Reel estate

Cinema and Architecture
January 8, 1999

The histories of the cinema and the 20th-century city are bound together. Each provides evidence of the other. In the first essay of this collection, Helmut Weihsmann quotes Tom Gunning: "Nearly all early film documents present a mise en abime of audiences filling vaudeville halls from busy city streets in order to see projected on the screen - busy city streets. The transfer to film allowed the city street to become another sort of spectacle, one mediated by an apparatus I The street is filled with endless attraction." The essay elaborates the analogies between urban and cinematic experience. Sergei Eisenstein's conviction that film worked directly on the nervous system in a way that echoes Georg Simmel's account of the experience of the modern metropolis. Even the technique of montage in film was thought to mirror the collage of architectural forms that the city presented. It leads, by the end of the 1920s, to a series of celebrated city films, Rien que les heures (1926) by Alberto Cavalcanti, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (19) by Walter Ruttman, Paris qui dort (1923) by Rene Clair, and Moskava (1925) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929) by Dziga Vertov.

These films raise issues for the relation of architecture and the cinema beyond the questions of their documentary and political content. They pose the further question of what is the relation between film and architecture at the level of form. Is there some fundamental link in early modernism between the "language" of film and the city? From this a number of other questions arise: how far can the formal analysis of film from Eisenstein on to film theory of the 1970s onwards be applied to architecture? How far does architecture seek to exploit effects that are developed in film production?

But these questions are not addressed by this collection. Any number of themes are addressed, which concern a number of indirect relations between cinema and architecture. So there are pieces on film as propaganda for social housing. There is a homage to Jacques Tati on the importance of human scale in which he becomes a sort of Heidegger of Highgrove. Woody Allen's New York is compared with Martin Scorsese's New York. Tim Benton assesses the use of films as a form of architectural pedagogy. Jean Nouvel's fascination with cinema is described in terms of his physical similarity to Orson Welles. It begins to feel that the conference on which this collection was based discussed almost every issue about film and architecture, except the very relation between them.

Two articles at least begin to consider that relation - an essay on the architect and art director Robert Mallet Stevens by Odile Vaillant, and an article on Hans Richter, the architectural film-maker. Both indicate that the formal properties of film and of architecture, and the links between them, were objects of systematic discussion in the late 1920s. Stevens was an architect who, in his work as an art director in film, considered the difference between stage sets and film sets. He was the architect of the Villa Noailles in 1924, and an art director on Marcel L'Herbier's L'Inhumaine . Many of his observations on the nature of the film set can, by a strange transposition, be read as the means for achieving effects within a modernist architectural space. In treating people (characters) as the return of ornaments that must be choreographed with care, it is possible to see how art directors (working in black and white) dictated everything down to the question of what to wear and how to move about in a modernist interior. His own architecture, the Villa Noailles, is filmed by Man Ray in Les Mysteres du Chateau du Dé , and the film shows how the question of lighting, the handling of volumes and the production of a depth of field in modernist architecture is one in which innovation often came about between film and architecture. In this sense modernist architecture has always been mediated by film.

The other obvious level of the relation is the way in which film, and subsequently film theory, could produce an analysis of architecture. This is partly addressed by Andres Janser in an article on Richter. He quotes Siegfried Gideon on the possibilities of the relation of film to the new buildings: "Still photography does not capture them clearly. One would have to accompany the eye as it moves: only film can make the new architecture intelligible." Historically this led at the end of the 1920s to the discussions between CIAM, the organisation of modernist architecture, and CICI, the Congress of Independent Cinema. Somehow the relation never really materialised and we are left with fragments of the proposed alliance, such as Hans Richter's Die Neue Wohnung .

Unfortunately the collection does not elaborate on these possibilities, as the interpenetration of the two forms within an independent international modernism. Indeed, there remains an unsettled series of questions. Certainly Eisenstein thought that the analysis of montage in film provided the possibility of a formal analytic of architecture, one which, unlike most architectural description, would be able to handle the issue of time. Nor does the volume acknowledge from the 1970s onwards, the importance, at least within schools of architecture, of film and film theory. There is no representation, for example, of the earlier work of the architect Bernard Tschumi and no acknowledgement of the effect of film on techniques of mapping and representation that students employ. A popular conception of what architects draw when they draw, as if they were only ever working up sketches of buildings into more precise drawings, is radically mistaken.

It is the final section that turns to the question of virtual reality and computer-aided design, the parochialism of the collection becomes clearer. No distinction is drawn between film, video and computer-generated images. Consequently, the relation between cinema and architecture is even further diluted into speculation about design and the computer. Doubtless it is difficult to organise a conference that is consistent in its adherence to a well-defined central issue. But here the central issue is what is missing. It makes one long for the return of formalist analysis.

Mark Cousins is director of general studies, Architectural Association.

Cinema and Architecture: Melies, Mallet-Stevens, Multimedia

Editor - François Penz and Maureen Thomas
ISBN - 0 85170 578 2
Publisher - BFI
Price - £14.99
Pages - 212

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