At first glance, you might think The Incredibles is just a fun superhero movie. But remove the capes and tights and you're left with an in-depth architectural narrative with its own beginning and end.
Just behind the heroes and villains is a wide range of carefully crafted buildings and cities drawn from architectural and historical reality. The Pixar artists responsible for designing the film successfully imbue its locations with significant architectural meaning: They critique modernism, bring back De Stijl, and document the transformation of the post-war American city.
Interested? We'll fly — er, walk — you through.
The Incredibles is set in Metroville, an archetypal American city. At its core is a dense "downtown" (located near water) of office buildings named Municiberg. When the movie opens, it feels like we're in a post-World War II era, likely the early 1950s, based on the style of clothing and cars — and the city's architecture. In an early scene, Mr. Incredible (né Bob Parr) drives through Metroville, past Art Deco facades and the signature vertical lines of skyscraper pioneer Louis Sullivan. In one shot there's even a pseudo-Chrysler Building. It's all highly reminiscent of an American city whose construction was frozen by the war, but because of the sleek lines of Mr. Incredible's car, we're clearly in a post-war world.
In the first image, strong Art Deco features are visible in the building just to the right of Parr. The second image reveals, from left to right, Art Deco, The Chrysler Building, and the beefed-up verticality of the Guaranty Building. All movie stills: The Incredibles from Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios.
Another series of scenes show us the medium-density areas located beyond Municiberg's collection of office towers. The area is made up of monotonous brick facades that call to mind the warehouses and factories that, 50 years earlier, drove the city's industrial economy. And just beyond Metroville's industrial center is the city's residential neighborhood.
The medium-rise warehouse typology features deep floors and repetitious undecorated exteriors. They used to house the city's industry, but not for much longer, as we'll see towards the movie's end. A night shot, straight out of a film noir, reveals a light rail service that brings workers into and around the city's commercial core.
Many of Metroville's denizens live in the shadows of Municiberg's distant towers. It's an area full of the standard residential urban typology of prewar American cities: the row house. These tightly-packed homes could come straight from any East Coast or Midwestern city with a blue-collar population. The large square green space lets us know that this city was planned with the standard American gridiron consideration that accommodated parks for recreation and health purposes.
If you look past the man shaking the giant tree you'll see a charming collection of picturesque row houses and the commercial downtown in the background.
These three basic areas—high-density commercial at the center, medium-density industrial in the middle, and low-density residential at the edge—are indicative of the standard prewar city layout. They were first documented in the 1920s and '30s by the Chicago school of sociology. According to its study of Chicago, most cities had a central commercial area that was surrounded by rough transitional zones. Farthest out were nicer residential areas. All are linked by subway or light rail transit. This is Metroville's urban plan at the start of The Incredibles. But that's going to change the next time we see the city.
The greater Metroville area.
The movie fast-forwards some 15 years, and like most new American families, the Parrs have left the city for life in the suburbs (maybe in Burbsville, Villaville, or Hamletville — I hear the schools and housing prices are good in all of them). A wide shot of their home reveals a landscape of the generic, Levittown-like development that were rapidly built to accommodate the post-war housing boom. Returning GIs worked in cities but wanted their own house to raise their family and grow their real estate investment.
Our family of superheroes enjoy a modest dwelling that comes with a two-car garage. The architecture has the openness, economy, and simplicity of Charles and Ray Eames' Eames House mixed with the playful angles of Googie modernism. But as we'll see later, the suburbs aren't the movie's only fun architecture mash-up.
Mushroom cloud aside, it's the perfect image of suburbia. The houses themselves are generic but varied as you'd see in a Levittown, though the architecture itself is a light-hearted take on the work of Charles and Ray Eames.
The Charles and Ray Eames House. Photo: via mimoa.eu.
The main building on the Fullerton, California campus of Hope International University executed in a Googie Style. Photo: Slcoats via wikimedia.org.
