Lived Space in Architecture and Cinema

Juhani Pallasmaa

[This essay will be the introductory chapter in Juhani Pallasmaa's forthcoming book The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema, Rakennustieto, Helsinki, 2000.]

Since the late 1970s, architecture has fervently sought connections with other fields of art. Inspiration for breaking through the prevailing paradigm of architecture, petrified by quasi-modernist professional praxis, has been sought in painting and sculpture, as well as in literature and music. In architectural schools and professional practice alike, architectural projects have been generated through an analysis of the compositional structure of Vermeer's as well as the Cubists' paintings, the music of Bach as well as Meredith Monk, the literary fragments of Heraclitus as well as Herman Melville's Moby Dick and James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.1At the same time, an unforeseen exploration into the theoretical foundations of architecture has taken place, and almost any theoretical approach devised in the various fields of scientific scrutiny has been applied to its study.

This frantic interest in expanding the scope of architectural thought clearly indicates that the art of architecture has become uncertain of its essence and future course. In all fields of art, the breakdown of the unified modernist world view has, in fact, created a distinct panic of representation. In architecture, the modernist, postmodern and deconstructionist views of representation coexist simultaneously, and the spectrum of architectural style is more colorful than ever before with the exception of, perhaps, the first half of the 1800s when a single architect, like Leo von Klenze, could build a palace and a university in Renaissance style, a museum in Greek style, a parliament building in Neo-Hellenic style, a church based on Capella Palatina in Palermo, a Hall of Fame in the antique idiom, an official residence in Roman Baroque, and a coffee-house or synagogue with Moorish features.2

In many schools of architecture around the world, the most recent interest is cinema. Films are studied for the purpose of discovering a more subtle and responsive architecture. Also some of the most esteemed representatives of the architectural avant-garde of today, like Bernard Tschumi, Rem Koolhaas, Coop Himmelb(l)au and Jean Nouvel have admitted the significance of cinema in the formation of their approach to architecture.3

In its inherent abstractness, music has historically been regarded as the art form which is closest to architecture. Cinema is, however, even closer to architecture than music, not solely because of its temporal and spatial structure, but fundamentally because both architecture and cinema articulate lived space. These two art forms create and mediate comprehensive images of life. In the same way that buildings and cities create and preserve images of culture and a particular way of life, cinema illuminates the cultural archeology of both the time of its making and the era that it depicts. Both forms of art define the dimensions and essence of existential space; they both create experiential scenes of life situations.

Architecture In Cinema - Cinema In Architecture

Cinema is a multi-dimensional art form as Jean-Luc Godard states: 'There are several ways of making films. Like Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson, who make music. Like Sergei Eisenstein, who paints. Like Stroheim, who wrote sound novels in silent days. Like Alain Resnais, who sculpts. Like Socrates, Rossellini I mean, who creates philosophy. The cinema, in other words, can be everything at once, both judge and litigant.'4 Godard's list of the alternative ways of film making could be expanded by one more specific mode: cinema as architecture.

The interaction of cinema and architecture - the inherent architecture of cinematic expression, and the cinematic essence of architectural experience - is equally many- sided. Both are art forms brought about with the help of a host of specialists, assistants and co-workers. Regardless of their unavoidable nature as the products of collective effort, both film and architecture are arts of the auteur, of the individual artistic creator. The relations of the two art forms could, for instance, be studied from a multitude of viewpoints: how different directors depict a city, as Walter Ruttman in Berlin, der Sinfonie der Grossstadt (1927) or Fritz Lang in Metropolis (1927); how buildings or rooms are presented, as in German Expressionist films with their fantasy architecture suspended between reality and dream; over the real architectural projects of these architects of notable buildings. An architect who made superb projects both as a designer of buildings and set designer was Paul Nelson. His project Maison Suspendue (1936-38), a house in which individual rooms are suspended withing a steel-and-glass cage like bird nests, is as fantastic as any of the ideas expressed through the art form of projected illusion. Vice versa, one could speculate on the kind of buildings the wizards of cinema architecture would have built had they not decided to devote their architectural talent to the service of the illusory art of cinema.8

Marcel L' Herbier, L' Inhumanite,1924.

Furthermore, we could take the influence of cinema on today's architecture as our subject of study. Vincent Korda's visions of multi-storey atria in Things to Come, for instance, have fully materialized, five decades later, in John Portman's gigantic hotel projects. Portman's projects are an example of an architecture which cold-bloodedly serves the economic interests of the developer, utilizing means of persuasion deriving from stage sets designed for cinematic spectacles. The thematized architecture produced by the Walt Disney Corporation during the past decade with the help of a host of international star architects, also reverts to the strategy of illusion and seduction familiar from film. But even artistically more serious architecture today often seeks its inspiration and visual strategy from the language of movies. Jean Nouvel, for instance, declares cinematic imagery and experience as a significant inspiration for his architectural work:

Architecture exists, like cinema, in the dimension of time and movement. One conceives and reads a building in terms of sequences. To erect a building is to predict and seek effects of contrast and linkage through which one passes (...). In the continuous shot/sequence that a building is, the architect works with cuts and edits, framings and openings (...). I like to work with a depth of field, reading space in terms of its thickness, hence the superimposition of different screens, planes legible from obligatory joints of passage which are to be found in all my buildings (...).9

Material and Lived Space

Instead of the themes outlined above, the essays in this book center on cinematic architecture as such, in other words, the architecture of imagery expressed in films. I am interested in the ways cinema constructs spaces in the mind, creates mind-spaces, reflecting thus the inherent ephemeral architecture of human mind, thought and emotion. The mental task of buildings and cities is to structure our being-in-the-world and to articulate the surface between the experiencing self and the world. But doesn't the film director do exactly the same with his projected images?

