The Architecture of Game of Thrones

Extraordinary backdrops and brilliant buildings bring the show alive for millions.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

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Attention: Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not watched the first seven seasons.

It’s the moment that millions of armchair fantasy fanatics have been waiting for: HBO’s Game of Thrones has returned, and the internet is alive with talk about the fate of the living, the dastardly plans of Cersei Lannister and the undeniable coolness of Arya Stark. Beyond reigniting a serious emotional investment in the series (seriously: Please don’t let Jon Snow die … again), this moment also brings with it the chance to revel in the extraordinary beauty of the show’s lofty castles, bustling ports and vibrant cities.

Game of Thrones is renowned for its rich cinematic aesthetic, the production of which is clearly no easy feat. In an interview with Australian Production Design Guild, set designer and former architecture student Deborah Riley recounted the epic, globe-trotting challenge of achieving the desired atmosphere for the show within an incredibly tight timeframe. “We shoot for 200 days … and the schedule is so demanding that I clearly can’t be everywhere at once,” lamented Riley. “I had 65 boarding passes on the show last year and yet it was still not enough.”

The designer emphasizes that the sets should not just constitute a beautiful backdrop, but actually form a critical part of the narrative — and this is where architects, the storytellers of the built environment, can provide inspiration. “It can be quite difficult to find the visual key that will enhance the story,” explains Riley. “Mostly, I look to architects and architecture. I also think about the places I have traveled, the buildings I have seen and more importantly, how I felt when in those spaces. The psychology of space is very important to me.”

With the hotly anticipated new season finally upon us, take an architectural tour through Game of Thrones’ Seven Kingdoms and beyond.


King’s Landing

Image via Game of Thrones Wiki

The capital of the Seven Kingdoms and one of Game of Thrones’ most frequently filmed locations, the real-world set for this medieval metropolis has shifted to offer different perspectives for the show’s evolving plot lines. In season one, the warm colored stones and clifftop fortifications of Malta were utilized for the show’s most urban setting. Highlights include the picturesque Fort Manoel, which formed the backdrop for a distinctly harrowing sight: Ned Stark’s brutal beheading at the hands of everyone’s favorite psychopathic boy-king, Joffrey Baratheon.

Fort Manoel in Malta is transformed into Ned Stark’s arena of doom; images via Fritz Photography (left) and Game of Thrones Wiki (right).

Dubrovnik is the perfect setting for King’s Landing; Fort Lovrijenac can be seen perched on the rocks; images via Where in the world is Riccardo? (left) and Reddit (right).

For season six, Dubrovnik’s red tile roofs and monumental stone walls make it an ideal setting for the capital’s impending drama. The historic Croatian city and its surrounding regions feature a number of striking filming locations perched on rocks above the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. Located atop a 125-foot-high cliff and featuring walls up to 40 feet thick, Fort Lovrijenac is one of numerous real-world settings for the Red Keep, where Cersei Lannister currently resides on the iconic Iron Throne — at least for now …


Winterfell

Image via Game of Thrones Wiki

Plenty of parallels can be drawn between the grey skies and windswept hills of Winterfell and the rural landscapes of the United Kingdom, so it makes sense that a number of locations for this northerly realm are located in Northern Ireland and Scotland. First, the elegant Castle Ward — a half-classical, half-Gothic property overlooking Great Britain’s largest inlet, Strangford Lough — featured heavily in the early seasons as the courtyard of the Stark’s former stronghold.

Castle Ward in Northern Island becomes the bustling courtyard of House Stark; images via Skyscanner (left) and Sandra Eason (clayseason) (right).

Doune Castle has featured in both comedies and dramas over the course of 40 years; images via Skyscanner (left) and Kizaz (right).

