Marvel’s Avengers certainly needs no introduction. Apart from being the most successful movie franchise in history, it received considerable acclaim from critics and audiences alike for the quality of film making. While most of the readers here would be familiar with multiple end credit scenes and quirky Stan Lee cameos, I aim to provide a perspective from the point of view of an architecture enthusiast. The series has managed to depict a mix of futuristic, contemporary, and medieval architecture in a seamless fashion. This amalgamation of contradicting style transcending real and virtual universes clearly deserves praise.
We have had a total of 23 released movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, split across 3 phases and 8 new movies in the pipeline from phase 4. For the purpose of this story I will be focusing on the first two installments of the series i.e. The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). I will try to cover the sequels, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame in subsequent stories. You will, however, find the buildings mentioned below in multiple other movies from the franchise.
For the uninitiated, the series is based on Marvel Comics superhero team created by Stan Lee and first two installments of the series were written and directed by Joss Whedon (he had earlier created some amazing TV series’ such as Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The movie has a stellar star cast which includes Chris Evans, Robert Downey Junior, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson.
James Chinlund, the production designer of the film described his experience working on the look and feel of the movie in great detail in an interview with Charlie Jane Anders for io9 in 2012. One of the major concerns for them was to keep the superhero team grounded to the real world. The problem statement to the team was simple:
“How do you make this virtual universe seem relatable to the audience?”
The Answer: Architecture
Stark Tower is the most familiar architectural element in the film. The high rise building, which serves as headquarters of The Avengers, is placed right in middle of Manhattan as per the Marvel Universe. While designing the tower the goal was to make New Yorkers look around at the skyline after leaving the cinema halls, with a feeling that the Tower might have actually been there and they might have never noticed it. As per the Marvel comics storyline, Tony Stark bought the iconic MetLife Building (which was formerly the PanAm Building) and ripped off the top to add his own piece of parasitic architecture to it.
This is what Chinlund had to say about his experience of designing the Stark Tower :
“In choosing the MetLife location we were also recognizing the rich topography of the streets below, which is a unique arrangement in New York, with the viaduct over 42nd St and the tunnels behind Grand Central Station, not to mention Grand Central itself, the ultimate conflagration of rich histories and futuristic ideas.”
The production design team deserves praise for the incredible job of redesigning and retrofitting the MetLife Building into Stark Tower. The team focused on creating a ‘Stark aesthetic’ feel, introduced in the first two Iron Man movies, with design elements such as sweeping curves and glass from his home in Malibu.
The team also focused on real-world or practical aspects of design rather than just creating something of grandeur. Considering the tower was in New York, it had to be more efficient in terms of space with a machine-like feel. It can be said that Tony Stark was designing everything around Iron Man Technology, to the point that he incorporated it into the architecture of his living space. A key design element of the Stark Tower is the landing pad, also known as the car wash, where Tony Stark usually lands in his Iron Man suit. The design of the tower seamlessly integrated the car wash with the super-efficient workstations capable of accomplishing everything Tony Stark needed with the minimal effort.
A redesigned Stark Tower, later known as Avengers Tower, appears in Captain America — The Winter Soldier. Changes made include the addition of an aircraft hangar and STARK sign being replaced with the Avengers “A” logo. In the Age of Ultron, the tower is the Avengers’ main headquarters and we are also introduced to other spaces within the tower such as lounge area, three laboratories, machine room, gym, relaxation area, and locker room.
Many fans and architects are of the opinion that Tony Stark’s taste in architecture and decor is directly influenced by Los Angeles based Architect John Lautner. The concept artists of the Iron Man series have also talked about how John Lautner’s works provided inspiration to them.
The dramatic and photogenic spaces designed by Lautner have been frequently used as movie sets to the extend of them influencing film production. Few of the popular films that featured Lautner’s buildings include the James Bond series, Charlie’s Angels, The Big Lebowski and A Single Man. His car-centric ‘Googie style’ that defines mid 20th century Southern California, inspired the car café set created for the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction (Remember the iconic Uma Thurman — John Travolta dance scene?).
The medieval fortress of Bard in Val d’Aosta
The Medieval fortress of Bard in Val d’Aosta located in North-Western Italy, used as the set for Hydro headquarters in Avengers: Age of Ultron, makes quite an impression on the audience. The film also features real world village of Vittorio Veneto and the town of Bard, on the outskirts of the Fort. The origins of the fort dates back to the 5th century and it rose to historic prominence as the site of a Napoleonic battle when in 1800, a 40000 strong French Army was stopped by 400 Austro-Piedmontese soldiers. In 2006 the Fort was completely renovated, bringing it back to its former imposing glory, and formed part of the set of Age of Ultron.
Unlike many of the futuristic-fantasy movies, The Avengers focused on creating an architectural style which integrated seamlessly with the real world. This was mainly due to the fact that most of the storyline for these movies were set on Earth. The subsequent films in the franchise, however, had to deviate from the earth-centric design ideology, as the storyline took the characters beyond the realms of planet Earth.