FILM’S OBSESSION WITH MODERNISMOpinion

by Ali El-hashimi, AA 2nd Year
Intermediate Unit 13

10 February 2015
Architectural Association, London

 

“I’m angry. I’m very angry, Ralph. You know, you can ball my wife if she wants you to. You can lounge around here on her sofa, in her ex-husband’s dead-tech, post-modernistic bullshit house if you want to. But you do not get to watch my fucking television set!” – Heat (1995)

 

"Those aren't mountains. They're waves." Interstellar (Warner Bros./Paramount Pictures)

“Those aren’t mountains. They’re waves.” Interstellar (Warner Bros./Paramount Pictures)

This is a continuation of my review of Inter 13’s unit trip to Brno where I briefly mention the frame. However, this is less about the trip and more about the relationship between film (where “the frame” plays a vital role in playing out a story) and architecture. Modernism has an intimate relation with film both as a form of filmic expression and as an inspiration but for the sake of this article I will talk briefly about a few examples as the topic is too big to express in a few hundred words. This is merely a conversation starter.

 

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Washington DC, USA. Image credit: http://goodspeedupdate.com/2006/2051

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Washington DC, USA. Image credit: http://goodspeedupdate.com/2006/2051

Directors such as David Lynch and Christopher Nolan, to name a few, have made films evidently influenced by modernist architecture, with Lynch even citing Mies as one of his favourite architects. I would recommend reading the book The Architecture of David Lynch, which provides an in-depth analysis of the use of architecture within his films. Modernism provides a variety of spatial conditions that demonstrate the subtle rituals of the domestic realm. Richard Neutra once said houses were not machines but “stages for living.” This is demonstrated in Mies’ Villa Tugendhat or even the Barcelona Pavilion which acts as a manifesto for modern architecture since, as mentioned in my previous article, the arrangement of elements such as the columns and lighting create a sense of theatricality. Film directors understood modernism as a tool for conveying architecture on a cinematic level.

The temporary Batcave. The Dark knight Rises (Warner Bros.)

The temporary Batcave. The Dark knight Rises (Warner Bros.)

A recent film that comes to mind is Interstellar, a disappointment in its’ final act but several design aspects of the film can’t go without praise. Such an example can be found with the robots TARS and CASE where Nolan decided against a conventional look for both robots. While the film is an obvious homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan told his production designer to design them as if Mies was designing robots…true story. Based purely on functionality that acts like an ordinary piece of equipment, the execution of the design is mostly determined by mathematics. The resulting robots are quite radical; minimalist in appearance but able to provide complex functions.

 

Modernism and film have one trait in common – their obsession with light. Mies was known to use rows and rows of fluorescent lighting. In film cinematographers use light to not only illuminate spaces in a realistic or expressive way but also to compliment the story and the characters. When executed successfully, lighting, set design and the story all work together effortlessly within the frame. In a way, one can think of architects such as Mies and Corbusier as cinematographers; they both understood the poetry of light and used it to express architectural form.

 

Monastery of Sainte Marie de la Tourette, Éveux-sur-l’Arbresle, France. Image credit: http://www.archdaily.com/597598/light-matters-le-corbusier-and-the-trinity-of-light/

Monastery of Sainte Marie de la Tourette, Éveux-sur-l’Arbresle, France. Image credit: http://www.archdaily.com/597598/light-matters-le-corbusier-and-the-trinity-of-light/

In fact the grid, the modernist emblem, is prevalent in several films. The list goes on forever with one well known example being Blade Runner. However, in this case, the grid isn’t used just to compliment the cinematography but instead as an entirely separate entity. Perfect squares don’t exist in nature thus making the grid artificial, it subtly opposes the decorative nature of the space by covering most of the grid in shadow – an important visual element in film noir. Shadows hide the truth, the truth being that the grid is the future.

The city represented in Blade Runner has no sense of time. The buildings are so tall that sunlight ceases to exist. The street becomes an urban basement where everything is artificially lit and every rich pushover lives above the 60th floor. The scene in Tyrell’s office is the only moment where the sun is actually directly shown on screen. The columns within the office act as a sundial, indicating time by producing shadows framed within a grid. The linear lines that go across the room direct our eyes towards the massive table, which serves as an altar to emphasise its’ layout and the religious themes of the film.

 

Tyrell's office. Blade Runner (Warner Bros.)

Tyrell’s office. Blade Runner (Warner Bros.)

Personally, I don’t treat every project differently but part of a wider continuous investigation into the relationship between film and architecture. Therefore, film will always be at the forefront of my project and my interests in the unit I’m doing now and every other unit that I will do in the future. It is the only medium that has mass appeal as something people can relate to, far more than music or any other art, so how does one transform this idea of relate-ability and human emotion into architecture? This is what I define as good architecture.

 

“But we do not build for fun. We build for a purpose.” – Mies van der Rohe

 

Isometric shadow study drawing of Tyrell's office for initial research into insomnia which is all about light and dark.

Isometric shadow study drawing of Tyrell’s office for initial research into insomnia which is all about light and dark.

For more information:

Ali El-hashimi on AA Conversations
Intermediate 13 Unit Brief