Inception of Architecture

Spectatvm venivnt,

venivnt spectentvr vt ipsae.


They come to see,

they come that they themselves be seen

‘to see and be seen.


What are the two most stunning and original episodes of an action packed mega-flick “Inception”? For me, with no doubt, shock number one is an amazing fold of Paris defying all gravity laws. My second visual daze came when a mystic infinity of an archway was so suddenly originated between huge sheets of mirrors. Why amidst loads of incredible visual effects these conceptually simple scenes are so outstanding? Maybe, because the main part in both of them is played by Architecture…

As I watched “Inception” I got few really peculiar observations. Sure I’m not a movie columnist but an amateur who loves cinema, thus my thoughts are not a critique in any manner. However I’m a professional architect and since the most active and sexy character in the film is… Architecture (sorry Leo!) I’ll dare to review a bizarre architecture of Inception.


New dimension with no fake tricks

A weird thing for a futuristic sci-fi: there are no sleek computers with translucent wall-size screens (Minority Report), no fancy gadgets full of pulsating lights (actually the only technical tool I’ve seen was a vintage metal case with archaic pump and rubber tubes), not even cell-phones! The other remarkable detail:  world of architectural fantasies has no futuristic urban landscapes with gigantic video-ad’s, (Oh, “Blade Runner”), no oddly shaped skyscrapers (“Star wars”), no sterile-white interiors (“The Island”).

On contrary we’re constantly introduced to the beautifully calm old-fashioned hotels or romantic scenery of French capital. What’s all that? Gifted young architect Ariadne (a cute reference to the labyrinths of Greek mythology) could be really more productive using one of those shiny Apple machines for design of her complex mazes on multiple levels of subconscious worlds. Wouldn’t it make sense? And yet she’s doing it old school – card-board models, sketches, hand drawings pinned on the wall… Why? What those conservative traits and classic facades are doing in the dreamy land full of infinite possibilities?

It’s clearly more than director’s attempt to maintain certain style line of a cool vintage look. Thing is, they are trying to form a new dimension. A dimension built from time-space interlacement. Such interlacement somehow fantastically happens in our dreams. And I find it very honest that in order to present, to explore this wonderfully scary new dimension authors are not using those fake exterior features I’ve mentioned above. Instead they daringly manipulate with the fundamental characteristics of the space we are so accustomed to.

That’s why we are so astonished with the scene of a folding panorama of Paris, when people walk out of the regular 3D world, as so familiar and comfortable to us Cartesian coordinates system stops working the way it should. And yet Codd and Ariadne continue to walk on the paved street as nothing happened. Everything suddenly is twisted and shaken without artificial gimmicks. The very core of the space as we know it – is lacerated, raped, changed forever. I love it. An organic simple “walk on the ceiling” of classical Paris is so cool and natural. (Way cooler than all those freakishly extruded by soulless software building shapes, which starchitects are desperately trying to introduce as a breakthrough into another dimension. Well, now we can see how false it is. Ariadne is better architect than Zaha.)


Smokes and mirrors

The main definition of this dreamy reality is Maze. Labyrinth. That’s the only architectural program Ariadne (still remember the Greeks, right?) is given by her client. So how do you design a mystic infinite space linked to the relativity of time in that new dimension? The Architect is using most transcendental tool – mirror. It’s a stroke of genius. Two otherworldly (and yet utterly physical) philosophical substances – labyrinth and mirror are perfectly bound into one whole of a spiritual synthesis.

Oh, great blind man, Jorge Luis Borges! – you’ve seen it so clearly in your phantasmagorical labyrinths of nightmares:

I look on them as infinite, elemental
fulfillers of a very ancient pact
to multiply the world, as in the act
of generation, sleepless and dangerous.

“Mirrors” (translated by Reid)


In those endless reflections of archways running between the two mirrors placed against each other by the Architect an irrational rationality of the dream becomes so obvious. And when the mirror is shuttered – nothing changes: the sheer architectural prospective is blended flawlessly into the dangerously real imagination.

I truly respect this unpretentious approach. It’s not cheap symbolism but metaphorical depth of human intelligence. It’s an art. It’s a philosophy. It’s Architecture. It’s a dream.

And there’s no way in the world that sophisticated software would ever compete with architect’s imagination that is able to project a magic into the existence and to turn a reality into the dream.


