The Architecture of the Screen: Essays in Cinematographic Space by Graham Cairns, NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
Architecture of the Screen

Architecture of the Screen

by Graham Cairns

View All Available Formats & Editions

With the birth of film came the birth of a revolutionary visual language. This new, unique vocabulary - the cut, the fade, the dissolve, the pan, and the new idea of movement - gave not only artists but also architects a completely new way to think about and describe the visual. The Architecture of the Screen examines the relationship between the visual


With the birth of film came the birth of a revolutionary visual language. This new, unique vocabulary - the cut, the fade, the dissolve, the pan, and the new idea of movement - gave not only artists but also architects a completely new way to think about and describe the visual. The Architecture of the Screen examines the relationship between the visual language of film and the onscreen perception of space and architectural design, revealing how film’s visual vocabulary influenced architecture in the twentieth century and continues to influence it today. Graham Cairns draws on film reviews, architectural plans, and theoretical texts to illustrate the unusual and fascinating relationship between the worlds of filmmaking and architecture.

Editorial Reviews

Fran�ois Penz

"Graham Cairns's book is an innovative and welcome addition to the dialogue between cinema and architecture. Recently established as a field of research, this interdisciplinary terrain is relevant to other disciplines beyond architecture and film. Its influence is already evident in established fields such as history, geography, and cultural and language studies, but it is also gaining ground in other areas. This book is an opportunity to explore the alternative and complementary intelligence this field opens up, and which can be injected at various stages of creative design processes."—François Penz
Fran ois Penz

"Graham Cairns's book is an innovative and welcome addition to the dialogue between cinema and architecture. Recently established as a field of research, this interdisciplinary terrain is relevant to other disciplines beyond architecture and film. Its influence is already evident in established fields such as history, geography, and cultural and language studies, but it is also gaining ground in other areas. This book is an opportunity to explore the alternative and complementary intelligence this field opens up, and which can be injected at various stages of creative design processes."—François Penz

Product Details

Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
9 MB

Read an Excerpt

The Architecture of the Screen

Essays in Cinematographic Space

By Graham Cairns

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78320-212-6


The cinema of the French New Wave and the illusionism of SITE architects

Les Carabiniers. 1963

Jean Luc Godard

Producer: Rome-Paris Films. Les Films Marceau. (France). Laetitia Films. (Italy)

Les Carabiniers, 1962, is one of Jean-Luc Godard's earliest films. It captures the energy, irreverence and radical reconsideration of cinematic practice that was to characterise the whole of the French New Wave. Its aesthetic is casual and untidy, if not amateur. It eschews constructed sets in favour of the street, and employs non-professional actors who improvise rather than follow a script. Its editing is full of deliberate errors and its storyline is both absurd and lacking in narrative orientation. It is visually erratic, thematically confusing and clearly rejects the seriousness and solemnity of the French filmmaking establishment of the time. In addition, it celebrates the commercial filmmaking tradition through a whole series of referential puns and simultaneously criticises the society of spectacle and consumption. In short, it is typical of Godard.

The story itself revolves around two main protagonists: Ulysses and Michelangelo. Enlisted to fight in what amounts to a comic civil war, they are obliged to leave their partners with whom they share a broken-down shed in the country. For their female companions, their departure on a military adventure represents an opportunity to ask for all sorts of exotic and romantic gifts from their now "gentlemen of war". For Ulysses and Michelangelo themselves, it represents an opportunity to steal, kill and violate every type of norm and law "under the protection of the King". These comically absurd anti-heroes, dreaming about the benefits of impunity, set forth on a journey through the absurdity of a meaningless contemporary war across the cities and villages of 1960s France.

Despite this comic narrative framework however, the film is far from superficial in intent; the absurdity of the storyline itself being a central part of the film's sociopolitical commentary. That commentary is threaded through with a typical New Wave blend of internal and external references. Images often function as witty asides on religion or contemporary politics, the dialogue is showered with comments alluding to the "external events" of the "real world", and even the names of the protagonists become part of the film's multi-referential game. It is a complex intertextual tapestry reminiscent of the work of writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco, in which the viewer is obliged to enter into an intellectual game of deciphering direct and indirect references, to which, of course, they bring their own baggage as well. It is a cinematic game with what Eco calls "the role of the reader".

Integrated into this menagerie of associations, quotes and insinuations are references to the world of cinema itself; the most notable being the scene in which we see a screening of The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, 1894. Another is the employment of various editing styles: for example, continuity editing to reference the Hollywood tradition and montage editing to reference the Soviet school. Yet another is the introduction of documentary footage that reminds us of the neorealist school; a reference reinforced by the setting of scenes in real locations, the use of natural illumination, the employment of handheld cameras and the lack of professional actors. Clearly echoing the aesthetic similarities of the work of directors like Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti, it is another case of Godard's cinematic self-referential intertextuality.

