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Building the Fourth Wall: ARCHITECTURE AND THE MOVING IMAGE: Film has a long and varied history of interacting with architecture, revealing a cinematic fascination with the aesthetic qualities, narrative possibilities and symbolic connotations of buildings. These structures may be silent and unmoving, but they nonetheless have a great deal of communicative potential on screen, as ANTHONY CAREW outlines.

The small town of Columbus, Indiana, is a sleepy Midwestern locale that's home to less than 50,000 people, yet it serves as an unlikely hub of mid-century modernist architecture, boasting a host of beautiful buildings designed by icons like Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Alexander Girard, Deborah Berke, Robert Venturi, IM Pei, and James Stewart Polshek. This place - along with the various structures that populate it - forms the setting of Columbus (Kogonada, 2017), a film exploring dual artistic media: marrying the artform of time, cinema, to the artform of space, architecture.

In making Columbus, Kogonada - a Korean-American debutant who'd cut his teeth making video essays examining the visuals of legendary filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard and Wes Anderson - was out to sincerely address a pragmatic question that prompts philosophical answers: 'Does art matter?' It's a grand starting point for a film that can, depending on how you look at it, feel either small or vast.

The human-made landscape Kogonada trains his camera on here is indivisible from the identity of Columbus, the city, and Columbus, the him. In the latter, architecture is not just a visual element, in both background and foreground, but something that's present in its story, its theme, its dialogue, its drama. In studying the way designs carve up space, it permits its buildings to say something about the species that created them. Art matters, Columbus posits, not because of its financial value or social weight, but due to its connection to the individual. Kogonada sets the rough lives of people against the clean lines of buildings, contrasting humanism and modernism, the warmth of his characters permeating the film's sometimes-frosty formalism. We see people at work among the works of art: leading guided tours around this architectural mecca, or toiling as librarians, cleaners, staff. Here, architecture can be a source of salvation - not just in terms of literal buildings in which humans can be healed, like churches and hospitals, but also in the way it can help people find a sense of order and calm in chaotic lives.

When Kogonada set out to make Columbus, he was writing a PhD on director Yasujiro Ozu, a towering figure of Japanese and twentieth-century filmmaking. His research explored how Ozu's body of work was 'addressing what it means to be modern and offering a sense of time and space that could connect in a way to modern beings'. (1) These are, in a sense, architectural ideas, and Ozu was, in turn, a filmmaker attuned to the psychological effects of architectural space. His most famous visual gesture was the way he set his camera at 'hip height', the low perspective looking at simple Japanese abodes - with their tatami-mat floors and sliding shoji panels - as if they were grand structures, the home turned into a temple.

In the same way, Columbus is a human drama played out against buildings viewed with a religious reverence. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a local young 'architecture nerd', and Jin (John Cho), the son of a famous architect, fall into an ongoing conversation. They've come together in a liminal time: he's blowing through, she's preparing to leave her hometown behind. While the film's static compositions - painterly frames of persistent symmetry - may seem, to some viewers, like a form of visual stillness, the sense of movement in the protagonists' lives is conveyed by architecture itself: Kogonada's camera capturing spaces designed for motion and passage, like roads, pathways, alleyways, breezeways and stairs. The director manages to make the luminous buildings not just some stately, beautiful backdrop, but rather landscapes that evoke theme, character, conflict; when a clock tower looms over the actors, that's the spectre of time itself hanging over them, the passage of life conveyed in otherwise-unmoving buildings.

As cinema has moved further away from its roots in theatre, architecture has increasingly become one of the definitive elements of a film's visual look: the spaces of films not just part of the mise en scene, but suggesting thematic elements and social environments.

Architecture as theme

There are scores of films that are explicitly about architecture. One high-concept example is Cathedrals of Culture (2014), a 3D omnibus movie / TV series in which filmmakers attempt to give literal, if-these-walls-could-talk voice to iconic European buildings: Wim Wenders portraying the Berlin Philharmonic; the late, great Michael Glawogger, the National Library of Russia; philosophical Danish minimalist Michael Madsen, Halden Prison; Margreth Olin, the Oslo Opera House; Robert Redford, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies; and Karim Ainouz - a filmmaker who studied as an architect (2) - Centre Pompidou in Paris.

