Space is the place

Architecture and film are both spatial arts. They are founded on the organisation of space, whether real or imaginary. In film the effect is not always noticed, so deeply is it embedded in film’s very language: different shots from different angles project into a visual area and are then cut together to provide a “whole”.

But, of course, this space is imaginary; often it is constructed on sets, with the frame occluding what lies beyond the set, or it is a selective view of a real space that has been transformed by the imagination and its use in storytelling.

As Peter Wollen points out in his essay on architecture and film in his book Paris Hollywood, the Rome of Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City is not the same Rome as that of William Wyler’s Roman Holiday. Both are, in effect, imaginative constructs.

Wollen mentions various famous instances of the uses of architecture in film. One is the extravagant palace that is Xanadu in Citizen Kane, which becomes a clue to its builder’s mind, as well as a museum-mausoleum to his memory. Another is the central staircase around which the visual space of The Servant is designed, and which becomes a character in its own right, in Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter’s film about a master-servant relationship.

Two films Wollen mentions, The Fountainhead and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, involved responses to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Fountainhead, based on Ayn Rand’s novel about a Nietzschean-type “superman” (read: a study in megalomania), echoed the life and work of Wright himself, but when the producers approached Wright to design the buildings that would appear in the film as the work of its fictional architect, Roark, he asked for too much money. So the filmmakers simply got a regular set designer to create a pastiche of Wright’s style, with, as Wollen notes, a dash of that other high-modernist architect, Alvar Aalto.

But The Fountainhead, everyone seems to agree, is not a good film. North by Northwest, on the other hand, is an acknowledged classic, and perhaps that difference says something about the uses of architecture in film: as stylistic metaphor for individual ambition in The Fountainhead versus a very practical filmic use in North by Northwest.

Hitchcock’s film climaxes in and around a house that borrows heavily from Wright’s famous home, Fallingwater, though it is now absurdly but effectively perched atop Mount Rushmore.

What appealed to Hitchcock and his production designer, Robert Boyle, was not so much the association with Wright as the nature of the house itself: Fallingwater provided a model of visually striking cantilevers as well as a stone wall that would provide hand-holds for Cary Grant when he had to climb up it from the outside. As Boyle noted, the pastiche of Fallingwater in North by Northwest is really a “jungle gym” for Grant.

The Architect Africa Film Festival, showing from October 3 at venues around South Africa, contains only one fiction film—perhaps the obvious choice, Peter Greenaway’s 1987 movie The Belly of an Architect, the protagonist of which glories in the name Stourley Kracklite. It’s debatable how much that film is really about architecture at all; it seems to be more about ambition, desire and, er, gut feelings. On the visual level, and the visual is all-important in Greenaway, it’s about symmetry. (It may be the most symmetrical film ever made.) At least it looks at a fair number of the façades of Rome.

The rest of the films on show at the Architect Africa festival are documentaries, many of which deal with public architecture and urban spaces. A good introductory film would be Great Expectations—nothing to do with the Dickens novel but an examination of several visionary and utopian architectural schemes. It starts with Rudolf Steiner’s headquarters for his anthroposophy movement, the Goetheanum, a domed wooden building completed in 1919 and destroyed by arsonists in 1922. Steiner promptly built a new one in a totally different style—it looks like a habitable rock.

We then move through the grand urban schemes of Le Corbusier (whose Marseille housing/hotel project is one of his famous “machines for living in”), Lúcia Costa and Oscar Niemeyer (who got to build an entire city from scratch—Brasília), and some amazing attempts at low-cost, high-density housing such as Habitat 67 in Montreal and the futuristic Venus Project in Florida in the United States. Great Expectations could have gone further, and it’s a little too tricksy in its video effects, but it’s very interesting nonetheless.

Other works on show at the festival include two on IM Pei, perhaps most famous for the glass pyramid (and the depths beneath it) he added to the Louvre. First Person Singular is an overview of Pei’s life and long career, with much appealing commentary from the man himself. A pendant to that documentary is The Museum on the Mountain, about an amazing museum Pei built in (or mostly under) a mountain in Japan.

The opening-night film of the festival is Raising Valhalla, about South African-born architect Jack Diamond constructing a new opera house in Toronto, Canada. It’s an enlightening tour of the business of putting a new building together, with all its particular problems.

Where it happens
The Architect Africa Film Festival 2008 runs at
Cinema Nouveau Rosebank Mall, Johannesburg: October 3 to 9;
Gateway, Durban: October 10 to 16;
Cavendish Square, Cape Town: October 17 to 23;
Mimosa Mall, Bloemfontein: October 11 to 12;
Bridge Shopping Centre, Port Elizabeth: October 18 to 19

For more information, go to //www.archinet.co.za

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

Client Media Releases

Survey rejects one-sided views on e-tolls
Huawei forms partnerships to boost ICT skills development
North-West University Faculty of Law has a firm foundation
Humanities lecturer wins Young Linguist Award
Is your organisation ready for the cloud (r)evolution?