How architecture inspires cinema – and the other way round

An essay explores the links between the art of designing structures and the construction of screen images.

Cinema within its narrative logic is writing with movement, with a succession of events communicated through visuals and sound. Architecture, on the other hand, is a succession of volumes that open out and compress in a constructed manner. The link between them – the narrative event and visual volume – suggests their common link, which is time.

Time, an ignored aspect of filmmaking and viewing, emphasises the accumulation of an abstract event in the absence of the visual and narrative event. It emerges from an approach in which the film’s rhythm is deliberately slowed down, such that two minutes can be stretched to five minutes or vice versa.

The link between architecture and cinema was first expressed through the interior set designs of the German expressionist directors like Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Robert Weine. Using set designers such as Alfred Kubin, they used the tension between black and white, the dualistic colors of cinema representing mind and matter, to create tension represented often through resulting triangular forms.

The trailer of ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’.

Orson Welles, the director of the seminal Citizen Kane, was influenced by them greatly and forwarded their architectural aesthetic to capture neurotic pathology in the absence of the event.

Cinema, unlike architecture, is about pathology. The murder sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the pathological fear of the horror genre and the mental abnormality in films such as Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange communicate the antithesis between cinema and architecture. Architecture is, after all, about proportion. The structures in the frame, whether they are large buildings or small objects are either over-sized or miniscule, are never in a harmonious relationship with the foreground or background.

Architecture is often used to construct an interior labyrinth, a Borgesian crystal in which different aspects create an architectural reflection when light passes through them. In Kubrick’s work, this emphasis on disproportion and pathology is brought out through detail. The detail in itself is deliberately mismatched to alienate the audience. In The Shining, the disproportion in the size of the location of the film, a hotel, and the interiors furthers the contradictory relationship between movement and trajectory, to alienate the spectator. Instead of a continuous whole, Kubrick makes more of a Cubist collage that destroys the plan of the whole.

‘The Shining’.
‘The Shining’.

This plan of the hotel in The Shining is laid out at the beginning of the film in the form of a maze outside the establishment. Later a similar maze is placed in the interiors of the hotel. Analysts have found that the two mazes do not, in fact, match. Crew members of the film often noted that Kubrick altered parts of the maze so that the direct forwarding of the film was asymmetrical and subconsciously distanced the viewer from the narrative.

More explicitly, architecture is best explored in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. A trained practitioner who worked under Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Antonioni uses architecture to isolate figures from the background so that all that remains is pure surface. An urban filmmaker, Antonioni explores pathology within the physiology of the architecture, the ways in which it forms a body without any intensity – completely rarefied of events. Once the film starts after the story has already taken place, the forms are reduced to their minimal contents where everything else is nullified.

’52 Spaces’, a short tribute to ‘The Eclipse’.

Antonioni’s aesthetic has influenced not just his peers in offbeat art house cinema, but also within the logic of genre cinema across the world. The last sequence of Mani Kaul’s Satah Se Uthata Aadmi uses the location space in a factory in Bhopal to capture Antonioni’s interest in machines within the idea of constructing line, shape and curve in the image.

The more recent filmmakers working within this logic include Wim Wenders and Wong Kar-Wai, whose structures work more like fillers in the negative space of the sky. This aesthetic is reminiscent of the later films of the Italian director Roberto Rossellini, who worked with the gaseous architectural space of the sky by comparing it to the framed structures at ground level.

The more narrative structures are rarefied, the more volumes become concentrated. Architectural progressions take the place of events to create a pathological visual narrative that transforms the object.

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