Shared themes between cinema and architecture compiled in an essential list exploring space, time and embodied experience.
[…] by moving physically through the architectural space, the human gaze defines and orders different points of view, thus realising a mental assembly similar to that of the cinematic experience. Vice versa, in a cinema, the spectator mentally rebuilds a fictional space through the sequence of portions shown by the film.
In Montage and Architecture Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein underlines, as above, the analogies between cinema and architecture. Designers can learn amply by watching cinema as the two mediums stand close together – dealing essentially with space, time and the body. Besides these, cinema and architecture both strive to elicit an emotional response from their audiences. As Juhani Pallasmaa describes in The Architecture of the Image,
Cinematic architecture evokes and sustains specific mental states; the architecture of film is an architecture of terror, anguish, suspense, boredom, alienation, melancholy, happiness or ecstasy, depending on the essence of the particular cinematic narrative and the director’s intention.
Here’s why these 20 films are an essential watch for lovers of design, as explained through highlighting certain themes:
1. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
Year: 1920; Country: Germany
Director: Robert Wiene
This silent German expressionist film is a masterpiece that uses abstract and geometric spaces to show a dark world. The film’s visionary architecture was well ahead of its time and most influential – with its distorted shapes, patterns and angles. It represents a kind of “fantasy architecture suspended between reality and dream”(Pallasmaa).
Year: 1927; Country: Germany
Director: Fritz Lang
This classic silent film by Fritz Lang, depicts a futuristic urban dystopic city that is divided in vertical layers based on social strata. As a young couple falls in love across the divide between the working class and the upper class, the coming of a saviour is predicted who will help mediate the differences between the social groups and build a new era. The architecture of Metropolis shows influences from Futurist, Art Deco and Gothic styles – reflecting concerns of the time about the dehumanizing characteristics of the new era of the capitalist high-rises, appearing in 1920’s Weimar Germany.
3. Rear Window
Architecture and Voyeurism / Terror
Year: 1954, Country: United States
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
When an accident leaves a photographer bedridden in his apartment, he makes a daily hobby out of spying upon his neighbours through the window. Very soon events begin to unfold such that “the Manhattan rental apartment block in Rear Window, the scene of harmless episodes of quotidian life, turns into a labyrinth of fear” (Juhani Pallasmaa in Architecture of the Image). The photographer must now turn his voyeuristic discoveries into action, as danger looms near.
4. The Exterminating Angel
The Psychology of Confinement
Year: 1962, Country: Mexico
Director: Luis Buñuel
Close friend of Salvador Dali, director Luis Buñuel shared a taste for surrealism with him, that is finely depicted in this humorous and dark film. A group of aristocrats are inexplicably unable to leave the room after a dinner party although nothing is seemingly preventing them. As days pass by, entrapment in the room leads to unfolding mayhem – with the initial formalities and etiquettes giving way – spiralling into savagery and madness. We are witness as this microcosmic representation of society slowly falls apart.
Criticism / Commentary
Year: 1967; Country: France
Director: Jacques Tati
Tati’s masterpiece, ‘Playtime’ is a humorous commentary on the Modernist movement. The protagonist is a perplexed Frenchman who is utterly lost in the maze of a new Paris – where offices pre-empt cubicle layouts of the coming years, all lines are straight, and there is little distinction between public and private life. From the city’s urban plan to the steel-and-glass buildings and the furniture, every detail is tailored to the ideals of repetition and regularity particular to the International style of architecture.
6. The Passenger
The Compositional Art
Year: 1975; Country: Italy, Spain, France
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Prior to shooting, director Antonioni would apparently spend days on each site for his films to gauge the ‘spirit’ of the place before deciding how to go about composing his shots there. This is much like how architects ideally approach their sites (Norberg-Schulz’s idea of the ‘Genius Loci’ of a place). AsJonathan Dawson explains,
Trained as an architect, obsessed by the look of the modern city, he (Antonioni) was above all interested in the figures in the landscape, urban or desert, and nowhere is this clearer (in an often highly symbolic manner) than in ‘The Passenger’… Surely no filmmaker since Carl Dreyer has shown such an eye for the formal and the almost Palladian and classical balance of the human figure on a cinema screen.
For Antonioni, the onscreen action is the means by which the images unfold and the actors and plot are set pieces. Atmosphere supersedes all else. The film is also notable for its scenes shot at Antoni Gaudi’s buildings in Barcelona.
7. The Shining
Architecture of Horror / Madness
Year: 1980; Country: United Kingdom
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Kubrick’s film is an exemplary case to study the relationship between horror and architecture. A family moves into an empty hotel as the father hopes for solitude to write, while serving as caretaker.The architecture here serves as a metaphor for the human mind, with the labyrinthic hotel turning into a stage for madness.
