Architecture in Movies

Architecture in Movies – Interstellar

It is very interesting to note that movies which consider architecture as an essential element of the film fall under two categories, fantasy and futuristic. Though people may argue that futuristic movies are quite similar to fantasy ones, we have to admit that futuristic movies are made with much more scientific reasoning and backing and surprisingly the architecture elements of such films are generally derived from the past. We have seen how many of the futuristic movies take inspiration from the fascist architecture styles of the Nazi or Soviet era. But here is one movie based on a futuristic story line which has chosen to ignore this clichéd architectural representations and have gone for a much more simplistic approach (After all, Less is More).

Christopher Nolan’s 2014 Science Fiction film Interstellar tells the story of a crew of astronauts who travel through a wormhole in search of a new home for humanity. The incredibly talented star cast of the movie include Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy, John Lithgow, Michael Caine and Matt Damon.

Christopher Nolan had revealed in television interviews how he would have chosen architecture as an alternative career option. He had demonstrated his knowledge in the domain of architecture earlier in movies like Dark Knight Series and Inception. His approach has always being quite simplistic and grounded to reality, whether it was designing the city of Gotham in Batman movies or the spherical futuristic abode of humans in Interstellar.

So, many of you might be wondering what is there to talk about if the architecture style in the movie is quite simplistic and real. Well this is where we should not underestimate a man of Christopher Nolan’s calibre.


First let us discuss about the articulated machines present almost throughout the movie – The sleek grey acerbic robot named TARS (Voice by Bill Irwin). These rectangular slabs of shiny metal that walk, talk, have a sense of humour and operate like a cross between a Swiss army knife and an iPhone. Their blocky fragments can disconnect and rotate to perform a variety of actions, from pushing buttons to cart-wheeling across alien planets.  It also relates strongly to the architecture style of Mies van der Rohe, widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusiner. Nolan explained in an interview how he honed in on the idea and asked the art designer of the film, Nathan Crowley who is a very big fan of modern architecture, “What if we designed a robot as if Mies van der Rohe designed a robot?” We can see how the machines of the movie are quite different from the anthropometric robots that we generally see in fiction (Like C3PO and R2D2 from Star Wars).

One of the most fascinating yet confusing part of the movie is the scene involving the Tesseract
One of the most fascinating yet confusing part of the movie is the scene involving the Tesseract

One of the most fascinating yet confusing part of the movie is the scene involving the Tesseract. (Spoiler Alert!) This appears when Coop (Matthew McConaughey) jumps from the space craft and is drawn into a black hole. Inside this black hole Nolan envisages an Escher-like architectural structure representing a single moment in time – the scene in which Coop leaves his daughter. Maurits Cornelis Escher is a Dutch graphic artist known for his often mathematically inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints which feature impossible constructions, explorations of infinity, architecture, and tessellations.

Inside this black hole Nolan envisages an Escher-like architectural structure representing a single moment in time
Inside this black hole Nolan envisages an Escher-like architectural structure representing a single moment in time

Most of the other architectural features in the movie like the spaceship, the travel pods, and the station of Dr Mann (played by Matt Damon) are based on real scientific elements and have also taken inspirations from classic science fiction movies like 2001 Space Odyssey. These spaces focus more on functional aspects. Even the futuristic abode of humans shown at the end of the movie is quite simplistic from an architectural point of view. Most of the buildings shown are similar to any modern day buildings we find around us. Be it the houses near which the kids play baseball or the interiors of the hospital where Coop meets his aging daughter, Murph. Of course the shape of the terrain and the play of gravity makes them look fascinating.

Overall we can say that Christopher Nolan has tried to provide a simplistic treatment to the architecture elements in the movie. Considering the already complicated plot and scientific elements in the movie, we can assume that he wanted the buildings to be as near to present day structures as possible. These simplistic elements help make the movie easy to relate to for the audience.

Contemporary Architecture

Frank Lloyd Wright – Usonian House

Wright had long been interested in designing affordable homes on a massive scale for the American middle class. In 1901 he published designs for elegant, inexpensive suburban homes in several issues of the Ladies’ Home Journal. Wright was also interested in urban planning. He began thinking seriously about that issue in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Like many contemporary social reformers, Wright believed in the moral and political values exemplified by home ownership and believed that well designed, tasteful dwellings would produce a happier, more harmonious and enlightened society.

Wright discussed his views in publications, lectures and notably the Disappearing City. He gave visual form to his ideas for a model environment in Broad acre City. The notion of the Usonian houses was hatched about the same time.

