Why are there so few films about architecture?
An essay by Brendan Cormier
Film and architecture have an almost uncanny bond with each other. Walter Benjamin in his famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’ linked the two as art forms that are both received in distraction, the passive viewer stealing glances as the frame constantly shifts. Even long before the invention of the moving image, some of the greatest ancient monuments seem to have been conceived with the director’s eye in mind. Auguste Choisy, writing in his 1899 tome Histoire de l’Architetcure described the Acropolis as a carefully sequenced set of views, as one follows an approach to the site, which architecture historian Martino Stierli has described as ‘proto-cinematic’.
Throughout the 20th century film and architecture would each inform the development of the other. Sergei Eisenstein, who was trained as an architect before he began his successful film career, was majorly influenced by Choisy’s depiction of the Acropolis, and in his text ‘Montage and Architecture’ he drafted many filmic ideas for how movement could structure the perception of space. This is perhaps most famously seen in the ‘Odessa Steps’ section of Battleship Potemkin, a 7-minute sequence where the architecture of the stairs, and the various views it provides are cunningly manipulated to ratchet up the tension and horror of the event depicted.
The temporal aspect of film had an especially profound impact on visual culture, with artists exploring new ways of expressing time and multiple views in static images. The Bauhaus was replete with experiments by Marianne Brandt, László Moholy-Nagy, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and Herbert Bayer using collage and photomontage to project the idea of space and time on architectural perception. Later, Bernard Tschumi and Rem Koolhaas would both take their passion for the narrative power of film to devise new ways to conceive architecture, with works like ‘The Manhattan Transcripts’ or ‘Exodus, or the voluntary prisoners of architecture’, respectively.
But if the histories of film and architecture are so closely intertwined, it is somewhat surprising then that until now, films that focus exclusively on the representation of architecture remain a relatively niche pursuit. A few notable names of course emerge – Beka & Lemoine’s anthropological approach to exploring the lived life of buildings, Heinz Eimgholz’s stoic and minimalist contemplations on space, or Hiroshi Teshigahara’s masterfully flowing views of Antonio Gaudi’s buildings. It especially strange though, because film – much to the early excitement of modernists like Le Corbusier and Sigfried Giedion – is the medium that seems to come closest to mirroring our actual lived experience and encounter with architecture.
Architecture is always split between two selves: The actual building and then the myriad forms of representing architecture (plan, elevation, photograph, axonometric, collage, rendering, model). For curators and critics, this division is acute – buildings being more or less immovable, most discourse about architecture as presented in lectures, books, or exhibitions, and so on relies on using representational tools for showing architecture. This may seem utterly obvious but imagine how strange it would be to walk into a sculpture gallery and only see photos and sketches of sculpture. Look at any major architecture collection in the world and you will find drawers and cupboards replete with drawings, models and photographs of architecture doing much of the legwork for preserving the cultural memory of architecture itself.
So again, we return to the question, if representation is so important for the preservation and presentation of architecture, why do we have such a poverty of filmic documentation? Cost and venue (film for most of its existence has required a specific infrastructure in which to be viewed) play a significant role. When Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was invited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937 to create a film about the new architecture being made for the London Zoo, it was a rare exception – and likely the first ever instance – where a museum paid for the costs of film production and the venue of an exhibition in which to show it. Comparatively photography has always been exponentially cheaper to produce, and viewable in multiple formats – the photograph itself, slides for a lecture, reproduction in publications, etc.
All of this, however, is changing very rapidly. Moving image through digital tools has never been so affordable to produce and available to so many people. And the ubiquity of screen devices means that is viewable almost anywhere. For the 2019 Beazley Designs of the Year exhibition at the Design Museum in London for instance, nominees for the architecture category were asked to submit short films about their buildings instead of showing photographs, drawings or renderings. Rather than simply hiring a photographer to shoot your buildings, it is now more conceivable than ever that architects use film as major way of representing their portfolio of work. So far however results have been a mixed bag, and a lot of architect-commissioned film has veered toward the blatantly promotional, with the charismatic figure of the architect being centred in the foreground. It would seem there is still much room for exploration for how one can best represent architecture on film.
