Building cities of the imagination

Film-makers know the value of a good setting. Which explains their fascination with all things architectural.

Jonathan Glancey
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:18

T he first building I remember seeing on film was Sleeping Beauty's palace in Walt Disney's romantic cartoon feature of 1959. It was the most perfect of all fairy-tale castles. It also looked a lot like the fairy- tale castle pictured on the lid of a tin of Scottish shortbread fingers that stood on my grandmother's dresser.

Only later did I realise that the two were, more or less, one and the same. Disney and his team had adopted their all-American heroine's dreamy home from "Mad" Ludwig II (1845-1886), King of Bavaria, patron of Wagner and architect of fantastic buildings.

Ludwig's towered and turreted homage to Lohengrin, the Swan prince and knight of the Holy Grail celebrated in Wagner's opera of 1850, is Neuschwanstein, sited fantastically on the edge of the Bavarian Alps. Ludwig was toppled from his throne for his reckless spending on this and other lavish building projects. Since then, not only has Neuschwanstein become Germany's top tourist attraction (and Wagner the country's most profitable conductor), but Ludwig's unfinished masterpiece has been the inspiration behind virtually every fairy-tale castle since. Disney used it in Cinderella (1950) as well as in Sleeping Beauty. It featured large in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). Miniatures (well, not that miniature) star in the hugely popular theme-park landscapes of Disneyland, Disneyworld and Disneyland Paris.

Has any other building had such an influence on film and the public imagination? The question is timely because this month the RIBA's Architecture Centre (with a little help from Channel 4) is hosting a season of architecture on film (see Annexe for programme). The point of showing films in which architecture plays a key role (aside from the fun of seeing them) is to explore the way in which architecture has affected film and film has inspired architects. Neuschwanstein is a frilly example of the former: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1981), are striking examples of the latter.

The use to which cinema has put architecture is multi-tracked, from the deadly serious to the dangerously funny. Modern architecture and the lifestyle adopted by those who promote it most keenly has, for example, never been sent up more effectively than by Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle (1958). In this delicious satire, Tati (playing the title role) teases modern clothes, manners, food, conversation, design and architecture. The self-consciously modern characters speak in gibberish throughout film; not only are they pseuds, they are also, says Tati, quite literally incomprehensible (particularly when their house appears to bite the hands that nurture it). No wonder this comic masterpiece does not feature in the RIBA's season. Architects are not noted for their sense of irony.

Of contemporary directors, Pedro Almodovar (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, High Heels, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) is the most expert in representing and teasing over-enthusiastic styles of architecture, furniture and decor.

Buildings themselves, however, have played starring roles in few films (Towering Inferno, Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1919), but have supported many great scripts and fine performances. The list is extravagant, but think of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965), Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1974), Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalgia (1983), Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract of the same year, or Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) to get the point.

Peter Greenaway has also given us The Belly of an Architect, a study of obsession (with stomach cancer and with the visionary buildings of the revolutionary French architect, Etienne-Louis Boullee) focussing on the last days in the life of a larger-than-life American architect fading psychotically among the impassive monuments of ancient Rome.

Gary Cooper plays another obsessive architect in The Fountainhead, a baroque Hollywood adaptation of Ayn Rand's bombastic novel, based, in part, on the life and times of Frank Lloyd Wright, the brilliant and hugely egotistical American architect who connected the world of craft and folklore with that of mile-high skyscrapers (Wright designed just such a building, "The Illinois", which was to have soared over and above the Chicago skyline). Tall buildings also made an appearance in Skyscraper Souls, a Hollywood romp from 1932 starring Norman Foster. This was a different Norman Foster from the one who has designed some of the most convincing Hi-Tech and "leading-edge" British buildings of the Eighties and Nineties. Nevertheless, expect a variation on the theme of the present-day Sir Norman in the forthcoming Hollywood adaptation of Phillip Kerr's thriller Gridiron. In Kerr's book, a Hi-Tech English architect, who also happens to fly a private jet, designs a computer-driven building that turns into a calculating monster, killing at random and finally devouring its creator before imploding. The story is great fun, although Norman Foster the architect is said to be unamused. Kerr says his architect is entirely fictitious. Whatever, Gridiron should make for an entertaining and even provocative film: just how far should we hand the control of modern buildings over to computers and other guiding intelligences beyond the immediate control of those who live and work in them?

Clearly there have been films that have had a powerful effect on the imagination of architects and designers and films that have encouraged us to look at architecture in a different light.

I remember seeing Antonioni's The Passenger just before I first went to Barcelona. One of the things I wanted to do there was to pace along the surreal roofscape of Gaudi's Casa Mila as Jack Nicholson had done in the film and to see this inspiring city laid before me between Gaudi's extraordinary skyline sculpture. For me, Antonioni's eye had made the architecture of Gaudi and the city of Barcelona even more appealing than it had appeared in magazines and picture books.

It was from this rooftop eyrie that I watched workmen taking down the signs proclaiming "Avenida Generalissimo Franco" from the lamps of the street that was known before the dictator, and afterwards, as the Diagonal. This was an extraordinary experience. I wished someone had been there to film it: a scene in which the spirit of the spiteful, prim, uptight, Catalan-hating Franco was evaporating before my eyes framed by the exuberant, warm and free-spirited architecture of Catalonia's most wondrous architect.

A final connection between architecture and film is, of course, the cinemas themselves. In their heyday, Odeons and Gaumonts, Astorias and Ritzs rivalled the fantasy of Sleeping Beauty's palace (and Neuschwanstein) as they tripped the light fantastic.

n `Architecture on Film' runs at the RIBA Architecture Centre, London W1 and at Channel 4 Headquarters, London SW1 (information: 0171-580 5533; credit card bookings: 0171-631 0460) from 14-22 March. The Architecture Centre is also host to `Cinemas in Britain', which looks at the development of cinema architecture, to 5 May

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