In the cinema of the Neorealist school this "realist aesthetic" was intended to appear more "realistic" and, to a certain extent, more "basic" than what had become the industry norm, i.e. the tightly controlled continuity aesthetic. In Les Carabiniers however, it is used for scenes, and a story, that are anything but realistic or basic. The absurdity of the protagonists, caught up in a narrative equally as absurd means that, in spite of employing a Neorealist aesthetic style, there is an overriding sense of unreality and irony throughout the film. In fact, it could be argued that there are certain characteristics of the Neorealist style that actively augment this sensation of artificiality. For example, Godard highlights the shaking of the handheld camera, the wooden acting of the protagonists and the lack of clear lighting on his sets. In addition, he allows exterior and alien sounds to intrude over the dialogue and follows everyday actions that, as in real life, do not advance towards any sort of narrative resolution.

These characteristics, as "realistic" as they may be, actually create a type of cinema that seems totally "artificial". In addition to feeling "artificial" however, the lack of narrative drive often leads to long scenes with little or no obvious meaning; a meandering plot structure regularly criticised as inane and indeed boring. What criticisms of this type indicate is that, in the framework, film (the artificial language of the continuity system) has become what we expect and understand the medium to be; it has come to represent our "cinematographic reality". This cinematographic reality is more interesting, intense and spectacular than our everyday reality, which, as Godard shows, is something that advances slowly, often without clear objectives, and does not necessarily lead to a clear and clean resolution of problems.

Our familiarity with the more intense and interesting mediated reality offered by Hollywood cinema is something dealt with, albeit from a different perspective, by thinkers like Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco, who at the time of Les Carabiniers were putting forward their concepts of the "simulacrum" and "hyperreality", respectively. Baudrillard argues that through the process of reproduction, reality and unreality enter into an ever closer relationship within which the difference between both states begins to blur. Under such conditions, it becomes possible to confuse the real with the unreal and, as Eco comments with respect to Disneyland, eventually prefer the latter. Such questions are implicit throughout Les Carabiniers and are seen with most clarity in the scene mentioned earlier, in the screening of The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. Finding himself in front of a cinema screen for the first time, the young protagonist, Michelangelo, is both stupefied and amazed by his first taste of "cinematic reality".

The scene opens with the camera focused on Michelangelo. The first cut changes to a train, before cutting back to Michelangelo. The visual quality of the footage in the two shots does not change and the image of the train fills the screen we look at as viewers. By not exposing the physical context of the cinema to the viewer, and not changing the visual quality of the two images, Godard deliberately blurs the difference between our viewing of Michelangelo and his viewing of the cinema's screen. By denying the spectator these pointers, the initial moments of the scene can be confusing. That confusion, however, is a deliberate pun on the confusion seen in the face of Michelangelo, who is totally incapable of distinguishing between the physical reality of his surroundings and the cinematic illusion on screen. In a reaction that repeats that of the first public to see The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, at the end of the nineteenth century, we see him panic and cower behind his seat as the train arrives and threatens to break through the screen of the theatre (Figs. 1–2).

What we have in this sequence is a scene that functions on various levels; it is an example of Godard's renowned intertextuality: it is a joke at the expense of the viewing public, a witty reference to early cinematic audiences and also a parody of the real and the unreal experience of Michelangelo. In the following shots, the scene continues to develop this parody when our anti-hero watches a svelte woman taking a bath in the following short film he watches in the cinema. Given that he is still unsure as to the reality, or otherwise, of the images he is looking at, he moves tentatively towards the screen. Trying to look inside the bathtub, he finally attempts to caress the naked body of the mediated object of his desire and, in his excitement, loses his balance and falls through the screen, destroying it in the process.

This type of parody on the real and the unreal is repeated in a subtly different way in another of the film's most celebrated scenes, the return of the two protagonists from the war. Carrying nothing but an old and worn suitcase full of postcards, they are a total failure in the eyes of their partners. For these heroines, expecting the riches and spoils of war, the loot is both ridiculous and boring. Indeed, they automatically begin to ridicule our heroes until Ulysses begins to present the postcards in a different way, as if they were not images at all, but actual "objects in their own right". By the end of the scene, the two girls appear to be as excited by these "representations of riches" as they would have been with the real thing. Salvaging their damaged prestige through the simulacrum, Michelangelo and Ulysses offer their romantic companions a hyperreality that is more interesting, intense, and certainly more accessible, than real life (Fig. 3).

Clearly replete with references to the ideas of Jean Baudrillard, The Situationists, Umberto Eco and others, Les Carabiniers finds multiple echoes in diverse fields. Those fields are, however, not limited to standard forms of social critique but are also found in the context of architecture, most notably, in the contemporary work of the American architects SITE. At the time Les Carabiniers was released, SITE were developing an approach to architecture that they themselves defined as "a reaction to the architecture of the modern movement". The argument underlying this "reaction" was their interpretation of modern architecture as "insipid and based on a functional language that a contemporary public did not understand or like". Resorting to what they called ancient concepts, with respect to the very definition of architecture itself, they proposed that for "buildings" to become "architecture", they had to go beyond function; for SITE, buildings "become" architecture when they "communicate".