Which brings me to MINUTES, an initiative developed by Martina Margini at KAAN Architecten in the Netherlands. First floated as a concept in 2017 and stemming from the studio’s general feeling that there was room to move beyond traditional means of representing architecture, the idea was for the office to commission 12 different filmmakers to each create a short movie of under ten minutes that profiles one of the studio’s works. The initiative was deliberately intended to be exploratory, as a probe for discovering what kind of stories, effects and impressions could be expressed through film, and so beyond a time limit, no other constraints were put on the filmmaker.
The result is a rich tapestry of interpretations, with each filmmaker deliberately taking a different approach. We see films in which local folklore is grafted onto the building as is the case with Dynamo by Katja Verheul. In this film, the story of a puma that was once spotted in the forest around Tilburg, and the number of false sightings of animals it inspired, led Verheul to filming a dog roam through an unoccupied CUBE Education and Self-Study Centre. The film mixes security camera footage with cinematic shots in which the dog explores the various unoccupied spaces of the building, giving us a lived experience of the space – that of a peripatetic animal – which the building was never designed or intended for.
Another film, The Letter H by Giulio Squillacciotti riffs on the child-like fantastical nature of Beeckendael, a housing complex designed like a fortified castle on the outskirts of 's-Hertogenbosch. Two schoolgirls tasked with a writing assignment set about imagining a castle, and as they write the story in their head, they move through different parts of the development, using the buildings details as a conceit to draft their own imaginative outcome.
Other filmmakers take a more documentary approach, trying to capture layers of the built experience often absent in promotional photography. In Crafted by Benitha Vlok, the hands of the workers and the materials they worked with in order to build the Netherlands Embassy in Maputo, Mozambique are filmed in crisp black and white detail. In Utopia, Joana Colomar looks at the heterogeneous program of the Utopia Library and Academy for Performing Arts in Aalst, Belgium filming different users of different ages and backgrounds who bring the building’s varied program to life.
Indeed, bodies figure prominently in most of the films; there is no lived life of a building without them, as is most starkly demonstrated in Floating Stillness by Miguel C. Tavares. Filmed during lockdown, the film shows empty scenes of the Chambre de Métiers et de l’Artisanat Hauts-De-France in Lille looking out onto an equally empty city, amplifying the strangeness of the pandemic and how it has rendered so many buildings on standby. Elsewhere, bodies are used to drive the narrative, such as in Await by From Form where a lone woman at the Heimolen crematorium in St. Niklaas, Belgium, presents a useful avatar for the transformation of grief.
What distinguishes all these films from their early 20th century counterparts – where film was primarily thought of as a tool for opening up the multi-perspectival visual experience of architecture – is a move beyond simply aesthetic contemplation, towards a layered approach that combines narrative, reference and symbolism. The buildings here are less the main subject of the film, and more of a collaborative cast member, opening up new possibilities for portraying how architecture interacts with the world.
By commissioning these films, KAAN Architecten is doing a wonderful service for architecture culture in general. Yes, these films do the job of showing the studio’s portfolio of works, but the end effect is so much more than a promotional gesture. It gives space for new experiments with the portrayal of architecture on film, while showing valuable ways to enrich our documentation of architecture for future generations to experience. It’s an ambition, which should be repeated a thousand times over by studios across the world, and which would leave both the architecture world and the film world with an enduring legacy.
Notes on the author:
Brendan Cormier is a Canadian writer, curator, and urban designer based in London, where he currently cover the role of Senior Curator of Exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Prior to this, he served as the managing editor of Volume Magazine. He regularly writes for various publications including Mark, Domus, Azure, Monu, Thresholds, Conditions, and Canadian Architect on architectural and urban issues. He has taught at the Berlage in Delft and Bruce Mau's Institute Without Boundaries in Toronto. In 2009 he co-founded the research and design studio Department of Unusual Certainties in Toronto, where he designed several exhibition installations that explored urban issues. In 2011 he was named innovator-in-residence at the Design Exchange, Canada's national design museum, where he was able to contribute to and influence the curation of exhibitions and programming of events at the museum.