Thursday, July 29, 2010

Architectural "Inception"

If you're like me, you don't remember the characters or plots of your dreams as much as you remember the architecture - the built environment that your mind somehow conjures every time you dream.  Dreams and dream analysis are often framed in architectonic terms, and Christopher Nolan's new movie Inception is just the latest example, writ large in the language of film.

The premise of Nolan's mind-bending (and city bending) action thriller about agents who hack into others' dreams to retrieve - or plant - information relies heavily on architecture and the role of architects.  Near the beginning of the film, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) must find a new architect for his "dream team" of operatives.  He consults his father-in-law (Michael Caine), an architecture professor, who recommends a promising student named Ariadne (Ellen Page).  As it turns out, the design of maze-like "levels" planned to disorient the dreaming quarry is the crucial groundwork for the dream hackers' craft.  This presents a dream job (so to speak) for an ambitious architect, as she gets the opportunity to design entire cities, with the added perk of incorporating certain uncanny, super-spatial illusions inspired by the drawings of M. C. Escher.  The results are rendered with eye-popping digital effects that feel essential to the narrative - rather than a gratuitous distraction from it.

Somewhat predictably, Frank Lloyd Wright elements show up in the design palette of the Inception dreamscape.  The pseudo-Japanese palace of Saito (Ken Watanabe) features barrel chairs (of the Cassina / Wingspread variety [right], not the Martin House variety) in the dining room, and boxy pendant lights in a stair hall reminiscent of those from Unity Temple.  But these Wrightian appropriations are fairly subtle, and seem right at home in the japonisme of the set.  And these nods to Wright place the film on a growing list of Hollywood fantasies that utilize Wright buildings or designs, including Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997).

Wright's reviled fellow architect, Le Corbusier, steps in as architectural inspiration for two levels of the film's dream architecture:  for the first layer of the team's convoluted attempt at an "Inception" job, and for "limbo," the ominous waiting room of the dream world (think Dante meets The Matrix, with few exits).  The latter appears to have been inspired specifically by Le Corbusier's grandiose, imperialistic vision of the modern city, his Ville Radieuse plan (below).  Thus, we find DiCaprio's character wandering the canyon-like street grid of a seemingly infinite urban core, where a few vernacular buildings drawn from his personal history are dwarfed by steel-and-glass sentinels.

Depending on your assessment of the International Style, this Corbusian inspiration for the film's vision of synthetic, Utopian architecture is either insulting or apropos.  No doubt Wright would have thought the latter.  


zippychik said...

Back in 1959 Wright's Ennis House was used for the exterior shots of "The House on Haunted Hill" starring Vincent Price. Too bad the producers decided to use the tried and true Victorian-inspired traditional haunted house sets for the interior shots on that film. --Joanne

Reed said...

What it the Dining room featured throughout the film?

It looks like a FLW house in michigan I visited once.

EJF said...

I agree - too bad they didn't use the Ennis House interiors...just not "spooky" enough by someone's standards, I guess.

Re: dining room in Inception: yes, that dining room is shown in the first few scenes of the film, and then again toward the end.

Martha said...

I think part of Cobb's house is the Cheney House in Oak Park. There is a scene with a long hallway, solid wall on the right side and one window or opening on the other. In the Cheney House there is a long rectangular unit-room across the front of the house. On the other side of this space is a long hallway and then bedrooms behind it. The view out the window of the dining room, of course, was artificial.

EJF said...

Martha - I look forward to seeing the film again on DVD and pausing it to try to confirm whether part of Cobb's house is the Cheney House... Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Boca do Lobo usually gets inspiration from Cassina and their wonderful pieces. The attention to detail and the exclusive feeling of this brand are an example to us all at Boca do Lobo.

Boca do Lobo