According to this definition, the buildings of antiquity are perfect examples of architecture in that they are immediately understandable as places of public importance. What they "communicate" is their own cultural significance. As such, SITE define architecture as "special places" or "celebratory buildings". An important characteristic of this celebratory architecture is its employment of additional decorative elements whose role it is to help in the communication process. The pediment of a classical building is a prime example; not only does it help to communicate but it also makes the building "more interesting". On the basis of this definition, the architecture of the Modern Movement and its rejection of decoration in favour of functionality was seen as a type of simple and mundane "pre-architectural" phenomenon.

Identifying this distinction makes it possible to draw parallels with some of the comments made earlier, with regard to Neorealist film. Considered to represent a basic and simple cinematic language, Neorealism and its New Wave derivatives can appear crude and boring in comparison to the hyper-intensity and hyperreality we have become accustomed to on the silver screen. From this point of view, the rejection by the 1970s public of functional modern architecture, and the concomitant development of the "spectacular" architecture of SITE, can be considered directly analogous to the reaction of the general public against the type of "boring realism" portrayed in the work of Godard.

However, in addition to employing a language that was too basic and simple for contemporary cultural tastes, modern architecture was, according to SITE, one dimensional; the architectural profession insisting on total autonomy and independence in the realisation of architectural projects. By contrast, SITE stressed "the complete fusion of architecture and art". Criticising an architectural tendency to only accept a place for external disciplines such as sculpture, if it restrained itself to a secondary role, SITE suggested that postmodern western societies showed a "longing for spectacle"; the incorporation of diverse decorative features in architecture and a clear sensibility towards the celebration of concepts such as "ambiguity and hybridisation".

Focusing on this concept sets up another, very different, analogy between Les Carabiniers and the work of SITE. SITE's continual fusion of art and architecture meant that their work always incorporated references to fields outside the strict confines of architecture: sculpture, painting and graphic design, for example. Operating as a form of intertextuality, this characteristic inevitably engages the public in a game of cross–referencing, which on a surface level is similar to what one finds in Godard's work. Taking a humoristic approach to these references however, the artistic-architectural fusion SITE employed often involved a sensorial confusion that paralleled the specifics of Michelangelo's comic confusion as well.

The iconic works of SITE in the 1970s were often deliberately intended to play with our understanding of a building's physicality. In The Peeling Project, 1972, this manifested itself in a design based on turning the facade of a showroom into an artificial layer that appeared to be coming away from the structure behind (Fig. 4). The brick facade of the building was designed in such a way as to literally "peel away" from its support, much like wallpaper may do from a wall suffering from damp. This optical illusion was created through the use of reinforced brickwork and a cement resin and was intended to give the impression that the facade could, at any moment, collapse on top of the visitor loitering underneath. Producing effects analogous to those of Michelangelo, reactions of building's visitors ranged from curiosity to bewilderment and, at times, comic fear.

This same illusory game was repeated the following year in a project titled Indeterminate Façade (Houston, Texas); a project commissioned by the same retail client, ironically named "Best Company". The facade of this building was again the principal arena of play for the architects. In this case, the facade wall projected beyond the roof of the building and its brickwork, once again reinforced, was laid in such a way that it appeared to be "caught" in the act of collapsing. In 1977, SITE experimented with another variation on this same theme in the construction of the Notch Project (Sacramento, California) (Fig. 5). In this case, the company's customers enter through a crack in the principal block of the building, at one of its corners, because the building appears to have sheared apart, with one part of the structure slipping away from the main frame. Thus, once again the visitor wishing to enter the building has to pass under a structure that is apparently about to collapse.

Clearly intended to manipulate the perception and expectations of the public, these projects not only play with concepts of art and architecture but also with the ambiguity of the real and the unreal. As with other projects designed by SITE during this period, it was not uncommon to see visitors, normally customers, caught between states of curiosity and fear when confronted with an illusion they had never seen before. Reminiscent of the scenes of Michelangelo in Les Carabiniers, this type of public reaction to humorous commercial buildings is the consequence of an architecture conceived to confront the perceived "functionality" of the Modern Movement. In contrast to theories of modernism, SITE proposed that architecture had no obligation to be "honest to its function". In fact, it did not even have the obligation to be "real". What they proposed was that contemporary communicative architecture had to create "special places" and "celebratory buildings" through the employment of whatever vocabulary was appropriate to its society and cultural context, in this case the world of consumer capitalism.


Excerpted from The Architecture of the Screen by Graham Cairns. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Graham Cairns is a visiting scholar in architecture and design at both Florida State University and Ravensbourne, UK.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >