The architecture of Oz
The Venice Biennale, the preeminent international architectural exhibition that is now underway, isn’t exactly familiar turf for the Hero Complex, but when we saw the design on display (at right) of a mobile city as envisioned by Chinese architects, our first thought was: “These guys obviously enjoyed Richard Donner’s ‘Superman.’ ” Then we heard that the entry pavilion incorporated images from the films “Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Wizard of Oz,” and we decided that maybe there might actually be some unexpected fanboy enlightenment on display at the 11th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia.
When visitors approach the entrance to the main hall (and 250,000 are expected to pass through that hall, the Corderie dell’Arsenale, before the close of the Biennale on Nov. 23), they are confronted with the 4,624-square-foot “Hall of Fragments.” At the center of the exhibit is a glowing hourglass-shaped passage of moving images created by two giant convex screens, which flash geometric distortions of some classic Hollywood films. The vistors are watching the exhibit, but the exhibit is also watching them; the images change with the size, density and speed of the crowd passing through.
The “Hall of Fragments” was created by David Rockwell (the founder of the Rockwell Group in New York and the architect behind the Kodak Theatre, Nobu and the W Hotels) in collaboration with Reed Kroloff and Casey Jones. We invited Rockwell to write a bit about “Hall of Fragments” (which sounds vaguely Kryptonian to us), and he told us that, when it comes to inspiration, there’s no place like home.
So imagine the excitement when asked by Aaron Betsky (director and curator of the 2008 Venice Biennale) to explore the relationship between architecture and film and create an entry pavilion to the exhibition. This gave us an opportunity to use Oz as the springboard to expand on the theme of “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building,” realizing the vivid crossroads of architecture and film and architecture in film.
Oz really makes me think of arrivals, even grand entrances, and how we arrive at a great city, building, exhibition or public space that just stops you in your tracks, in amazement, trying to absorb it. When it’s great, film has this same impact — it has the power to take you elsewhere. In fact, our design projects insist on keeping that goal in mind as well. This transition often occurs with architecture and public spaces, when you pass through a portal into a new reality, be it spatial or environmental.
There is the dramatic departure from the sepia-toned reality of Kansas into the dream with Dorothy (and Toto) then dropped into this wildly imaginative fantasy world and the hyper-saturated Technicolor of Oz — a sensory-overload introduction to an outlandish place full of colorful characters.
Just as the journey to and through Oz is a magical dream world where the characters follow that iconic and unforgettable yellow brick road, the experience of architecture is also a journey, sometimes physical and layered and sometimes more experiential and fleeting.
Architecture can also provide a fantastic trip or departure — sometimes it is more formal and guided, and sometimes you’re on your own. The same might be said about color or ornament. Oz distinguishes itself as otherworldly and magical by appearances alone, and design can do this too.
As the characters in Dorothy’s dream were people she incorporated from Kansas, such references often appear in architecture or public places, in the form of memory or what previously existed at a site. On the topic of design and the dream, architecture allows for boundless opportunities to express creativity and imagination — shape, scale, structure, materials. There is a constant crossover of art and engineering.
Oz is also about expectations and a destination … components that define how we experience buildings and public space. That moment when the characters see the (futuristic for 1939) Emerald City in the distance is a place where we have all been and can relate — the moment of seeing the looming metropolis and its iconic buildings gleaming by day or twinkling by night. These are indelible images that are made all the more so through architecture.
What resonates so thoroughly through the film is the ability to establish mood through environments and scenery and lighting — all elements that play into creating space. It takes an enormous amount of wizardry to produce both films and architecture, and there are always countless people behind the scenes to make it happen. I continue to find boundless unbridled imagination of the film relevant, compelling and inspiring and try to apply that to the physicality and experience of architecture and design.
Given the vividness and permanence of the “Wizard of Oz” in my memory, and using that as one of the most iconic and colorful films in the lineup, our goal is always to create a memorable experience and memorable public space — that goes out there … that explores the universe of architecture beyond building — that actually is created and made more interesting by people taking part.
— David Rockwell
Image of a star-shaped, mobile city courtesy of MAD Studios
Photos of “Hall of Fragments” courtesy of the Rockwell Group
Image from the MGM film “The Wizard of Oz” from the archives of the Los Angeles Times
Photo of architect David Rockwell by Lori Shepler\Los Angeles Times