In the ever-expanding genre of comic-book-inspired superhero movies, filmmakers are constantly searching for new ground to cover. For Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” their latest such effort, that new ground is the realm of mysticism and wizardry, and the primary visual evidence used to demonstrate it is architecture — especially patterning and ornament.
Consistently present in built works throughout history and across cultures, pattern is one of the essential elements that makes architecture what it is: ordered space. That the creators of “Doctor Strange” chose its animation to depict the act of bending reality, as practiced by the film’s characters, speaks volumes because it suggests the spatial patterns we cast best symbolize our understanding of reality itself.
These animations occur at various scales, though the most proliferous by far are seen in such elements as window details, molding details or intricate tile patterns. Basically, when environments in “Doctor Strange” are brought to life, any architectural component with a rhythmic repetition becomes suddenly animated in a kaleidoscopic pattern. Much to the detriment of the film’s characters, this type of environmental movement is also potentially lethal, as the elements tend to fold in on themselves, disappearing into infinity before magically recurring at their outside edges, forming an uninterrupted loop. The effect is dazzling, even to someone without an architectural dictionary on hand to identify what’s being manipulated on-screen.
The reason the filmmakers chose to fixate on such intricate building details seems to lie in their abundance (more parts equals more animation equals more visual stimulation), but the resulting patterns play heavily into the film’s ambiance and, in doing so, reveal a lot about the significance of such patterns in architecture.
First conceived in 1963, Doctor Strange was a successful attempt by Marvel to expand its range of characters by capitalizing on a then-growing Western fascination with Eastern cultures. The comic’s depiction of this influenced the subsequent ascendance of psychedelic art, popularly characterized ever since by the same sort of kaleidoscopic imagery seen in the new film. Despite having drifted into the realm of kitsch after becoming heavily commercialized, that sort of fractal imagery is actually reflective of the physical structure of the human eye.
Called form constants, the type of architectural patterns animated in “Doctor Strange” are believed to reflect the construction of the visual cortex because they’re consistently reported in the physiological evaluation of hallucinations stemming from conditions such as hypoglycemia, epilepsy and — true to 1960s pop culture — psychedelic drug use.
This same type of patterning is also present in many historical examples, such as the traditional Buddhist and Hindu style of architectural detailing the film takes as its visual motif. An intentional mash-up of popular conceptions and ancient precedent, this choice suggests that such patterning is not only significant beyond its role as decorative ornament, but is in fact fundamental to our sense of sight.
The notion of patterned geometry’s importance in architecture is further reinforced by subsequent examples in the film’s visual effects. From the beaux arts ornamentation of 19th-century New York City (the Washington Square Arch is shown folding in on itself ad infinitum in the corner of one scene) to the perpetual fractured symmetry of contemporary glass high-rises, the film demonstrates that no style is exempt: Even the flat panels of boxy, 20th-century modern towers feature an overwhelming array of sliding mullions.
As a final illustration of the character’s escalating abilities to distort perception, the entire city of New York is broken down into a patterned tessellation. Starting with the streets, which slowly disconnect from their familiar grid into angled bunches of mass floating in space, disassembling the pattern of cityscape is a reasonable peak for the film’s deconstruction of architecture because the geometries of urban planning tend to be the widest scale at which we organize our concept of reality.
Beyond packing the requisite special effects for a blockbuster superhero movie, “Doctor Strange” shows a surprising level of attention to detail in the visual evidence put forth to support its premise. A solid understanding of the basis of architectural patterning in both ancient and modern cultures benefits this film substantially, providing strong justification not just for the title character, but for his entire universe, as well.
Top image via Reggie’s Take.com