Architecture and Film: Fritz Lang’s vision

Being an architect by profession and a cinephile on my free time, you would think that after 59 posts and 10 months of blogging, I would have made the logical move towards a blog that catered to both, not as separate entities, but as one. Architecture and Film, Film and Architecture, two forms of art, one blogger to make sense of it all!

It is only now that I realize the interesting aspects of film that I could touch upon and analyze as it pertains to architecture. So with The Blog Of Big Ideas’ 60th post, it is finally time to bring Architecture and Film together.

Before we begin, it is important to consider what makes the two arts potentially relevant to the other and how each has the potential to contribute something of value, whether it be in terms of conceptual realization, spatial composition or set design. Architecture and Film share common goals that are not so obvious but that stand at the core of each profession. The most important is that both go through an exaustive process of editing that seeks to relate all aspects that make up a building or a story so that the whole is greater than the sum of its pieces. As much as film is concerned with the constant transition from one frame to the next, architecture is also concerned with the transition that exists between spaces, and between materials.

Beyond a purely conceptual affinity, film has tried to explore and showcase architecture throughout its century-long history. The relationship dates back to the first years of film as the Lumiere brothers back in 1898 recorded the very peculiar experience of ascending up to the Eiffel Tower observation deck. It was not only the first time that such a peculiar experience had been recorded for others to see, it was also one of the first times where the makers of film were purposely trying to convey an experience without clearly showing that they were indeed inside the Eiffel Tower. It was enough to show glimpses of the structure while Paris bellow looked smaller and smaller in order for viewers to understand that the film-makers were indeed ascending on the Eiffel Tower elevator. For over one century, film makers have been making movies based on that principle, knowing that the human brain is capable of filling in the missing pieces that are suggested but not directly shown and, on that occasion, architecture was the vehicle through which they conveyed such an intrinsically cinematic principle.

Watch the 1898 Eiffel Tower ascension here

Film has not only served to display architecture but it has, in some ways, given an insight on how buildings might look like in the future or, better yet, on how Alien architecture might differ from ours if we were ever to encounter intelligent life outside of our planet. Films like “Alien”, “Blade Runner”, “2001: Space Odyssey” or the Star Wars saga come to mind as shining examples of cinema exploring the architecture of the future, which in the majority of cases, offers a purely aesthetic experience that is very loosely grounded, if at all, on what is technologically possible.

In terms of the view it offered of city life and architecture, few films have offered more to both art forms as Fritz Lang’s 1927 highly influential masterpiece: “Metropolis”.

The miniature world created for the film

I watched the famous film for the first time while I was in college, as part of a film class I had enrolled in that attempted to demonstrate the things we can learn from film that apply to architecture. As it did back when I enjoyed it for the first time, Lang’s film continues to impress me, offering an incredibly interesting yet grim outlook of the future of civilization.

As it happens every so often in art, Metropolis is a piece of work that was so ahead of its time that, even today, it is easy to take something of value from each viewing. Whether it be for the film’s comment on social disparity and unequal distribution of wealth, or the incredibly compelling imagery it offers, Metropolis changed the course of film and architecture by manifesting, for the first time, our dreams and our nightmares about the future. Even more so, Metropolis was a direct consequence of people’s resistance to the advent of the skyscraper and to an ever more urbanized and industrialized society where a few would have a lot and the majority would not. The vision of the future presented by Fritz Lang is of a society that relishes on its accomplishments while a substantial part of the population is subjugated to a new form of slavery that benefits the few. In this world, architecture is an extension of those profound inequalities, where those in labor would be confined to an underworld with little or no light, while the rest enjoyed a lifestyle adorned with monumental structures that towered one over the other as if they were trees seeking for light in a dense forest. At the center of the city showcased in “Metropolis” was the tallest, most commanding tower, home of the governmental offices and the source, by default, of all oppression and discrimination. Somewhere in the midst of all the maze of stone and concrete, between the world of monuments and the underground labor camps sat the shack of the scientist that had made it all possible. He, like many others, served those in control and, while everyone around him begun to benefit from his inventions, the life he led was the only vestige of an older, simpler time in which people inhabited more humble abodes and inequality was not as pronounced.

The mad scientist's lair

In terms of style, the architecture presented in Metropolis did not really showcase anything new beyond monumentality. Fritz Lang wrongfully predicted that buildings would continue to be made out of stone, with a tendency towards art deco and brutalism as the aesthetic style of the future. Lang could not be faulted for this because, after all, the shift toward a lighter, more transparent architecture made of steel and glass only became widely accepted 20 to 30 years after Metropolis was released. In many ways, the style of architecture presented by Lang was one that stemmed from the rise of important American metropolises like New York and Chicago, both of which were home to many high-rises that were similar to the stone giants with small glass windows presented in the film.

More valuable is perhaps “Metropolis” view on urbanism and corporations. Lang predicted that the powerful and rich would seek for glorification by erecting monumental structures that were, in essence, powerful statements to their success and financial prowess. Metropolis also predicted the continuation of a global trend that sought for large, highly dense urban centers. The segregation Lang showed in Metropolis between the labor class and the affluent city dwellers might have been exaggerated, but it is certainly a powerful metaphor that is not altogether different from the clear separation that exists in today’s cities where neighborhoods have become divided in terms of class, race and even religion.

Like Metropolis, there have been other films that try to express, through their own particular cinematic language, their views about the future of civilization and, by default, views about the nature of our largest invention: cities. My goal with this new series will be to touch upon these and to continue to demonstrate how the two relate to each other.

Next in Architecture and Film: documentaries about the great 20th century architects

The industrialized underground world


8 thoughts on “Architecture and Film: Fritz Lang’s vision

  1. Hi Niels, that’s cool that you’re an architect, must be a fun job! Congrats on your 60th post btw and what a fitting topic to combine Architecture and Film together, I’d love to read more posts like this. Maybe do a top 10 noteworthy architecture on film list or something like that?

  2. Thanks Ruth.
    The topic was a long time coming, I just did not know how to start it. Metropolis is one of my favorite films as it offers a lot of depth. It touches upon so many different subjects which amazes me given the year in which it was released. Film was still in its infancy and Metropolis certainly pushed the boundaries of what was possible.

  3. Thanks for sharing this link, Niels. I enjoyed reading your post, and I can’t wait to see Metropolis for myself. Those screenshots are fantastic. It’s always fun to look back at older movies and see how they view the future.

  4. Great article, Niels. Was it shown in one of your architecture class? Awesome pick. Yup, it’s so ahead of its time and was amazed how Lang can predicted it. I think it’s the oldest movie that can be very futuristic, in a way that’s amazingly happening now. Also amazed what it was inspired by art deco movement.

  5. Hi Niels! your article was a very interesting read. I had a question after reading this, How should this film along with its urban landscapes and political allegory be seen in the light of neo-liberalism?

  6. Hi Niels, I can see obviously that this post is several years old at this point. I am very grateful for your perspective being that I am attaining my Master of Architecture degree, and I am currently developing a research study on film as one of the most important influences in the history of architecture.
    I would love to interview you to use in my study, let me know if you’d be interested in talking about the topic!

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