William Cameron Menzies, Things to Come, 1936.

Houses are built in the world of Euclidian geometry, but lived space always transcends the rules of geometry. Architecture structures and 'tames' meaningless Euclidian space for human habitation by inserting into it existential meanings. Lived space resembles the structures of dream and the unconscious, organized independently of the boundaries of physical space and time. Lived space is always a combination of external space and inner mental space, actuality and mental projection. In experiencing lived space, memory and dream, fear and desire, value and meaning, fuse with the actual perception. Lived space is space that is inseparably integrated with the subject's concurrent life situation. We do not live separately in material and mental worlds; these experiential dimensions are fully intertwined. Neither do we live in an objective world. We live in mental worlds, in which the experienced, remembered and imagined, as well as the past, present and future are inseparably intermixed. 'Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined?,' Italo Calvino asks, and continues: 'Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.'10 The modes of experiencing architecture and cinema become identical in this mental space, which meanders without fixed boundaries. Even in the art of architecture, a mental image is transferred from the experiential realm of the architect to the mental world of the observer, and the material building is a mere mediating object, an image object.11 The fact that images of architecture are eternalized in matter, whereas cinematic images are only an illusion projected on the screen, has no decisive significance. Both art forms define frames of life, situations of human interaction and horizons of understanding the world.

In his seminal essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'12 Walter Benjamin deliberates on the connection between architecture and film. Somewhat surprisingly he suggests that, regardless of their apparent visuality, the two art forms are, in fact, tactile arts.13 Architecture and film are communicated primarily through the tactile realm in opposition to the pure visuality of painting.14 Benjamin's idea suggests that, although the situation of viewing a film turns the viewer into a bodyless observer, the illusory cinematic space gives the viewer back his/her body, as the experiential haptic and motor space provides powerful kinesthetic experiences. A film is viewed with the muscles and skin as much as by the eyes. Both architecture and cinema imply a kinesthetic way of experiencing space, and images stored in our memory are embodied and haptic images as much as retinal pictures.

Analyzing the difference between painting and film, Benjamin gives a provocative metaphor: he compares the painter to the magician and the cameraman to the surgeon. The magician operates at a distinct distance from the patient whereas the surgeon penetrates into his/her very interior. The magician/painter creates a complete integrated entity whereas the surgeon/cameraman's work is engaged in fragments. Benjamin's metaphor can be reversed to illustrate the difference between the film director and the architect. The film director is the magician who evokes a lived situation from a distance through the illusory narrative of projected images, whereas the architect operates with the physical reality itself in the very intestines of the building which we inhabit. C.G. Jung, for instance, saw a strong association between the human body and our unconscious imagery of the house; this identity gives further justification to see an architect in the role of a surgeon.15 The director operates through the distance of mental suggestion, whereas the architect takes hold, touches our bodily constitution and conditions our actual being in the world.

The Architecture of Cinema

There are hardly any films which do not include images of architecture. This statement holds true regardless of whether buildings are actually shown in the film or not, because already the framing of an image, or the definition of scale or illumination, implies the establishment of a distinct place. On the other hand, establishing a place is the fundamental task of architecture; the first task of architecture is to mark man's place in the world. As Martin Heidegger expresses it, we are thrown into the world. Through architecture we transform our experience of outsideness and estrangement into the positive feeling of domicile. The structuring of place, space, situation, scale, illumination, etc, characteristic to architecture - the framing of human existence - seeps unavoidably into every cinematic expression. In the same way that architecture articulates space, it also manipulates time. 'Architecture is not only about domesticating space,' writes Karsten Harries, 'it is also a deep defense against the terror of time. The language of beauty is essentially the language of timeless reality.'16 Re-structuring and articulating time - re-ordering, speeding up, slowing down, halting and reversing - is equally essential in cinematic expression.

Lived space is not uniform, valueless space. One and the same event - a kiss or a murder - is an entirely different story depending on whether it takes place in a bedroom, bathroom, library, elevator or gazebo. An event obtains its particular meaning through the time of the day, illumination, weather and soundscape. In addition, every place has its history and symbolic connotations which merge into the incident. Presentation of a cinematic event is, thus, totally inseparable from the architecture of space, place and time, and a film director is bound to create architecture, although often unknowingly. It is exactly this innocence and independence from the professional discipline of architecture that makes the architecture of cinema so subtle and revealing.

