Architecture has connections with various fields of arts and science such as music, literature, physics, structures, etc., since ancient times. Cinema and architecture have had a long-standing association, such that films are analyzed to understand architecture, and architecture is studied to make a film.  All films have an architectural layer to them in one way or the other, even though the films are not about buildings or cities. This article explores these different layers of architecture in films.

A Tool to Establish the Context and its Aesthetics

Whether it is a building or a city, the fundamental task of a story is to establish the place in which it is set. Films establish a place or a setting through their architecture and environment.  For example, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s “All about my mother (1999)” introduces Barcelona through its architectural marvels. Manuela is a single mother who lost his son on his 17th birthday. The tragedy makes her move from Madrid to Barcelona.  The first images of Barcelona are ecstatic aerial shots of the evening city, irradiated by the swirling music of the song “Tajabone.” As Manuela enters Barcelona from Madrid, we get to know the city along with Manuela, as she passes through the roads in a taxi. The first landmark of Barcelona besides which she passes is the Columbus Monument located at the end of the famous Las Ramblas avenue. The cab stops at the eastern facade of La Sagrada Familia, and Manuela sees it through the half-closed window as the facade is reflected in the window.

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Manuela looks at the facade of Sagrada Familia through window of the taxi_©All about my mother
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The characters in Times Square in Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu_©Ayngaran

Similarly, the Indian movie “Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu (2006)” sets up the context through a song of montages. The montages not only establish New York City as a context for the movie but also appreciate the aesthetics of the city skyline at night. As the characters walk through the streets of Times Square, we get to know about the places, such as Loew’s theater, Duana Reade (a pharmacy named after streets of Manhattan), and many more through the digital facades along the streets. The song also shows the liveliness of the city at night through busy streets, lights, and people. 

The Backdrop of the Plot

A plot takes place in a setting/backdrop. The built environment becomes the backdrop of almost all movies. Science fiction movies and period films always use buildings and cities as a backdrop of the plot through sets and VFX. Futuristic movies such as Ready Player one (2018), Black Panther (2018), Inception (2010) set an imaginary future and immerse the audience into their world of fantastic reality. On the other hand, period/historical films such as The Imitation game (2014), Padmavat (2018), Kaaviya Thalaivan (2014) attempts to recreate the real events of the period, bringing up a world of realistic fantasy. Historical fiction such as Troy (2004) creates the real world with a fantastical plot.

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John David Washington as Malcolm, outside the home featured in Malcolm & Marie_©Netflix

The backdrop of a movie not only enhances the aesthetics/mood of the scenes but also enhances the aesthetics of the story/narrative. For example, the 260 sq.m eco house becomes the perfect backdrop for the drama of the film “Malcolm and Marie (2021)”. The creative couple returns to the California house (Caterpillar House) after the premiere of Malcolm’s new film, which is the real-life narrative of Marie, a former addict. This creates a verbal onslaught between the couple, which exposes their vulnerabilities and insecurities. Caterpillar House is situated in an isolated location in California that best suited the needs of the plot. Also, the open plan of the house provides the ideal setting for the couples to strip down their ego that inflamed their combustible relationship. 

Metaphorical Representation 

A movie, as an art form, uses metaphors to describe the narrative. The metaphors are played through architecture or architectural elements in some movies. In the film “Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown (1988)”, the places become the metaphors of the mood of the characters. Pepa, the central character of the movie, lives in the attic of an apartment as the womanizer Ivan leaves her alone after their relationship. Most of her actions take place in the attic. It is given as the spatial metaphor of the superego of Pepa. Also, there is a panoramic view of Madrid from the apartment, which shows the iconic buildings of the city. Pepa is shown as a modern Noah, and her attic as ark, which floats on the great panoramic view of Madrid. On the other hand, the Mambo taxi is a mobile and cheerful space, which helps her forget Ivan for a moment.

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Pepa enjoying the panoramic view of Madrid_©Vladimir Bojkovic

Representation of Mood of the Film 

The plot sets up the place of the story as well as the emotions of the characters. These emotions determine the mood of the film, which are reflected in the mood of the space. One of the important directors who best makes architecture a tool for the representation of the mood of the characters is Alfred Hitchcock. His film “Vertigo (1958)” presents the staircase as an architectural image rather than an architectural element. In the film, the staircase is the place of crisis and tension, and the skewed perspective evokes a deeper unsettling in the users. The staircase is used to signify the “search” that provokes the protagonist to seek or find. Every step down the staircase creates a sense of suspense in the mind of the viewers.

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Staircase in Vertigo_©Vertigo

In the film “All about my mother (1999)”, there is a strong representation of two cities of Spain- Madrid, and Barcelona.  The feelings of Manuela are reflected in the depictions of the cities. Madrid is shown as a macho city. The interesting architectural structures, composition, and architectural elements store the emotions associated with the city. While Barcelona is associated with tragic events and is presented in a much subtle and sensual way. The presentation of the cities helps in establishing the mood of different parts of the film.

