In this article, Michelle Delea discusses the representational possibilities of digital visual media within architectural practice through a deep exploration of film and the intersection of radical ways of making new forms of architecture.
Georges Méliès (far left) in his original Star-Film studio in Montreuil. Image credit: author unknown (public domain)
Where the director may pitch pro-actively to entertain/meet the desires of an imagined, transient audience with a strategy to distribute the work to a population, the architect may operate reactively to the needs of a specific client, with a strategy, in many cases, to attract a population to the work.
Too many builders gaze into the future and want to put a heliport on the roof, or perhaps build the guest room out of some edible material … but that sort of thing is too science-fictiony. We have to be practical .
If the novum  is the necessary condition of science-fiction, the validation of the novelty by scientifically methodical cognition into which the reader is inexorably led is the sufficient condition for SF. Though such cognition obviously cannot, in a work of verbal fiction, be empirically tested either in vitro or in vivo - in the laboratory or by observation in nature — it can be methodically developed both against the background of a body of already existing cognitions and as a "mental experiment” .
Envisioning future landscapes based on scientific or technological advances, and major social or environmental changes has an anchored place in the practice of both the architect and the science-fictioneer. Given the parallels in the privacy of their devotions – each occupied with a degree of prediction, invention, and resolution – mirroring neural network profiles have surely evolved amongst these design, (r)evolution and systems-orientated fields of thought.
A certain romance between the two disciplines has unfolded for over a century at their common meeting place: the cinema. Once science-fiction met the medium of motion picture, the (de)construction and translocation of the traditional set began, enabling a mass engagement with, and critique of, spatial and societal what-ifs. When the briefs of the architect and the director are overlaid, constellations of corresponding points emerge as often as polarities. For example, the director/audience and architect/client relationships (both critical driving forces of any project) have moments of convergence and divergence when compared with one another. Where the director may pitch pro-actively to entertain/meet the desires of an imagined, transient audience with a strategy to distribute the work to a population, the architect may operate reactively to the needs of a specific client, with a strategy, in many cases, to attract a population to the work. Both practices excel at, and are excitable by, agitation of the brief – the offerings of adroit out-of-the-box thinking, often prevalent with designers who maintain research and experimentation with existing techniques and emerging technologies.
The works of magician and filmmaker Georges Méliès were famously disruptive in this regard, leading him to create the transcendent set of Le Voyage Dans la Lune (or The Trip to the Moon) in 1902. His 400th short, this sci-fi pioneer followed a decade in theatre and roughly six years of experimentation with illusion, scale, perspective, material, technological resourcefulness, etc. Pioneering/popularising the use of the Schufftan Process, Metropolis – considered the first sci-fi feature and a staple architectural reference – made its bold arrival in January 1927. Interestingly, the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, was released in October of this year, indicating that, following Metropolis, all major sci-fi features adapting a silent or minimalist approach to dialogue did so by design. This was notably intentional in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odessey (1968), which features no dialogue in the first twenty-five and last twenty-three minutes of the film. 1958’s Vertigo piloted the use of CGI, as well as the composition of live-action film with CGI, and by the late twentieth century, screen adaptations of sci-fi scripts and texts were no longer restricted to theatrical sets and illusionary devices.
While Ridley Scott refrained from the application of digital effects in Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) – by some ratio of ambition and trepidation – a chain reaction of feature films followed which demonstrated the possibilities of storyboarding in the digital space. This method was well-tempered by the millennium and films such as The Matrix (1999), Avatar (2009), and Inception (2010) used CGI to depict cerebral landscapes and scenes, a possibility which neuro-imaging may already be on the cusp of today. The calibration of scales of known existence was famously captured in Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames in 1977. This nine-minute journey from the cosmic to the subatomic scale remains uncategorisable, transcending its scientific, environmental, and educational functions to become a work of timeless universality. The central, yet subtle story of the sleeping picnicker is laced into an otherwise data-driven presentation, igniting the profound perspective the film is so well-associated with. Six minutes into the film, within its unique parallactic structure, the narration creates a chokehold of architectural appreciation: “a million lightyears out, as we approach the limit of our vision, we pause to start back home. This lonely scene, the galaxies like dust, is what most of space looks like. This emptiness is normal: the richness of our own neighbourhood is the exception”.
