Monday, 13 June 2016




While summer blockbusters have a tendency to obliterate architectural landmarks with high explosives, it seems to like a good time to reflect on the more constructive ways architecture has shaped cinematic story telling.

Heritage buildings are regularly used for television and movie sets because they easily create a sense of time, place and atmosphere that is costly to achieve in studio.

But, architectural heritage doesn't have to be just backdrop, or even a real place. It can become a character or plot point unto itself. In today's Heritage Moments, we take a look at films in which built heritage or its preservation has played into the storyline, whether for good or ill.

Beware, spoilers ahead!



The Hill Valley clock tower plays a pivotal role in the film’s climax when it's struck by lightning, providing the enough electricity to send Marty McFly and his time-traveling DeLorean back to 1985.
The power of 1.21 gigawatts! Source.
But, as Doc points out, one can never predict when or where lightning will strike. So how do they figure it out, and ultimately prevent Marty from being stuck in the past?

It all comes down to the advocacy of the Hill Valley Preservation Society.

#Clockblocked. Source.

In the beginning of the film, when Marty is still safe and sound in 1985, a local heritage activist confronts him for a donation to help protect the clock (fused solid since the lightning strike) from being replaced by city council.

Heritage campaigns can be so gruelling. Source
Her “Save the Clock Tower” flyer - which travels back to 1955 in Marty’s pocket - provides Marty and Doc with the crucial information about the timing of the lightning strike they need to know to get Marty back to the future.

2. NANCY DREW (2007)

When teen super detective Nancy Drew moves to Los Angeles with her father, she arranges to move into a Hollywood mansion connected to the unsolved murder of a famous starlet, to keep herself occupied.
Sleuthing in progress. Source.
Nancy’s love of the past is the key to her success, giving her insights others lack. Her knowledge of classic West Coast architecture in particular helps her snoop around unseen, escape kidnappers, and uncover hidden passageways at several points in the film.

Nancy isn't particularly surprised to find a secret door in her bedroom closet either. Source.
Somehow she manages to do it all without getting her tasteful penny loafers and vintage beige capri pant suit dirty.

One part Girl Guide, one part Batman. Source.
Her love of architecture also adds to her know-it-all credentials.

Did I mention that she likes architecture? Source.


A zany celebration of nostalgia and Old World charm. The Grand Budapest Hotel presents two, nested frame narratives, as a famous novelist describes his meeting Zero Mustafa - the elderly owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel - in 1968, who in turn describes how he came to work there thirty-five years before.
The Grand Budapest in its prime; looks good enough to eat. Source.
Despite the hotel's prestigious past, it is shown to have fallen into disrepair following the violence and upheavals of the mid-20th century. Now only a shadow of its former self, Zero struggles to maintain the hotel, stating that it is his last reminder of his happier youth.

The lobby in the 1932, its glory days. Source.
The lobby in the 1968, much diminished. Source.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is itself a character in the story. Much like the head concierge, Monsieur Gustave, the hotel is portrayed as charming, professional, esteemed, and endearing to those who know it, a symbol of a bygone age. Much like Zero, it suffers the passage of time as well.
"Very good." Source.


4. THE SHINING (1980)

The evil twin of The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Shining chronicles the Torrance family’s term as winter caretakers of the remote Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies.

The Timberline Lodge, used for exterior shots. Rustic Cascadian architecture in all its horror. Source.
Snowed-in for the season with his wife and son, Jack Torrance is slowly driven insane by the cavernous and storied hotel – a Progressive Era artifact. Whether his breakdown is purely cabin fever or driven by the ghosts of the Overlook's past is never made clear.

No one likes to drink alone. Source.
The Overlook itself is attributed a malevolent personality, one continually reinforced by the lonely and disconcerting interiors.

At least the wood flooring doesn't creak. Source.
Director Stanley Kubrick famously had the entire Overlook set built in studio rather than using an existing hotel, so that he could add strange doors, foreshortened walls, and bizarre transitions between rooms, to enhance the confusing atmosphere. He even hired the inventor of the Steadicam, Garrett Brown, to help him film smooth transitions from room to room.
Vroom vroom! Source.

5. HOT FUZZ (2007)

Although initially suspecting a financial motivation for a series of murders in the sleepy village of Sandford, Sergeant Nick Angel discovers that a fanatical civic association – the Neighborhood Watch Alliance (NWA) – is behind the crimes. Its goal: to ensure that Sanford wins the Village of the Year award by killing problematic residents.

They also killed Eve Draper for her annoying laugh and Tim Messenger for his typos. Source.
Beyond the NWA’s zealous pursuit of aesthetic consistency and the restoration of the church roof, the architectural theme of Hot Fuzz is reinforced by the frequent appearance of miniature buildings – a play on Sandford’s desire to been seen as a “model village.”

Those crenellations look sharp! Source.
This culminates in a Godzilla-esque clash between Sgt. Angel and the NWA.

"You want to be a big cop in a small town? Head up to the model village." Source.

Do you have a favourite film or television episode that would fit within this list? Share it below in the comments.

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