Cities Shaped By Hollywood


If history is really just all the things you can remember (cf. ‘1066 And All That’), then our cities reflect an idealised Hollywood version in which the past is merged with fiction. In the 1950s London was still a direct reflection of its books and films (from Dickens to Ealing comedies), but was also shaped by direct experience (fog and rain, uniformity, conservatism, class). Hollywood reflected this past until London itself started capitalising on its own iconography in the 1960s, via shows like ‘The Avengers’, in which Lotus provided its unique Elan car and fashion designers all but hijacked the series.

Eventually the newly glitzed up post-millennium city of spires and wheels inspired those soaring ariel shots which now feature as standard in an ever-increasing number of blockbusters. The city is mostly shown at night, glinting darkly, and what directors most want to shoot for drama is usually a railway arch and a cobbled street. Good luck with finding those now! So we have London imagined by Hollywood, all white portland stone and graceful architecture;

Bond LondonAnd we have the real London, a city that – with over 250 more such buildings yet to go – is starting to look as if it was designed on a napkin in a Bangkok burger bar. I took this from Blackfriars station;


Well, I suppose it brings us into line with other world cities. I’ve pointed out before that the Shard is the first building that makes London look like any other world city, by providing a high view that reduces its small-scale monuments to invisibility, leaving only lights. From there we could be in Tokyo or Guangzhou.

Hollywood reduced cities to a series of symbols that included bowler hats, umbrellas, telephone boxes and now the London Eye. Paris was defined in this way by mimes, waiters, the Tour Eiffel and the Champs Elysees, Rome by gesticulating cyclists, churches and statues, and German cities were shorthanded to cold wet streets and sinister borders. Toronto stepped in an ersatz LA, with Hollywood failing to pick up on any unique Canadian qualities, and possibly only Bruges emerged as an accurate depiction of itself in ‘In Bruges’, where the mayor has sought to ban the popular T-shirt worn on stag weekends that quotes Colin Farrell’s line; ‘Bruges – what a shithole’, this only being funny when you realise that Bruges is unbelievably picturesque – or was, before the coaches arrived.

Thanks to the decades under Franco, Spain failed to be defined by Hollywood at all, which has left Madrid and Barcelona free to reinvent themselves in everything from design to cuisine in ways that France and Italy have not. If there’s Hollywood shorthand here it’s more to do with colour and light than architecture. Conversely, Hollywood barely touches Spain, which has its own robust indigenous film industry.

As China continues to import more Hollywood films we’re now seeing cities like Beijing reimagined for East and West audiences. It’s interesting that LA, one of the world’s least photogenic cities, should continue to provide imagery for everyone else. Hollywood still shapes how we see the world but now that anything can be built in CGI and we can see any city online, its influence is waning fast.



4 comments on “Cities Shaped By Hollywood”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    The parts of Toronto that would be different from LA are quite small and even they would be familiar to people of the eastern USA The LA light isn’t present in Toronto, though so I don’t know how they do it.
    I don’t think movie crews have access to the Good Folk so I imagine those are aerial shots up there at the top.
    The X Files are starting up again and filming here in Vancouver, a city which stands in for everywhere except Beijing and London – and Bruges, of course. Hollywood seemed to feel that Americans wouldn’t care about a film set anywhere except the US, so I can imagine a story set in Vancouver but filmed as Seattle – in Vancouver. I don’t think most Americans are that narrow now and wish that Hollywood would be freer about allowing cities to be themselves. I remember years ago people saying about “Sound of Music” that it “was really filmed in Austria, you know.” Leaving North America is a very expensive and massively uncomfortable thing so it would be good for the non-travelers to meet those foreign places in more casual ways the National Geographic documentaries and Rick Steves travel hints that make you want to grind your teeth.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    “more casual ways than National Geographic” You proof *before* hitting “leave a comment” not after. Sheesh!

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    I always remember the beginning of The Fly (the original.), US cars but signs in French, gave a good insight to how Canada can look and feel different.

    I guess most cities are not really that well known, or have iconic building that stand out for a variety of reasons.

    At least we can still do the cuckoo clock for Switzerland, I wonder if people will look at the Third Man and think what’s the London Eye doing there?


  4. Helen Martin says:

    Isn’t that strange, I wouldn’t have thought to parallel those two, Wayne, but you’re right there haven’t been Ferris wheels as big as Vienna’s really until London’s. I wonder how many other city pairs there are.

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