Architecture in Hollywood

Posted on Nov 21, 2014

Unlike the women and children, he was of no value to the bad guys as a hostage. Aware that he could interfere with their plans, they had left him tied up and locked in an empty office, thinking they would be long gone by the time he’d be discovered. But they didn’t count on his resourcefulness. After successfully loosening his bonds, our hero pries out the fresh-air grille and levers himself into the ductwork above the ceiling. He pulls himself along the duct, pausing to peer through the occasional registers. The bad guys below continue their foul behavior, oblivious that they are being observed. He crawls on through the duct, but finally reaches a large grille just before an enormous rotating fan. Fortunately this last room is empty. He kicks out the grid and drops to the floor. But the bad guys are blocking his access to the exit stair. Hoping to create a diversion, our hero pulls a nearby manual fire alarm. Immediately all of the fire sprinklers rain down water, drenching both the bad guys and their hostages, and ensuring his undetected escape.

I have to wonder if other architects and engineers cringe as I do when watching how buildings are portrayed in some movies and television shows. Often the built environment is mere backdrop for the human interplay. But there are times when our buildings and their systems assume a major role in the plot. So we are treated to buildings with air-handling systems so robust that they will accommodate a full-grown protagonist as he noiselessly slips past his evil minders. And it’s his luck that the duct was recently scrubbed to a gleaming finish. Raise your hands: how many readers think those kinds of ducts exist in real buildings? Unfortunately for our hero, if he does manage to fit through a duct opening, he’s much more likely to get stuck in the first bend, or have to back up when he encounters turning vanes, or crash though the ceiling because those duct hangers were never intended to support his fighting weight.

As a way for the protagonists to get around a building without being detected, writers should think twice before resorting to the ductwork. I can testify that in the buildings I’ve designed I have never considered the possibility that someone would try to crawl around in the air-handling system. (Buildings are not the only settings for these devices: according to Star Trek, space ships of the future will come with “Jeffries Tubes”.) I’ll admit that it’s not nearly so dramatic to imagine someone escaping through a stairway while the bad guys foolishly use the elevator. And besides the Code-required escape routes there may be other ways to get around. For example, plumbing chases figure prominently in The Matrix and Shawshank Redemption. Buildings with secret passageways have also been used (remember to check those portraits whose eyes seem to follow as you move past). Actually, I would love the opportunity to design a building with hidden passageways. The closest I’ve come to that was renovations to an old Post Office, which already came with concealed tunnels and catwalks with spy ports, shafts with ladders, and a separate exterior door partially disguised in a window well, all for an athletic postal inspectors’ use to observe the suspected furtive activities of mail handlers. I have yet to encounter the client who wants a rotating bookcase or a subterranean Batmobile garage.

I’m convinced that Hollywood is partly to blame for how often fire officials have to fight an uphill battle trying to get automatic sprinkler systems installed in buildings. How many children grow up thinking that automatic sprinkler systems will activate when they pull the fire alarm? How many adults have the impression that an accidental or intentional activation will ruin the contents of their homes and businesses? If people understood that only the sprinkler heads which are exposed to a heat source above their designed temperature will go off, they would know that those television scenes of entire floor levels being soaked at the pull of a single lever are fantasy. This is not to claim that sprinkler systems don’t malfunction. But they definitely do not behave as film makers would have you believe.

Buildings are not always depicted incompetently on the screen. Often buildings are integral to the action. Alfred Hitchcock used buildings to good effect in many of his films, including an ersatz Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece above Mt. Rushmore in North By Northwest. Who can forget that monument to architectural hubris and its consequences, Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno? Sometimes, buildings have been a source of amusement, as in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (later remade as The Money Pit and Are We Done Yet?). And in a sequence only Terry Gilliam could produce, an office building breaks loose to sail through the City of London in “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” prologue to Monte Python’s The Meaning of Life. Many famous buildings are spectacularly destroyed in films, some more realistically than others. King Kong made his last stand atop the tallest building of its time, but aliens obliterated both the Empire State Building and the White House (among others) in Independence Day. In their desire to satisfy their increasingly sophisticated audience, movie producers now regularly serve up building destruction both fantastic and realistic at the same time. I confess that, despite my creative bent, I feel a guilty pleasure witnessing the destruction of these monuments on the screen. Of course, any fictional treatment pales in comparison to the real-life disasters of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center.

Having brought up those tragedies, I suppose I should not be so picky about Hollywood’s building mistakes. After all, though they may seem real, these movie fantasies are the creations of their makers. The truth, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is more terrifying than fiction.

Written by Dean R. Camlin, AIA, LEED AP BD+C.
© 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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