Architecture That Stole the Show

How does architecture inspire the passion and psychological impact in film?

My list went on forever so I settled for three examples of movies that feature visually iconic destinations. These films transport you to another place in another time, allowing you to imagine future design from the past!


North By Northwest 1959

North By Northwest is one of Hitchcock’s greatest films. What sticks out in your mind when you think of this spy thriller? The crop duster plane in attack mode? Maybe, but who could forget the impressive modernist “Vandamn House” on top of Mt. Rushmore? What a magnificent setting and certainly a home I wouldn’t mind being kept captive in. I’ve always wanted to visit this house but it happens to be a matte painting.

Nothing could be built on top of the Mt. Rushmore monument and nothing was as it appeared, it was all a complete deception.

When this movie was in production, Frank Lloyd Wright was the most famous architect in the world. It's hard to believe that Hitchcock couldn’t afford to hire him...so they designed a house that looked like a FLW. The film's artist not only designed and built the interiors but also exteriors of the house. The gorgeous final design was a hilltop house of limestone with a concrete cantilever under the living room.

The interior was created on a soundstage and in order to make this house look realistic, they filmed most of the scenes at night.

The interior was created on a soundstage and in order to make this house look realistic, they filmed most of the scenes at night.

"Due to the objection of the government, we weren't allowed to have any of the figures on the faces, even in the interior studio shots ... We were told very definitely that we could only have the figures slide down between the heads of the presidents. They said that after all, this is the shrine to democracy."

— Alfred Hitchcock


Metropolis 1927

Fritz Lang's silent black and white sci-fi may be best known for its sexy female robot, but it's the set design that completely captivates your imagination. This spectacular film is a great example of expressionist design and is influenced from Bauhaus, Cubist and Futurist design. 

The sci-fi plot is set in a future apocolypse and features a city that is divided between the working class and city planners. Workers were treated as if they were machines and forced to engage in mindless, repetitive work. Firz shows a future where the city is structured in vertical layers according to different social status. This city celebrates speed, machinery, violence and industry.

All of the super-modern buildings are terrifying, a production workers’ dark living hell.

In order to create the amazing visual effects, miniatures of this gothic city were combined with mirrors to create this illusion. The "futuristic" architecture design made Metropolis a powerful influence on real-life architecture for decades.

The chaos in Metropolis reflects the state of society in Germany, especially Berlin, during the post war years in the 1920's.


Psycho 1960

While the shower scene is the film's most famous act,  the "schizoid architecture" defined the main character and set design.

The entire film focuses on manipulating space, light and proportion. The psychology of architecture is used here to create an experience, the same way it is used by architects today to design "smarter" buildings with the occupants in mind.

The contrast between the imposing and crumbling house on the hill and the rectilinear Bates Motel strip is significant throughout the film. The architecture was intentionally designed to define Norman Bates fractured personality. His psychotic mental state is a result of his inability to find himself between the motel and his mother’s Gothic house. 

The actual “Psycho House” was built as a two walled exterior façade and still stands at Universal Studios 50 years later. 


What are some of your favorite films that feature visionary architecture?

 

Helen Z.