The most popular series streaming on Netflix for the past few weeks – Squid Game, has successively got itself at the top of the charts. The plot of the series is about a crew of bankrupt Koreans who compete in a “do-or-die” game for winning rewards worth millions. With over 111 million views since it premiered on September 17th, the thought-provoking series is still an internet sensation to people.
From an architectural point of view, there are even more fascinating matters to notice in the series – starting from the atmospheric ambiance, the gaming arenas, spaces within the sets – to how each and every game was designed with an incredible concept in mind. This article focuses on some aspects of the setups relevant to architectural design. If you have not already watched it, there might be many spoilers ahead.
Thoughts on Building the Sets of Squid Game
Every set of squid games has a surreal appeal in its own sense – as per Lee Jung-Jae, who plays the lead actor Seong Gi-hun.
When we look at each set attentively, we will notice that the atmosphere and arrangements are made by drawing references that illustrate contemporary social issues. The architecture, which is largely colored in vibrant hues, bright backdrops reminiscing childhood playgrounds, sometimes from vast scaled spaces to closed chamber-like halls – all are designed as a tool to make both actors and viewers uncomfortable.
“I tried to simulate the atmosphere of real playgrounds, I thought those kinds of sets can give more of a sense of reality to the actors’ performance.”
– said Director Hwang Dong-hyuk in a Netflix interview.
The staircase with a vivid pastel color palette was inspired by a lithograph print titled ‘Relativity’ by Dutch artist M.C. Escher. The illustration shows a world in which the laws of gravity are not the same as they are in reality. There are a total of seven stairways in Relativity, all of which are positioned in a puzzling manner –bearing resemblance to the setup of Squid Game’s intricate stairway architecture and maze-like passages.
The waiting lounge with geometric bends was the area where the contestants gathered before a game took place. This particular zone – featuring a white, luminous environment was seemingly inspired by Architect Zaha Hadid’s drawing references to contemporary architecture or Santiago Calatrava architectural designs.
“We were attempting to create] some kind of uneasy feeling that comes from a white room, not knowing what will happen next. We wanted to create an unknown space.” – said art director Chae Kyung.
The Yard of Death
The first game begins with a huge yard with 456 contestants. The arena with fake skies and a childlike, yet terrifying setting in Squid Game exemplifies the show’s bizarre aspects. The entrances of the arena are built out of small huts with terracotta roofs that resemble simple drawings of houses by children. The game is called “red light, green light” – monitored by a massive and terrifying, animatronic doll. The intimidating scale of the doll is intended to make players feel inferior and vulnerable, a concept that remains in all of Squid Game’s other arenas.
The Playground with A Needle and Four Shapes
The Squid Game contestants play the Dalgona Challenge (commonly known as the “Honeycomb game”) in the second round. The set includes an oversized playground with large slides and swings – resembling the first arena. The painted backdrops with cartoonish clouds and sun are just like a drawing child would create.
Tug of War
The third game had a raw and industrial setting – quite similar to a vast aircraft hangar. Two massive structures hold tower-like podiums from which the teams pull the rope with all their strength in a desperate attempt to prevent falling into the hole in the center – to lose to death. The bright yellow frameworks that support the platforms resemble the construction toys that kids play with. Wide angles distorted the scale making the set resemble an architectural scale model where the players seemed to be toy-like miniatures.
Alleyways of Deceit
The fourth game – “Marbles” takes place in “The Alleyway”, which was known to be the most intricate among all the other sets of the Squid Game. The setting took the most time to be built, creating traditional Korean alleyways, where contestants must play a life-or-death game of marbles with a partner. The scenario is intended to evoke emotions of childhood nostalgia. For enhancing the atmosphere, a deep red, sunset-like backdrop was used for provoking the approaching terror, creating an unsettling sense for both players and viewers.
A Glass Bridge of Terror
In the fifth game, the Squid Game contestants are challenged to cross a bridge composed of glass panels, only half of which are tempered in Game 5. The bridge is suspended in a theater-like setting, complete with flashing lights reminiscent of a circus or casinos of Las Vegas. The director Hwang said, “The glass made them nervous. I think we could express the unnoticed rigidity and fear of the body. It felt like really jumping off a high bridge, the game was real and they felt real fear,” he added. “We think that set had the power of realism.” The architecture here is designed to be viewed as a performance, for the ‘VIP’ as the audience.
The VIPs lounge setup was also interesting, including a dark ambiance with extravagant arrangements. With a big screen in front where they rejoiced deviously watching the contestants play the fifth game, the setting involved figurines of diverse creatures. Following the Animal Kingdom theme, these figures were painted with a variety of animal prints. Some of the human figures happen to be actual human beings!
The trigonal dinner table setup was a well-thought arrangement right before the final game – the three sides of the shape dedicated for the three finalists.
At the beginning of the series, the 456 contestants find themselves in a massive space that is half school-hall, half prison. Multi-story bunk beds surround a wide-open space in the center, where the prize money is later suspended magnificently. Fascinatingly, the tiled walls of the space had pictograms that represent the games, but all of the hints were covered by the beds. In due course, they are revealed to contestants as the bunks are ripped to pieces throughout the season as the game advances.
“Rather than treating them as people, she suggested the contestants be presented like objects piled on the warehouse shelves”, said the director Hwang. About the architectural design, the art director Chae added that “Since modern society is in constant competition to climb the ladder, we thought about portraying that in the bed design.”
The architectural aspects in Squid Game have succeeded to accentuate anticipation, excitement, and emotions throughout the series – adding strong visual and spatial elements to the storyline. Squid Game is an overall, remarkable example of how the use of architecture can affect both the actors and the audience in a set.
Keskeys, P., 2021. The Architecture of Squid Game. [online] Architizer. Available at: <https://architizer.com/blog/inspiration/stories/the-architecture-of-squid-game/> [Accessed 23 October 2021].
Neira, J., 2021. discover the architecture of netflix’s squid game. [online] designboom | architecture & design magazine. Available at: <https://www.designboom.com/architecture/squid-game-architecture-10-13-2021/> [Accessed 24 October 2021].