Frank Lloyd Wright began developing prototype housing in the 1930’s. The first “Usonian” house to be built was the Herbert Jacobs house, in 1936 in Madison, Wisconsin. In that house, Wright used two ideas that promote prefabrication in house production:

  • Board and batten walls, produced off site and set in place.
  • A floor-planning grid of 2 by 4 feet, based on the size of available materials (especially plywood) to reduce cutting and waste.

The design for the Usonian house was a kit of parts, which included a concrete slab, an insulated roof slab, and sandwich panels for the walls.

To shelter Usonia’s citizens, Wright designed a series of appropriate housing schemes—the Usonian houses. Among the earliest to be built was the Rosenbaum House in 1939. Constructed for a college professor in Florence, Alabama, the Rosenbaum House is typically Usonian. Its single-story plan is divided into two wings—the more public living room on one side and the more private bedrooms on the other—, which meet at a “service core” comprising kitchen, bath and hearth. As in the Prairie Houses, the hearth is the metaphorical center of family life. The two wings of the house extend to embrace the generous garden

Wright experimented widely with the proper materials for his Usonian houses. The Rosenbaum House is built of brick and cypress and in later houses he experimented with various combinations of masonry and wood construction. The Rosenbaum House is heated through its floors, which are pigmented concrete slabs embedded with pipes carrying heated water.

He always felt that maybe Usonian was a system, construction system, which the ordinary person could use. They could go to the lumberyard, or the building material yards pick up the concrete blocks, and they would have a concrete man lay the foundation and a mason set the first course of block. And then after that, they would stack them like building blocks, like a child would.

And then you put steel rods in-between the blocks and pour the grout. You didn’t have to strike a mortar joint as you do with regular concrete block. You just stack the blocks and then pour the grout in-between. He had started that system way back in 1922 in California, and till 1956 still working with that system.

The American System-Built House, a collaborative effort between the Arthur Richards Company and Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1910s. Wright designed a series of standardized housing units for the Richards Company, from bungalows to two-story houses, including duplex apartments. Potential homeowners could choose from a catalogue of Wright designs that, in addition to offering houses of varying sizes and cost, included a selection of add-on features for each house model should the individual’s budget allow. Sales and construction of American System-Built Houses were handled through a network of local representatives franchised by the Richards Company while authorized contractors built the houses.

The American System-Built Houses were American System Ready-Cut structures, a form of prefabricated houses. Prefabricated houses today are constructed of whole wall units manufactured in a factory and assembled on-site. The Ready-Cut system referred to “ready cut” parts that were manufactured in Richards’s factory and shipped to the site where they would be assembled. According to the manufacturer, all of the elements of the building, including wood studs, millwork, and trim were pre-cut to size using mass production factory methods, thereby eliminating the need for an architect as well as expensive, labor-intensive carpentry work at the building site. These wood framed structures were developed on the basis of a two-foot module creating an economical use of standard lumber sizes with minimal waste as well as allowing for variations in a design’s plan if required by the client or building site. This series of houses offered the public an opportunity to build a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house at an affordable cost.

Frank Lloyd Wright was a champion of affordable houses for the middle class and worked throughout his career on developing quality economically priced housing for the American family. His development of the Usonian House was a later reflection on this desire.

Due to America’s involvement in World War I and the succeeding shortages in labor and materials, the American System-Built enterprise was short-lived. Records from the Richards Company have been lost; there is no complete listing of executed American Systems-Built structures. Less than twenty structures have been identified; fifteen buildings are still in existence and are located in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa.

Contemporary Architecture

Influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on younger generation architects

A research on the Influence of Frank Lloyd’s Influence on younger generation architects. This was also a part of a class presentation for History of Modern Architecture class. The pattern followed is a brief description of an architect and then the influence on Frank Lloyd Wright on him. Do go through the slideshow at the end.

Influence on Dutch Architects

  • Hendrik Petrus Berlage
  • Gerrit Rietveld
  • Robert van ‘t Hoff

Hendrik Petrus Berlage:

  • Born in Amsterdam in 1856
  • Considered the “Father of Modern architecture” in the Netherlands
  • The intermediary between the Traditionalists and the Modernists
  • Berlage’s theories inspired most Dutch architectural groups of the 1920s, including the Traditionalists, the Amsterdam School, De Stijl and the New Objectivists.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence on Berlage:

  • A visit Berlage made to the U.S. in 1911 greatly affected his architecture.
  • From then on the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright would be a significant influence.
  • Lectures he gave when returned to Europe would help to disseminate Wright’s thoughts in Germany.
  • 1913 Den Haag (ZH) .Influences of Wright’s work are present in the design of this house in the form of the projecting roofs.
  • 1927-1935 Den Haag (ZH): Municipal Museum. In the style of Frank Lloyd Wright