The isolation of the Torrance family in The Shining is reflected by the enormity of the spaces they inhabit. The family is dwarfed by large lobbies, ballrooms and maze like corridors of the Overlook Hotel. This relationship between the characters and interior space is one of the main sources of tension in this film. (Source: Sparc Design)
8. Satah Se Uthata Aadmi (Arising From The Surface)
Atmospheres / Architecture of Solitude
Year: 1980; Country: India
Director: Mani Kaul
While architects theorize about how to evoke ‘atmosphere’ in spaces, Mani Kaul has experimented with this same intangible element. The film rings true with several themes that creators struggle with. In an online article on The Seventh Art, the film is described thus:
(The film) begins with a shot of a serene lakeside landscape being abruptly shut off from view by a closing window, following which (the) camera gradually withdraws deeper into the eerily empty rooms of a dilapidating house where the central character of the film – a poet – resides.This notion of the artist being far removed from reality, and retreating further into himself, resonates throughout the film… a world where the revolution has failed, idealism has died out in the name of practicality and the role of intellectuals and artists has been vehemently questioned. Rekindling the question of theory versus practice, the film attempts to examine if residing in certain social frameworks to make a living amounts to (making) a sellout of oneself.
The Poetic Image
Year: 1983; Country: Soviet Union, Italy
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
The film traces the path of a Russian poet who travels to Italy to collect material on a composer he plans to write about. During his stay, he becomes nostalgic for his home in Russia, and meets an eccentric man Domenico, who has locked his family up for 7 years to protect it from the evils of the world. Juhani Pallasmaa sums up the experience of watching a Tarkovsky film,
The standard architecture of our time has normalized emotions by eliminating the extremes of the spectrum of human emotions: melancholy and joy, nostalgia and ecstasy. Tarkovsky revitalises our sense of the poetic… the terrifying seven year imprisonment of the mathematician Domenico’s family in ‘Nostalghia’ is engraved on the tormented walls of the eroded house… he opens up views to a new, empathetic and nostalgic architecture… the characters are etched into their spatial settings and the external spaces are the inner mental spaces of the characters.
10. The Belly of an Architect
The Architect Idol / The Painterly Image
Year: 1987; Country: United Kingdom, Italy
Director: Peter Greenaway
This is the classic tale of an American architect Kracklite who has been commissioned to curate an exhibition in Rome on the works of the architect Etienne-Louis Boullée. As his Italian colleagues raise accusations about Boullée’s role in inspiring Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, thus discrediting his inclusion amongst the pantheon of revered architects; Kracklite’s health and personal life decline as if in sympathy with the decline of his idol Boullée. Scenic settings in Rome are almost painterly, recalling Renaissance and Baroque paintings, with dramatic light and colours – perhaps attributed to director Greenaway’s training as a painter.
11. Babette’s Feast
Process / Programme
Year: 1987; Country: Denmark
Director: Gabriel Axel
Architect Gurdev Singh recently said in conclusion to a talk, “To be a good architect, one must learn to cook. Cooking is the fastest act of creation one can achieve – to experience the completion of a process and enjoy the product immediately!” Architect and theatre aficionado Rakesh Semwal likewise echoes,
This is a film about a ‘feast’ made by a cook named ‘Babette’. This simple story can be analogized to what an entire ‘programme’ is for a designer. Cooking is designing. It is an art form of making decisions, of proportions and presentation. Designing is like cooking. The film uses food as a metaphor for love – which brings people together to eat and share. Just as the programme for a design project brings the right kinds of functions to it. Both are processes.
Besides the sensation of seeing and touching textures of this endearing Danish village, the film also appeals to one’s senses of smell and taste, enabling a true sensorial experience – of the kind that the greatest works of design should aspire to achieve.
Architecture of Dystopia
Year: 1988; Country: Japan
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Akira is an epic animated science fiction thriller that depicts a dystopian version of Tokyo in the year 2019. The plot focuses on a group of teenage bikers, as one of them tries to release the imprisoned psychic Akira from a government programme aimed at using psychically powered children for military projects. An epic battle ensues as Tokyo is about to be erased from the map by out-of-control powers. Janet Maslin of The New York Times commends Otomo’s artwork, stating:
… the drawings of Neo-Tokyo by night are so intricately detailed that all the individual windows of huge skyscrapers appear distinct. And these night scenes glow with subtle, vibrant color.
