The world of architecture and the world of film met recently at Catholic University's department of architecture and planning, where a conference titled "Architecture and the Moving Image" considered how those two human-designed worlds overlap, interact and influence each other.
Organized by architect Neal Payton, a member of Catholic University's architecture department faculty, the conference addressed seemingly esoteric themes such as "Film, Architecture and Culture," "Filmic Representation of Architecture" and "Narrative in Film and Architecture."
Despite its academic context, the conference dealt with one issue of particular interest to the man or woman on the street: How can architects design architecture to be as compelling, moving, memorable and influential as films designed by filmmakers?
In addressing this question, Payton alludes to a significant contrast between architecture and film. Most of the public, he observes, narrowly views architecture as "90 percent utilitarian and 10 percent decoration."
The average consumer of architecture overlooks its potential for sponsoring human action, reinforcing rituals, transmitting messages symbolically, provoking emotions or telling stories. For most people, architecture may be little more than a neutral, static framework in which to stay warm and dry, place furniture and potted plants and act out tedious, daily routines.
On the other hand, Payton notes, consumers buy into movies expecting much more than just live-action images of people, buildings and landscapes. They expect to be entertained, to be stimulated emotionally and intellectually. Designed environments and actions, momentarily seeming to be real and alive, can make the moviegoer laugh, cry, feel anger or sympathy, become tense or cringe with fear or disgust.
Viewers, drawn in by plot, characters, dialogue, sets, lighting and sound, often retain impressions and memories of films that long outlast the impressions and memories of most of the buildings they see. Some films may even change moviegoers' beliefs or behavior. Few buildings can make such claims.
Thus, architects perhaps can learn from moviemakers about making architectural settings that profoundly affect people's thoughts, feelings and actions. Indeed, architects could envy the filmmaker's control of a film's setting, story and audience.
"Both the architect and the director propose worlds for one to inhabit," Payton has written. "The filmmaker must design the events of that world while the architect can only imagine the experience of the space he is designing." Plot, dialogue, characters, feelings -- the architect is limited to speculation about what these might be, hoping that reality approximates the narrative imagined.
Conference participants, of course, approached this issue from diverse viewpoints. Some were concerned with pure documentation, the ability of film to show with relative objectivity what the world looks like, or, as articulated by Payton, "to shape the culture's view of architecture."
Yet documentation can be as evocative and lyrical as drama, as was illustrated by Charles Guggenheim's presentation of his film, "The Making of Liberty," a visual description of the refurbishing of the Statue of Liberty that brought tears to the eyes of the conference's scholarly audience.
The film's impact had much to do with the historic and national significance of its subject. A similar documentary about the reconstruction of, say, the Army-Navy Club in downtown Washington probably would be much less moving.
However, one could imagine a powerful film being made about the phoenix-like restoration and revitalization of Union Station in which its renewed form, and the many stories that go with it, would be disclosed in an arresting narrative.
The narrative potential of architecture, its ability to communicateToday, it seems odd that the still photo, carefully composed and shot, continues to be the primary method for documenting and studying architecture. more than just shape and pattern and color, has long been exploited in films, and this shared objective -- participating in story-telling by conveying information without text -- was much discussed at the conference.
Donald Albrecht, exhibitions curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, set the stage by talking about film, architecture and culture. In the 1930s, he noted, filmmakers expropriated and redefined emerging architectural ideas, the -isms of architectural modernity -- streamlining, anti-ornament minimalism, techno-futurism.
Originally these were European ideas, part of the Bauhaus movement, the invention of socialist, reformist, utopian theoreticians dedicated to creating workers' paradises.
But by imparting a kind of "gilded" look to the new modernism, American film set designers created high-fashion, Art Deco restaurants, penthouse apartments, shipboard cabins and dining rooms that became architectural symbols of sophistication, affluence and savoir-faire -- a long way from workers' paradises.
Through film, the architectural icons of socialist theory turned into the icons of American capitalism.
And like television today, 1930s films had far greater effect on the public's beliefs about architecture, and what it represented, than any of the manifestos produced by architects.
On another front, the 1930s also witnessed increasing use of film to convey movement through space, or what the architect Le Corbusier called promenade architecturale.
In addition to controlling totally the composition of a given scene -- set, positions of actors, camera angles, lighting -- film directors could move cameras through sequences of spaces or scenes, heightening for the viewer the simulated effect of participating in the film's reality.
Architects likewise invent and construct spatial sequences to be experienced "en promenade" -- for example, from approach to entry, from entry to foyer to stair, from stair to corridor, from corridor to vestibule to room.
They hope that the holistic experience of the promenade itself, not just the details of the structure and functions within, will be inspiring.
Another aspect of filmmaking for architects to contemplate is "montage," the assembling of multiple scenes or images.
By artfully juxtaposing scenes, each with its own distinct composition and meaning, other forms and meanings emerge, sometimes unexpectedly.
Characterizing architectural montage, Payton refers to early 20th century Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, originally educated as an architect, and Eisenstein's essay, "Montage and Architecture," in which he describes the Athenian Acropolis.
"The Greeks have left us the most perfect example of shot design, change of shot and shot length... ."
"It is hard to imagine a montage sequence for an architectural ensemble more subtly composed, shot by shot, than the one that our legs create by walking among the buildings of the Acropolis," a "perfect example of one of the most ancient films."
Today, it seems odd that the still photograph, carefully composed and shot, continues to be the primary method for documenting and studying architecture.
The conference suggests that film and video, able to reveal architectural reality more truthfully, might change this.
As Payton noted, film's "rhythmic sequence of images allows a closer simulation of the temporal experience of architecture," the next best thing to being there.
Throughout the conference, architecturally inspiring -- or inspired -- movies were shown continuously. Attendees could see "Rear Window," "Blade Runner," "Brazil," "Star Wars," "Raising Arizona" and "Blue Velvet," among others.
All of which reminded us architects that, while aspiring to be "filmic" in shaping buildings, we still must design real, not imagined, form. Still, our formal constructions might be more memorable if we occasionally pretended to be filmmakers. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.