At this point, we take a brief detour to the home of Edna Mode, fashion (and superhero costume) maven. Like any good designer, Edna lives in a home built with high design. Sitting atop a large hill, the home's simple massing and enormous glazed exterior make it look almost contemporary. Yet the interior is a exuberant example of 1920's De Stijl architecture. De Stijl had two basic tenets, both of which are at play in the home's interior:
1) use of only primary colors, along with black and white
2) reduce architecture to a series of thin surfaces
What remains are a series of horizontal and vertical planes in those colors. The only built example of De Stijl architecture is the Rietveld Schröder House, which, in the movie, has been exploded into a spacious and minimalist fortress mansion. It's worth noting that the house also has simplified version's of Le Corbusier's LC3 chairs (designed 1928), which were contemporary with the De Stijl movement (approx. 1917 to 1931).
Edna Mode, the eccentric she is, lives in a home that's a hybrid pastiche of 1920s avant-garde architecture. The chic stairs are just floating surfaces a la De Stijl while the entrance uses the De Stijl palette. As a side note, Edna is voiced by the director Brad Bird.
The Rietveld Schröder House. Photo: Gerrit De Heus via vebidoo.de.
While Edna lives in the architectural past, the rest of the world is moving forward. It's been 15 years since the opening scenes, and the old Art Deco prewar city has been supplanted by a Miesian modernist metropolis. We can see this distinctly in two places: Bob Parr's office and the city streets during the final battle.
Parr's office (an insurance company) showcases modernism's attempt to produce an ideal and homogeneous work environment: Overhead illumination is even and regular, climate is tightly controlled, floors are divided into gridded layout, and somber white, gray, and black tones cover every surface. The film's creators critique modernism's belief in hyper-rationalism, saying it produces an oppressive environment: Parr faces a wall of bureaucratic file cabinets while also compressed by a sole errant column that punctures the space. It's a standard comment on commercial modernism's potential inhuman qualities.
Parr is lost in the absurdly rational office floor. Florescent lights rain down an unvarying glare. It's worth noting that the last two images, taken on a different managerial floor, reveal offices with more desirable full-height rooms.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 1958 Seagram Building with its uniform lighting and spatial layout. Photo: via populararchitects.com.
The city itself has also adopted a Miesian modernist aesthetic. Rectilinear rationality spreads out from the cubicles onto the facades of Municiberg's new skyscrapers. Where warehouses covered in brick once stood, office towers clad with steel and glass have sprouted. The urban transformation continues as highways replace or supplement the light rail we saw 15 years ago. The vehicles that Parr and his fellow suburbanites use to commute are part of a new post-war car culture, which means an eight-lane highway cuts into the heart of the city's downtown.
The metropolis has experienced its post-war boom and now features many more modernist towers that replicate the grim gray colors of the office floor. Wide arterial motorways criss-cross smaller streets.
Being a superhero movie, there has to be a supervillain. And in The Incredibles, we have Syndrome, whose layer is some the most interesting architecture of all. While a kind of rigid modernism dominated the cityscape, Syndrome seems to have embraced the curvilinear modernism you'd associate with some of Mies' contemporaries. The villain's lair is mostly concrete and makes full use of that material's unique sculptural properties. One building in particular looks like a work of Oscar Niemeyer, combining the slender supports of his Planalto Palace with the dramatic seaside location and disc shape of the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum. Meanwhile, the base's interior passages are a spitting image of Saarinen's vision for futuristic travel in the TWA Flight Center, especially vis à vis its oval top-lit walkways.
The exterior looks like a hodgepodge of Oscar Niemeyer, while the interior is a less colorful rendition of Eero Saarinen's walkways in the TWA Flight Center shown in the photo above. Photo: wallyg on Flickr via fotopedia.com.
The attention to architectural and urbanist detail in The Incredibles is surprising for its accuracy and thoughtfulness. Not only do we see a city transform over the years, we also see numerous architectural styles creatively combined and synthesized.
For more on how Pixar renders its backgrounds, check out this awesome podcast from 99% Invisible on an influential artist of cartoon backgrounds. And if you liked reading about Syndrome's modernist concrete lair, there's always the book Evil People in Modernist Homes in Popular Films.
Can't get enough big-screen architecture? Check out our Brief History Of Modern Architecture Through Movies! And for more on Art Deco and cities, see our Summer Video Game Sereis: LA Noire.