Museums in Movies: Richard III


Adapting a Shakespeare play for a modern setting always runs the risk of veering into hamfisted analogies, but when done with creativity and skill it can make you see the Bard’s timeless language in a new light. The 1995 film of Richard III starring Ian McKellen is one such example. The 1930s setting provides dazzling, plus it gives Richard’s tyranny a fascist feel. The cast is a stellar collection of British actors, plus pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. for good measure. Even better, it uses several museums and historic houses as filming locations, showcasing their most dramatic aspects.

Photo © Marcus Leith/Tate

Modernist architecture provides compelling scenery for the political drama. (So compelling, in fact, that the same locations appear in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films.) Most notably, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s 1947 Bankside Power Station serves as a streamlined re-imaging of the Tower of London. Today this building is the home of the Tate Modern. It opened to the public in 2000 after major interior renovations; Richard III probably filmed there just before demolitions began. Another Art Deco industrial site, Battersea Power Station, is the site of Richard’s final battle.


Senate House

The power stations’ striking geometry is mimicked by the bold, clean lines of Richard’s office headquarters, which are set in the Senate House of the University College, London. This 1937 Art Deco tower designed by Charles Holden has its own fraught political legacy, since it was the site of the Ministry of Information offices during World War II. George Orwell modeled the appearance of the Ministry of Truth in 1984 after its aesthetic. The building’s bold, direct style is a perfect match for Richard’s single-minded ambition.

Brighton Pavilion music room.

Modern minimalism is even more compelling in contrast with the ornate style of other settings. The Brighton Pavilion‘s over-the-top orientalism makes some colorful appearances. Look for its music room lotus chandeliers in a shot from King Edward IV’s deathbed. Gothic revival elements fill other royal spaces – some ornate urinals at Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill estate even make a showing.

These luxurious spaces eventually fade from view, though, as the play shifts toward its belligerent conclusion. The certainty of earlier regimes is a distant memory, and Richard’s power proves precarious. He may get to traverse the battlefield in a jeep, but in the end he’s still left crying out for a horse. Modern power is fraught with unpredictability, and its day in the sun is short before it must give way to the next generation and its innovations.


Image sources: Tate Modern, Senate House, Brighton Pavilion.


Happy 100th Birthday, Cherry Blossoms!

A forest of pink blossoms along the Tidal Basin.

This weekend marks the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. Alas, the blossoms have come and gone already, but they were so beautiful while they lasted. These fluffy pink trees are such a great urban natural wonder. I’m so glad I made it downtown while they were still at their peak.

The MLK Memorial at sunset.

On our cherry blossom adventure, my friends and I met up at the new memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The King Memorial is an easy-to-find landmark when approaching the Tidal Basin from the National Mall, and does a good job of ushering visitors into its expansive space. Whereas the FDR Memorial blends into the landscape, you can’t help noticing the massive mountains of stone that form the entrance and statue. Every time I have visited, crowds diverse in age and ethnicity have been streaming into the courtyard.

I’m not sure how I feel about the irony of Dr. King’s statue being completely white, but I am amused how he is facing the Jefferson Memorial, glaring at our racially-conflicted 3rd President. My only real criticism of the MLK Memorial is about its logistics.

While the courtyard is wide and expansive, the statue is poorly placed. There is plenty of room for visitors to mill about reading the quotations on black granite walls, but only a small area actually offers a view of Dr. King’s face. On a typical afternoon, the crowd is concentrated in a smaller triangle of space. Everyone and their mother/brother/friend/middle school class is packed into about twenty percent of the floor plan, angling for that crucial statue photo-op. This layout leads to crowded conditions that often block the path to the Tidal Basin.

Compare this to the Lincoln Memorial, where the 16th President is clearly visible from a variety of angles and distances. Good photos can be taken on the steps or inside the structure itself. This encourages an efficient flow of visitors, rather than a concentrated bottleneck. I hope Frank Gehry is considering such things in his controversial design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial.

Colonial Revival Real Estate

Living in the suburban sprawl of northern Virginia, I see a lot of loosely interpreted “colonial” architecture. My parents’ neighborhood was built in 1976, and the builders decided to add some Bicentennial pride to their split levels with eagles over the front door pediments. Today I passed a BB&T bank with a cupola. But the building that takes the cake by far is the Long & Foster Building on Route 28 near the McLearen Road exit.

If there were a Colonial Williamsburg edition of Power Rangers, this would be the mega-zord. It’s like the Governor’s Palace on both steroids and HGH.

There is every possible window concept here – Palladian, round, rubbed brick lintels – but it’s those squished dormers on the side wings that kill me.

I took these photos when the building was completed in 2008. The “For rent” sign suggests that L&F may have overestimated the Hampton Court – like dimensions of their office.

It’s clear that Long & Foster likes this Georgian-inspired look. Further down 28, just past the junction with I-66, is a similar building on a smaller scale.

What do you think about these buildings? Do they say “You can trust us to find your own Virginia estate,” or “We are trying too hard”?