'All poets and painters are born phenomenologists,' argues J.H. van der Berg.17 The phenomenological approach of the artist implies a pure looking at the essence of things, unburdened by convention or intellectualized explanation. All artists, including film directors, are phenomenologists in the sense that they present things as if they were objects of human observation for the first time. Architecture re-mythologizes space and gives back its pantheistic and animistic essence. Poetry returns the reader back to an oral reality, in which words are still seeking their meanings. Art articulates the boundary surface between the mind and the world. 'How would the painter or poet express anything other than his encounter with the world,'18 as Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes. How could the architect or film director do otherwise, we might ask further.

We have to acknowledge that all artists - writers, painters, photographers, dancers - unknowingly step into the territory of architecture as they create the context of the event which they are depicting and define its setting. These urban scenes, buildings and rooms, projected by artists, are experientially real. 'He [the painter] makes them [houses], that is, he creates an imaginary house on the canvas and not a sign of a house. And the house, which thus appears preserves all the ambiguity of real houses,'19 as Jean-Paul Sartre so perceptibly states.

A great writer turns his/her reader into an architect, who keeps erecting rooms, buildings and entire cities in his imagination as the story progresses. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment makes the reader construct the gloomy room of Roskolnikov's terrifying double murder and, eventually, the endless expanses of St.Petersburg. The reader constructs the spaces and structures of Dostoyevsky's literary masterpiece in the cavities of his own mind. These images of places, created by the reader, are not detached pictorial images, they are experiences of embodied and lived space. They are mental and embodied images, not visual pictures. These spaces have their specific temperature and odor, we can sense the texture and echo of these walls. The city is a phenomenon that exceeds all our capacity of description, representation and recording and, consequently, it is always experientially infinite. A street in a film does not end at the edge of the screen; it expands all around the viewer as a network of streets, buildings and life situations. Exactly this activation of the imagination is the invaluable function of literature and all art, contrary to the images produced by consciousness industry which are experienced passively and externally.

The Realities of Image and Imagination

The essence of architectural space as determined by an artist, is free of the functional requirements, technical restrictions and limitations of the professional conventions of architects. The architecture conceived by artists is a direct reflection of mental images, memories and dreams; the artist creates an architecture of the mind. Yet, even the works of architects, built in matter, obtain their psychic content and echo from the very same existential experiences and images accumulated in the human mental constitution. Even real architecture can affect our soul only if it can touch the datum of forgotten memories and feelings.

Imagination is usually attached to the specific creative capacity of the artist, but the faculty of imagination is the foundation of our very mental existence, as well as of our way of dealing with stimuli and information. Recent research by brain physiologists and psychologists at Harvard University shows that images take place in the same zones of the brain as visual perceptions, and that the first are equally as real as the latter.20 No doubt, actual sensory stimuli and sensory imaginations also in the other sensory realms are similarly close to each other and, thus, experientially of equal value. This affinity or sameness of the external and internal experience is, of course, self-evident for any genuine artist without the scientific proof of psychological research. The artist has always known, that the encountered, remembered and imagined are equal experiences in our consciousness; we may be equally moved by something evoked by the imagined as by the actually encountered. Art creates images and emotions that are equally true as the actual situations of life. Many of us can never mourn our personal tragedy with the intensity we can suffer the fate of the fictitious figures of literature, theater and film, distilled through the existential experience of a great artist. Fundamentally, in a work of art we encounter ourselves and our own being-in-the-world in an intensified manner. Art offers us alternative identities and life situations, and this is the great task of art. Great art gives us the possibility of experiencing our very existence through the existential experience of some of the most refined individuals of the humankind.

The Mental Reality of Place

Place and event, space and mind, are not outside of each other. Mutually defining each other, they fuse unavoidably into a singular experience; the mind is in the world, and the world exists through the mind. Experiencing a space is a dialogue, a kind of exchange - I place myself in the space and the space settles in me. 'Today more than ever I feel that cell no. 461 (...) has remained inside me, becoming the secret of my soul. Today more than ever I feel like a bird that has swallowed his cage. I take my cell with me, inside me, as a pregnant woman carries her baby in her womb,' writes Curzio Malaparte - the owner and co-architect of the Casa Malaparte (1938-40) on Capri - of the harsh memory of his prison experience.21

The architecture of cinema does not possess a utilitarian or inherent value - the characters, events and architecture interact and designate each other. Architecture gives the cinematic episode its ambience, and the meanings of the event are projected on architecture. The cinematic narrative defines the boundaries of lived reality: for anyone who has seen Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia, Michelangelo's Campidoglio, centering on the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, can hardly be experienced without thinking of Domenico's shuddering self-immolation on the back of the horse. The realities of material and lived image are fused.

Stages for Fear

The task of architecture, as a resonator or amplifier of mental impact, is clearly reflected in the cinematic architectures of two directors with opposite emotional aspirations. As the architecture of Alfred Hitchcock creates spaces of terror, so Andrei Tarkovsky's rooms convey feelings of longing. These two directors survey the architectural metaphysics of fear and melancholy respectively.

