In December, the very last of the Hobbit trilogy appeared in theaters. So naturally, one goes back and watches not only the first and second Hobbit movies but also the Lord of the Rings trilogy – which, as you know, is what happens after the Hobbit. Coincidentally, the Lord of the Rings is a great example of architecture taking center stage in pop culture. After all, who doesn’t want to visit Hobbiton, Rivendell, Brie, or for that matter, any place in Middle Earth (except Mordor, depending on what kind of person you). In fact, New Zealand’s tourism has soared since these movies have made their appearance. One of my favorite locations is Rivendell.

Because I don’t want to bore you, I’m going to spare you the background about Rivendell. In fact, I’m not even going to tell you what the author, J.R.R. Tolkien, said to describe it. We’re going to look solely at how the films portrayed Rivendell. The look of Rivendell is achieved by combining Art Nouveau and Celtic designs (I know this because I’ve watched all the special features. I know, I’m a dork). Let’s take a simplistic look at these two styles and how they are portrayed in the movies.

First, let’s tackle Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau is defined as follows:

Art Nouveau, ornamental style of art that flourished between about 1890 and 1910 throughout Europe and the United States. Art Nouveau is characterized by its use of a long, sinuous, organic line and was employed most often in architecture, interior design, jewelry and glass design, posters, and illustration. It was a deliberate attempt to create a new style, free of the imitative historicism that dominated much of 19th-century art and design.

Sometimes known as The Whiplash because of its violent curves, the style tends to incorporate organic forms such as shells, flames, seaweed, grasses, and insects. Here are some common examples of Art Nouveau:

art nouveau staircase at the Hotel Tassel
Art Nouveau interior – Hotel Tassel
ad for Absinthe in the art nouveau style
Art Nouveau advertisement for Absinthe
an art nouveau style desk
Art Nouveau desk

Did you see all those lovely curves? I’m not seeing a lot of things from previous architectural styles either. It’s all so free with lots of movement, very different from say a Georgian house. What about all those references to nature – columns that look like trees perhaps? Did it feel like nature and man-made things were starting to intertwine and the line that separates the two began to blur? Good, because that’s what Art Nouveau is. Didn’t see it? It’s okay, you can scroll back up and soak it in, I’ll wait.

Now, let’s take a look at some pictures of Rivendell as shown in the movies.

the set of Rivendell
Rivendell set from LOTR
sketch of Rivendell's facade
John Howe’s illustration of the Rivendell facade
bedroom in Rivendell
Rivendell in LOTR

Can you see where Art Nouveau was influencing the design of Rivendell? The tall sinewy columns that start to resemble trees. The curving lines that seem to reflect nature. And nature itself imposing and intertwining with the built environment of Rivendell – check out the ginormous tree beside the column in the first picture.

Secondly, let’s look at Celtic design. In LOTR, the Celtic influence seems to appear more as a motif in the architecture – such as Celtic knots. However, some of the architecture does appear to have a bit of medieval Celtic architecture to them. Celtic architecture is a bit harder to pinpoint as it’s more of a vernacular architecture (anyone want to sponsor me to take a sabbatical trip to Ireland?). Here are a few examples that I’ve dug up for you.

a Celtic cross
Celtic design
entrance to a church in Ireland
Irish Architecture
entrance to Clonfert Cathedral
Clonfert Cathedral

The Celtic design has a nice fluid motion to it all while being encased in a more rectilinear shape. The roof and door shapes seem to push up skyward and there is a common occurrence of arches and repeated patterns/columns. Now that we have some Celtic design in our brains, let’s go back to Rivendell and see how this Celtic thing might have been used.

Rivendell in LOTR
scene from the Lord of the Rings in Rivendell
Rivendell in The Hobbit

I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely seeing some nice fluid designs that remind me of Celtic knots – especially in the window details and around the railings. The background shows lots of arches and columns with many repetitive designs (again, look at the railing). And ya know, there’s a sense of solidness that this style brings to the whole Art Nouveau. The Art Nouveau seems like you could break off a piece – it looks so fragile at times. But by bringing in this more medieval style, it brings a sense of weight and sturdiness to it.

Like so many of the locations in Lord of the Rings films, Rivendell has a keen sense of history to its buildings. It makes you feel as though this place has existed for hundreds of years. And elves, being immortal, have obviously had loads of time to perfect what they perceived to be beautiful architecture. Unlike the other cultures and races of Middle Earth, the elves seem to have made a certain peaceful coexistence with nature reflecting it in their use of, what we would call, Art Nouveau, and Celtic designs. As our own world seems to push us towards glassy rectilinear modern designs and brash unconnected “sustainable” buildings, do you think that our predecessors may have been on to something? For now, I think I’ll dream of retiring to Rivendell.

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