Film often makes a mockery of architectural features. Glass facades are obliterated by gunfire, grisly murders are set against a white modernist palette, deconstructed stairs are the cause of nasty accidents or ludicrous slapstick, and you just know a tensile fabric roof will be shredded by the time 007 is finished with it.
There is one architectural feature however that has benefited from very complimentary treatment by the film industry, and surprisingly it is a sustainable one. Green roofs and other “architectural” green spaces have been popping up regularly in mainstream movies over the past decade: blockbusters including The Vow (2012) and Source Code (2011) utilized the greenscape outside Gehry's Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park; last year the Vancouver Convention Centre was featured in both Godzilla and Robocop; and Kaspar Schroder’s 2009 uber cool documentary My Playground, about the sport of parkour (the art of bouncing off buildings made famous by the opening scenes of Casino Royale), features BIG’s Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen. And we cannot forget two of the biggest film franchises in history: both of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchises feature green roofs in their portrayal of Hobbiton – home of the virtuous and incorruptible Hobbits.
As a result of the Hobbit treatment, turf-roofed houses are now synonymous with peaceful idyllic communities. While Hobbiton is not entirely helpful in breaking away from common stereotypes associated with many green initiatives (think hippy communes and off-the-grid doomsdayers) it does, importantly, provide considerable backing to the conscious decision to live in a responsible manner and presents it to the audience in an unmistakably positive light. This is unusual for a film reference; “Architectural” building elements are usually associated with evil deeds and subversive values, but the Hobbits, a merry uncomplicated race, are inherently good. And while Bilbo Baggins’ house isn’t exactly current – referencing the Arts & Crafts movement far more than contemporary design - the messages are at least aligned. In developed nations we are often told that in order to live sustainably, we should live more simply – to move back from material possession to reduce our carbon footprint, grow our own food, buy local, and appreciate the small things like good company and family. In short, live like a Hobbit.
It's heartening to see green initiatives on screen, particularly because they are such unlikely candidates for interest by the film industry. Like many of life's sensible choices, sustainable options can be visually banal or even invisible (water efficient fittings & materials with low embodied energy for instance) and hardly cinematic. Positive film treatments are important because film is such a powerful medium for influencing our desires. It is deliberately emotional - as manipulative as tabloid news and as targeted as primetime advertising. Film shapes our individual dreams and therefore our collective goals.
Schroder’s use of the Mountain Dwellings is a particularly good example because it takes the association to the next level - it not only makes contemporary green design desirable but it also makes it accessible. Parkour is all about taking ownership of public spaces, being confident enough in a space to use it as a personal gym - defying convention as well as gravity. The roof gardens of the individual apartments are not only an important element in the design’s mountain mimicry but in the film, they are also the means to climb or descend it like a mountain too. While it's not clear how the occupants feel about random youths suddenly rebounding off their balconies, the film certainly approves. Just as the green roofs of the Shire will forever be associated with the salvation of Middle Earth, Schroder's film links roof gardens with contemporary attitudes to urban space.
For the most part, those Green technologies which require additional investment & commitment still remain reserved for clients with particular environmental agendas, but perhaps the popularity of turf roofs in film is a marker that green features will soon have a wider market appeal. We might discover, as the Hobbits did, that power can be held in the smallest of things.
This article comes courtesy of Charlotte Neilson, the author of the fascinating design blog Casting Architecture. Her column, Through the Lens, looks at architecture and production design in TV and film.