheltered construction. His favourite projects reuse and breathe new life into under-loved existing buildings.

dale.beeson@architects-adg.co.uk