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The 12 Days of Christmas: civil engineering in your favourite Christmas movies

24 December 2021

The countdown to Christmas is on! As we wait for the big day, we thought we'd get you in the festive mood by taking you on a tour of our favourite Christmas films that showcase the talents of civil engineers. 

The 12 Days of Christmas: civil engineering in your favourite Christmas movies

If you didn’t think civil engineering could be festive, think again! Christmas time is the perfect time to settle down to a favourite film, and, as these classic flicks perfectly demonstrate, civil engineering is one of the ingredients that bring the magic of these movies to life.

1) Paddington, 2014

"Mrs. Brown says that in London everyone is different, and that means anyone can fit in," says Paddington in Paul King’s unforgettable adaptation of Paddington Bear.

With London as its backdrop, the film is awash with some of the capital's most famous sights.

the natural history museum in london
The Natural History Museum is one of the many filming locations for Paddington. Image credit: Shutterstock

Paddington Station, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel as part of his plan for the Great Western Railway, is where Paddington first meets The Brown family and gets his name.

And who can forget Paddington’s heroic stand-off with taxidermist Nicole Kidman at The Natural History Museum?

2) Home Alone 2, Lost In New York, 1992

rockefeller centre christmas tree
The Rockefeller Centre, New York. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The Rockefeller Centre in New York is an incredible feat of engineering – and it also happens to feature in one of our favourite Christmas films, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

The centre is a 12-acre complex of 14 limestone buildings and was inaugurated as part of an urban renewal project led by John D Rockefeller Jr.

Designed by Raymond Hood, the art deco building is featured in many a Hollywood outing, but perhaps none are quite as memorable as Home Alone 2.

3) Last Christmas, 2019

When Last Christmas burst onto the silver screen in 2019, it turned out to be the festive film we all needed in our lives. It’s packed with great music, a talented cast – and, yes, lots of civil engineering!

Covent Garden, London at Christmas
Last Christmas. Image credit: Shutterstock

Emilia Clarke’s character Kate works as an elf at an all-year-round Christmas shop in London’s Covent Garden.

As you may know, Covent Garden has a rich engineering history, and was considered the first-ever experiment in urban planning. In 1630, King Charles I commissioned the architect Indigo Jones to create Covent Garden.

The rest, as they say, is history.

4) Love Actually, 2003

Somerset House ice rink London
Somerset House, London. Image credit: Shutterstock

‘All you need is love’ – and some impressive buildings to go along with it!

Initially developed by architect Sir Frederick Gibberd, Heathrow Airport features in both the famous opening and closing of Love Actually.

The eagle-eyed among you might also spot the neoclassical Somerset House, again redesigned by Indigo Jones, in the opening montage.

5) Elf, 2003 

empire state building
The Empire State Building, New York. Image credit: Shutterstock

This heartwarming tale of Buddy, a man who's convinced he’s a real elf, sees him stopping off at one of America's most famous landmarks: the Empire State Building.

The Empire State Building is a 102-storey skyscraper that Shreve, Lamb & Harmon designed to accommodate corporate offices.

Sadly, unlike in Elf, the buttons in the elevator are not shaped like Christmas trees.

6) Miracle on 34th Street, 1994

Miracle on 34th Street is a festive treat that has the power to make us all believe. Kris Kringle, played by the late Richard Attenborough, is brought to life at the fictitious CF Cole’s Department Store.

But did you know that the store’s exterior is not actually a store but the Art Institute of Chicago?

The Art Institute of Chicago. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The Art Institute of Chicago has a varied history, inaugurated in the 1800s as a museum and school for fine arts, but expansion projects over the years have resulted in it becoming home to over 300,000 works of art.

7) Bridget Jones's Diary, 2001

Helen Fielding’s hilarious heroine has delighted fans since the turn of the millennium. Despite the film being a famous rom-com, there’s some pretty serious civil engineering to be seen.
royal courts of justice

The Royal Courts of Justice, London. Image credit: Shutterstock

The Royal Courts of Justice is where Colin Firth’s client’s infamous extradition case plays out.

The Royal Courts of Justice, or the Law Courts, were conceived and built by George Edmund Street, before later being completed by Arthur E Street and Sir Arthur Bloomfield.

A magnificent building to behold, the Law Courts are an example of high Victorian gothic revival design - world's apart from Bridget's world of Mr Darcy!

8) Die Hard, 1989 

Critics and fans alike will argue about whether Die Hard is a Christmas film until the end of time, but if you’re not keen to get involved in heated debates over the yuletide, you can check out some of its striking constructions instead. 

fox plaza
The Fox Plaza, or Nakatomi Tower, LA. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The films’ denouement takes place at the 34-storey Fox Plaza in Los Angeles – known as Nakatomi Tower in the movie. 

It was built in the 1980s by architects Scott Johnson, Bill Fain and, William Pereira. Its exterior consists of red-rust granite and glass panels. At almost 500 feet in height, we’re sure Bruce Willis felt more than a little queasy filming those infamous action sequences.

9) Scrooged, 1989 

The Seagram Building, New York. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Adapted from everyone’s favourite Charles Dickens’ tale, A Christmas Carol, Scrooged sees Bill Murray’s Frank Cross learn the true meaning of Christmas.

TV Executive Frank’s office is filmed in the Seagram Building, 375 Park Avenue. Conceived by Ludgwig Mies van der Rohe, the Seagram Building was Mies’ first attempt at designing a skyscraper building to house corporate offices.

For a first attempt, we’re impressed – there’s nothing ghoulish about it!

10) National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, 1989

Nothing says family time like The Griswolds. In this John Hughes classic, we meet Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, who is determined to have a Christmas to remember with his family.

As a professional in the prepared food industry, Clark’s office is based at The John Hancock Centre: a 100-storey, 1,128-foot super-skyscraper.

john hancock centre
The John Hancock Centre. Image credit: Shutterstock.

The architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was responsible for the tower’s design, while Fazlur Khan served as the structural engineer.

The building also boasts a 360-degree observation-deck, which we’re sure Mr Griswold spent many an hour looking out over the city and planning the Griswold’s Christmas escapades.

11) Frozen, 2010

The tale of the Snow Queen’s lesson of self-acceptance and loyalty is enough to warm even the coldest of hearts, but did you know that the Disney smash hit’s setting is based on a real place?

Akershus Fortress, Norway. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The exterior of Arendelle Castle, Elsa and Anna’s home, is inspired by Akershus Fortress, which was used to house and protect royals in the city of Oslo, Norway.

12) It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946 

It's a Wonderful Life. Image credit: 

Frank Capra’s 1946 love letter to life is set in the fictionalised town of Bedford Falls, but it’s thought that Capra was inspired to create Bedford Falls following a visit to Seneca Falls, New York.

A steel truss bridge found in Seneca Falls is thought to have inspired the scene where George Bailey dives in the water to save Clarence, his guardian angel. Although the connection between the towns has never been officially confirmed, locals continue to call it ‘The Real Bedford Falls.’

  • Jessica Beasley, communications executive at ICE