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Film Architecture: Negotiating the cinematic urban landscape of the future

Part 2 Dissertation 2008
John Merry
University of Liverpool UK
It could be argued that the twentieth century’s most effective medium for representing the urban landscape of the imagined has been that of film. The world of the moving image has continually proposed answers to one of the most fundamental questions; what will the future look like? In the darkened theatre, our eyes transfixed on the screen, sounds and images bring us the experience of places that were only once the vestiges of dreams. Film and more specifically, science-fiction film, can be a testing ground for any multitude of ideas; a veritable playground for directors and set designers alike. Implausible narratives, radical socio-political themes or innovative architectural forms can be explored without real-world constraints or consequences. Indeed film has often been described as architecture’s ‘closest relative’, and whilst this title can, and has been vehemently argued, the two practices bear a number of striking similarities. It can be argued that the process of creating a film is almost identical to that of creating a building. The two require a significant amount of input from a vast array of specialists and artistic ‘thinkers’, whilst by funding these ventures, the studios/clients are placing a huge amount of faith in their directors/architects.

In this dissertation, I explore the complex landscapes portrayed in science fiction films, paying particular attention to the architectural issues that are raised. I question the urban framework of these future worlds and cities and in turn, make associations with our present-day surroundings. Do these films succeed in presenting a credible future or are they simply re-interpretations of our past and present? Architectural set design plays a pivotal role in setting the mood and place of a film, but what does the architecture used by the filmmakers reveal about the nature of the cities they are trying to present? In my attempt to answer some of these questions, I examine two films in particular: Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, and Minority Report (2002), directed by Steven Spielberg. To support my arguments, I also make further reference to films spanning some eight decades.

John Merry

Architecture and film, as this dissertation convincingly argues, have much in common. Though both aspire to aesthetic and cultural imperatives, both also rely firmly on technical and economic factors to achieve realisation. They are also both the product of concerted team activity in which many disparate groups and individuals must collaborate.

There are many different manifestations of filmic activity though most are today mediated, rather than being straightforward records. In terms of cultural influence it is arguably the archetypal (I chose the word carefully), mass-media 'blockbuster' that is most powerful, though simultaneously also the most ephemeral. When this phenomenon is coupled with the rich visual imagery of science fiction (in which it is now the norm to envisage ways in which future versions of our self might live) then architects take special note. This is because the profession is in any case always dealing with the future, rarely less than years and sometimes more than decades - this is how long it takes to get things built.

This dissertation's author wisely restricts his study not only to one field of filmmaking but also the transferred (and re-mediated) vision of one author, whose writings seem to have special relevance today, Philip K. Dick. Chosen as vehicles by two of the biggest contemporary names in popular cinema, Spielberg and Scott, Dick's simple yet accurate arrows of satire are redesigned to hit a much bigger target than when they were first devised.

But the filmmakers also bring something new - in order to be convincing they must address the future as if it is something that not only derives from the present but is also a warning to us about what could very well be our destiny. The author of this dissertation is well aware of these issues and tackles them effectively and entertainingly - he is not just interested in what the films tell us about today but also what they might be able to tell us about what we should do about tomorrow. With a designer's eye he investigates the filmic architecture that has been created in order to tell these dystopic narratives, and seeks out potential truths about the physical architecture to come.

Prof Robert Kronenburg
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