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Lights, camera, architecture!

Cinema and architecture share common languages and challenges writes Davide Rapp whose Elements film was a mesmerising highlight of the 2014 Venice Biennale

A woman sleeps deeply on the third floor of a mansion in the middle of Manhattan. The camera moves away backward and − turning down − slowly pans into the void of the stairwell all the way to the kitchen below. In the dark, beyond the steel window railings, a man emerges from a van and approaches the house. The camera moves towards the front door and − without cuts − enters the keyhole where, on the outside, the man inserts a key. The lock does not turn. Moving backwards, the camera comes out of the keyhole and again shows the window; a second man joins the first. The two walk away from the camera which, pivoting 180 degrees, crosses the kitchen dodging coffee pots and aluminium Navy Chairs to the rear entrance. One of the men grapples with the locked door, then climbs a flight of external stairs while the camera follows his ascent with a smooth vertical movement, through the timber joists and panelled floor of the first storey, to a second door, also locked. The man continues his climb towards the roof, always followed by the camera that glides though the house’s structure up to an oval skylight as the man’s shadow appears through the glass. The camera then turns downwards and finally enters a services room, showing a metal trapdoor that is suddenly wrenched open from the outside with a crowbar: the house has been violated. It has been violated by the robbers and by the camera that, by challenging the solidity of the architectural body and the laws of physics, renders a dynamic vision, complex and complete, of the domestic space: this happens in the film Panic Room, by David Fincher (2002).

A magnificent long take combining live shooting and CGI, shows the relationship between different levels, stairs and entrances in a way that would otherwise be invisible to the human eye, breaking the conventional relationships of scale and showing a fictional space which is both abstract and concrete, intimately credible. It is an invitation to experience the scene through the eyes of the house itself.

In cinema it is the camera that reveals architectural space. This space can act as a backdrop for the action, or it can become its protagonist, as it assumes scenographic or symbolic values, depending on the scene. The gaze of the camera, both in art films and in commercial ones, is always selective − the elements of the scene are included or excluded alternatively from the frames, at the service of narrative and expression. Cinema cuts and cuts again in portions of different sizes − that which is not filmed by the camera might be suggested by its movements or by the final montage. The complexity of space, of both studio sets and real locations, reassembles in the mind of the spectator throughthe juxtaposition of multiple points of view, coherently with the action and the position of objects and actors. The succession of three single points of view: Jack Torrance overlooking a scale model of a labyrinth, a bird’s eye view of the labyrinth itself, and the steadycam shot of Wendy and Danny navigating the maze, introduces and explores the labyrinth in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) through a series of approximations like a sequence of architectural drawings: a scale model, a plan and an interior perspective.

In Montage and Architecture (1937-40) Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, director and pioneer of cinematic montage, underlines the multiple analogies between cinema and architecture. According to Eisenstein, who was the son of an architect and himself a student of the Beaux Arts, architecture incarnates and anticipates the principle of montage: 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.

‘The simple act of juxtaposing comparable shots of stairs, facades or floors evokes connections that would be otherwise invisible’

Architecturally designed space is conceived through a series of partial representations: plans, sections, elevations, models and views define the material and tri-dimensional unity of the built form in a necessarily incomplete way. A transversal and selective reading of drawings and images, taken out of the context that has produced them, allows for the narration of unlimited stories of architecture, telling us about typologies, functions, spatiality, languages, elements and materials. Is it possible for cinema to proceed in a similar way? In a 90-minute film there are around 129,600 frames, 24 per second, grouped on average in 400-500 single shots ordered by a narrative sequence. What would happen if we took away the sequences describing the spatiality of the scene from the final montage? Decontextualised from the narrative flux, these scenes continue to appear as significant portions of space, which can be analysed singularly.

In Mon Oncle (1958) by Jacques Tati, returning to the old house he lives in, Monsieur Hulot appears and disappears through the multiform windows of the facade, cut out from walls of different materials and positioned to suggest or dissimulate the presence of internal staircases. Straight-on camera angles reveal the orthogonal geometry of facades, walls and objects, that become theatrical wings of the scene; vertical and horizontal lines − parallel or diagonal to the borders of the frame − highlight tones, colours, textures and sizes; the presence of doors and windows divides the frame into a secondary order of borders revealing depth and layering.

In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Travis Bickle does push-ups on a floor of multi-coloured linoleum cut-outs, a patchwork of lozenges and flowery patterns while the camera hovers above him taking in his activity and the condition of the apartment he lives in. The bird’s-eye view allows the camera to break through the ceilings, showing a room’s plan. In The Raid (2011), director Gareth Evans enhances the tension of hunted policemen hiding from gangsters behind a false wall by positioning the camera high above revealing the relatively flimsy wall structure concealing the heroes.
Through close ups, surfaces are stretched, amplified with the use of macro lenses while sound is used to render the acoustical variety of materials when they are walked over, touched or caressed by hands and feet; the joints, the textures and graphical patterns of the walls’ materials change scale, cut out by the frame. As if directly playing with the authenticity of material representation on screen, a construction worker in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) staples a layer of fake brick made of polyurethane foam to a timber frame onto which someone has written the words ‘brick here’.
Finally in sequence shots space reveals itself progressively, at a human level, in a continuous promenade architecturale. In Prachya Pinkaew’s The Protector (2005), a young fighter named Khan moves through the five levels of a circular stair − a sort of evil New York Guggenheim − battling men and interacting with balustrades, doors, partitions and furnishings enveloping the audience in the complex space.

Outside the narrative context that has generated them, single scenes take on a new meaning and suggest multiple readings; the simple act of juxtaposing comparable shots of stairs, facades or floors evokes connections that would be otherwise invisible. The spaces of fiction coexist simultaneously in countless imaginary architectures, generated by possible new montages to be experimented with. It is a matter of editing.

 

Illustration

By London-based illustrator and designer Charlie Davis

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