Magic. Time travel. Love. Family. Wars. Conspiracy. The show – a discovery of witches has everything from this century and the 1590s, a show that meets dark academia and the supernatural set the most cinematographically beautiful architectural backdrops and sets.
Architecture is another character – A Discovery of Witches.
Filmed across England, Italy, Scotland, and Finland, the show mainly uses real locations instead of relying on sets. Its houses are usually palaces and colleges for the setting of the female lead’s academic career. Most of her plotline is set in present-day Oxford and oxford university’s library and dorm stay. Filled with rich adorning arches on the inside, spires, and domes on the outside- the show A discovery of witches captures Oxford in the best light.
While most settings are real palaces, castles, and streets, there is usually a significant use of green screens and VFX usage as well – mainly for the flashback scenes with a little more backstory or in season 2, where the show begins off where our main leads – Diana and Mattew time back in time to 1590. The play A discovery of witches is based on the book series by Deborah Harkness, the show has tried to stay as loyal as possible to the books – but has still managed to cut down the grandeur scale of spaces that Deborah Harkness had written about.
The Radcliffe Camera circular library is the most pivotal piece of architecture in A discovery of witches; it’s where our lead female protagonist has a moment of epiphany and self-discovery, where she reconnects with the past she has tried so hard to shut out – sweet memories and trauma alike- and is finally able to accept her fate. It’s also the place the male lead tracks down to meet the female protagonist starting the beloved forbidden romance in and out of various eras with the most breathtaking palaces, castles, and accurately set up streets of old London – way before the great fire.
The show opens up with a long shot over the river Thames, and the Folly bridge, showcasing London’s fondness for intricately detailed bridges. Most of the show thankfully follows the characters – both the protagonist and antagonist alike- usually walking around, running away, cycling down, and riding up in a boat or horse. The absence of cars in an everyday setting helps capture the beautiful architectural locations. Most of the time, it’s Diana just walking about in college – the exterior shots filmed in Exeter college, this capture the landscape and the grand scale of the space perfectly, complete with iconic rose-coloured windows and gothic stone arches.
The streets on A discovery of witches sometimes mesmerize the watcher with their setting; while most shows today solely focus on the human connection and dialogue, a finding of witches treats the architecture and painstakingly detailed sets like another character. The long shots, and zoom-outs, in and out don’t merely focus on the human characters but also the surroundings, making sure that the landscape and the buildings help move the story around. It’s simple enough at first that the viewer barely sees it unless pointed out. A simple shot of Diana having lunch could’ve been more accessible in a small café focused on the pair. Instead, the filming took place in Bristol in The Rummer restaurant, with the duo of ladies seen lunching outside with a long shot of the corbelled streets, English lamp posts, old English buildings and the iconic Oxford spire in the background looming over them.
Another shot that could’ve been a quicker time frame instead saw the characters in the much coveted and crowded – Covered market. This, like the other scene, could have seen the director and cinematographer take the easy way out – but instead of staying faithful to the vision, the less than a-minute shot took place in the Covered market, showing off why the market is so primitive to the English natives by spanning over its simple beauty. The Cardiff market was another market used for these shots.
And from the lesser known spots come the architectural marvels of the world- some locations are like the Pantheon in Rome, shot with the light passing through the iconic oculus in the dome, the History of Sciences Museum showcasing its detailed stone bust carved façade and shadowed by the Sheldonian Theatre next to it, the Glamorgan Building, Cardiff University, The Rudolf hotel, and Plas Machen. Season 2 starts off in Plas Machen a 16th-century country house closer to lower Machen near Newport, Wales. This is a filming spot favourite – a place a keen observer would have seen in the likes of other TV Shows like Dr Who and the Sherlock Holmes series.
Since season 2 is the span of the 1590s a lot of the sets were rebuilt or buildings that have stood the testament of time and contemporary redesign. The Sept-Tours castle was used as a backdrop in the present and past settings, serving as the Clermont family home. The other home was Diana’s aunt’s house – and while the location is New York, the house is actually on the outskirt of Wales. The Sept-Tours castle, actually the Castle of Monselice is located in the region of Veneto. Its stone-finished exterior seen from all corners of the small town reflects the power the family holds, symbolically. The interior with its stone finishes left untouched gives the viewers a look into how the building can be used in the present day and how it was meant to be used in the past when it was built. Showcasing architecture lasts longer than we do once again, and stories and history can be told through experiences, a feat only architecture can do.
The discovery of witches symbolizes why making architecture a character is a marvellous tool for storytelling. It signifies a story through time, with a cultural and familiar background. How times change, the use of spaces change, and how people evolve and resonate with buildings change. Something that was a testament to great power now can be an abandoned castle used for tours and special events. A discovery of witches almost feels like a visual documentation of the most significant buildings in academia and the most magnificent palaces, castles, and forts across Europe which are lesser known and need to be remembered. Remembering kingdoms, towns, queens, and people of smaller places must be highlighted.
With modern technology, the world might feel like a small place, but history connects us and architecture is a testament, the physical embodiment of the past and its stories, to remember people by. And while we might not be travelling through time like in A discovery of witches, for a brief time – looking at this old architecture in juxtaposition with the new all in the span of 3 short seasons, it definitely feels like I took a walk through history. A walk every architect and lover of record should experience.
Ra Moon at Atlas of Wonders (2021). Filming Locations Guide: Where was A Discovery of Witches filmed? The Castle & the House. [online]. Available at: https://www.atlasofwonders.com/2018/08/a-discovery-of-witches-wherefilmed.html#:~:text=The%20A%20Discovery%20of%20Witches%20House&text=The%20producers%20found%20a%2016th,interiors%20of%20the%20London%20set
. [Accessed date:12 November 2022].