A more familiar subgenre, however, is the documentary about the star architect. While these films are plentiful, they're rarely memorable, only really coming to life when they use their architectural briefs to discuss other things: Big Time (Kaspar Astrup Schroder, 2017), about mortality; My Architect (Nathaniel Kahn, 2003), about legacies both parental and artistic; Urbanized (Gary Hustwit, 201l), about how architectural decisions influence the lives of metropolitan residents.

There are also lots of narrative films about architects, though, often, they're not about architecture at all. In spite of - or, perhaps, because of - sky-high unemployment rates and few full-time positions for architects in reality, it's usually just a fantasy job, represented by a shot of a character sitting at a drafting board with a T square. This fantasy is never better represented than in endless rom-coms: from Three Men and a Baby (Leonard Nimoy, 1987) through Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993), Just like Heaven (Mark Waters, 2005), (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) and scores more, this trope is peculiarly persistent. Whenever you meet a handsome, charming, successful man in a romantic comedy,' Mindy Kaling once wrote, 'the heroine's friend always says the same thing: "He's really successful. He's" - say it with me - "an architect!"' (3)

Counter to this are characterisations of the architect as an egomaniac, sure of his own importance, designing colossal buildings in acts of hubris. This hubris is often symbolised by the failure of these buildings, which has real-life parallels of design failing environment. (4) In The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949), writer Ayn Rand imagined her hero as the ultimate independent man, a symbol of empowered individualism; instead, he comes across as a nightmare of male entitlement and unearned arrogance. In The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974), the disastrous skyscraper fire breaks out due to poor building practices in its construction, something its architect hero is both culpable for and horrified by. In High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015), an ambitious architect has built the film's titular fortress as a grand act of social stratification, the building an isolated micro society with lower classes on lower floors, middle classes on middle floors, upper classes on upper floors and the architect lording over all in the penthouse. In this instance, the central construction serves as unmissable symbol: a single building embodying societal inequality, the alienation of urban life, upward mobility, the tragedy of the commons; its dystopian portrait of modern living showing how even collectivist ideas - and architecture - can be dismantled by individualism.

Architecture as symbol

Buildings in films are often used as symbols, representing everything from digital-era isolation, as in Medianeras (Gustavo Taretto, 201l); to communist repression, as in The Last Family (Jan P Matuszynski, 2016); to the paranoid curdling of mid-century America depicted in Bad Times at the El Royale (Drew Goddard, 2018). Famously, in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), the palatial estate of its titular tycoon - Xanadu, a towering castle - represents outsized excess, folly and the isolation of affluence. While opulent buildings can convey oft-ostentatious wealth, grand buildings in states of disarray symbolise once-powerful families fallen on hard times, and grander social movements thereby: clans standing in for the falling stock of the British Empire, as in Brideshead Revisited (Julian Jarrold, 2008); or New York intelligentsia, as in The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001).

Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang routinely sets his stories in decaying, crumbling or abandoned buildings, from an old picture house set for demolition (2003's Goodbye, Dragon Inn) to the catacombs beneath the Louvre (2009's Face), to tenement ruins captured vividly in virtual reality (2017's The Deserted). One of Tsai's great themes is the changing face of cities, how urban renewal and development alter landscapes and leave certain people - and buildings - behind, fallen through the cracks of progress. David Lowery's A Ghost Story (2017), contrasting changes on a single property with the migration of souls through time, feels Tsai-esque: his film famous for dressing Casey Affleck in a Halloween-costume sheet, but really about the relationship between mortality and real estate.

The great Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonca Filho explores notions of urban living, architectural spaces, high-density development and gentrincation across two movies, Neighbouring Sounds (2012) and Aquarius (2016). In the former, an ensemble of residents on a single stretch of street in Recife retreat into the isolation of their apartments - towers resembling fortresses, the presence of a security company stoking residents' paranoia. In the latter, an ageing widow holds out as the last resident in an old apartment building, whose by-the-ocean location makes it a potential goldmine for rapacious, increasingly aggressive property developers. Mendonca made these films in response to the building boom in Brazil - as well as the unsavoury practices accompanying it - that occurred in the lead-up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.