The situationality of architectural meaning is particularly clear in Hitchcock's art. In his films - North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds, for instance - buildings have a central role. Hitchcock is indeed very conscious of the mental workings and meanings of architecture. His interest in architecture is expressed in his response to François Truffaut's question concerning the house in Sabotage: '[...] in a way the whole film is a story of that house. The house was one of the three key figures of the film'.22 Hitchcock also confesses that the two buildings in Psycho, the quasi-Gothic house and the horizontal motel, form a deliberate architectural composition: 'I felt that kind of architecture would help the atmosphere of the yarn (...). Definitely, that's a composition, a vertical block and a horizontal block.'23

Milieus and architecture have always the same role in Hitchcock's films; they function as psychic amplifiers of the story. Characteristically, his films start off in an idyllic and relaxed atmosphere. Scenes and buildings reflect a somewhat naive and amusing balance of bourgeois life. As the story begins, however, a sense of foreboding begins to convey a negative content to the buildings. The very same architecture turns gradually into a generator and container of fear, and in the end, terror seems to have poisoned space itself. The comfortable flat in Rope slowly makes its hidden dreadful side visible. Bodega Bay, the charming North-Californian resort village in The Birds turns into a bewitched scene of fear and disaster that does not offer anyone a means of exit. The Manhattan rental apartment block in Rear Window, the scene of harmless episodes of quotidian life, turns into a labyrinth of fear. In Hitchcock's films, suspense takes over the viewer to the degree that the evident staged unreality of the buildings and their architectural incredibility - as the painted urban silhouette in Rear Window, the miniaturized Manhattan in Rope, and the naïvely painted harbour set in Marnie - can no longer discharge or alleviate the reality of fear. Architecture has lost its normal human meaning and surrendered itself to the service of fear.

Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds, 1963.  The peaceful resort town of Bodega bay turns into a collective stage of fear.

There is an hallucinatory effect in a cinematic experience, as in any artistic impact: 'I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.'24 Also real architecture directs human intentions, emotions and thoughts by means of the hallucinatory air which it awakens. 'A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it,'25 as Benjamin writes.

The 'oneiric house' described by Gaston Bachelard26 has three or four floors; the middle ones are the stages of everyday life, the attic is the storage place of pleasant memories, whereas the basement is the place for negative remembrances, pushed outside consciousness. In the final sequences of Psycho the different floors of the Bates House obtain their meaning in accordance with Bachelard's oneiric house. Beginning her survey of the enigma of the house in the attic, Lila is forced to a panicked escape down into the basement where she finds the terrifying mummified wigged corpse of Norman's mother.

Hitchcock had the Bates House built on the basis of the ghostly house in Edward Hopper's painting House by the Railway (1925); somewhat earlier, Hitchcock had actually collaborated with Salvador Dali, who designed the sets for a dream sequence in Spellbound (1945). The director himself describes the architectural style of the Bates House as 'California gingerbread'.27 The threat posed by the house is concealed precisely in its bourgeois romanticism and, on the other hand, as Hitchcock acknowledges, in the contrast between the vulgar modernist horizontal motel and the vertical Gothic house. The apparent rationality of the motel beguiles the dreadfulness of the house. The strategy of contrasts is also applied elsewhere in the film. The scene of the frightening murder, the gleaming white bathroom of the motel, evokes the controlled sterility of an operating theater. The white bathroom obtains its special image power through its contrast to the fathomless darkness of the adjacent bog, Norman's graveyard.

The Architecture of Erosion

As the narrative progresses, Hitchcock gradually empties a building of its emotional content - or, more precisely, prevents the viewer from projecting his/her positive emotions onto it - and then fills it with terror, whereas Tarkovsky creates another kind of architectural metamorphosis. As he allows erosion and mold to corrode the walls, rain penetrate the roof and water flood the floor, he takes away the building's mask of utility, which addresses our reason and common sense. He removes the unaccessible and rejecting perfection of the building, and reveals the vulnerability of its structures, conceived for eternity. He makes the viewer invest his/her feelings and empathy in the naked structure. A useful building addresses our reason, whereas a ruined building awakens our imagination and unconscious fantasies. Whereas abandoned attics, barns and boat houses, as well as houses which have been lived in for generations awaken our imagination and erotic fantasies, the rational matrixes of concrete in contemporary apartment blocks repulse them. In Herbert Marcuse's view, the vulgar sexuality and sexual violence of our time is partly due to the fact that our buildings have lost their capacity to stimulate and support erotic reverie.28

Andrey Tarkovsky, Nostalghia, 1983. The madman Domenico's leaking house.

