Most people working in our office and Studios are fairly big design geeks. But while some are spotting Eames Lounge and Ottoman sets in Will & Grace reruns, others of us complete nerds are spotting the Salk Institute (completed 1959) and the Marin County Civic Center (completed 1967) – but in films. After watching a fairly bad science fiction movie the other night (I won’t name names), I found myself wondering about the role these objects play in both television and cinema and why, when executed well, a building from 1967 can appear convincingly as one in 2067. In the case of my bad science fiction movie it’s obvious that you can’t just put a guy in a black trench coat in front of a slab of concrete and call it the future.
Two movies immediately come to mind where architecture has played a very convincing role, George Lucas’ THX-1138 (1971) and Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997). Both were filmed in the San Francisco Bay Area and both feature the Marin County Civic Center at some point in the film. The protagonists in each are part of an oppressive industrialized system and they are looking for something to inspire hope from their environment. Ask any architect or architecture nerd about their favorite building and most likely, somewhere between “cantilever” and “monumentality,” you’ll hear words like “inspiring” or “optimistic.” In many of the key shots in each movie the buildings play a role in helping to reinforce that optimism and contribute to the mood of the film.
Whether it’s Lucas’ efforts to make the ordinary great by showing San Francisco’s transit tunnels as futuristic hallways, or the utopian view of the future in the Civic Center’s role in Gattica, it seems more like a true depiction of the future is one where hope and optimism exist. Wasn’t that also a goal of the great architects of our time?