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.
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.