Year: 1992; Country: United States
Director: Ron Fricke
A cinematographically excellent film, ‘Baraka’ evokes a range of emotions – through images of the natural to the manmade, the ancient to the contemporary – sans any narrative or dialogue. It depicts the human condition as is. An ArchDaily post describes it as
… a kaleidoscopic, global compilation of both natural events and faith, life and activities of humanity on Earth. Baraka’s subject matter has some similarities to Koyaanisqatsi—includingfootage of various landscapes, churches, ruins, religious ceremonies, and cities thrumming with life, filmed using time-lapse photography in order to capture the great pulse of humanity as it flocks and swarms in daily activity… Baraka compares natural and technological phenomena. It also seeks a universal cultural perspective: a shot of an elaborate tattoo on a bathing Japanese yakuza precedes a view of tribal paint.
Subterranean Politics / Symbolism
Year: 1995; Country: France, Germany, Hungary, FR Yugoslavia, Bulgaria
Director: Emir Kusturica
This extraordinary black comedy based in Yugoslavia, depicts the country from the beginning of World War II to the Yugoslav Wars. The members of an underground resistant shelter have no idea about the on-goings outside of their underground world – their only contact with the outside world being through an opportunist general. Unaware that the war has ended, they continue to behave as if it is ongoing after they break out of the shelter. The film is an allegory for political deception and delusion – rife with symbolism.
Year: 2003; Country: Denmark
Director: Lars von Trier
Von Trier has used in Dogville a minimalistic set comprising “a highly stylized soundstage that resembled a blackboard. The town was outlined and labeled in chalk… The only props were sparse furnishings and partial walls.” (Source: Wired). As we watch the unfolding narrative of a mysterious woman who arrives at this small Colorado town to plead acceptance as a fugitive, the viewer has to imagine and erect for herself the rooms and buildings. Thus the director makes us the architects of our own imagination.
16. The Fall
Imagination / Visualisation
Year: 2006; Country: India, United Kingdom, United States
Director: Tarsem Singh
The Fall by Indian American director Tarsem Singh, is a visually enthralling film shot across 20 countries – with some notably spectacular scenes in Rajasthan, Agra and Ladakh. A surrealistic yarn is spun as an injured stuntman befriends an endearing little girl Alexandria, in a hospital, and tells her a story about her namesake. As the story is told, day by day, the distinction between reality and dream begin to blur, with the characters and scenes becoming metaphors for the protagonists’ lives. The film vividly triggers one’s imagination by bringing to life familiar historic places through colours, props and action.
17. 24 City
Year: 2008; Country: China
Director: Zhangke Jia
In Chengdu city in China, a factory is being pulled down to make place for luxury high-rise apartments. Lives of factory workers are interwoven with scenes depicting buildings being stripped bare and razed to the ground. The gap between the victimised population and the rapid trends of urbanisation, is depicted. Vadim Rizov describes the film,
The vast, brutal and impersonal architecture of Communism has been handily documented… seemingly impersonal structures take on the symbolic weight of the passing of an entire social experiment.
18. Three Monkeys
Mis-en-scene / Interactions Between Bodies
Year: 2008; Country: Turkey
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Architects Bayrak and Dursun write about the ‘trialogue between space, time and body’ that this film embodies. A family is dislocated when small failures herald big lies. The film asks of one whether playing the three monkeys (not to see, not to hear, not to say) can change one’s reality.
The body cannot leave space and time. In this film, it is seen that bodies compose together… the house is part of identity and belonging. On the other hand, it represents restriction, pressure and stability… the technique of frame in frame (mis-en-scene) is used in the film to reflect the feeling of embarrassment. So the space is carved… the screen is sliced with door or wall.
19. Enter the Void
Perceptions / Perspectives
Year: 2010; Country: France
Director: Gaspar Noé
The film is entirely shot from the protagonists’ point of view (literally), such that we only see the back of his neck. When the man is shot, the film descends into a psychedelic tour of his soul as it floats over the neon city of Tokyo, passing through walls and observing people although being unable to communicate with them. “Most of the film is a seamlessly connected series of mostly overhead shots as you journey from interior to interior, to the night streets of Tokyo, to strange “other worlds” of light and sound, and to flashback scenes from childhood. Thanks to remarkable implementation of boom shots, helicopter shots, handheld, CGI, lighting effects, and even tilt-shift-like focus effects” (Dissociated Press), the visual narrative is immersive.
20. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Representation / Rendering
Year: 2013; Country: Japan
Director: Isao Takahata
A rendering of a tenth century Japanese folktale, the story tells of a bamboo cutter who finds an infant the size of his thumb inside of a glowing stalk – named Kaguya. The animation is a hand-drawn masterpiece in coloured pencil and water colour. Observe the quality of the lines as the narrative develops – from free flowing and soft half-forms, to straight solid lines, to rough sketches in charcoal – contrasts that support the narrative and mood. (Anime Cinematography)
(A big thank you to Rakesh Semwal and Mustaqeem Khan, architects-cum-film/theatre-aficianodos, for their inputs and discussions on this compilation.)
This article was first published on Campus Diaries.