P.S. Funny, but I didn’t like the movie actually. “ExistenZ” is way cooler.



38 Responses to “Inception of Architecture”
  1. Q. Le says:

    Lovely analysis. Your article reminds me of a conversation I had with a very close friend of mine about a month ago; he’s an architect-in-making studying at the Souther California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), and we were discussing (amongst many other topics) what he’s learning and trying to accomplish right now. He mentioned that the most efficient structures date back to ancient architecture: from ventilation to stability, the oldest constructions outdo modern attempts of streamlined efficiency for our human needs. This alway tickled my thoughts, and reading your architectural analysis of Inception has further sold me on this point – old school is timeless.

  2. Brett Beach says:

    You had me at “the most active and sexy character in the film is the architecture” (agreed) but you sealed the deal with your last sentence (AGREED). eXistenZ is still underrated a decade later and more of a mind-frak than The Matrix or Inception.

  3. David says:

    Very cool idea to analyze the movie strictly through architecture, and throw away other elements. Yes, it’s a creative process, and all the software/CGI/machines are only capable of implementing what Architect’s imagination invents. Without it – we’re still building boxes with square holes in them. I also got a review of Inception and ExistenZ buried somewhere on my site. Will post shortly.

  4. ChadG says:

    Nice article, until your post-script. Fair enough not liking this brilliant film… but Existenz? Really?

    • Albert says:

      ExistenZ was raw. David Cronenberg is a freak. He is a maniac. His soul is abyss full of evil. I liked it. (Did you see Crash –
      “Inception” is Hollywood-polished blockbuster. High budget. Super stars. Nolan is amazingly smart guy, but once you’re on the Olympus you can’t be sincere & raw. Plus “Inception” was so-o-o predictable. Despite all it’s twists & turns I knew that Cobb will find his kids all right. I knew (and you knew it as well) that at the end they would provide us with some hint showing that the dream is maybe not over.
      Don’t you think it’s a bit banal?
      ExistenZ had a bloody crazy end. Paranoid movie indeed.

      • kate says:

        Great inspection of the architecture in Inception! Though I think ExistenZ is a creative mess and Inception is way superior…but…gotta love paranoid movies. I’d like to point out that at the end of Inception Cobb’s kids are wearing the same exact clothes as he invisioned them to be since he last saw them and come on, it isn’t possible for the kids to be in the exact set of motion he last saw them.

        • Albert says:

          That’s a hell of an observation, kate! It can’t be accidental… no way!

          • Lee says:

            Not exactly the same clothes – the boy is wearing trainers not sandals and the girl has a white top over her dress.
            Also in the credits there are 2 actors for the guy and 2 for the girl. Listed like:
            Actor X – James (aged 20 months)
            Actor Y – James (Aged 3 years)
            Actress X – Phillipa (aged 3 years)
            Actress Y – Phillipa (aged 5 years)

  5. Ilana says:

    Wow – this post has left me speechless. What a cool idea to analyze the history and philosophy of architecture through a movie! It makes me believe that you can connect architecture to almost any topic LOL !Very brilliant analysis of the psychology behind the movie’s “wow” factor. This is deep, man! I really did enjoy it 🙂 thanks ps. the trailers are a cool idea too – your posts are fun

  6. Patrick says:

    I love your analysis about architecture in ” Inception”. Extremely well done, and a very good observation.
    Didnt notice the absence of cell phones or any ” futuristic” details neither. Thanks for that 🙂
    I respect your preference about the Cronenberg’s movie. Love the movie too !!
    But doesnt agree at all with the comparaison.
    First, I would like to remind you an Albert, that the Cronenberg’s movie is about ” entering a game”.
    “Inception” is about “entering the consciousness”.
    If you want to compare ExistenZ with other movies…do it with the same subject.
    Using “Tron” or Mamoru Oshii’s ” Avalon” for instance.

    And to Albert…again , I quote your words:
    Inception” is Hollywood-polished blockbuster. High budget. Super stars. Nolan is amazingly smart guy, but once you’re on the Olympus you can’t be sincere & raw.

