Cinema Architecture

Typical Movies: a Study of the Moving Image and Spatial Configurations of Renzo Sgolacchia

It is exceedingly  difficult to capture the qualities of architecture in a picture. Especially so if the pictures are intended for those unfamiliar with the vocabulary of the academic world of architecture or the technical jargon of all the sectors affiliated with the construction industry. In other words, for most people on this planet. Yet at the same time, architecture flirts with a status on par with sports or politics, such that everyone has an opinion on it.

Visualising architectural ideas before they have been built has therefore become a very important part of our field, a way to seduce others to allow us to build our dreams. Since few are trained to see spatial configurations on the basis of ground plans, an elevation or a cross-section, there are perspectives, scale models, 3D renderings and the recently developed aid of virtual reality simulation. These have advanced to the extent that they are art forms of their own, and are made by respected professionals and artists.

However, for most people the scale factor remains a difficult thing to comprehend, even with the aid of advanced tools. It is not only hard to imagine how big the space really is, but also what scale does to a space that is made of various materials. Small samples of wood or concrete are entirely different from experiencing these materials spatially. The ‘dosages’ of materials and colours, the sound created, the tactility and scent, these are all incredibly important sensory elements that affect how space is perceived.

Encountering a space as an observer or navigating it in relation to other spaces such as an urban or landscape setting, or experiencing the quality of a space first-hand (a consequence of intimacy) is a very personal experience, it seems. Perhaps it is even justified to argue that architecture exists solely on account of one’s experience of its space. The quality of the space can only be fully experienced if all the senses are completely stimulated. This is true for attempts to visualise as yet unbuilt spaces, as well as for built ones. It is a huge challenge to envisage architecture when the viewer cannot be physically present. Anyone who has ever watched a documentary on a building or tried to provide a picture of architecture knows how tough this is. Nothing is more tedious or difficult to capture on film than architecture.

Architecture is unbelievably slow, so slow that it barely moves and in any case, so slow that making images of it is a craft in itself. Architecture doesn’t involve any sound with which a dialogue can be had or a story can be told, unless of course registering this is taken to the extreme. In short, it is not easy to make interesting films about architecture.

Strangely enough, film cannot be without space.  Whatever the story told, it always needs a setting, a framework, a stage. Even if the filmmaker attempts to exclude space, the void on the screen automatically becomes space, simply because light only becomes visible on a reflective surface. Thus warmth, colour, intention, distance, sound – they all exist thanks to space.

So, here is the love-hate relationship between film and architecture, as old as cinematography itself. A space only becomes interesting once a story is told within it and a cinematic story can only be told once there is space. This means that film is by definition burdened with the same problem as an architectural communicator: how to create a picture of a rich spatial experience without having access to the full spectrum of human senses? When is the role of architectural space merely unavoidable and when does the filmmaker’s fascination for architectural qualities become so important that it takes centre stage?

Within the discipline of cinema, it is precisely this challenge that has produced whole series of intriguing and evocative architectural cinematic gems. Sometimes the leading role of architecture was intentional and sometimes not, but in any case the result was particularly enlightening, especially through the eyes of an architect.

Perhaps the poetry of these sorts of films,  which have elevated the description and illumination of architectural space to an art form, is the most beautiful and most fitting way to experience architecture that is out of our physical reach.

Dikkie Scipio