Gerrit Rietveld

  • A Dutch furniture designer and architect.
  • One of the principal members of the Dutch artistic movement called De Stijl
  • Strongly influenced by Charles Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Influence on Gerrit Rietveld:

  • Rietveld Schröder House. His love for basic geometry was greatly influenced by Wright. Other influences in this specific case include:
    •Breaking the box
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Influence on De Stijl:
  • The social and economic circumstances of the time formed an important source of inspiration for their theories, and their ideas about architecture were heavily influenced by Berlage and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Robert van ‘t Hoff and Frank Lloyd Wright:
  • In 1913 van ‘t Hoff was given a copy of a German translation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wasmuth Portfolio by his father.
  • This made a profound impression and in June 1914 he travelled to the United States to see Wright’s work in person, visiting the Unity Temple, Taliesin, Midway Gardens, the Larkin Administration Building and Wright’s suburban houses in Oak Park, Illinois.
  • Van ‘t Hoff and Wright discussed collaborating on a project for an art gallery on Long Island, New York that van ‘t Hoff had become involved with through his relationship with Augustus John, but the project did not progress and van ‘t Hoff returned to Europe.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Influence on Van’t Hoff:
  • Van ‘t Hoff’s first work on returning from the United States was the Villa Verloop – a summer house in Huis ter Heide whose design bore the unmistakable influence of Wright’s Prairie Houses.
  • The Villa Henny:It was a highly idealistic and experimental house in both design and execution.One of the earliest houses to be built entirely out of reinforced concrete.
  • The Villa Henny made full use of the aesthetic freedom this presented with a flat roof, overhangs, receding walls and a highly geometrical outline that presented an unambiguously modern profile compared to the rustic naturalism of his earlier designs.

Willem Marinus Dudok:

  • Willem Dudok was born in Amsterdam in 1884
  • Dudok’s early style grew out of the Amsterdam School
  • List of major buildings / works:Public Baths, Hilversum, 1921, Abattoir, Hilversum, 1923, Dutch Hostel, Paris,1926-38, Town Hall, Hilversum, 1928-30, Bilenkauf Store,Rotterdam,1928-30, Vondel School, Hilversum, 1929.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Influence on Dudok:

  • Dudok borrowed extensively from Frank Lloyd Wright and the American Prairie School. He utilized the brick architecture and the dramatic asymmetrical massing of geometrical forms common to this style.
  • The overhanging eaves and other elements of his landmark City Hall were clearly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright

Mies Van Der Rohe:

  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, along with Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of Modern architecture.
  • He created an influential 20th century architectural style, stated with extreme clarity and simplicity.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Influence on Van Der Rohe:

  • After 1923, Mies’s style shifted, and he came heavily under the influence of Dutch neo-plasticism and Russian suprematism.
  • The former influence, along with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, drove Mies to experiment with independent walls and ceilings arranged in an open, pin-wheeling manner.
  • The latter influence drove Mies to consider the reduction and abstraction of these elements into dynamic and contrapuntal compositions of pure shapes in space.
  • Mies was enthralled with the free-flowing spaces of inter-connected rooms which encompass their outdoor surroundings as demonstrated by the open floor plans of the American Prairie Style work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • These experiments culminated in one of Mies van der Rohe’s most significant works, the German Pavilion built for the Barcelona World Exposition in 1929.

Walter Gropius:

  • A German architect
  • Founder of the Bauhaus School
  • Along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Influence on Gropius

  • The plan of the Cologne building was axially designed in the Beaux-Arts tradition, but the major influence was predominantly that of Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • Gropius and Meyer were influenced by Wright’s style especially in the horizontality and the wide overhanging eaves, but also in the symmetry, the corner pavilions, and the whole spirit of Wright’s concept.

Le Corbusier:

  • Swiss-French architect, designer, urbanist, writer and also painter, who is famous for being one of the pioneers of what now is called Modern architecture or the International style.
  • He was a pioneer in studies of modern high design and was dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities.

Influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on Corbusier:

  • The plan and interiors of the Schwob house in Switzerland closely resemble that of Frank Lloyd Wright. Le Corbusier’s notion of Free plan was greatly influenced by Wright.

The salient features of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Design that inspired the architects to follow include:

  • His structural systems
  • Horizontality
  • Cantilevers
  • Breaking the box
  • Furniture designs
  • Fluidity of spaces
  • And last but not the least “Organic architecture”

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