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Boston Society of Architects

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And the cameo
goes to...

When architecture shows up in the movies, it can play a peculiar—or starring—role

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King Kong, 1933. Distributed by Radio Pictures.

Image from FilmGrab

Architecture in motion pictures has a long history, going back to cinema’s origin—think of the Lumière brothers’ Demolition of a Wall (1896) or Buster Keaton’s The Electric House (1922). These early greats of the medium used architecture and the built environment in conjunction with an acute understanding of the power of photography to distill three-dimensional reality into a more abstract yet incredibly vivid two-dimensional space. Keaton’s use of composition and geometry within the frame foreshadowed contemporary work by filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, who makes a similar architectural use of cinematography to compose his movies.

It would only be a matter of time before buildings-as-monuments—recognizable silhouettes from a city’s skyline—would serve as a visual shorthand for the movie’s location or, later, to signify sophisticated worldliness or nouveau-riche mobility. This may have started with the Empire State Building’s appearance in King Kong (1933), right after the building was completed, and repeated more recently with the Petronas Towers in Entrapment (1999) and the Burj Khalifa in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011). Build the world’s tallest building, and the film crews are sure to follow.

But buildings and cities play far more subtle roles in the movies. The following is a sampler of the many ways that architecture and the built environment enrich our experience of motion pictures.

Best building in a supporting role

ESO Hotel at Cerro Paranal in Quantum of Solace (2008)
Architect: Auer Weber; director: Marc Forster

Imaginative architecture is no stranger to the James Bond franchise. The final act of the 22nd installment of 007’s global escapades features this staff residence for the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer facility. Posing as the fictional Perla de las Dunas eco-hotel in Bolivia, this abstract slab of a building, with its geometric pattern of slit windows reflecting the sun, feels a bit like a mirage in the Chilean Atacama Desert. The movie makes liberal use of the building’s exterior as well as its interior spaces, starting with slow-paced scenes of cool intrigue as the principal actors plan their assault. Eventually (and predictably), the building is engulfed in flames as fuel cells rupture one by one after Bond causes an SUV to careen into one. The onscreen destruction of the building is convincingly achieved through a combination of CGI and recreation of the interiors on a studio lot, moving the story along with panache.

Marin County Civic Center in Gattaca (1997)
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright; director: Andrew Niccol

Completed posthumously and one of Wright’s last works, this somewhat kitschy municipal building serves as the headquarters for the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. Both oddly futuristic and anachronistic in real life, it works well as a sci-fi setting, with much of the story taking place in its Art Deco–inspired public spaces, corridors, and atria. These spaces, with smooth stucco finishes and gold-anodized metalwork, are incredibly photogenic, as demonstrated by many photographers, including the great Ezra Stoller. It has been said that Wright’s ego left a palpable imprint on his buildings’ interiors. Perhaps a stage set for an inequitable future, where success is determined by genetic engineering, is a fitting role for this megalomaniacally beautiful work of architecture.

Bradbury Building in Blade Runner (1982, 1991 director’s cut)
Architects: Sumner P. Hunt and George H. Wyman, and Levin & Associates Architects (restoration); director: Ridley Scott

The Bradbury Building. Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

The dilapidated Bradbury Building in downtown LA had seen better days when Ridley Scott picked it as the location for J. F. Sebastian’s home in a dystopian future version of the City of Angels. The central atrium, with its leaky skylight and wrought ironwork, frames the final showdown between Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard and Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty with a gloomy retro steampunk environment punctured by streams of light from billboards passing overhead. Environmentally, the lead character is the omnipresent rain (LA has never seen so much rain), but the Bradbury Building provides a gloomy and forbidding interior environment where fear and dread take root.