Across the Irish Sea, Scotland’s Doune Castle was the setting for Winterfell’s very first appearance in the show’s pilot episode. The medieval fortress achieved onscreen fame long before this — it featured in 1975 classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail — but formed the setting for decidedly darker goings-on in “Game of Thrones,” as the struggle to seize control of the North resulted in all manner of violence. Stay tuned for more glorious catastrophes in the coming weeks …


Meereen

Image via Game of Thrones Wiki

The northernmost of the three city-states of Slaver’s Bay, Meereen is intricately detailed with design inspirations ranging from ancient Mayan temples to 20th-century dwellings. The wealthiest residents live in majestic pyramids linked by a network of ancient stone fortifications. To conjure the requisite splendor, many of Meereen’s scenes were shot in Croatia’s Klis Fortress, a 2,000-year-old structure that emerges from the rocks near the southern city of Split.

Daenerys’ rise to power is set against the backdrop of Klis Fortress on the outskirts of Split, Croatia; images via FrankAboutCroatia (left) and Mersad Donko Photography (right).

The interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Millard House is clearly referenced within Daenerys’ pyramidal abode; images via Monica Ponjavić (left and right).

Of all the sets in the show, Daenerys Targaryen’s palace in Meereen is perhaps the most architecturally compelling. The Mayan Revival details of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Textile Block Houses in Los Angeles — particularly his classic Ennis and Millard Houses — are clearly legible within the ornate stone balconies of the Daenerys’ pyramid penthouse. Meanwhile, leaded glass windows evoke the American architect’s famous fenestration, a stunning backdrop for the Mother of Dragons’ delicate political negotiations.


Braavos

Image via Game of Thrones Wiki

The Free City of Braavos takes its architectural cues from Mediterranean port cities such as Venice, spanning dozens of islands connected by small stone bridges. In the fifth season, the film crew returned to Croatia to capture the medieval town Šibenik, a bustling waterfront location that includes four fortresses. Exploring these medieval streets, you might even stumble across the fabled House of Black and White, home to the Hall of Faces trailer that increased anticipation for the coming season to fever pitch.

The waterfront town of Šibenik became the lively harbor of Braavos; images via Skyscanner (left) and Winter Is Coming (right).

The Colossus of Rhodes provided ample inspiration for the towering gatekeeper of Braavos; images via The Telegraph (left) and Game of Thrones Wiki (right).

Straddling the entrance of the bustling harbor, the monumental Titan of Braavos is a more heavily armored version of one of the seven ancient Wonders of the World, the Colossus of Rhodes. While the scale and ornamental audacity of this gargantuan statue appears to be one of Game of Thrones’ most fantastical structures, it may not be as far removed from reality as you might think — one architect is planning to recreate Rhodes’ iconic figure as a pseudo-classical tourist landmark for the 21st century.


Qarth

Image via Game of Thrones Wiki

On the far southeastern coast of Essos — Game of Thrones’ huge eastern continent — Qarth is referred to by its people as “the greatest city that ever was or will be.” Quite a claim to make, but Qarth’s colonnades and courtyards are undeniably elegant. The film crew travelled to Croatia once again to capture the essence of this great trading city, and found their ideal shooting location in a picturesque monastery on the island of Lokrum, a scenic haven in the Adriatic Sea.

Lokrum Island’s monastery was a key destination for Khaleesi in Qarth; images via skoljatic (Panoramio) (left) and Mersad Donko Photography (right)

The magnificent Rector’s Palace hosted Daenerys’ meeting with the Spice King; images via The Dubrovnik Times (left) and The Selfish Years (right).

Back on the Croatian mainland, the Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik is notable for its beautiful courtyard, the location for Daenerys’ run-in with the Spice King. This sunlit space, surrounded by arcades and an ornate stone staircase, epitomizes the beauty of Qarth and reflects its status as one of the wealthiest cities in the Game of Thrones world. It makes you want to hop aboard an airplane — or perhaps a dragon — and head to the Mediterranean this summer!

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Hat-tip to Skyscanner and Curbed. Top Image via Game of Thrones Wiki

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