What We Can Learn from Hollywood’s Iconic Landscapes

Griffith observatory, Los Angeles / ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting

Film makers and landscape architects may ask themselves the same question: “How can we make a landscape iconic?” Movies can make places magical, imbuing them with deeper meaning. Landscape architects can shape the contours of a place, heightening the impact. In a session at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting, Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, explored the dynamics of iconic Hollywood landscapes and what designers can learn from them.

Like landscape architects, film makers “start with the program first — in this case, the script.” As location scouts hunt for the perfect places to tell their story, they “measure everything on site, and note where the sun and moon are, where north is; what the noise levels are; they observe everything.”

In crafting a place, film makers may also take away elements of a landscape to achieve a facsimile of the era of the film. “They engage in urban removal, painting over street striping, putting up a barrier to hide glass towers, fixing things up.”

Some landscapes in Los Angeles are iconic because they are so flexible and open to interpretation. For example, Griffith Park, the largest urban park in the country, is “filmed every day.” The park, home to the famous observatory filmed in Rebel Without a Cause, has been featured in a diverse shows and movies, such as the original Batman TV series, StarTrek, Star Wars, The Searchers, and dozens of other classic films.

Bat cave in Griffith Park / Meetup

LA LA Land, which almost won an Oscar for best picture, itself plays tribute to Griffith park and its observatory.

LA LA Land / Daily Dot

But Sullivan wondered what exactly makes an iconic landscape, and how can they be designed. “Why are some so important that film lovers will make a pilgrimage to the site? How can we make a timeless landscape?”

Sullivan described how parts of Scotland are now overrun with Outlander fans, and New Zealand capitalized on Lord of the Rings mania by creating a real Hobbiton that draws tourists from around the globe. “There’s now a hobbit hotel you can stay in, so you can live like how they live in the film.”

Hobbitton / Hobbitton tours

At King’s Cross train station in London, Harry Potter super-fans now wait in line for hours to have their photograph taken on the fake platform 9 3/4. “They are there all day and night. What does that mean???”

Harry Potter platform at King’s Cross station / The Independent

Sullivan joked that these destination landscapes for movie pilgrims may offer the foundation of a contemporary religion. And if so, “how do we get people to go to our landscapes and chant?”

In iconic film landscapes, Sullivan sees some common design elements, which can be translated into real-world landscape architecture:

“Contrast is a powerful design tool — moving from big to little, macro to micro.”

“Make focal points distinctive and fantastic.”

“Manipulate perspective, use radical curves.”

“Organic forms are ideal.”

“Everyone is into dreamscapes. There should be strangeness and fear and then compression and release.”

And clearly inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Paterson, which is about a poet who is bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, Sullivan said: “It’s about place — the genus loci. Find the poetry around us every day.”

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