Architecture as setting

The confining of action to a single, often sinister location - a building that feels like an active antagonist to those dwelling there - is an archetypal set-up of Gothic romance and horror movie both. Think: the classic Gothic mansion, purpose-built for the movie, in Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (2015); or the hotel in Kubrick's The Shining (1980), a surreal maze in a film filled with mazes, an unreal building in which people get irrevocably lost. Though a holdover from theatre and cinema's early days, the single location doesn't just keep the production simple; often, it is used to make audiences feel that they, too, are trapped with the characters, be it in the lavish country house of Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2016), the terrifying motel of Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), the school of Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) or the children's home of The Orphanage (JA Bayona, 2007). The feeling of a building as a metaphorical prison can be used to curry a greater theme, as in Chantal Akerman's iconic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), in which the quotidian banality of a housewife's life evokes patriarchal oppression. The inverse of the home-as-prison set-up is the home-invasion thriller, in which a house represents a familial fortress, whose sanctity must be protected from interlopers.

Occasionally, a building as single setting is just a chance to revel in the glories of a certain architectural work, as in Exhibition (Joanna Hogg, 2013), which was filmed in a London townhouse designed by James Melvin. In the film, its central couple are selling the house amid marital unease - the glorious architecture summoning the failed idealism of their marriage, its clean lines contrasting with the emotional messiness of those living within.

Architecture plays itself

In Exhibition, the modernist architecture reflects on the lives of those who live within it, and is viewed with fondness by the film. But Hollywood's relationship with modernist architecture - celebrated so lovingly in Columbus - has for so long been hostile, often using it to represent the pretentious, flimsy, fleeting, emasculated. In Lethal Weapon 2 (Richard Donner, 1989), Mel Gibson's ultraviolent, dick-swinging action-movie hero tears down a facsimile of John Lautner's Rainbow House - an iconic residence on Los Angeles' Mulholland Drive - with a winch and a pick-up truck, the destruction of this architectural marvel a supposed triumph of blue-collar realness.

The residence had, of course, been used in the movie as the classic villain's hideout: generic antagonists have for so long been put in modernist architecture as symbol of their empty decadence, something seen in Body Double (Brian De Palma, 1984), Twilight (Robert Benton, 1998) and The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999). Film critic/lecturer Thorn Andersen was so dismayed by this trope that he made the revered essay-movie Los Angeles Plays Ltself (2003) in response. Across nearly three hours, Andersen studies how the home of the American film industry is the most photographed city in the world, but one routinely misrepresented: standing in for other places, its locations used without logic. Having a 'personal connection with modern architecture in Los Angeles', (5) Andersen was especially dismayed about the treatment of certain buildings, particular the way the Lovell Health House - a landmark for left-wing radicals in the 1930s - became the palatial estate of decadent, dandyish porn mogul Pierce Patchett (David Strathaim) in L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997).

Reinterpreting architecture doesn't have to be so depressing, though. In his video-art epic Cremaster 3 (2002) - made as part of a wildly ambitious five-part work - Matthew Barney uses two of New York City's most iconic architectural landmarks, the Chrysler Building and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in unexpected ways. Barney, as artist, is drawn to the ridiculous, surreal and almost impenetrably conceptual; and, here, he marries the Chrysler Building's construction in the 1930s to Masonic ritual and biblical parable (in which, as in High-Rise, the architect sits on high, like a deity lording over his creation), and turns the Guggenheim into the site of a veritable videogame, ascending its floors like a player levelling up, taking on different challenges and racing against the clock. It's an inspired example of a filmmaker looking at architectural lines and letting their imagination run wild.

Hyper-stylised dystopias

Filmmakers and production designers can truly let their imaginations run wild when films take place in the distant future, allowing them to dream of what kind of architectural practices have flourished and how human beings live. Given how often future civilisations are depicted as dystopias, often these imagined buildings are out to visually convey the social conditions of a future world and the psychological effects of living within it. While the most generic approach is to depict some glittering, white, brightly lit, antiseptic interior, the most vivid visions of the future have been those that use shadows, using the darkness cast by the lines of buildings to represent the darkness of these societies.

