The Architecture of Batman ’89

Like many VHS junkies of the ‘90s, my introduction to the Caped Crusader did not come from a comic book or campy television drama, but, rather, the weekend video rental. I vividly recall watching Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) as a youth and hearing that powerful, simple statement: “I’m Batman” — suddenly, I wanted to walk, like Alice, through the looking-glass and into the wonderland of Gotham City’s concrete jungle. My love of Burton’s Batman stems in large part from how perfectly this highly fictional character fits into his fabricated environment.

Sadly, the days of human hands fashioning a complete world from wood and steel like the one in Burton’s Batman are nearly gone. Skillfully designed and crafted sets not only provide rich detail and a unique gritty texture, they generate an aura within which the actors can interact. Such sets become characters of the film in their own right, an extension of the heroes who walk the streets. Burton and his team masterfully employed architectural technique to bring Gotham City to life in a way unequaled by any other Batman media. Much credit for this achievement belongs to one of the greatest set designers of his generation, Anton Furst. His manipulation of space and architectural montage in Batman earned an Academy Award. Examination of his work might lead filmmakers to think twice before they head to the big green screen.

The synergy between architecture and film started early. The ‘20s and ‘30s were exciting periods of rapid growth and change for both art forms. Cinema had barely begun, while architecture was redefining the modern cityscape with skyscrapers highly stylized by the Art Deco and Modernist movements. The two arts gravitated toward each other, with film attracting the admiration and envy of the architectural community. Nothing exceeded film’s ability to fully depict modern city life. As German historian Dietrich Neumann wrote in Film Architecture: From Metropolis to Blade Runner, “Film could represent the world of dreams, fantasies and thoughts — arenas of the soul — more effectively and provocatively than other media.”

Architects realized film afforded them the opportunity to obtain public feedback on bold concepts without the concerns of cost or calculation. Commenting on this symbiotic relationship in 1925, architect and set designer Robert Mallet-Stevens wrote, “Modern architecture does not only serve the cinematographic set (décor), but imprints its stamp on the staging (mise-en-scene), it breaks out of its frame; architecture ‘plays.’”

One key to leveraging the power of architecture in cinema set design is the principle of architectural montage. To appreciate architecture, one must move around and through the design, approach it from all directions, and experience how it directs human interaction. So, too, with cinema, which allows us to float around and above human drama to see things from a variety of perspectives. 

This montage philosophy is evident already in the opening scene of Batman as the camera directs viewers’ eyes through the dark concrete canyons of a city. This maze-like journey culminates in a long shot revealing we’ve traced a giant Bat Symbol, cementing the connection between Batman and Gotham. The maze theme is continued and merged with the city’s overwhelming size and its capacity to swallow victims whole. The POV shot captures the fear of an unsuspecting family as they wander into the wrong place, only to be saved by the Caped Crusader. The montage effect is additionally employed to disorient viewers as in the confrontation scene at labyrinthine Axis Chemicals. Initially, viewers are confused by the action, due to the situation’s size and complexity, but the camera switches to Batman’s perspective, thus orienting viewers while emphasizing his mastery over the environment.

Two notable precursors to the architecture of Batman (1989) are The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Metropolis (1927). In Dr. Caligari, set designers Reimann, Warm, and Rohrig applied German Expressionistic painting techniques to more than 30 sets. Warm claimed “the sets had to deviate completely in form and design from the usual naturalistic style. The frames, averted from reality, had to acquire a fantastic graphic form. The images had to be like visionary nightmares” (Neumann, p. 52). Only at the film’s end does the audience discover the reason for the physical distortion: The narrator is an inmate of an insane asylum.

The ambitious and expensive Metropolis required director Fritz Lang to employ a team of set designers including Karl Vollbrecht, Erich Kettelhut, and Otto Hunte to create a complete and heartless dystopian megalopolis in which unbridled capitalism sucked the soul out of the common man. Burton’s Batman substitutes organized crime lords for the capitalists and retains the concrete canyons of Metropolis. I do not know conclusively if Furst was influenced by these preceding films but, as they say, history is prologue.

Similar to Dr. Caligari, the visuals and set design of Batman emphasize emotions and character psychology. Jack Napier begins as a flashy, self-absorbed egomaniac. His penthouse interior reflects this with its trendy, gaudy ‘80s style, complete with a Vogue magazine visual cue. Post Joker transformation, Napier is still a narcissist, but now he is defensively apathetic and artistically psychotic. His new lair, the Axis Chemical plant, reflects this shift with postmodern techniques, complete with a series of curved windows that mimic his new grin. The interior is a blend of Andy Warhol’s “The Factory” and a mad scientist’s lair, highlighting the Joker’s pop-art sensibilities and warped mind.

In contrast, aligned with an effective mix of gothic architecture and brutalism, is Bruce Wayne. The upper portion of Wayne Manor is a Victorian mansion. Meanwhile, the militarized Batcave draws its inspiration from brutalism, a type of raw, cold, modernistic architecture that lasted from the ‘40s-‘70s. Carrying forward the brutalistic concrete presentation of the Bat symbol in the film’s introduction is Batman’s initial appearance, perched discreetly between two gothic gargoyles. In his final fight against the Joker, Batman snares his leg to a gargoyle; architecture reinforces Batman such that he is able to vanquish his adversary forever. The film ends with Batman standing statuesquely once more, ready to reawaken when the enemy forces rise again. Brutalism reflects Wayne’s stoic, unemotional nature, while the chivalrous depiction of Batman as a knight of old ties into the gothic theme.

According to Furst, his marching orders from Burton were to imagine Gotham City as a corrupt New York sans any zoning board. Furst’s work on the television film It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow (1975) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) gave him experience creating gritty, destroyed industrial settings. To this, Furst added elements from the 1940s comic books of mechanical artist Shin Takamatsu to set the right tone. By mixing styles, such as placing Art Deco skyscrapers adjacent to industrial parks, Furst increased the disorienting, hostile nature of Gotham City. A prime example is the Gotham Flugelheim Museum: part brownstone, part locomotive with a power generator built into it.

At a 1990 speaking event at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, Furst explained, “My job … is to augment reality and distort it.” He excelled at doing so in Batman. His expert combination of artistic history and imagination resulted in a very real Gotham City and a solid hero. Tragically, after securing widespread fame upon earning the Oscar for Best Art Direction, Furst committed suicide in 1991. His artistic achievements deserve ongoing reflection and recognition. I remain indebted to him for the joy I feel when I hear the words: “I’m Batman.”

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