    So you think that Cronenberg is a “cool indie” filmmaker ?
    I invite you to discouver ” Fast Company” 🙂

    • Albert says:

      I couldn’t imagine my 12 words Postscript will be so debatable!
      With all due respect (taken in account all the differences, even the budget scale) I still believe that juxtapose “Incention” & “ExistenZ” is apples to apples comparison.
      At that time (90-s) Cronenberg was “cool indie” dude. Not so sure about today…

  7. ash says:

    when i saw the sequence it took me back to a book i had read from Arthru C Clarke – “Rendezvous with Rama” – the cover art on my copy featured an artists impression of the view inside RAMA – the eponymous alien space ship which is explored by a group of humans. The space ship as described in the book was a fifty km long cylinder with a 20km diameter which replicates gravity by rotating in air and has the entire world living on the insides. What stunned me as kid (20 years ago) was the sheer scale of this world with the idea that sky above me was actually full of people, houses, etc. What an exotic world this would have been to explore – at once crazy yet awe-inspiring. When i saw inception, the first thing the Paris sequence brought alive was that same feeling albeit on a smaller scale – what fun!!!!

  8. Dan says:

    What bothered me about Inception wasn’t the physical architecture but the narrative architecture. It is rare in a dream for the laws of physics to be twisted, but very common for narratives to be episodic, conflated, and twisted. I suspect that since a film with dream-like narratives wouldn’t be watchable, the Nolans substituted a malleable physical architecture for a malleable narrative architecture.

  9. Bill says:

    Awesome article on an amazing movie!


    …Star Wars isn’t an example of futuristic sci-fi….remember: “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”


  10. Michael says:

    Can’t comment on Inception since I haven’t seen it yet, but if we are talking about old-school approach to cinematographic design, I think the best movie in recent years is Moon. Not only the plot and the acting are really good, but the design is flawless; everything is done with miniature models, not computer graphics

  11. Marc says:

    I love where you’re going with this, but I can’t get through your post because of the writing. I’m going to wildly venture the notion that you are from Eastern Europe. I should point out I’m not trying to be rude or offending, but… Your vocabulary is so elaborate, and what you write is so sharp and bright, maybe take a look at the grammar next time?

    • Albert says:

      Marc, I really appreciate your friendly remarks. I am glad you like the ideas… As for the language nuances, I’ll do my best. Promise. Thank you.

  12. Damian says:

    I appreciate what you tried to do with the post.
    But I understood your article as much as I understood Inception.

  13. Spiros says:

    I didn’t manage to watch the movie properly, it was a hand cam shooting with extremely bad picture and sound definitely unable to watch. Here it comes at the theaters on 24/08 so I guess I’ll shape an opinion after vacation. But I must admit that I enjoyed the style of your approach. You transmitted to me something from the atmosphere of the movie and I descried a comic attitude. Regarding that and the comparison you made with other “sci-fi” films, I’ll refer to the great comic maker Enki Bilal, and the movies that were made by 3 of his albums: Bunker Palace Hotel (1989), Tykho Moon (1996) and Immortal (2005). Bilal’s future is free of bright signs, large screens and colorful lights as far as I remember. It isn’t also shiny at all.

    PS. I agree 100% with your references to Architectural aid SW. I believe that even the most sophisticated SW is nothing more than a trap for our imagination and the more options it has, the more obstacles places in our minds, because it unconsciously guides us. We can only use it right when we use it as a simple tool and not as an invasion machine.

  14. John Powers says:

    Great post Albert, I’ve been thinking along simular lines. I came away thinking the architecture was by far the most interesting part of the film. I like your take – really wish I had thought of Borges and the mirrors – awesome!

    • Albert says:

      I’ve read like few dozens reviews – no one mentioned Borges. Isn’t it weird? It’s so obvious.

      • John Powers says:

        No one talks about eXistenZ either, which I also spent some time chewing over. (I loved both films.) I had some fun comparing them, but really need to see the Cronenberg again, its been a while.

        • Albert says:

          Yep, I was thinking to re-watch eXistenZ as well… No one thinks of Cronenberg…leave alone Borges… it’s kinda saying something about intellectual state of our society, isn’t it?

  15. bLogHouse says:

    Good one Albert! Interestingly I had similar thoughts. I also think the bending of Paris and the endless triangular stair are ideas borrowed from Escher, although in the film Arthur mentions Roger Penrose.

    • Albert says:

      No doubt you’re noble & intelligent person, livvyjams… I highly appreciate your comment. Yes, I would recommend to all my readers to click the link and to read your review.
      I might have not such a good taste after all 🙂

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