Beloved examples of the dark, near-future, architecturally vivid dystopia include Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985), Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997), Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998), Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017). But one of the most visually striking uses of dystopian-society architecture comes in Richard Ayoade's absurdist black comedy The Double (2013). Based on an 1846 novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky, it's about a man persecuted by his doppelganger, and its retro-futurist environment is so shadowy and stylised that it's almost like a descent into the subconscious: from nightmarish bureaucratic labyrinths to walks along shadowy hallways, down vertiginous staircases, among monolithic tower blocks and the dark, yawning chasms between them. When its lead character peers out of his window through a telescope at neighbouring apartments, it's an explicit visual reference to Hitchcock's paranoia-themed classic Rear Window (1954). While Rear Window isn't a dystopia, it takes place in an essentially unreal architectural space, built on the back lots of the Hollywood studio system.

Public spaces

Rear Window suggests the social complexities of architecture, which can evoke private spaces, public spaces and, in-between, the liminal place where the individual and the societal intersect. Films shot in public spaces can interrogate what it means to be in them. Sweden's The Square (Ruben Ostlund, 2017) and the Saudi rom-com Barakah Meets Barakah (Mahmoud Sabbagh, 2016) explore social mores and collective societal values as their characters navigate open spaces: promenades, museums, cafes, shopping malls. Isabella Eklof's acidic feature debut, Holiday (2018), portrays a Danish crime clan on vacation on the Turkish Riviera: dark human behaviour set against brightly lit, newly built villas, bars and malls; its evocation of public space one of social complicity, these spaces ones where the wealthy are enabled to act with entitlement and impunity.

Just as buildings can stand as symbols, so can their exteriors and intermediate spaces ring symbolic. Italian director Matteo Garrone is a master of using oft-depressing architectural milieux to symbolise the corrosive, destructive elements of Italian society: from the prison-like Scampia housing project in his portrait of mafia corruption, Gomorrah (2008), to the abandoned concrete condos of Castel Volturno he uses in both The Embalmer (2002) and Dogman (2018). In Garrone's Reality (2012), downtrodden families live in a decaying castle that, in its dilapidated decadence, has been divided into subsistence-level family apartments. This grand old building is contrasted with prefab outlet malls, commercial parks, leisure centres and wedding chapels, which visually convey the film's theme of the 'real' vs the ersatz, along with that of the erosion of humanity and empathy in the reality-televised digital age.

Garrone's compatriot Paolo Sorrentino turns Rome into a veritable character in The Great Beauty (2013), the him touring through Roman ruins, clandestine crypts and hidden-away galleries, the empty summer streets of the city an eternal stage. No city's architecture has been so lovingly chronicled through cinema history: from Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) through Mamma Roma (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962), The Belly of an Architect (Peter Greenaway, 1987), Caro Diario (Nanni Moretti, 1993), Caterina in the Big City (Paolo Virzi, 2003) and La Sapienza (Eugene Green, 2014), you can chart the changing - or not-so-changing - face of the Eternal City through its screen appearance/s.

La Sapienza is, like Columbus, another film about architecture in story, theme and visual presentation. Its lead character, Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione), is an architectural idealist who goes to Italy to write a book on the great baroque architect Francesco Borromini and meets a fledgling architecture student, Goffredo (Ludovico Succio). The story makes a case for historical buildings as cultural temples, works of art, places of inspiration and spaces of habitation: the buildings at once conversation piece, backdrop and visual element, their timelessness contrasting - as in The Belly of an Architect - with the ephemeral lives of the figures in front of them. This is part of the perennial conversation about architecture, both on screen and off: buildings built by human hands outliving those who made them and designed them. This, of course, makes the artform of space a close kin to the artform of time: cinema, too, a way for faces and places to persist long after their demise.

Anthony Carew is a Melbourne-based critic. SE


(1) Kogonada, quoted in Peter Goldberg, 'Interview: Kogonada Talks Columbus, Formalism, Ozu, & More', Slant, 1 August 2017, <>, accessed 29 November 2018.

(2) See Ela Bittencourt, 'Reinventing Space: An Interview with Karim Ai'nouz', Notebook, 6 May 2018, <>, accessed 28 November 2018.

(3) Mindy Kaling, 'Flick Chicks', The New Yorker, 3 October 2011, <>, accessed 29 November 2018.

(4) See Kriston Capps, 'When Buildings Attack', New York Magazine, 15 September 2013, <>, accessed 29 November 2018.

(5) Thom Andersen, interview with author, 2009.
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Author:Carew, Anthony
Publication:Screen Education
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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