The built form has always taken the role of canvas on the big screen- it is an unavoidable man made element that enhances the symbolic gravitas of the character and the plot. However, some filmmakers have chosen throughout the years of cinema- to use this tool to add more drama or character to a scene or even film.
Perhaps one of the most influential and important artists was Jean-Luc Godard, a pioneer of the New Wave film movement and a revered figurehead of the post-war film era. In reels such as Week End (1967) & Le Mepris (1963), Godard uses architecture as a palette to change the tone and setting for the film. From vivid streetscapes to the use of built elements to accentuate a certain emotion, Godard was one of the first to recognize the potential of architecture in the frame.
As we transition to the mainstream silver screen, we come across the work of Alfred Hitchcock, who used the set and built form to amplify the horror, retard time and even add precarious elements of suspense using the set, created for the scene. Whether it be the long pauses by slow panning through the room in Psycho (1960) or the duplicitous set of Rope (1948), Hitchcock holds the dimension of time between his fingers to linger on scenes as per his direction.
Parallelly, the indie film movement had other leaders that were endowed with the vision of balancing the foreground and background. Though many head this movement, Yasujiro Ozu’s techniques are perhaps the most unique and imitated by many of his admirers. Tokyo Story (1953) uses the architecture of the home to symbolize the distance in a relationship, scenes cutting to the background to leave the viewer guessing for the threading emotion, crafted abruptly between scenes to help transition through the emotional weight in the scene. Ozu’s other work is just as unique as this film but architecture takes part in the foreground here.
As we transition from a modernist to postmodernist world, we see the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg doing their part. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980) are two contrasting cinematic contexts, yet show the dynamics of a character in the same environment. While 2001 uses the setting to punctuate the space in space- the distance from Earth, The Shining uses the largely empty halls to highlight the distance in the family, sociopathic traits, and surreal imagery over a built background.
Spielberg’s world reflects different realities, yet a constant theme is an experimentation with the background. Whether it is the archaeological setting of Indiana Jones (1981) or the fabricated islands in Jurassic Park(1993), Spielberg has never failed to surprise with his choice of scripts and backgrounds, each trying a new style. Munich(2006) focuses on the set and subsequent sound design to create a gripping yet moving rendition of the bombings in spectacular detail.
Meanwhile, science fiction sets were getting popular after Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). Scott Ridley’s Blade Runner (1982) ensures the entourage moves through the futuristic dystopian streets and creates an experience unlike any other through architecture. Though limited by the time and technology, those boundaries were broken with the introduction of VFX as we dawned to the ’00s.
As some directors followed tried and tested scripts, Christopher Nolan had taken the stage with his provocative, prolific and psychological thrillers. With his first actual film being Memento (2000), Nolan’s distinctive work is a highlight for all architects as one of the protagonists in the film, Inception (2010). Playing a titular role, the architect in the film transcends reality to craft spaces without limits in something that is beyond the metaphysical. Nolan’s films are widely successful for its thought-provoking and counter-culture genres within the mainstream of directors.
Wes Anderson is another director who uses architecture and the built form as frames for character expressions. Seen majorly in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), it is also seen in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and Moonrise Kingdom(2012). Revolving the characters around a single element, Anderson possesses a rare gift of unraveling the plot slowly, often ending with a picturesque frame.
Though few revolving around the building, Quentin Tarantino also aims to use the built form as a reflection of status and societal values. From the stacked houses in Pulp Fiction(1994) to the rich white man’s house in Django Unchained(2012), Tarantino stays in the frame as the well detailed built form while relying on a well-written script.
Architecture shone under the spotlight last year with Bong Joon- Ho’s Parasite(2019). Stitching two contrasting tapestries in one spectacular climax, Parasite used the built form for status, power and something unattainable. As it becomes clearer and more popular, directors and filmmakers have made executive decisions to make sure set design- architecture, furniture and the background, become an important and creative feature in the film.
As we went through art movements, film making, an art in itself has evolved with architecture. As technology, set design and elements become better, architecture has moved from the limelight into a more central and pivotal role. No longer are the characters and plots the only elements that carry the gravitas of the film, it now also rests with the effort in the film in creating an effective background. For the screen is the window into the minds of the filmmaker, a temple of thought.
- Baratto, Romullo. “How Architecture Speaks Through Cinema” [Como a arquitetura fala com o cinema] 15 Jun 2017. ArchDaily. (Trans. Valletta, Matthew) Accessed 29 Aug 2020. <https://www.archdaily.com/872754/how-architecture-speaks-through-cinema> ISSN 0719-8884
- Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Architecture of Image. Existential space in architecture. Helsinki: Rakennustieto Publishing, 2007.