The normal architecture of our time has standardized emotions by eliminating the extremes of the spectrum of human emotions: melancholy and joy, nostalgia and ecstacy. Tarkovsky revitalizes our sense of the poetic. He directs the viewer to imagine the faith of the occupants who deserted their house, and of the house abandoned by its residents. The terrifying seven year imprisonment of the mathematician Domenico's family in Nostalghia is engraved on the tormented walls of the eroded house. The eroding walls of Tarkovsky's films remember the faith of the occupants in the same way as the stains and signs left on the wall of the neighboring house in Rainer Maria Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge tell of the life lived in the rooms of the demolished house:

There stood the middays and the sicknesses and the exhaled breath and the smoke of years, and the sweat that breaks out under armpits and makes clothes heavy, and the stale breath of mouths, and the fusel odor of sweltering feet. There stood the tang of urine and the burn of soot and the grey reek of potatoes, and the heavy, smooth stench of ageing grease. The sweet, lingering smell of neglected infants was there, and the fearsmell of children who go to school, and the sultriness out of the beds of nubile youths.29

Images of Light and Matter

In the scenes of rural Russian life in Mirror, Gorchakov's hotel room in Nostalghia, the enigmatic 'Room' of the 'Zone' in Stalker, or the rural Swedish settings in The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky's architecture is an unforeseen chamber music of space, light and slowed time. He opens up views to a new, empathetic and nostalgic architecture which has also emerged in the artworks of James Turrell, Gordon Matta-Clark and Jannis Kounellis. The spaces of Tarkovsky humble the viewer and make him remember the director's words: 'The task of art is to prepare one for death, soften and mold his soul and turn it towards good.'30 Tarkovsky's characters do not appear as persons on an architectural stage; the space and the characters have been cast in the very same matter, eroding towards its final destiny, a 'horizontal death'.31 The characters are etched into their spatial settings and the external spaces are the inner mental spaces of the characters. Man and space are one. 'I am the space where I am,' as Noël Arnaud claims.32

Andrey Tarkovsky, Nostalghia, 1983. The poet Andrey Gortchakov enters his hotel room.

As the spatial language of Hitchcock's films is close to the architectural metaphysics of Hopper's paintings, so Tarkovsky's visual compositions derive from the frontal confrontation of space in Renaissance paintings. Space does not move, it is. The architecture of Tarkovsky's films evokes the paintings of Giotto, Fra Angelico, Leonardo, van Dyck, Brueghel and Holbein. The intimate monumentality and monumental intimacy of Giorgio Morandi's still-lifes can likewise be senses in his imagery.

Hitchcock's urban views and spaces are characterized by the threatening shadows and frustrated waiting of surrealist paintings. Tarkovsky's buildings evoke a melancholic dimension of time and a tender memory of homecoming. Tarkovsky's time has lost its absoluteness and linearity, time is present as an unfocused longing and patina of remembrance. A central theme of his films is the simultaneous longing for home and the impossibility of homecoming. As Tarkovsky acknowledges, his films reflect a characteristic Russian longing for home, but they also express the frustration of a citizen of the communist state as his/her home has turned into a solitary confinement. According to Bachelard, home is a place where one can dream in peace,33 but as fear penetrates the space of home, the experience of home becomes a mental impossibility. But Tarkovsky describes the loss of home on a more general level; modern man has abandoned his home and is forever on a journey towards an unattainable utopia. The homelessness of the modern man has even a metaphysical dimension; a godless man is fundamentally a traveller without a destination, without an ultimate spiritual home. Buildings are monuments and road signs on this journey of distancing, alienation and outsideness.

The Logic of Emotions

We place our feelings, desires and fears in buildings. A person who is afraid of the dark has no factual reason to fear darkness as such; he is afraid of his own imagination, or more precisely of the contents that his repressed fantasy may project into the darkness. The great mystery of artistic impact is that a fragment is capable of representing the whole. A mere hint or foreboding claim the authority and experiential power of reality, and detached fragments make up a story possessing a sense of logical progression. The reader constructs a building or a city from the suggestions of the writer, and the viewer of a film creates an entire epoch from the fragmented images provided by the director. A work of art, however, cannot give the viewer emotions stored in its layers. The work receives the emotions of the viewer. A work of art does not reflect the affections of the artist; the subject lends his own emotions to the work. When experiencing a work of art, we project ourselves onto the object of our experience. As we read Crime and Punishment, we lend Roskolnikov our own waiting and when viewing Stalker, we lend the searchers of the mystical 'Room' their patience. We lend the protagonist of Vertigo his dizziness, and we place our own fear in the Bates House. The work of art, in return, gives the reader/viewer/listener its authority, its aura, that enchants his/her mind. Detaching the experience from the confines of everyday space it grants permission to expose hidden emotions. 'I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them like an organ,' Hitchcock confesses of his directorial grip in Psycho.34

Yet even buildings are devoid of emotion; a work of architecture obliges us - in the same way as literature and cinema - to lend our emotions and place them in it. The buildings of Michelangelo do not mediate feelings of melancholy, they are buildings fallen into melancholy, or more precisely, we confront our own melancholy in them. Cinema and architecture, as all art, function as alluring projection screens for our emotions.

