High rise: Skyscrapers on film

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“When we were twenty,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in 1946, “we heard about the skyscrapers. We discovered them in amazement in the movies. They were the architecture of the future, just as cinema was the art of the future”.

By then, Hollywood movies were already linked more tightly to skyscrapers than to any other kind of building. Both skyscrapers and films were larger-than-life and intoxicatingly new – and they both cost a fortune. Both were pioneered in the late 19th Century, and both flourished in the years leading up to World War Two, by which time the connection between them was already strong. In James Sanders’ book, Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies, he notes that some of the very earliest films – such as The Skyscrapers (1906) – featured nothing except views of high-rise buildings, “a truly miraculous sight to audiences living outside New York or Chicago”. But it was in the 1920s and ‘30s that films and skyscrapers were at their most symbiotic, whether King Kong (1933) was plunging from the Empire State Building, or Fred Astaire was soft-shoe-shuffling around a 50th-floor nightclub in Swing Time (1936). “Films caught the exact moment when the city [of New York] found its own distinctive look,” says Sanders, “achieved through the maturity of its greatest creation, the skyscraper, and recorded exactly as it happened.”

The Cupids who helped the movies fall in love with the skyscraper, he argues, were the New York writers who moved to Hollywood at the end of the 1920s to lend some cosmopolitan sophistication to its screenplays. The money was fantastic, they discovered, but the job satisfaction wasn’t there. The likes of Dorothy Parker and Herman Mankiewicz were used to being the toast of Broadway, so they felt humiliated when they were treated as scribblers-for-hire. And having decamped from the world’s most bustling, exciting city, they were appalled to find themselves in Los Angeles’s dusty, low-rise sprawl.

Their “revenge”, says Sanders, was to fashion a celluloid New York so glamorous and thrilling that it would put Los Angeles to shame. Similarly, as a jibe at Los Angeles’ suburban architecture, they would fetishise Manhattan’s dizzying skyscrapers. “If the real New York had many tall buildings,” writes Sanders, “it had plenty of low ones as well, especially in its outer boroughs and residential districts. But the dream city [of the movies] would seem to be all vertical, every scene playing in a penthouse, on a terrace, in a rooftop nightclub, every window looking onto a glittering view of rising towers.”

Love storey

Following the lead of these disgruntled exiles, Hollywood’s art directors created ever more fabulous art deco eyries for Fred and Ginger and their champagne-sipping contemporaries. But even without the influence of homesick New Yorkers, the cinematic potential of the skyscraper would have been too great to ignore. After all, the presence of such colossal buildings in the heart of a city meant that film-makers didn’t have to send their characters to a jungle or a desert for the sake of an exotic backdrop. And no one had to be in a plane or on a mountaintop to be in danger of plummeting to their doom. In Harold Lloyd’s classic, Safety Last! (1923), the building he scaled was only 12 storeys high, but audiences would still have gawped.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the love affair between Hollywood and skyscrapers soured. In Sanders’ view, this was due to a 1961 change in zoning regulations which decreed that New York’s tallest buildings no longer had to taper towards an elegant point. Instead of having “setbacks” or “step-backs”, they could be plain glass cuboids. Instead of evoking mountain peaks and castle turrets, these International Style boxes could be flat and monolithic. Such buildings, says Sanders, “simply could not awe”.

From then on, skyscrapers began to symbolise not romance and glamour, but hubris and greed. Most famously, The Towering Inferno (1974) makes the case that there is nothing laudable about being the world’s biggest building. Its fictional San Francisco setting – named The Glass Tower – can be turned into a volcanic death trap by faulty wiring. And its proportions are so inhuman that a fire on the 81st floor can be dismissed by someone at a swanky cocktail reception on the 135th, “because it can’t possibly affect us up here”.

Skyscrapers have been subject to Hollywood’s disdain ever since. In Independence Day (1996), the Empire State Building is demolished by an alien death ray. It’s an unpleasant bit of showing off by the aliens, and by the film’s creators, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, but at least we are supposed to be shocked by the destruction. Two years later, Emmerich and Devlin made Godzilla (1998), in which the majestic Chrysler Building is beheaded by the US military’s own heat-seeking missiles, and the decapitation is played for laughs. “Aw, damn,” says the man who fired them. “That is a negative impact.” It’s telling that the World Trade Center attacks were regularly described as “like something out of a Hollywood movie”. By the time of the 9/11 tragedy, movie skyscrapers were skittles to be knocked down by planes, missiles, giant lizards and alien spacecraft.

Past their peak?

On the rare occasions that skyscrapers were romanticised on film in the post-Towering Inferno era, it was only because they symbolised an earlier, more magical time. In Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), the rapturous opening montage is shot in black and white and accompanied by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. In Ghostbusters (1984), Sigourney Weaver’s ‘spook central’ residence is based on a real apartment building that was designed in 1930. And in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meet at the top of the Empire State Building, they are paying tribute to 1957’s An Affair to Remember. (And when that film came out, the building was already a quarter of a century old.) Skyscrapers may have been the architecture of the future in the 1940s, as Sartre wrote. But, as far as the movies were concerned, they went onto become the architecture of the past.

Still, Sartre was only half right, even in the 1940s. It’s more accurate to say that both skyscrapers and movies have always been as much about the past as the future. As technologically dazzling as they both seemed in their early days, films were always thronged with cowboys, cavemen and chariot racers, while the first skyscrapers – with their gargoyles, spires and friezes – harked back to castles and cathedrals. When skyscrapers broke away from the past and adopted the International Style, Hollywood turned away from them.

In the last 15 years or so, however, the love affair has been rekindled. In the real world, the race to construct the planet’s tallest building has resumed, and a new generation of Asian mega-skyscrapers has beguiled Hollywood (the opportunities for some foreign investment can’t have hurt, either). In Entrapment (1999), Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones robbed a bank in the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. In Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), Tom Cruise Spider-manned his way up the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. And in the current Furious 7, Vin Diesel and his gang gatecrash a party in the Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi. None of these skyscrapers gets the starry-eyed admiration of their predecessors in Fred Astaire’s day, but there is no doubt that viewers are meant to be impressed.

Are we, though? Does Tom Cruise’s climb up a 163-storey building seem anywhere near as death-defying as Harold Lloyd’s climb up a 12-storey one? The answer is an emphatic no, because 21st-Century skyscrapers look more like shimmering computer graphics than physical objects. In Furious 7, the shinily futuristic Etihad Towers seem so unreal, and so out of place, that it’s impossible to tell whether they are actually in the shot or whether they’ve been added digitally in post-production. Maybe that’s why Hollywood is so fond of them. Now that blockbusters are reliant on computer-generated imagery, buildings which appear to be computer-generated fit right in. For better or worse, movies and skyscrapers are linked as tightly as ever.

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