In the beginning, it’s all about an idea. An idea is the basis for the creation of design that shapes and conveys meaning. But an idea doesn’t come out of nothing or miraculously appears. An idea needs to be laid out. It needs to be developed into something such as a formula, a sentence, or a drawing before it can become something bigger like an algorithm, a book, or a building. And all this requires mediums and tools which both affect the outcome of every design work regardless of its size or complexity.
Ideas and design are at the center of Christopher Nolan’s visually stunning 2010 heist movie ‘Inception’. It captures how architecture not only supports the narrative but plays an essential part in the story because the characters interact so heavily with the environment. The movie follows Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mastermind of corporate espionage who is specialized in accessing his victim’s subconscious via dream-sharing. And it is in these shared dreams where he is extracting secrets and stealing ideas. This is made possible by some special sci-fi military technology but two other prerequisites are of great importance too: first, a chemist who develops the compounds to drug the extractors and their targets and second, an architect who designs the artificial dreamscapes.
Cobb is a wanted man, which prevents him to go back home to America to reunite with his children. An opportunity arises and a powerful business magnate promises Cobb to make the serious legal charges disappear. But only if Cobb can carry out an almost unimaginable and extremely difficult task no one in this particular trade seems to have accomplished before. The assignment is not to steal but to plant an idea in someone’s mind, a procedure called “inception”.
[Warning: The following contains minor spoilers for ‘Inception’.]
The last mission’s architect failed and betrayed Cobb and his team and so Cobb is in desperate need of a new skilled architect. He turns to his father-in-law, a professor teaching at a university’s school of architecture in Paris whom he asks for help. Cobb’s father-in-law introduces him to one of his architecture students, Ariadne (Ellen Page). But before he recruits her as the new mission’s architect, Cobb wants to assess her skills first. And this is what the following scene is about.
The scene takes place on the rooftop of the university building overlooking Paris with Dome of Les Invalides and Tour Montparnasse in the distant background. It is midday in early fall, the tree leaves are gradually changing colors and the sun tints everything into a desaturated light. The surrounding buildings and Cobb’s clothing are in various shades of grey, only Ariadne’s crimson jacket puts her into focus in terms of color. Ariadne and Cobb both lean on the railing whilst he instructs her to design a maze in less than two minutes that would take more than one minute to solve. He explains that this is a test to see if she would fulfill the job requirements before he would go into further details about the work. Cobb hands her a note pad with graph paper and a fineliner pen.
After Ariadne has taken both she rotates the rectangular pad to landscape mode and begins drawing lines by tracing the regular grid. She follows the page orientation and uses almost the entire sheet of graph paper. Her labyrinth design is a simple 2D scheme drawing in ground view but Cobb quickly finds a path through her black longitudinal and transverse lines with his pen. He tosses the page with her design and requests another maze. In her second attempt, Ariadne follows the same design approach and again draws a basic layout of straight lines with similar dimensions as before. But once more, Cobb dismisses her labyrinth by tossing the page.
Subsequently, he is losing his patience and she is getting annoyed. Ariadne briskly takes the note pad for a third time, pauses for a moment, and looks on the blank graph paper sheet. She turns the pad over eventually so she can outline her design on the blank non-ruled cardboard back. And this time, she draws a circular maze. Cobb reviews her third version of a labyrinth with sudden interest and undecidedly hovers his pen over the circular maze, not sure where to enter it. A smug smile brightens Ariadne’s face as she is watching him trying to find a path, knowing that she has passed his test.
This brief scene is in total only 48 seconds long but it lays down the foundation of one of the key elements and establishes the labyrinth as the central motif of the movie. And of course, the concept of the maze as well as the architect named Ariadne are more than just mere nods to the ancient myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In Greek mythology, Daedalus was the architect of the legendary labyrinth of Crete in which King Minos locked away the Minotaur. This monstrous creature was later defeated and killed by Theseus with the help of King Minos’ daughter Ariadne. She gave Theseus the ball of thread, which allowed him to escape the maze. Ariadne got the idea of entering the maze and simultaneously uncoiling a thread to follow its path on the way out directly from the labyrinth’s architect Daedalus. Ariadne fled Crete with Theseus and the angered King Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the very labyrinth the architect constructed.
Over the course of thousands of years in architecture’s rich history, the labyrinth took shape in all forms, sizes, and uses, from Roman mosaic tiling, to Gothic pavement patterns, to Baroque hedge mazes. And although the labyrinth is one of architecture’s oldest archetypal structures, in contemporary culture it is most widely implemented in game design. It is no coincidence that the heist in ‘Inception’ is developed in levels similar to a classic video game, arranged in a linear structure from level one to level three. And it is Ariadne’s job as the architect to design all these dream levels which feature a city center, a business hotel, and a hospital fortress, each of them organized as a labyrinth respectively.
But it is the initial drawing scene with Ariadne that proves to be the most pivotal lesson on architectural design because it illustrates so straightforwardly how the tools and mediums at hand matter in a design process. And more so, how technological, programmatic, or time restrictions force architects and designers to adapt and expand their design strategies. Ariadne envisions the idea of a circular maze only because she becomes aware of the constraints and limitations of the regular grid. By turning the note pad to its blank cardboard back, she liberates herself form the squared paper and its scale. Ariadne’s third labyrinth has much more complexity and detail because she isn’t following the graph paper’s grid size and therefore narrows the distance between the circular lines.
As the story unfolds, she continues to create mazes and her skills are translated onto a bigger architectural scale that goes beyond 3D. And she turns into a vital asset when some lines get increasingly blurry as Cobb’s dreams and reality converge in the movie’s climax. Christopher Nolan’s Ariadne is channeling Daedalus as the architect of labyrinths and it is clear that she is the only one who can guide Cobb out of the maze. Ariadne not only provides the thread, but actually becomes the thread. By the end, ‘Inception’ exemplifies what architecture – and architects – can set in motion by giving perspective and putting human and non-human actors into perspective.
Inception (2010); runtime: 148 min
Written & directed by Christopher Nolan
Cinematography: Wally Pfister
Production Design: Guy Hendrix Dyas
Visual Effects: Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley, Peter Bebb, et al.
Stoecklmayr, Nicole: “Drawing Lines: Ariadne Designs Labyrinths in ‘Inception’”, Scenes of Architecture (blog), November 9, 2017, https://scenesofarchitecture.com/2017/11/09/drawing-lines/
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