Architecture is Only a Movie
Laura Chan considers the poetic and narrative roles of on-screen architecture beyond its basic function as scenery, taking in iconic works by Ridley Scott and Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as films by the world-bending filmmaking collective Factory Fifteen.
I. – THE STORY BEYOND MAKE-BELIEVE
EXT. ACME FACTORY - DAY
An L.A. police car turns into the yard of the Acme Factory and pulls up in front of the old factory building. There's all kinds of official activity in the yard... cop cars, a Coroner's truck, etcetera.
Valiant and Santino get out of the police car. Santino starts into the factory. But he realizes Valiant's not following him. He turns to see Valiant looking over the wall behind the factory, transfixed.
I just haven't been this close to Toontown for a while.
In this scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), private investigator Eddie Valiant stops dead in his tracks, fixated on the Acme Factory and the gateway to ‘Toontown’. Filmed in White City’s historic, Grade II listed Dimco Buildings (1898), the factory setting provides a real, West London context – albeit far from its Hollywood backdrop.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit has the power to put an audience through the emotional wringer. A breakthrough in cinematic craftsmanship, it was the first film to convincingly combine real actors and animated characters in the same space at the same time. Despite distancing itself from the ‘real’ with its cartoon characters (Jessica Rabbit self-reflexively refers to her being drawn), the toons seemingly cast actual shadows. They change dimension and perspective as they move through a scene, and the camera isn’t locked down to make rotoscoping the live action sequences simpler. The animated characters feel 3D and seem to be occupying real space.
Valiant’s emotional connection to the factory building and what it stands for – the cartoon city from whence came the toon that killed his brother, by dropping a piano on his head, no less – mirrors the emotional attachment viewers often make upon seeing recognisable architecture on screen.
When architecture is the focal point of a film, the audience is drawn into that building’s history. The famous Bradbury Building (1893) in Los Angeles is one of the biggest architectural stars of the silver screen. Starring heavily in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) its distinguishing filigree ironwork interior is depicted as a dark and gloomy ruin. The architectural landmark enriches the sci-fi thriller’s narrative depth. Its unique structure sparks a familiarity and is a key part of the film’s iconic aesthetic. It engenders our cyber-punk fantasies while grounding the fantasy dystopia in the real and the present – giving the story meaning beyond make-believe.
Filmmakers often play with time, space and light to create a cinematic architecture that conjures and sustains certain emotions from the audience. Director Andrei Tarkovsky captured the city in motion, using architecture in his films to lyrical effect. Believing “there is only one way of thinking in cinema: poetically,” he would create this poetry on screen with streams of associations. When poetic images are stitched together in film and in architecture, our existential sense is sharpened. Both cinema and architecture beget imaginative parables. Their kinship is often explored as our built environments create and preserve images of culture and a way of living. Cinema sheds light on the cultural archaeology of its own time, as well as the epoch it depicts.
II. – ARCHITECTURE IS ONLY A MOVIE
The work of filmmaking collective Factory Fifteen oscillates between the realms of building and performance, the real and imaginary. Founded by Jonathan Gales, Paul Nicholls and Kibwe Tavares; the trio have been dubbed ‘radical visionaries’ since graduating from Unit 15 at the Bartlett School of Architecture. Synthesising filmmaking, architecture and 3D visualisation, they design wildly imaginative future cities. But, they don’t just draw heavily from architecture in their films – often, the film is the architectural project itself.
In Cocoon (2015), moving architectural forms were projection mapped onto the inside of a dome at the SAT Immersion Experience Symposium in Montreal. The spherical video installation immersed visitors within its cinematic architecture. Creating an environment that was at once open and enclosed, moving structures rose up and around its inhabitants, only to fracture and then fall away. Nicholls explains: “Cocoon was about the feeling of being wrapped inside a 360°-projected, animated space. It achieves something static representation simply couldn't. It puts you on a journey through spaces, through archetypes and gives you a real sense of scale.”
The recent exhibition Five Years of Factory Fifteen, opened with a quote from urban theorist Paul Virilio: “After the age of architecture-sculpture we are now in the time of cinematographic factitiousness; literally as well as figuratively, from now on architecture is only a movie.” The show was a celebration of Factory Fifteen’s films, which were played simultaneously on suspended screens in their new gallery and collaborative workspace, The Factory.
This collection of narratives had architecture at its core and was a “kind of lyrical wall of stories,” says Tavares. The installation brought together the kindred spirits of architecture and film in a cross-translation of 2D and 3D space. It revealed that only when architecture plays a leading role in film, building environments up (whether real or imagined) to be the story, can we begin to critique architecture in a new way.
