The bridge between cinema and architecture is short, with both art forms dealing with different articulations of space, frames and images of life, matter and experiences. The depiction of architecture in films centres on the relationship of the built environment with that of an imaginary space portrayed in two dimensions but conveys the tangibleness of the physical spaces. This relationship has transformed over the last 130 years, along with how the spectator’s relationship with the silver screen changed. Cinema weaves architecture in its essence, playing with its dimensions and crafting images that hope to transcend time. In this way, the illusion becomes eternalised and narrows the line dividing reality and fantasy. Do the places and shapes shown on the screen follow the same rules as the ones in real life? The truth might be that film architecture goes beyond a mere image of the built environment and establishes a projection screen for new possibilities and different ways to reinvent and design spaces.

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The blurry atmosphere of the city in Blade Runner (1982)._ ©Warner Bros Pictures.
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A dystopic Los Angeles in the year 2019._ ©Warner Bros Pictures.

Monuments of the past | Architecture in films

The French Architect Jean Nouvel said that architecture exists, like cinema, in the dimension of time and movement. It cannot be understood outside of those frames. ‘One conceives and reads a building in terms of sequences’, he says. Like cinema, architecture is a medium. Some architectural objects are timeless, but even then, they are contextualised to a specific era, a political climate, an aesthetic movement, and the culture of a society. Therefore, it is easy to see the similarities between architecture and film. Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa explained the interactive nature of these mediums simply by understanding that their essence also relies and depends on each other. There is an “inherent architecture in cinematic expression and a cinematic essence to architectural experience”.

It is then easy to look at films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari (1920) and note how codependent the plot is on the architectural framework they build. 

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The city of Metropolis._ ©Parufamet Pictures.
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The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari._ ©Decla-Film.

Some directors have used architecture in films as a mechanism to set the genre and conduct the mood. A distinguished example lies in Alfred Hitchcock’s techniques, with the use of architectural motifs such as staircases – liminal elements, in their way, connecting spaces and almost suspending the dweller in a hazy, transitional suspense- and windows, toying with the contrast between the intimacy provided by four walls ruptured by the transparency of a window. Films like Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds all mesmerisingly play with such concepts. They wrap the viewer’s senses, forcing them to confront their emotions through the framework of the spaces of the story.

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A scene from Rear Window (1957)._ ©Paramount Pictures.
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The use of colour and framing in Vertigo (1958)._ ©Paramount Pictures.
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The house that became an icon in Psycho (1960)._ ©Paramount Pictures.

Architecture in films of the modern era

The sociologist Anthony Giddens points out that one of the main characteristics of modernity is the speed of change. The chaotic pace of this change is what triggers modernisation. We then observe a new context: a new society and landscape, the place of modern experience. Cinema, in itself, is also a vehicle concerned with and impacting modernity. From an Anthropological perspective, cinema becomes an instrument that reveals a new and flagrant facet of urban centres: the city of appearances and the simulacrum in a complex game of desire and frustration, of dreams and reality. Notably, the French filmmaker Jacques Tati has masterfully critiqued these concepts through his movies, toying with the portrayal of modern architecture in films.

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Jacques Tati’s Paris in Playtime (1967)._ ©Jacques Tati.

The films of Jacques Tati

A machine to live in: how is the daily life of the human being, the modern being, who inhabits the house almost mechanically? Jacques Tati discusses this in all his films, especially in Playtime (1967) and Mon Oncle (My Uncle, 1958). Individuality is subtly conveyed, intertwined with a sharp satire of the inhabitant’s role within their home. The figure of the mother and housewife mechanically repeats the cleaning and polishing actions necessary to keep the house in its best condition. The father is merely a compositional element that reinforces the ideas of the modern home and family. He works as a factory manager, his car is the latest model, and his house is the pinnacle of sophistication.

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The new symbol of the upper classes: the modern house._ ©Gaumont.

The main house is the ultra-efficient model of the machine house, automated and ‘modern’ in the proper sense of the word. The ‘machine of living’ is a commodity, an object of consumption and status. It is the apex of the rational composition, of the clean and futuristic ideal that associates technology with the visionary concepts that were part of the social imaginary of the time. It was also a fresh way of dealing with architecture in films. Tati portrayed it as its character, a symbolic element and a key plot figure.

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A new office space configuration in accordance with modern times._ ©Jacques Tati.

In Playtime (1967), the architecture is different, one of an almost dystopian Paris, mainly caricatured, which reflects and translates the contradictions of the ways of life of a society that claims to be modern. Urban expansion is something euphoric, and the formal monotony of modernist architecture is exquisitely portrayed in the film, revealing the possibility of spaces, previously particular in their characteristics and distinctions, becoming exaggeratedly generic. The way of capturing and framing these spaces created in the scenographic city of Tati is to reinforce the sensation of a meagre human scale, in which cars have priority and not pedestrians. 

A city for cars in Playtime (1967)._ ©Jacques Tati.
A city for cars in Playtime (1967)._ ©Jacques Tati.

The future of architecture in films

In the present day, with all the advances of CGI technology, a whole debate can be poised about the future of architecture in film. There’s a refreshing curiosity to explore these tools and a desire to create whimsical architectural images on the screen, perhaps inspired by dreams and memories. 

Caden’s life-size replica of New York City inside a warehouse as part of his new play._ ©Sony Pictures Classics.
Caden’s life-size replica of New York City inside a warehouse as part of his new play._ ©Sony Pictures Classics.

As the medium of cinema expands, so does its usage of architectural concepts and the way the viewers experience architecture. Cinema doesn’t portray space as solid. It has fluidity and substance, drawing from the imagination of the public and the filmmaker. The images might be abstract and hazy, as in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), where the protagonist encloses the viewer in an architectural maze, slipping into the world of dreams and making the audience question what is real and what is artificial. It is a superb example that plays with sensory architecture in film.

A scene from Columbus (2017)._ ©Sundance Institute.
A scene from Columbus (2017)._ ©Sundance Institute.

Lately, some sublime examples of different approaches to architecture in films have dazzled the audience and architects alike. The quiet appreciation of modern architecture buildings in Columbus (2017) or the boldness of Parasite (2019) in its critique of class inequality and ideals carved in the walls of a dazzling house. All these examples pave the way for a promising future, strengthening the relationship between architecture and cinema.

The stage for Parasite: the modern house of the Park family._ ©CJ Entertainment.

References: (2022). The Relationship Between Architecture and Cinema.[online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 22/02/2023].

David Jenkins. (2017). In praise of Jacques Tati’s Playtime. [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 22/02/2023].

François Penz. (2020). Film studies: when cinema acts as an encyclopaedia of architectural spaces. [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 22/02/2023].

Pallasmaa, Juhani. (2007). The Architecture of image: existential space in cinema. 2nd edition. Helsinki: Rakennustieto.


Sofia Rezende is an Architect and Urban Planner from Brazil. She graduated in the class of 2015 from the Federal University of Viçosa, Brazil, and later pursued a Master’s (MSc) degree in the same subject with a focus on studying social housing and family demography, topics she’s very passionate about.