The Stairs of Cinema

Architectural imagery and the articulation of space create the basic dramatic and choreographic rhythm of any film. The masters of cinema clearly identify the most potent encounters of architecture, such as: the image of the house in the landscape; the mask-like appearance of the facade; the role of doors and windows as mediators between two worlds and as framing devices; the intimacy and domesticity projected by a fireplace; the focusing and ritualizing role of a table; the privacy and secrecy of a bed, the sensuality of a bath, etc. Stairs and staircases have an especially central role in cinematic dramaturgy. 'The staircase is the symbolic spine of the house,'35 in Peter Wollen's view. Stairs have the same significance to the vertical organization of the house as the spine to the structure of the body. Besides the door, the stair is the element of architecture which is encountered most concretely and directly with the body. To be precise, a stair is not an 'architectural element', but rather one of the primary architectural images. Works of art in general are not composed of visual 'elements', they constitute lived images and fantasies underlying our recollections, and the parts always acquire their meaning through the whole, not vice versa.

The staircases of cinema reveal the innate asymmetry of the stair, rarely thought about by architects. Rising stairs end in Heaven, whereas descending stairs eventually lead down to the Underworld. The image of a staircase also resembles the imagery of the labyrinth; a staircase is a vertical labyrinth.

Ascending a stair implies exiting from the social stage and withdrawal into privacy, but it may also signal a passage into an entirely private and prohibited realm, or the final journey to disclose a secret. Descending a stairway expresses self-presentation, joining a group and entry into the public sphere. Stairs are most often photographed upwards from below, and consequently, an ascending person is seen from behind and a descending character from the front. Stairs photographed from above express vertigo, falling or panicked escape. The preference of showing staircases from below has its natural technical reasons - a stairway photographed from above seems to escape the picture - but this very fact reveals the psychological difference between ascending and descending movements. The staircase is the most important organ of the house. The stairs are responsible for the vertical circulation of the house in the same way that the heart keeps pumping blood up and down the body. The regular rhythm of the stairs echoes the beating of the heart and the rhythm of breathing.

The regular rhythm of stairs also addresses our dream imagery through its essence as a sexual metaphor. The sexual content of dreams of stairs was revealed by Sigmund Freud already at the turn of the century.36 His later formulation of these observations makes the sexual symbolism of ascending stairs explicit: 'We ... began to turn our attention to the appearance of steps, staircases and ladders in dreams, and were soon in a position to show that staircases (and analogous things) were unquestionably symbols of copulation. It is not hard to discover the basis of the comparison: we come to the top in a series of rhythmical movements and with increasing breathlessness and then, with a few rapid leaps, we can get to the bottom again. Thus the rhythmical pattern of copulation is reproduced in going upstairs.'37

The wide steps of Odessa in Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin (1925), the spiraling stairs of anguish in Fritz Lang's M for Murder (1931) and the stairwell leading to the bell loft in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1957) are memorable examples of the cinematic dramatics of stairs. Why are Hitchcock's stairways invariably to the right from the entrance as seen by the viewer? Is it because the staircase stands for the heart of the house?

The Exchange of Emotions

The architecture of cinema is structured on the basis of experientially true themes, not through elements of composition detached from the experiential whole, or by any visual formalism of design. A filmmaker, consequently, often recognizes the mental ground of architectural impact more subtly than an architect. Even such an insignificant element of architecture as a cupboard, drawer or a key, can obtain an architectural and epic scope in cinema. A key or a cigarette lighter can stand for a decisive turn in the narrative, as in Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954) or Strangers on a Train (1951). The intimate contents of cupboards and drawers are familiar to us from numerous films. Some film directors confess that they provide the drawers of their film rooms and kitchens with all the normal objects of such storage places - regardless of the fact that the contents of these drawers will never be shown to the camera - for the reason that these invisible objects increase the sense of authenticity for the makers of the film themselves and thus strengthens their sense of reality. Even a designed set demands a certain authenticity. While filming The Damned, Luchino Visconti insisted that the main set of the Altona mansion should be parqueted in real wood. He believed that only by standing on a solid floor would the actors be able to assume appropriate and convincing postures.38

Even real architecture is an exchange of experiential feelings and meanings between the space constructed of matter and the mental space of the subject. It is evident that the art of cinema can sensitize the architectural profession itself for the subtleties of this interaction. The architecture of cinema utilizes the entire range of emotions, and the touching architecture of Tarkovsky's films, for instance, could encourage architects to expand the emotional contents of their spaces, designed to be actually dwelled and lived in. Construction in our time has normalized emotions into the service of the social situations of life and has, at the same time, censored the extremes of the scale of human emotions: darkness and fear, dreams and reverie, elation and ecstacy. Suppressed emotions, however, seek their object and exposure. Anxiety and alienation, hardly hidden by surface rationalization, are often the emotional contents of today's everyday settings. The dimension of the heimlich hides its opposite, the unheimlich, always ready to enter the scene.