Best (mis)use of architecture and the
built environment

Knight and Day (2010)
Director: James Mangold

Those who know Boston will agree: a high-speed chase scene that starts out on the Zakim Bridge heading north out of the city and then cuts to Rutherford Avenue inbound will immediately lose credibility with a knowing audience (you can’t get there from there!). Knight and Day does just that, and then doubles down several times over. Consider the 16-minute sequence that starts in what might be the South End and finishes on the roof of the Clarendon Street Garage with the John Hancock tower in the background. At one point, the chase ends in a shoot-out at the I-90 / I-93 split, and Cameron Diaz’s character takes off running across the commuter rail tracks toward the Leather District. The scene then cuts to the corner of Congress Street and the West Service Extension Road in Fort Point, where she waves down a bus on Congress Street. Cut to the interior of the bus, which is suddenly crossing Fort Point Channel on the Seaport Boulevard Bridge in the opposite direction. The spatial-geographic incoherence is dizzying, making Knight and Day a strong contender for “best abuse of a city in a motion picture.”

The Departed (2006)
Director: Martin Scorsese

This Boston-based movie by the great Scorsese could be an equal contender for “best abuse of a city,” given that despite plenty of establishing shots of Boston landmarks, a significant portion of the film was, in fact, shot in New York. The Departed makes up for this in large part due to an extensive scene that was filmed on location in Fort Point with remarkable fidelity to the actual place—the scene where Martin Sheen’s character Queenan gets thrown from a rooftop down to the alley between Farnsworth Street and Thomson Place. While the neighborhood has changed considerably over the past decade, the opening shot—looking down on Congress Street at the Boston Fire Museum—and the subsequent street-level scenes are unmistakably Boston.

Brazil (1985, 1999 director’s cut released on Criterion Collection DVD)
Director: Terry Gilliam

Brazil, 1985. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Image from FilmGrab

While much can be said about the movie’s treatment of such delicate topics as torture, malignant bureaucracy, Orwellian totalitarianism, and incompetence masquerading as terrorism, its inclusion in this nomination stems from its idiosyncratic and, at times, hilarious treatment of the built environment. Wall cavities are revealed to be teeming with an impossible number of flexible ducts, tubing, conduits, and valves. Sprawling, exposed HVAC ductwork is the centerpiece of an exclusive luxury restaurant. A vast network of pneumatic tubes comprises the architectonic organization of the Department of Records at the Ministry of Information. Architecture, technology, and their underlying infrastructures form an imaginative and engrossing world for this brilliant, dystopian film. And Robert De Niro’s bit part as a rogue heating engineer is a good antidote for many bad portrayals of architects in other lesser movies.

Most surprising guest appearance of a work
of architecture

Penthouse apartment at 23 Beekman Place in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Architect: Paul Rudolph; director: Wes Anderson

Truly a bit part, but a memorable one for architects. Ben Stiller’s Chas Tenenbaum, obsessed about the safety of his sons Ari and Uzi, routinely stages middle-of-the-night fire drills in their New York apartment, set in Paul Rudolph’s vertiginous penthouse that he built for himself overlooking New York’s East River. The scene is brief and filmed with an unsteady handheld camera—unusual for Anderson, but a fitting visual style for a chaotic scene.

Phaeno Science Center (2005) in The International (2009)
Architect: Zaha Hadid; director: Tom Tykwer

This thriller is full of contenders—a spectacular shootout inside the Guggenheim in New York City; Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Tower and the Piazza Duca d’Aosta in Milan; the Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar in Istanbul—but the nomination goes to Hadid’s building in Wolfsburg, Germany, which through the wonders of digital manipulation is transported to the base of a mountain rising out of Italy’s Lago d’Iseo.

United Nations Secretariat Building (1952) in North by Northwest (1959)
Architects: Wallace K. Harrison, Oscar Niemeyer, and Le Corbusier; director: Alfred Hitchcock

North by Northwest, 1959. Distributed and produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Image from FilmGrab

The UN Secretariat Building just barely makes it into the movie, and almost certainly not in Saul Bass’ famous opening title sequence, where an abstract grid of blue lines on a green background dissolves neatly into an image of a New York skyscraper reflecting yellow taxicabs passing below. Some have suggested this is the C.I.T. Building at 650 Madison Avenue, which seems plausible, since the address appears a short time later when Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) leaves his ad agency office. Others posit 430 Park Avenue or even Lever House at 390 Park Avenue. None of these buildings has the right pattern of curtainwall mullions, though. The UN Building’s façade is closer, but the building is too far from the street to get the right reflection from such a steep camera angle. For a film whose entire plot turns on a case of mistaken identity, it seems only appropriate that this building remain anonymous.