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Towering genius

To mark its 175th anniversary, the Royal Institute of British Architects is holding a season of films in which buildings – fantastical or factual – take a starring role. Here are my top five

In pictures: RIBA celebrates architecture in film

From the silent epics of DW Griffiths through Art Deco spectaculars like Busby Berkeley's Gold Diggers of 1933 to Pixar's wonderful WALL-E (2008), the connection between architecture and film has always been intimate. Look at how Le Corbusier defined architecture: "the masterly, correct and magnificent play of form in light." It stands as a great description of cinema as well as of buildings.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that many great art directors and set designers – especially those who fled Nazi Germany for Hollywood – trained as architects. And the influence runs the other way: inspired directors and their designers continue to exert an influence on architecture. The play of light is everything, whether it's in the work of Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott and David Lynch, or of Nicholas Hawksmoor, Le Corbusier and Rem Koolhaas.

This month, as part of its 175th anniversary celebrations, the Royal Institute of British Architects is holding a film season devoted to the relationship between architecture and the movies. Below, I've listed five films – the briefest list from all but endless possibilities – I can watch happily over and again, and that bring out the best in both genres. You probably have your own favourites: I'd love to hear them.

Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang's silent sci-fi may be best known for its wondrous female robot, Eve, but it's the set design that really takes your breath away. It features a cloud-scraping contemporary Tower of Babel, an industrial workers' production hell-hole, and super-modern, master-of-the-universe-style offices – all revealing its creators' in-depth knowledge of the very latest European architectural developments. Whether they're interpreting Art Deco, Bauhaus Modern or Expressionism, all the buildings shown are terrifying. The overall effect is curiously Gothic, shadowy, elongated, chiaroscuro. And scary.

Lang's team of set designers – including Karl Vollbrecht, credited as "film architect", and Erich Kettelhut – were led by Otto Hunte, art director and production designer. Hunte had previously art-directed Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919); a master of dark films, he went on to work on the crudely anti-semitic Jud Süß (Veit Harlan, 1940). Lang and Hunte employed the cinematographer, Eugen Schüfftan, who developed a process whereby Metropolis actors could be projected, through mirrors, into miniature sets. This bold play with "futuristic" architecture and newly developed filming techniques helped make Metropolis a powerful influence on real-life architecture for decades to come.

Blade Runner (1982)

Metropolis translated into another futuristic dystopia, this time a vision of LA in 2019. The opening shots, as the camera pans over a 700-storey skyscraper and the sky glows with industrial smoke, fire and acid rain, is as magnificent as it is disturbing. It's another interpretation of the Tower of Babel, of course; this time the headquarters of the company that makes the humanoid "replicants" that do the dirty work for human beings.

Scott says that the sets were conjured from a variety of haunting images: Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks, the skyline of Hong Kong at night, the fiery industrial landscape of Tyneside and Teesside of Scott's childhood, the French comicbook Métal Hurlant [Heavy Metal], and, quite clearly, Metropolis. Scott places these nightmarish exteriors in architectural contrast to the theatrical, spooky inside of LA's real-life Bradbury Building, designed by George Wyman in 1893, which is cast as the headquarters' interiors. Significantly, the original architect claimed that his style was influenced by Edward Bellamy's book, Looking Backward (1887) – itself a work of utopian sci-fi. Wyman admired the passage in which Bellamy describes a typical commercial building of the future as a "vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above".

Dr Strangelove (1964)

Ken Adam, set designer of Stanley Kubrick's cold war satire, tells the story of Ronald Reagan becoming president of the US and asking to see the Pentagon War Room. What War Room, asked his aides. The one in the Dr Strangelove movie, replied the president, deadly serious. No wonder Reagan was fooled. This superbly realised space, built in Shepperton Studios, was rooted in Adam's fascination with the sets of Dr Caligari and Metropolis. Born in Berlin, and later trained as an architect in London, Adam gravitated naturally to these darkly inventive productions.

Adam made his name with sets for the early James Bond films – Dr No, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever – but this was the most powerful single interior he designed, a stark black-and-white space in which the future of humankind was played out. Adam's drawings for this and other sets, and scenes in the film rival that of any practising architect. Kubrick went on to make a number of films, notably 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), in which architectural design was to play co-starring roles.

Nostalgia (1983)

Some 15 years ago, I spent the best part of a week sleuthing the locations that Andrei Tarkovsky chose for this exquisitely beautiful film set in what – at least in 35mm – was a permanently mist-laced Tuscany. The story is nominally about a Russian writer's research into the life of the 18th-century Russian composer, Maxim Berezovsky, who committed suicide after being recalled to Russia from Italy. Tarkovsky saw this sad tale as a reflection of his own life, alienated from the Soviet Union, and possibly his death, too. Here are composites of remote Tuscan churches and abbeys, a delightfully gloomy hotel bedroom, and best of all, a public square dominated by a sulphurous thermal bath.

It took me a while to find the real-life locations. I'm pretty sure that two of the churches were the 12th-century Abbazia di Sant'Antimo at Castelnuovo Dell'Abate and the ruined medieval church of San Galgano. The thermal baths were, without a doubt, those of the 14th-century St Catherine in Bagno Vinoni. In the saint's day, the waters were said to be laced with gold and silver; they were particularly good for ailments of the liver, spleen, stomach and skin.

Sadly, they could not cure Tarkovsky of the nostalgia that, as much any physical condition, killed him in 1986. He said that the locations in Nostalgia "overwhelmed" him. If you go to Bagno Vignoni or the Abbazia di Sant'Antimo, especially on a misty winter's day, you might well find they do the same thing to you.

Laughing Gravy (1931)

A Laurel and Hardy short in which the lovable idiots try to hide their pet dog Laughing Gravy (Prohibition-era slang for booze) from their grumpy, dog-hating landlord. I've included this in my list of favourites because the entire action takes place inside a deeply shabby, snow-blasted townhouse that is as much a star on the screen as Stan and Oliie. Every last cubic inch, every last feature, is used to get laughs as sash windows drop on heads before the same heads get stuck in chimneys. The house becomes a giant climbing frame for non-stop gags.

But Laughing Gravy isn't all laughs: a large number of Laurel and Hardy shorts were made in response to the Great Depression, and many use grim streetscapes to conjure the comfortless real-life world just outside the studio gates. The house's melancholy, down-at-heel quality – its dreadful bedroom, horrid kitchen, and butt of freezing water by the front door – is a perfect match for Stan and Ollie's glum economic status. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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