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Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis and what an architect wants to be – Part 2

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Architecture as a Cinematic Event

Architecture, considering its various inputs and expressions is ultimately concerned with construction. It is a whole-brain profession, at its best making full use of left and right. The architect must negotiate real-world constraints and opportunities to arrive at a completed work.

Construction is driven by the nature of the materials that are being put together, and regardless of the overall form, a building’s soul is revealed in the joints between those materials. The consequence is that an architectural paradigm shift requires a genuine revolution in the nature of materials employed and the means of their construction.

‘Material X’ (not the real name) is the hero’s big idea1This is not the real name of the material. There is a screenplay floating around the internet which is probably genuine but there is no way to know how many drafts had been written before or since and therefore how up to date it is with Coppola’s vision for the film. The real name would not be much of a spoiler anyway because it appears very early, but there you go. and the instrument of his revolutionary vision for Megalopolis – transformable, highly technological, ahead of its time and almost certainly televised – conducive to the making of architecture as a cinematic event.

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Master Builder

As architectural revolutions go Megalopolis may have one of the right ideas, which implies of course that there are other potential candidates.

Once asked what other profession he would like to attempt Francis Coppola answered “architect”2Inside the Actors Studio, Season 7, Episode 14 . As we are all taught in architecture school the name comes from the Greek archi + tektōn – chief artisan/builder/technician – a post-industrial idea of regulated specialisation descended from the more romantic pursuit of the master builder.

The difference comes through the narrowing of skills and breadth of experience however both create using a variety of means. The architect’s activities primarily involve technical abstraction and simulation on paper and on screen, utilising a network of communications to execute on site. The master builder’s experience is primarily tactile and immediate on location. In short the architect does most of his work sitting down and the master builder standing up.

 

Utopia

Though Coppola mentioned architect, he is the perfect candidate for the master builder and he has proven it since Forest Lawn.

Many of his best films have captured the cultural imagination because they resonate with the zeitgeist of the moment or era – Watergate/The Conversation, Vietnam/Apocalypse Now for example. Coppola began to drum up press for Megalopolis, a utopian post-disaster New York film in spring 2001.

In this sense Coppola’s role is not unlike a shaman, an intermediary not so much with the spirit world but with the spirit of the time. Utopia, in an era such as this Great Recession, is an extraordinarily ambitious concept to promote. The architect may obsess over technologies and details to create an ideal state of place. The master builder, with his finger literally on the pulse, is better placed to create an ideal state of affairs – a utopian scenario driven not by relationships between objects but by relationships between people. This ideal already has its precedents at 827 Folsom St, the set of One From the Heart and even the epic off-screen drama that was Apocalypse Now.

 

Emerging Architects

Cautiously glancing at the ‘leaked’ screenplay, its fundamentals depend on a scenario which is unfortunately anachronistic. Though set in contemporary times the construction project is carried out by the ‘state’ (City Hall) in a design-build way, when in fact the glamorous but ultimately superficial role of the starchitect today is as commoditised branding for private sector developers.

The little man with the big idea in architecture today is actually the emerging architect, overwhelmed by and excluded from the scale of big money projects but the true catalyst for new thinking in the built environment. They are at the heart of genuine revolutions in entrepreneurship and collaboration; explorations of new materials and methods of construction such as 3D printing; expansion of the definition of design in humanitarian, people-centric contexts; leading protesters at Taksim Gezi Park and on and on.

I suspect that if Coppola had gone through architecture school instead of film school we would find him amongst these emerging architects today, regardless of his age. His career evidence suggests that his passions would resonate with these groups of professionals in the same way that they did with the filmmakers of the first American Zoetrope.

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Competition entry for the Cardiff Bay Opera House by the then little built but heroic Zaha Hadid – first place after three rounds but too radical for a conservative city to build.

 

Creative Cauldron

Folsom St and the sets of Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart (intentionally or not) suggest a romantic ideal of Coppola’s about creative space as a focal point for a community of varied talents. His statements about a utopian Megalopolis providing the freedom to create tie in perfectly. The creative cauldron is the prototype for Megalopolis. Unfortunately it is nowhere to be found in the ‘leaked’ screenplay. For now Coppola himself is missing from Megalopolis.

Nevertheless we are dealing with the same maker who gave us The Conversation (my personal favourite) and three Academy Award winning screenplays.

I look forward to seeing the film!

Megalopolis DNA: Trailer for The Visitors by Koyaanisqatsi director Godfrey Reggio

Further Reading (& Watching)

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

The Godfather

The Conversation

Hearts Of Darkness

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