ENTER THE FRAME: FILM & ARCHITECTURE
The sheer amount of movies we’ve consumed during the pandemic – not to mention the process of designing the Stories of Cinema galleries at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures – has prompted us to investigate the curious relationship between film and architecture. What is it that makes the two disciplines inherently complementary?
Our teams in New York and Los Angeles are full of individuals with niche expertise, and in this case we asked Lucas Lind, member of the WHY New York Office, film buff, and videographer – what titles would he choose to illuminate the connections between film and architecture?
Rather than simply listing the countless films which make it onto architects’ lists (Blade Runner, Metropolis, The Fountainhead, and High Rise are typical favorites), we’re curious about the moment of “inhabitation” which occurs while watching a film. That moment when the logic of the film’s architectural world suddenly snaps into shape, creating a space which draws us in and invites us to share the tensions, reveries, and conflicts of the characters…
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Screen-notes synopsis: Rome, in monochrome. A romance between a literary translator and an arrogant stockbroker. Big wins, a loss, some art and two cars. A date night, delayed.
Enter the frame: “The film ends in anticlimax – neither of the two lovers turn up at the agreed location, and instead we are faced with a montage of strangers commuting through a stark new development on the outskirts of the city. The mood is one of deep dissociation under the conditions of modern life: the sequence cuts between abstract shots of modernist urban infrastructure and close-ups of pedestrians gazing warily into the distance.
This is not a world designed to be entirely convincing – it’s too uncanny and theatrical for that. But it’s wholly compelling at the same time. Antonioni chose to use non-actors for this sequence, implying that this is the world we’re inhabiting all along – whether or not we feel at one remove from these spaces. The uncanniness of the scenes isn’t just how they appear – it also arises in the moment of realizing the constructed theatricality of our own lives.”
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Screen-notes synopsis: A tale of two families in Seoul, one rich, one poor, whose lives entwine with dramatic consequences. The stage: a beautiful modernist-style house.
Enter the frame: “Parasite is an example of masterful structural storytelling (every beat of the screenplay keeps us hooked), and the luxury contemporary home at the center of the narrative acts as a type of scaffolding; it’s the form around which the two families’ fortunes twist and turn. One particular scene powerfully expresses this dynamic. Around the midway point of the film, the Kim family takes advantage of the Park family’s absence to hold a raucous feast in the living room – a scene which appears as an assault on the clean lines of the minimalist furniture and the aesthetic rules of the house.
As the shots cut between the feast and the Park family’s imminent return home, the viewer’s anxiety rises – rooting for the underdog Kim family, we become desperate for the mess to be cleared up, upholding the dominant values of the architecture in spite of ourselves. As it happens, our wishes are met and the family and the chaos are subsumed within the interior (the debris of the feast is stuffed under the table, the family hide under the couch). And so the story continues, the architecture remains silent, and we are complicit. That is, until the underground layers of the house are revealed and the tables are turned once again…”
Directed by Jacques Tati
Screen-notes synopsis: The Paris of the future, a consumerist playground with a life of its own. An airport, a trade show, a carousel of cars. Alienation at its most animated.
Enter the frame: “This scene is one of many in which the characters struggle to cope with the mod cons of modern life in a hyper-capitalist, steel-and-glass Paris. The character of Monsieur Hulot attempts to navigate the endless repetition of bureaucratic cubicles to meet with a business partner – and inevitably gets lost in the process.
This is an environment of total design, so entirely based on streamlining productivity that the user seems to have been forgotten along the way. This “forgetfulness” is also true of the film overall, where the architecture is the main protagonist and human characters are somewhat two-dimensional – you don’t so much enter the world of Playtime as get swallowed into it. The question (as with all dystopias) is whether this is a warning against a possible future, or a description of the present? In other words – is there a way out? The answer, perhaps, would be to stop resisting and just play.”
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Screen-notes synopsis: An Afrofuturist lens on the Marvel franchise. A meteorite, a fight for freedom, a re-writing of history to imagine alternate futures.
Enter the frame: “This shot draws the viewer into the technologically advanced nation of Wakanda, which has long concealed its true power by posing as a Third World country. The nation’s relationship to the rest of the world provides a premise to explore issues of colonialism, racism, and political isolationism – but Wakanda is also a self-contained world which generates its own visual logic, subverting the traditional tropes of sci-fi and resisting the overbearing austerity of classical and modernist design languages.
The film is not without controversy (there’s a fine line between empowerment and exploitation), and it raises questions which are present in any act of world building. Who owns and rules this constructed world? The inhabitants of Wakanda? The makers of the film? Or the viewers, who interpret the narrative through their own lens? The implications are ethically complex, transforming a blockbuster into a powerful social and political critique.”
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Screen-notes synopsis: A surveillance expert obsessed with his own privacy. A bugged conversation, a missed connection, a murder within a labyrinth of locked doors.
Enter the frame: “In search of the truth about a murder, the surveillance expert attempts to confront his client at the businessman’s imposing headquarters. The building – shot on location in San Francisco’s Financial District, has an eerie facelessness, offering no clue to the nature of the business within. It’s a principle of all good thrillers to keep the source of danger close but unrevealed – and as it turns out, the client is not the perpetrator but the victim of the crime. With its soaring linear structure and walls of windows, the building seems to symbolize shadowy corporate interests, but perhaps the real horror is the failure to pin the structure to an easy symbol. Faced with the building’s meaningless mass, the surveillance expert is forced to find the answer in his own locked apartment – in his own disturbed mind.”
If you look closely, you’ll start to notice architectural moments appearing in almost any film you watch. After all, architecture is one of the primary ways that we structure and make sense of our world. It’s the perfect scaffolding for a story.
You can decode the significance of those moments by noticing when you feel fully absorbed into the architectural world of a film, when it plays upon your emotions and seemingly invites you inside. By taking a step back, you become aware of the strange power of those constructed sets and their role in shaping the narrative.
In the context of a film, it becomes clear that the built environment is never neutral; a building or a streetscape holds clues to the characters’ values and the limits and possibilities which define their lives. What’s true of a film is equally true of our own lived experience – only we don’t have the separation of a screen to allow us to take an objective perspective on the worlds we collectively construct and inhabit every day. Taking the stance of filmmakers and moviegoers can help us to see how human actions and perceptions are shaped by the built environment, for better and for worse. Every shelter, sidewalk, pillar, or wall, is supporting a story. The question is – what kind of stories do we want to tell?