Inception, or what architects could do if we slept more

Jul 29, 2010
  • Article by David Neustein
  • Photography by Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment
  • Designer

By now, you’ve all heard the complaints. The discrimination has to stop. Unlike fashion designers, rock stars and other covert operatives, architects are grossly misrepresented in movies. We were sincerely moved by My Architect, but frustrated by its lack of machine guns. Sketches of Frank Gehry was a fun film, which could desperately have done with some car chases and explosions. Heavy on guns, blasts and chases, The Matrix sequel had a character called The Architect. But all he did was sit in a room all day watching television. Did this guy not have to keep timesheets?

Now, thankfully, Christopher Nolan has brought us Inception. Currently screening everywhere, the film features architects doing what they do best – creating on the fly – while dodging snipers’ bullets and evading snowmobiles loaded with bad guys. By casting Ellen Page in the role of architect, Nolan offers us the completely idealised reality we’ve been waiting for. Unlike most architects, Page’s character, Ariadne, is young, attractive and female. More significantly, Ariadne doesn’t spend her time edifying the dreams of other people. She is instead hired (straight from school, no job hunting necessary!) to design other people’s dreams.

Unfortunately, despite this, it turns out that the world of the real architect and the dream world of the movie architect are essentially the same: both resemble realms of fantasy and desire, but are really just elaborate traps, ingeniously designed to rob us of what we treasure most. This nexus between inspiration and reality brings to mind Calvino’s Zobeide. Designed by dreamers to capture the woman of their desires, to outsiders the city of Zobeide just resembles an ugly maze.¹ If you think this view a tad cynical, take a stroll sometime through that soul-destroying labyrinth of frosted glass known as Westfield Bondi Junction. Welcome to Frank Lowy’s dream.

Of contemporary architecture, Michel Houellebecq recently wrote that “the spirit which inhabits these places is bad, inhuman, hostile; it belongs to an exhausting, cruel and constantly accelerating machine. Deep down, everyone… desires its destruction.”² It is no surprise that we react so enthusiastically to Inception‘s frenzied scenes of demolition and detonation. It is also why the film’s protagonists seek to burrow down further and further into the dream realm: each dream-within-a-dream is less tethered to the waking world. In the deepest recesses of dreaming, time itself (which has been victimised by the relentless spectacle of consumption), runs increasingly slowly.

Strangely, however, the landscape of these dreams is far from ideal. Midway through Inception , we are shown the city that our hero, Dom Cobb, has built with wife Mal during decades of dream-world time. As the couple wanders hand in hand through empty streets, we are apparently supposed to believe that this is the city of their dreams. Yet it’s initially unclear why anyone other than Le Corbusier or perhaps Robert Moses would choose to dream up a city such as this. It’s hardly a honeymoon destination. With an overarching grid, broad arcades and rational towers, their city bears an uncanny resemblance to the Radiant City imagined by Corb, or the sterile dreamscape of La Défense. On the periphery, gleaming edifices give way to towering slums. The edge of the city, like a sandcastle, is constantly eroded by waves.

While, like most metropolises, Dom and Mal’s vision grows progressively more stable (and less interesting?) towards its centre, we discover a strange anomaly at the city’s very heart. Here, hovering over a shallow pool, are replicas of all the houses that Dom and Mal have inhabited in their waking lives. The last of these is Mal’s childhood home, a forlorn little cottage which is vastly outmatched by a neighbouring skyscraper. In this urban plaza, it could be taken for a bizarre piece of corporate art. But, in fact, the cottage is there to make sense of the entire city. It exists as a token of nostalgia, a needle in the hay,³ a counterpoint to the indifferent metropolis, a signal that all is not right. You see, utopia depends on amnesia. The ideal city, like those of the Modernists, is destined to fail.

As a motif, the lost cottage also brings to mind two more or less contemporary sculptural works: Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993), and Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting (1974). The seminal House replaced the last in a row of demolished houses with a concrete casting of its negative space. A temporary installation, House lingered, ghostlike; a final and futile attempt at resisting impending development and the inexorable erasure of the site’s embodied memory. Equally performative, Splitting involved Matta-Clark taking saw and hammer to a typical suburban residence. Creating a violent split down the centre of the house, the artist deconstructed its aura of domestic stability and safety. While initially liberating, destruction is exposed in these works as yet another form of totalization. The house embodies the personal, the city the collective. The city is like a powerful ocean, restlessly attempting to dislodge the barnacle of identity. In Inception, just like in The Matrix, our dreams are populated by blank-faced, interchangeable ciphers.

The hapless Joel chooses to have his memory clinically erased while he sleeps in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – another film with strong parallels, in both subject matter and tone, to Inception. As his mind desperately clings to cherished memories, Joel re-enacts his first encounter with his former lover. But as his memory is wiped, the house in which the lovers meet dramatically falls apart around them. Perversely, just as Shukhov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s prisoner in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, labours heroically in constructing the very walls of his prison, the impulse to create is untroubled by the inevitability of defeat.? This tendency is as true today as ever. Despite teetering precariously over the great climate ‘tipping point’, or perhaps because of it, we are willing accomplices to the orgiastic development of ever more i-gadgets, redundant status symbols and instantaneous cities.

So what conclusion does Inception offer us? Sadly, the days of films concluding satisfactorily are long past. Today’s movies prefer to leave the audience hanging. The usual conceit is to exploit the very moment in which we sense resolution is at hand, and then pull the rug of what we have been lead to believe from beneath us. Is this happy ending just the character’s delusion? Was he really the killer all along? Instead of obtaining solace, the audience is instead duped, creating the perfect anticipatory conditions for a sequel. Nolan seems particularly fond of this narrative technique, having used it in Memento as well. The hanging ending, which reached its apotheosis in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, can feel exhilarating at the time. However, on reflection, and as the technique grows increasingly prevalent, the experience becomes cynical and monotonous. It’s actually very much like an election cycle: confusion is so much easier than conviction.

Ultimately, the conceit is redundant. We learn to anticipate the unanticipated, sensing that a final twist is inevitable. The true ending is therefore this: like Inception ’s dreamers, we stagger out of the cinema into a different time of day, a different light, perhaps a different city altogether, having run through a cerebral maze.


1 Italo Calvino, ‘Cities and Desire 5’, in _Invisible Cities_, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978
2 Michel Houellebecq, ‘Approaches to Distress’, published in _The Paris Magazine_ Issue 4, June 2010, p52-62
3 Elliot Smith, ‘Needle in the Hay’, from _The Royal Tenenbaums_ soundtrack, Hollywood Records, 2001
4 “…you can say that things have produced men and given them a false consciousness of themselves, of the past and of their future objectives – the totalization seems anti-human.” Jean-Paul Sartre, _Critique of Dialectical Reason_, Volume 2, Verso, 2006
5 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, _One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich_, Bantam Books, 1990

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment

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31 Jul 10 at 11:59 AM • jennysydney

We Had the Belly of an Architect now the Mind of an Architect
Inception is a brilliant evocation of a complete dream of a stressed airplane travelling middle aged white American architect reflecting all his anxieties, fantasies, violent and romantic,;s his fears of building crumbling and decaying into the sea, fears of drowning and dying ,yearning after a utopian city of towers contrasting with the wood-clad reality of his post FL Wright home…a complete picture of the many layers and circularity of a tired architect’s dreaming

17 Aug 10 at 7:05 AM • William Meldrum

Maybe it’s not about architects at all, rather the way people perceive architecture: crumbling at the edges, dull in the main and sentimental at best.


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