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Imaginary Architecture: The Built Environment of Fictional Worlds


The Grand Budapest Hotel. A large building on a snow covered mountain
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Film, TV, and literature are an incredibly effective medium for storytelling. The most captivating of stories engage the audience with a contextual world that compels belief in the story being told. Often, much of the context for these stories are grounded in just loose enough of a connection to our reality that it allows the viewer to suspend disbelief and engage the imagination.

The movie "Inception"
The Movie "Inception"

There are countless visual and verbal stories that are well known for the particularly impressive fictional worlds they are able to build. And many of those utilize architecture and the built environment to create spaces that are imaginative, unique, and clearly define the world that their stories exist within. Movies like Inception by Christopher Nolan and The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson define distinct architectural styles that evoke something seemingly-familiar to our own world, while simultaneously transporting us to a land far off from our own sense of time, physics, or whimsy.

The Movie "Dune" (2021)
The Movie "Dune" (2021)

Architecture can also directly influence the creation of an on-screen world. Dune by Denis Villeneuve draws influence from many ancient cultures from around the real world to create unique architectural styles that convey a substantial history and culture behind the futuristic societies depicted in his fictional universe. The classic film Metropolis unmistakably reflects the new building type breaking ground in its era. In particular, mid-century conceptual glass skyscraper designs by Mies van der Rohe appear to be a striking influence. Metropolis expands upon the possibilities presented in this new building type and multiplies it to create an entirely new city for all to see in the world's first science fiction movie.

Mid-century conceptual glass skyscraper designed by Mies van der Rohe
Mid-century conceptual glass skyscraper designed by Mies van der Rohe (1921)

Recent dystopian movie trends have made us familiar with stories of what the future might hold by taking familiar trends in cities and cultures and projecting new elements on them in order to reveal a larger truth about that society. Regardless of the dread or hope offered in the tone of the story, these strange worlds are typically presented with the intent for the viewer to connect to this fictional world and seek to avoid or realize it in their own world. In these stories, the city or built environment is often the key in conveying the intent of the creator. An example of this, well-known to architects, is “Invisible Cities” by Calvino. Here, theories of city planning and possibilities of what the city and its society could be are explored through imaginative intricacies of non-real cities as described by the narrators. The 2019 Korean film, Parasite, by Bong Joon Ho utilizes high modern architecture elevated over flooded slums separated by seemingly never-ending descending stairs that traverse the city to symbolically depict the class struggle that the story examines.

Large building in an urban area
Metropolis (1927)

In the novel “New York 2140”, Kim Stanley imagines NYC in the aftermath of rising sea levels as a new Venice. The city rebuilds upwards around canals and aquafarms in order to preserve, yet, reinvent itself. It offers a vision of what the future could hold for us and the way the transformation of the climate and architecture influence the dynamics of economics, class, and culture of a community.

Man staring through a street level window from the movie "Parasite"
The Movie "Parasite" (2019)

In many ways, architects spend the majority of their work in the abstract world of the imaginary as well. Rarely are they working with concrete objects in the real world in order to convey their design intent. Similar to the scale models and painted backdrops used in Harry Potter or Star Wars, or the extensive maps created by J.R.R. Tolkien to show the relationship between people and land, architects use models and images (both physical and digital) to document the real world as we observe it, and overlay it with an imaginative design for an entirely new world. These methods of communication seek to achieve similar goals as the storytellers that dominate our culture today. Architects invite us into the story of a world that does not yet exist in order to assist the viewer in envisioning the possibility of a future that one day might be reality. In that way, architecture becomes our storytelling medium of choice.

Community Center in Conejo, CA designed by Andrew Goodwin Designs
Conejo Community Center, AGD

Written by Angelique Macklin

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