The Meaning of the Invisible

A masterful artist makes the viewer/reader think, see and experience other things than what he/she is actually being exposed to. The lines of Piet Mondrian's diagonal paintings, that meet beyond the edges of the canvas, make the viewer aware of the space outside the painting. The arbitrary framing of subjects in Impressionist paintings strengthens the sense of the real and brings the world and life, continuing beyond the boundaries of framing, into the consciousness of the observer. In the penultimate scene of Antonioni's The Passenger, the protagonist is murdered behind the viewer's back as he/she is watching arbitrary and insignificant incidents of everyday life through a window.

The value of a great film is not in the images projected in front of our eyes, but in the images and feelings that the film entices from our soul. Fritz Lang comments on the invisible content of his film M for Murder (1931): 'There is no violence in my film M, or when there is, it occurs behind the scenes, as it were. Let's take an example. You will remember the sequence where a little girl is murdered. All you see is a ball rolling and then stopping. Then a balloon flying off and getting caught in some telephone wires (...) The violence is in your mind.'39 Catherine Breillat makes a similar comment on the power of invisible imagery: 'The work of a director is a way of hypnotizing: the viewer has to be made to believe to see even that which he is not seeing. A woman complained of the excessively exaggerated bloodiness of the final scene of my film Parfait amour, ending in a murder of passion. But that blood was only in her own head. It is not shown on the screen at all,' Breillat recalls.40

A powerful experience of architecture likewise, turns our attention outside itself. The artistic value of great architecture is not in its material existence but the images and emotions that it evokes in the observer. A great building makes us experience gravity, time and - ultimately - ourselves, in a strengthened and meaningful way. A positive architectural experience is basically a strengthened experience of Self which places one convincingly and comfortingly into the continuum of culture, enables one to understand the past and believe in the future.


1 The architectural pedagogy based on analysis of artworks was initiated by John Hejduk at the Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York during the 1970s, and has been advanced by his former disciples like Daniel Libeskind and Dan Hoffman and, subsequently, a host of their students.

2 Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis: The Lost Centre, Hollis & Carter, London, 1957, p. 69.

3 For contemporary cinema-inspired architecture see, for instance, Dietrich Neumann (editor), Film Architecture: Set Designs from Metropolis to Blade Runner, Prestel, Munich/New York, 1996, and: Architecture & Film, Architectural Design, Academy Group, London, 1994.

4 Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, Secker & Warburg, London, 1972, p. 208.

5 Vincent Korda first asked Le Corbusier and Fernand Léger to design the futuristic settings of the film. After both of them declined, he invited László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy designed a transparent, utopian city of ultra-light structures akin to his 'light-modulator' sculpture. His designs were not ultimately used (with the exception of ninety seconds), presumably because of their excessive abstractness.

Donald Albrecht, Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies, Harper & Row, New York, 1986, pp. 162-3.

6 L'Inhumaine is an early cinematic Gesamtkunstwerk created by a group of notable artists of that time: Mallet-Stevens conceived the exterior decor, Fernand Léger the machine-age laboratory reminiscent of his contemporary paintings, Pierre Chareau the furniture, René Lalique, Jean Puiforcat and Jean Luce the decorative objects, Raymond Templier the jewelry, and Paul Poiret the fashions.

Albrecht, p. 45.

7 In Le Vertige Mallet-Stevens collaborated with Lucien Aguettand, André Lurcat, and Robert and Sonia Delaunay.

8 The set designers who created memorable images of modern architecture include: Lazare Meerson (Le Nouveaux Messieurs, 1928 by Jacques Feyder, and A Nous la Liberté, 1931 by René Clair); Franz Schroedter (Angst, 1928 by Hans Steinhoff and Die Nacht - gehört uns, 1929 by Carl Froelich); Giuseppe Capponi (Patatrac, 1931 by Gennaro Righelli and La Voce lontana, 1933 by Guido Brignone), Cedric Gibbons (The Easiest Way, 1931 by Jack Conway and Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, 1931 by Robert Z. Leonard); Charles D. Hall (The Black Cat, 1934 by Edgar G. Ulmer); Richard Day (Dodsworth, 1935 by William Wyler); and John Harkrider (Top of the Town, 1937 by Ralph Murphy).

9 Kester Tauttenbury, 'Echo and Narcissus,' Architectural Design, Architecture & Film, London, 1994, p. 35.

10 Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Vintage International, New York, 1993, p. 124.

11 '... when the poet joins several of these microcosms together the case is like that of painters when they assemble their colours on the canvas. One might think that he is composing a sentence, but this is only what it appears to be. He is creating an object (...) It is no longer a signification, but a substance (...) Emotion has become thing' (italics JP).

Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature?, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass., 1978, pp. 10, 12 and 13.

12 Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,' Illuminations (Hannah Arendt, ed.), Schocken Books, New York, 1968, pp. 217-251.

13 Giles Deleuze makes a similar remark as Benjamin concerning tactility concealed in vision: 'Sight discovers in itself a function of touching that belongs to it and to it alone and which is independant of its optical function.'

Giles Delunze, Logique de la Sensation, Editions de la Difference, 1981, p. 79. Quoted in David B. Clarke, 'Introduction: Previewing the Cinematic City', in David B. Clarke (ed.), The Cinematic City, Routledge, London and New York, 1997, p. 9.

