Beyond Buildings


Insipid Inception

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It is sad when even in our wildest dreams architecture is banal. That is certainly the case in Inception, this summer’s hit movie about “extractors” who steal secrets for industrial espionage. OK, I know, it has been open for a few weeks, but I live in Cincinnati, and we do everything a little later here. (And, by the way, I'm not the only one to have these issues.)

I won’t give anything away for the few of you that have not yet seen this film. However, the conceit is that a team of extractors builds a dreamworld into which they plunge their subject and then use this maze of their own creation to trap him (it always seems to be a him) and lead him to the safe, which is not just metaphorical, where he has locked away his secrets. They then steal those secrets and wake up. Each team has an "architect" who has to construct this stage set, and the film’s main character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, has been trained as one (apparently at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris) by none other than Michael Caine.


So far, pretty promising, especially when he recruits Ellen Page as his new architect. At first she delights—and we with her—at bending Paris streets back on themselves in a scene that has become stock imagery by now in the architecture world—proving how fast such movie images spread (and a more accurate representation of the movie than the very misleading advertising, which features sets that do not actually show up in the film, as in the poster above). Unfortunately, it all goes down from there. “You can build buildings, whole cities that you can only imagine,” DiCaprio promises the architect. What does she produce? Washed-out versions of a generic Canadian city standing in for L.A., a luxury hotel that looks like every other one in the world and, towards the movie’s climax, a mountain resort she seems to have copied from a James Bond movie she remembered.

Hotel interior

It doesn’t get much better when the pair enters the world DiCaprio and his ex-wife spent 50 years (in dream time) building: Again L.A. is the model, here extrapolated into seried ranks of absolutely identical towers. Home there is the exterior of the old Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the Oscars used to be held, looking out over the A.C. Martin Partners' 1964 Department of Water and Power Building. The interior is the kind of craftsman bungalow where all the wood burns red in the dying sun while lawns roll off into the distance—a calm version of the Gamble House. “We always liked this kind of architecture,” DiCaprio explains of the house in the auditorium, “but we also like these kind of buildings, but in a dream you can have both” (or something of that effect, I was not taking notes in the dark). News flash, Titanic-boy: You can do this in real life too, and it is one of the banes of architects’ existence, namely clients who want retro interiors in modern buildings.

The architecture in Titanic was much more inventive than this. The architecture rising in most Chinese or Middle Eastern cities is even better than this. I would say that the real L.A. looks a lot better than this. Good Lord, Hollywood, with all that money, with all those those special effects, and with a premise that should let you create the most wonderful warping and embellishment of reality, can't you do better than this? You can only great inventive interiors if you go back into the past or forward into the future? I have better dreams than this almost every night.

It wouldn’t be so bad, because you might say it proves that you need real architects to create imaginative environments (imagine what would have happened if they had hired FAT Architects, MVRDV, or David Rockwell to design these sets), except that these kinds of movies, with their millions of viewers, help set the standards to which audiences think architecture could aspire. In that sense, Inception is a calamity, one of the most spectacular failures of hopeful imagery since the collapse of the Ground Zero project into equally mindless repetition of banality.



Comments (10 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:06 PM Tuesday, December 21, 2010

    I'm an architect and here's a brilliantly written response article:

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:55 AM Sunday, November 07, 2010

    I'm shocked that an influential architectural critic like Betsky complain about the banality of architecture in Inception. His suggestion of FAT Architects as the creative mind behind movie set was unbelievable. If Chris Nolan did create fantasy land (or innovatiive, experimental whatever term you might use) as .Betsky suggested, we might have seen really cool architecture, but definitely distracting movie. Betsky should watch the film again and understand the whole point of the film. It is not about creating some fantasy world, but simulated reality (banal or not). You can even refer back to the banal architecture in the movie , Matrix.

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  • Posted by: PIT | Time: 6:06 PM Sunday, October 03, 2010

    No architecture and no sex too !

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  • Posted by: Jorge Gorostiza | Time: 3:21 PM Saturday, October 02, 2010

    Está bien este artículo, felicidades, y creo que tiene bastante razón, a pesar de ello, también creo que hay más implicaciones con la arquitectura en la película que sólo la de los edificios que se pueden ver en la pantalla... Si les gusta profundizar en las relaciones entre cine y arquitectura: Jorge Gorostiza

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 3:52 PM Wednesday, August 11, 2010


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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 8:32 AM Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    geez, the movie wasn't about architecture so get over it. architecture was the backdrop, just like it is in any movie. IT WAS A MOVIE FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!! no architectural review is necessary or justified. the plot was superb. the story line well developed. the character development was there. so what is the point of Aaron's rantings?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 5:02 PM Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    I feel Aaron a bit on this, from the stand point that all those involved in this project had an opportunity from it's inception (npi) to create extraordinary architecture. They could've imagined, let's say Paris or LA in the year 2083 (just throwing a number out), which hopefully wouldn't be represented the same as today. The missed 'futuristic' spin on 2083 buildings are now in the position to be totally amped w/ CG and we the viewer(s) could watch 'the crew' circulate the space(s) they've created around virtually unseen representations of architecture. I did grin when I heard the word 'architect' used more than once, but I did wonder why the CG merely shows new ways to move around the same architecture.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:56 PM Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    I didn't feel that the movie was "Unarchitectural" but rather I was fascinated by the remix aspects of how it deals with the built environment. New architecture does not mean coming up with things that are instantaneously recognize as "new". Subtle shift between the expected and the unexpected off of known elements can be just as powerful. Here's an example of of what I meant:

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:24 PM Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    The goal of the architecture in the dreamscapes of the movie "Inception" is to create a believe substitute memory, therefore, startlingly innovative architecture would be a tell tale sign that the memory isn't real.... but i do agree that the architecture in real world U.S.A. is sadly unimaginative compared to what is being done elsewhere in the world, especially in Asia and the Mideast.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:22 PM Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    A lot of architects have time on their hands these days and since what they normally do for entertainment is find catty ways to pick on each other, we can expect more such reviews.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.