Architecture in Film– The Silent Star

I’m a building designer. It’s been my profession for the last twenty-four years. With this background in mind, I want to talk about some of the silent, but extremely influential, characters in movies—the buildings.

In features like The Haunting or Psycho, the houses play integral parts of the story. Their silhouettes, hearths or stair railings are so incorporated into the plots that they become characters unto themselves. In the movie North by Northwest, the multi-level house that cantilevers over the cliffs of South Dakota provides such a dramatic profile that the audience has no doubt of the climax’s approach.

As a student of both architecture and film, I’m keenly aware of how physical attributes of symmetry, balance and order, or lack thereof, affect the emotional responses of the beholders. A monolithic façade without details, especially with minimal openings, creates a cold, clinical impression. A large symmetrical house with manicured grounds elicits the feeling of wealth and austerity.

Wide porches are homey and welcoming. Long dining rooms intimidate. Sweeping staircases connote grandeur. Wood finishes warm a room. Marble surfaces chill. Bright wallpaper suggests quirkiness. Peeling paper or cracked plaster demonstrates neglect.

When designing a home, I discuss these types of features and feelings when applicable. When I watch a movie, I take note of these details. Often I find they offer clues to the plot or character development.

I look at doors, windows and sills, panes of glass, ceiling treatments, floor coverings and finishes. Even when they don’t contribute directly to the action or plot, they often create that emotional connection that only subtle artists can forge. Movie set designers are certainly artists. Their attention to detail and accuracy is quite impressive.

Seeing a window fitted with the wrong shutters is akin to seeing a Civil War bride in wedding gown with a zipper. Some might not notice the error, but for others it will break the connection and ruin the film. When I run into such mistakes my mind instantly weighs the boo-boo with the rest of the piece. The bigger the problem, the better the rest must be to overcome the failure. It can be done, but usually if a director isn’t meticulous with sets, he isn’t careful with other aspects of the project, either.

For the most part, I’m in awe of movie sets. My husband knows that when I watch a film, I’m just as likely to comment on the wall sconce or coffered ceilings as on the actors. Try to imagine Psycho taking place in a mid-century ranch house. Not scary.

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!