14 Contrary to Benjamin's view, also the quality of painting is based on the evocation of tactile experience.

Bernard Berenson suggests that when looking at a painting or sculpture, we are, in fact, experiencing genuine physical feelings. He calls these feelings 'ideated sensations': (…) whenever a visual representation is recognized as a work of art and not as a mere artifact, no matter how elaborate, smart, and startling, it has tactile values.'

B. Berenson, Aesthetics and History. Pantheon, New York, 1948, pp. 66-70.

According to Merleau-Ponty: 'We see the depth, the smoothness, the softness, the hardness of objects; Cézanne even claimed that we see their odor. If a painter is to express the orld, the arrangement of his colour must carry with it this indivisible whole, or else his picture will only hint at things and will not give them in the imperious unity, the presence, the unsurpassable plenitude which is for us the definition of the real.'.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 'Cézanne's Doubt', Sense and Non-Sense. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 1964, p. 15.

15 See C.G. Jung's dream in Clare Cooper, 'The House as a Symbol of Self'. In J.Lang, C.Burnette, W.Moleski & D.Vachon, editors, Designing for Human Behaviour. Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, Stroudsburg, 1974, pp. 40-41.

16 Karsten Harries, 'Building and the terror of time,' Perspecta, The Yale Architectural Journal 19, New Haven, 1982, pp. 59-69.

17 Gaston Bachelart, The Poetics of Space. Beacon Press, Boston 1969, p. XXIV.

The sentence is originally from J.H. Van den Berg, The Phenomenological Approach in Psychology. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield Illinois 1955, p. 61.

18 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs quoted in Richard Kearney, 'Maurice Merleau-Ponty,' Modern Movements in European Philosophy, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1994, p. 82.

19 Sartre, p. 4.

20 Ilpo Kojo, 'Mielikuvat ovat aivoille todellisia' (Images are real for the brain), Helsingin Sanomat, 16.3.1996. A research group at Harvard University under Professor Stephen Rosslyn, has established that the regions of the brain which participate in the formation of images are the same in which the neural signals from the eyes, giving rise to visual perceptions, are initially processed. The activity in the area of the visual cortex related with images is similar to the activity when looking at real pictures.

When acknowledging the experiential similarity of perceived and imagined images also their ontological difference has to be identified. In Bachelard's view: 'Imagination allows us to leave the ordinary course of things. Perceiving and imagining are as antitethical as presence and absence.' Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams: An Essay On the Imagination of Movement (1993),The Dallas Institute, Dallas, Texas, 1983, p. 3.

21 Curzio Malaparte, Fughe in prigione (Escape in prison), foreword to the 2nd edition, 1943.

22 François Truffaut, Hitchcock, Paladin Grafton Books, London, 1986, p. 180.

23 Truffaut, p. 416.

24 Georger Duhamel, Scènes de la vie future, Paris, 1930, p. 52. Quoted in Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,' Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt), Schocken Books, New York, 1968, p. 238.

25 Benjamin, p. 239.

26 Gaston Bachelard, 'The house, from cellar to garret: the significance of the hut,' The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, 1964, pp. 3-37.

27 Truffaut, p. 416.

28 Herbert Marcuse, Yksiulotteinen ihminen (One-Dimensional Man), Weilin+Göös, Tapiola, 1969, pp. 91-95.

29 Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, (tr. MD Herter Norton), WW Norton & Co., New York and London, 1992, pp. 47-48.

30 Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpted Time, p. 73.

31 Bachelard, Water and Dreams, p. 6.

32 Noël Arnaud, L'état d'ébauche, in Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 137.

33 'I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.' Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 6.

34 Truffaut, p. 417.

35 Peter Wollen, 'Arkkitehtuuri ja elokuva: paikat ja epäpaikat' (Architecture and Cinema: Places and Non-Places), Rakennustaiteen seura, jäsentiedote 4:1996, Helsinki, 1996, p. 15.

36 Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), The Modern Library, New York, 1994.

37 Sigmund Freud, 'The Dream-Work: Representations by Symbols in Dreams' in Complete Psychological Works, vol. 5., Hogarth Press, London, 1948. Quoted in John Templer, The Staircase. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. And London, 1994, p. 10.

38 Kenneth Frampton, 'Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance'. Hal Foster (editor), Postmodern Culture, Pluto Press, London and Sydney, 1985, p. 28.

39 Quoted in Peter von Bagh, 'The death of emotion,' Synnyt: Sources of Contemporary Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, 1989, p. 202.

40 Tarmo Poussu, 'Elokuvajuhlien ohjaajavieras Catherine Breillat: Teen elokuvia seksistä, mutta inhoan erotiikkaa' (The Guest Director of the Film Festival - Catherine Breillat: I make films of sex, but I detest erotics), Ilta-Sanomat, 23.9.1996, p. A 22.

[Juhani Pallasmaa, Architect SAFA, Hon. FAIA, Professor of Architecture.]

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