Cultural reflection

Architecture is obviously an important part of the culture of a society. The cultural presentation of society in films can be well reflected only through architecture. This power of architecture is best explored in Kiriastomi’s films such as “The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)” and “Life and Nothing More (1992)”. The movies are set in the rural locations of Iran, which shows the perspective of an urban outsider. It makes the audience reflect the perspective of the outsider. 

The fundamental way of establishing a cultural context in a film is through repetition. For example, in “The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)”, Behzad travels on four occasions to the cemetery to get a fair mobile signal. After the second or third visit, the cemetery becomes a familiar place for the viewers. The basic premise of The Wind Will Carry Us is that a video crew from Tehran is on assignment in the small rural village of Siah Dareh to document the elaborate scarification ritual that some of the local women will perform as a sign of mourning when a hundred-year-old woman from the village dies. As the crew travels, Behzad says, “We are heading nowhere”. Kiarostami uses nowhere in all movies to emphasize the fact that the villages and the villagers of Iran are nowhere to be found in the global systems of representation.

Another significant representation of culture through repetition is including hybrid zones (areas that are both private and public). Projections about what is happening indoors often shape the reality of what happens outdoors. To visualize this, Kiarostami fills his films with images of doors and thresholds and has characters hovering at the foot of these thresholds to peer inside. Viewers are rarely given a clear glimpse of what lies beyond these thresholds. By avoiding interiors, Kiarostami leaves to the viewer’s imagination of what happens within indoor spaces.  But, by repeating the images of the threshold, he evokes the imagination of the viewers.

Active Character 

Sometimes, architecture/ architectural elements become the characters of the movies, beyond acting as a backdrop or a setting. Architecture is depicted as a live character with emotions. One such movie is “Rear window (1954)” by Alfred Hitchcock. The setting of the movie is in the courtyard of several apartment buildings in New York. A journalist photographer gets stuck in his apartment with a broken leg and observes the lives of other people through the rear window. A scream at night makes him suspect murder in the apartment. After the incident, the apartment is shown as a context of fear at night. The rear window plays an active character in the movie, as it captures the emotions of various people in the apartment to the photographer, and at the same time, it becomes the mirror of his self-introspection.

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Rear window showing the scenes of the apartment_©Rear window
The Wall in Madras_©Madras

The Indian Tamil movie, “Madras (2014)” not only emphasizes the context of North Chennai but also its culture, politics, and people. The film revolves around the dispute over the wall that should host a painting of a political leader. The central element of the film, a “wall”, is shown to be growing on the characters, but the fact is that the characters grow on it. There is a sense of rooted cohesiveness between the Wall and the people of that area, i.e. there is a strong local identity attached to it. This is reinforced when a character from a division (of political influence) tells the other “Idhuenga area, enga suvaru”(translates to “our area, our wall”). The film depicts the Legend of the wall at the beginning. It becomes an element of horror, equivalent to the Outlook Hotel in the “Shining” or the Staircase in Vertigo. A series of killings in the area keeps the red stain of the wall spreading throughout. The streetlights in front keep flickering, casting ominous shadows on the wall. The protagonist Kaali’s bike gets broken down in front of the wall. Further, he gets blank calls and observes a sense of someone following him. It becomes the place for accidents and suicide. The Wall that was ‘dominant space’, has now become totally ‘dominated’. People started believing that the wall is a superpower that takes the lives of people. It makes the wall in Madras, a living character, creating a sense of horror in the viewers.

References:

Preethika, B., 2016. Cinema in Architecture: A Synergism. [online] Issuu. Available at: <https://issuu.com/preetikab/docs/arch_and_cinema> 

Blog.allplan.com. 2018. Architecture in film: When buildings play the leading role. [online] Available at: <https://blog.allplan.com/en/architecture-in-film>

Bransford, S., 2003. Days in the Country: Representations of Rural Space and Place in Abbas Kiarostami’s Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees and The Wind Will Carry Us. [online] Available at: <https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2003/abbas-kiarostami/kiarostami_rural_space_and_place/> 

LAWRENCE, V., 2021. The Real Star of Netflix’s ‘Malcolm & Marie’ Is This Stunning Modernist House. [online] ELLE Decor. Available at: <https://www.elledecor.com/life-culture/a35482143/malcolm-marie-netflix-house/> 

Wilson, E., 2020. All About My Mother: Matriarchal Society. [online] The Criterion Collection. Available at: <https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6795-all-about-my-mother-matriarchal-society> 

Trivedi, D., 2016. How architecture inspires cinema – and the other way round. [online] Scroll.in. Available at: <https://scroll.in/reel/807541/how-architecture-inspires-cinema-and-the-other-way-round> 

Films

The Wind will carry us. 1999.

Directed by A. Kiarostami.

Vertigo. 1958.

Directed by A. Hitchcock.

Rear window. 1954.Directed by A. Hitchcock.

Madras. 2018.

Directed by Pa. Ranjith.

Author

Guruprasath believes in a conscious approach towards architecture, which fulfills the intentions of the people towards the built spaces and vice-versa. He is more interested in understanding architecture, which made him incline towards writing on architecture. He also enjoys reading and writing other stuff.

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