The influential imaginings of architect Étienne-Louis Boullée, which would inevitably inspire cinematographic landscapes, were referenced in Peter Greenaway's film The Belly of an Architect (1987) and more recently modelled (using 3ds Max) for the short film, Lux in Tenebris (2019), by experimental Berlin-based practice BBB3. Brian Eno’s 1989 Imaginary Landscapes draws on New York’s urban density ‘world-building’ with sound as material. Closer to home, Cork-based poetry filmmaker Colm Scully frames fractal landscapes found in his kitchen to achieve an ambiguity of aerial scales in Philips’ Modern Atlas of the World (2017).
There is no doubt that the accessibility and wide reach of film equips the medium with an influential power – one vastly accelerated by the effective combination of information and poetics. Many modern architectural practices, obeying the profession’s role to be responsive and adaptive, often utilise film as a medium to engage. On multidisciplinary practices, architect, author and educator, James Tait argues that it "is not actually a decentring of the profession but instead the decoupling of it from its output. A separation of architecture from its reason for being – the building" . Despite being a well-established school of thought, this deviation from traditional practice still carries stigma within the profession, as noted by Holly Lewis, co-founder of London-based architecture and urban design studio We Made That: “The dexterous, multi-faceted skills that architectural training bestows can be a great asset in so many fields, and there is so much work to be done. Rather than stand in judgement of our fellow professionals, let’s celebrate the diversity that our eclectic and wide-ranging educations have successfully prepared us for” .
The architect’s potential to communicate through film remains in its youth when compared to the influence film has had on the perception of architecture, and what an architect does. The architect’s self-representation in this field is further dwarfed when television programmes are included, as well as the eclipsing consumption of content through streaming platforms, video apps, etc. Until now, these collective contents may fall under three broad production styles: the epics, the ‘glossy’, and the documentary. Though the latter injects research and reality between the dichotomy of ‘the epics’ and ‘the glossy’, it is questionable whether the architectural documentary remains a niche interest, and whether it brings enough balance to the representation of architecture on screen.
It can be argued that this representation is within the capacity of architects themselves, given both their existing skillset to communicate visually, to coordinate teams and timelines, to direct and design, etc. This is not to strictly suggest a hybrid office. BBB3 and Scullys’ shorts demonstrate that creatively high-yielding, micro-productions have never been as attainable as they are today. The use of film and video in practice may be an under-utilised medium well within reach of the architect, and its possible applications have the potential to accelerate progress in the field. In education, for example, the sporadic site visit could be contextualised by a library of local ‘construction shorts’. Audio/visual portfolios may become a tool for the process of hiring and determining optimum professional compatibilities. The ‘project pitch’ video, seductive and utopic by nature, could more often speak openly to communities and the public stakeholders, allowing for ruminations on inventive concepts and responses in urban development. After all, critical solutions may well lie with the radical architect, drawing in a territory akin to that of the sci-fi novum.
The use of film and video in practice may be an under-utilised medium well within reach of the architect, and its possible applications have the potential to accelerate progress in the field.
Present Tense is an article series aimed at uncovering perspectives and opinions from experts in their respective fields on the key issues/opportunities facing Ireland's built environment. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Present Tense is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.
1. J. Prucher, ‘P 174’, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009.
2. (Latin: new, novelty, innovation, unprecedented) Introduced by SF scholar Darko Suvin and extended from an earlier concept developed from Ernst Bloch’s Marxist theory: used to describe the scientifically plausible innovations used by science fiction narratives.
3. D. Suvin, ‘The State of the Art in Science Fiction Theory: Determining and Delimiting the Genre’, Science Fiction Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 1979. Available at: https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/17/suvin17.htm. Also in this paper, Suvin attributes the ‘novem’ concept to Bloch, stating that “The postulation of the novum is based on and validated by the post-Cartesian and post-Baconian scientific method […] The novum is a fundamental concept of this greatest philosopher, of open horizons and radical possibilities for humanist change in our age”.
5. H. Lewis, ‘When Is an Architect Not an Architect?’ in Harriet Harriss, Rory Hyde and Roberta Marcaccio (eds.), Architects After Architecture: Alternative Pathways for Practice, 1st edn, Routledge, 2020.
Michelle Delea currently works between architectural practice and education, with independent projects in film, poetry, and cultural events. Her writing has featured in 'The Stinging Fly', 'Poetry in the Park', and 'Architecture Ireland'. Following her receipt of the Engaging with Architecture Award 2021, Michelle produced 'The Sprawling Octopus of an Elevated Highway', a documentary film relating to architectural activism in 1960s Cork city.
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