“Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” – Inception, 2010
The most powerful force in the universe is an idea, it is fundamental to the process of design, to create and to embark meaning. Everything begins with an idea, a thought which is enough to consume one’s brain, much like the concept for the movie Inception, beautifully evoked by the director, Christopher Nolan.
Inception revolves around the potential of idea and design; its visualization and execution in the pursuit of achieving an ‘imagined reality.’ The film splendidly portrays the beauty of creation, it is about the mental capacity of people to create large-scaled worlds, a world of dreams where the physicality of design sees no boundaries. The visually stunning scenes from the film are a manifestation of a world full of imagination and possibilities.
The movie is about a former dream architect, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who along with his business partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) assemble a team of skilled persons to extract and steal ideas or in extreme cases, to plant ideas, deep within the victim’s subconsciousness. Arguably, the most important part of these missions is the design of the dreams, which is done by an architect. Thus, the role of architecture is pivotal to the entire plot of the film.
In the initial part of the film, Cobb is seen recruiting an architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page) who has been given a task to design a complex and enthralling maze on a notepad to see if she can fulfil the requirements of the job. Her first two attempts involved designs that followed the grid on the paper using a set of transverse and longitudinal lines and were instantly dismissed. Frustrated, she pauses for a while and turns to the blank face of the book and designs a circular maze this time. As Cobb reviewed the circular maze, he could not figure out where to enter it from, thus, concluding that she had passed the test. This simple scene sets the foundation for the concept of the film, the labyrinth being central to the plot.
i. The minute Ariadne takes a step forward and designs without the limitations of the grid, a wide array of possibilities unfold thus, signifying how the reality of dreams can be boundless and exceptional.
ii. The entire premise of establishing dreams within a dream is based on a series of maze-like levels, each designed intricately with a variety of environments.
Narrative component to architecture
The way we experience a three-dimensional space is analogous to the way an audience experiences a cinematic narrative. Nolan uses architecture as a tool to distinguish between changing environments. Therefore, architecture not only guides the narrative but also becomes a crucial part of the story as the characters interact exceedingly with the environment.
Another feature to distinguish between the changing environments of the different levels of dreams is using distinct colour palettes for each environment. This not only enhances the visual appeal of the film but also helps the viewers keep a track of the different levels of the dream.
The concept of Paradoxical architecture is delved into where the design of labyrinth of buildings and the layout of environments is controlled by the architect, while its function and the effect of projections on it, is determined by the dreamer.
Since the dream is devoid of any limitations due to real-world physics, it allows the creation of paradoxes like the Penrose staircase (an endless staircase with a continuous loop) or even cities that bend on top of themselves. Yet what sets the architect apart is her ability to connect with the dreamer thus, allowing their subconsciousness to embrace the design and project it with their ideas.
The balance between making a design exciting and interesting enough and yet not too unrealistic is what the architect strives for. Similarly, in real life, spaces should be designed with a sense of familiarity and a touch of the past but at the same time embrace the future so that they can start filling it with memories and experiences.
The final level in a dream where a person reaches the state of complete dissociation from reality, is the Limbo city, an environment characterized by a myriad of architectural styles from the 1920s, inspired by Le Corb, to the 1950-60s, newer modern buildings built in futuristic style. Thus, the environment represents the history of modern architecture, from tower blocks to century-old houses inhabited by Cobb and his wife in their earlier years.
The entire movie consists of metaphors, the building of sandcastles in the beginning, the lanterns in the Japanese hall, the crumbling of Limbo city, all of them depict, the art of pure creation and ideation. The film in itself is like a labyrinth of multiple layers filled with overlapping stories and complexities and yet the power of an idea and the ability to create, is retained throughout. Thus, emphasizing how an idea, once fully understood, can change the perspective and course of our physical environments.