Megalomania (2011) is one such critique, portraying a dystopian future London as a broken, unfinished labyrinth. Long camera takes engender a sense of spatial fluidity and unity, while the dark re-appropriation of space signifies a product of careless construction born of the desire to build more, build big and build now. Megalomania is a project that can only truly be represented through film, as the moving image most effectively critiques our ever-changing world. Gales cites Blade Runner as inspiration and “one of the first science fiction films that uses a layering technique that builds upon what we already have, to kind of envisage a near future that’s more tangible than something very distant.” In this way, Factory Fifteen’s films represent a future that is firmly rooted in the present.
Jonah (2014) is a visceral short film about two best friends with big dreams. Set in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, the story reveals the city’s dramatic transformation into a tourist hot-spot after the pair unwittingly photograph a colossal fish surging out of the sea. Humourously and dramatically told, the story illustrates the damaging effects of tourism and globalisation on developing countries. Directed by Tavares and with captivating computer generated visuals by Factory Fifteen, the short mixes live action and photoreal animation to stunning effect.
Despite moving into film from architecture, the Factory Fifteen team remain connected to their roots. Tavares notes that in Jonah, “the architecture is folded into the narrative as well as the production design. The image of the fish is what becomes famous, this becomes replicated in billboards, posters, physical signs and buildings – it’s all very Learning from Las Vegas.”
III. – MOVING ALL THE TIME
“If all I see is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, I won’t even read it. I don’t care how good the dialogue is – it’s a moving picture. It has to move all the time”
The self-proclaimed ‘half-assed actor’ turned Hollywood producer Bobby Evans’, view on scriptwriting. It echoes the architectural desire to create poetic movement in a building by guiding a person’s pathway and gradually exposing certain views, vistas and experiences along the way. Modernist maestro Le Corbusier called this journey and experience of space the architectural promenade.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014), which follows the decline of fading actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a tour de force of cinematic promenade. Set within New York’s St. James Theatre on Broadway, the camera slinks seamlessly through its spaces; down corridors, up staircases and bounding into the sky. Continuous long takes follow the protagonist in an uninterrupted motion through the theatre’s floorplan. There’s a constant sense of urgency and drama, accompanied by the driving beat of a drum. The rhythmic beat and the camera’s dynamism recalls that of our everyday modern lives, thanks to the seminal rise of the (aptly-named) Walkman. Life became instantly cinematic; a personal soundtrack to our lives, linking our movements through space.
Fluidity, transition and momentum are central to the architecture of Jean Nouvel. His work reflects Virilio’s statement that, “architecture is only a movie.” He designs knowing that architecture exists, like cinema, in the dimension of time and movement. “Film,” he says, has taught architects “to think in sequence.” Nouvel’s architecture plays with the notion of spatial transparency, seen clearly in his Cartier Foundation (1994). Visible from the street, the expanse of glass is bathed in a radiant glow, reflecting and refracting light. The building’s envelope invites an ambiguous perception in the observer. One can see the reflections of the surrounding trees on its façade and straight through the building to the other side at the same time. This effect mimics filmic superimposition, blurring the boundary between inside and outside, reality and illusion. The transparent volumes cinematically present the structure’s depth in the same way a long shot frames a space.
Cartier Foundation (c) David Gallagher
Located in a park and surrounded by trees, the building plays a game of reflections in which it appears to blend with the surrounding greenery. The overlaying of exterior reflections on the façade with views within the building is analogous to the cinematic dissolve – its continual transitions from one image to another occurring on and beyond its surface.
OMA founder, Rem Koolhaas is another contemporary architect whose work can be read as a plot waiting to happen. Starting his career as a screenwriter, co-writing the Dutch film noir, The White Slave (1969), he sets up spatial sequences in his buildings through montage and suspense. His son, director Tomas Koolhaas, says: “If you listen to how my father talks about his architecture, he uses the word ‘scenario’ a lot, which means script in Dutch.”
Despite its title, Koolhaas junior’s latest film, REM (2016) places his father in a peripheral role. The film follows the architect jet-setting between continents, documenting life inside his buildings. Instead of depicting The Seattle Library (2004) as a sculptural icon devoid of human interaction – unlike how it’s often photographed – the film explores the connection between the library and its community of homeless inhabitants.
REM also sees filmmaker Louise Lemoine of Living Architectures give a personal account of living in Maison Bordeaux (1998); the focal point of her film, Koolhaas Houselife (2008). Although it’s about “one of the masterpieces of contemporary architecture,” the documentary exposes the house in all its defective glory, following the housekeeper as she begrudgingly goes about her daily chores.
REM brings the human back into architectural representation by exposing what architecture means to those who inhabit it, uncovering an architecture that’s infinitely more meaningful than its iconicity. Once again, it’s the art form of film that unearths meaning within spatial experience.
Both filmmaker and architect are the auteur, defining space and influencing the way in which we understand the cinematic qualities of architecture. Here, a boundless number of things are expressed – all the infinite things that can never be expressed with words.
Photos copyright Factory Fifteen unless otherwise stated.
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