Build it and they Will Film

By Nilesh Patel


A distinctive study of architecture and cinema intrigues a practitioner of both   

Johan Pallasmaa is an award-winning architect and writer. His collection of essays, The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema, analyses the use of architectural imagery in cinema to evoke and maintain a range of emotional states, such as terror, anguish, suspense, boredom, alienation, melancholy, happiness or ecstasy. Pallasmaa claims to have experienced these more fully via the cinematic image than in any other artistic medium, including architecture.

He has investigated the use and depiction of space, light, matter and sound in selected feature films directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky. He uses references to paintings and illustrations to reveal the likely inspiration for much of the cinematic imagery he describes. As a student and architect, Pallasmaa was initially struck by architectural imagery in medieval paintings, particularly the representations of rooms, buildings, and townscapes in early Renaissance Art. This led to an appreciation of Tarkovsky’s use of light and space in films such as Stalker and Mirror, which rekindled childhood memories of countryside life.

Meanwhile, the technical challenges posed by single room settings (Rear Window) and continuous takes (Rope) must have excited Hitchcock as much as any newspaper murder report. Similarly, one wonders to what extent Kubrick’s fascination with the Steadicam contributed to the architecture of The Shining. Their approach is contrasted with that of Antonioni and Tarkovsky, who were more receptive to change and the sometimes fleeting, but nevertheless emotive, qualities of a particular time and place. Like master architects such as Le Corbusier or Mies Van der Rohe, no detail is overlooked by these directors.

Although only Hitchcock among those featured claimed to have been interested in ‘pure cinema’, the approach to film form, structure, and the photographic or mental spatial compositions presented in these works leads to the conclusion that other directors also shared this interest, and that the relationships between characters and the landscape and architecture they inhabited and encountered were as complex and as important as the relationships between the characters in their films.

I recently watched David Fincher’s Panic Room and was struck by his contemporary update of the ‘woman in peril’ film and the use of a single location, albeit a 5 storey Manhattan townhouse. Contemporary Hollywood blockbuster directors have extraordinary resources, which enable them to build and film what might have once been impossible.

But I wondered how meticulously Pallasmaa’s chosen directors, or others such as Robert Bresson or Roman Polanski, might choose to frame what may seem the simplest of shots, such as a human figure against a doorway, and the myriad emotions they were able to evoke and generate through film.

These essays provide a useful reference to scriptwriters and directors, as they demonstrate the enormous contribution that architecture, landscape and light can make to cinematic storytelling, whether fiction or documentary. Although these films and filmmakers are justly known and revered, Pallasmaa has limited his research to a particular reading of their work and working methods, and it is this approach which makes the book worth pursuing. Indeed, he could have used the title ‘The Architects of Image’, as these works and their authors present us with new ways of seeing and experiencing architecture, despite working in the medium of flickering light and shade.

Nilesh Patel is an architect and has made two short films, A Love Supreme and The Waiter.