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Urban imaginaries: Cinematic Sensibilities and Architectural (In)sensibilities
Miguel Lopez Melendez explores the connection between Modern architecture and cinema during the first half of the twentieth century and studies the contribution of the latter to the urban project in architectural culture.

Abstract

The architectural rationale has traditionally focused on scales to define its universe. Thus, scales and cultural constructs such as “the building,” “the city,” “the metropolis” and even “the territory” have defined architectural fundamentalisms. Urbanisation, however, demands the consideration of aesthetic, economic, environmental, political, social and technological processes manifested equally at local and global levels - from the intimacy of human passions and the privacy of interior spaces to personal data and emotions shared in public, physical, and virtual spaces. How effective are individual design efforts (such as those of design offices named after their proud founders) to address climate-related challenges that demand collective responses? How does architecture address the social dramas behind climate change, gender and social inequality or forced migration? These are, of course, rhetorical questions. In contrast, this paper explores the aesthetic sensitivity of cinema to urban phenomena. It studies the contribution of cinema to the urban project in architectural culture. The paper considers the incipient connection between Modern architecture and cinema during the first half of the twentieth century and the analytical capacity of cinema to depict urban transformations since postmodern urban thinking until today. It argues that the alliance between cinema and design can maximise the environmental and social sensitivity of architecture to address urbanisation beyond technoscientific faith.


The history of architecture corresponds to the history of civilization. Thus, architectural thinking and practice entail a cultural reflection as deep as the universe and the mysteries of the human mind. Architecture possesses an enviable historical and collective memory but, perhaps, that is its problem. Architectural expertise has historically limited its scope to the design and making of buildings. The latter is not irrelevant; on the contrary, the design and construction of a house involves a revision of the progression of cultural patterns over time to project new ways of collective living because a house belongs to an urban structure and a cultural context. But the astounding indifference of architectural fundamentalism to cultural changes compels designers to ponder its contemporary effectiveness as a form of knowledge before the challenges of urbanisation. How does architecture address the social dramas behind climate change, forced migration and gender, racial and social inequality? Do universities teach architecture or form-making today?

How does architecture address the social dramas behind climate change, forced migration and gender, racial and social inequality? Do universities teach architecture or form-making today?

Figure 01. The Twist, Bjarke Ingels Group, Jevnaker, Norway, 2020. © Laurian Ghinitoiu, courtesy of BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group

The cultural unrest of the second half of the twentieth century witnessed the redefinition of the disciplinary parameters of architecture on both sides of the Atlantic to counter the functional remnants of Modern architecture and technoscientific approaches. But the return to the discipline of architecture overemphasised architectural form to the point of exhaustion; the “autonomy” of architecture caused a rift between architecture’s disciplinary wisdom and cultural concerns. The shift from function to form exacerbated the alienation of architecture from everyday life through the fundamentalist dichotomy form-function. In contrast, Archizoom’s cultural critique promoted the social, economic and political sensitivity of architecture through its non-figurative version; architecture as process. Unlike the architectural confidence in technoscientific approaches to address environmental challenges that are often reduced to marketing strategies, such as LEED certifications, the Archizoom’s approach reveals the cultural complexity that the sustainable coexistence between human and non-human life entails in relation to urban processes.

The shift from function to form exacerbated the alienation of architecture from everyday life through the fundamentalist dichotomy form-function.

How “green” are sustainable strategies that design, engineering, and geopolitical frameworks adopt to intervene upon urbanisation?

In addition to the aesthetic debate that “greenness” evokes but barely takes place within design, this question demands the dual consideration of sustainable strategies as products and as processes. In line with Archizoom’s approach, architectural form and sustainable products such as wind turbines and electric cars are equally sensitive to social, economic and political contingencies. On the other hand, the detachment of architectural thinking and practice from cultural concerns favours form-making by overlooking the cultural causes and consequences of the design and construction of buildings as mere products. For example, wind turbines and electric cars are emissions-free products that provide sustainable energy, but this is a practical reduction, because their functioning often depends on invasive production processes and their physical decay produces rubbish. Some kinds of wind turbines cause bird deaths, affecting the ecosystem balance. Form-makers assume that buildings are isolated from their urban, social, economic, political and natural environments, but neither houses and office buildings nor wind turbines and electric cars are isolated objects. Most emissions-free energy projects require service roads whose physical impact on the environment is inevitable. The production of wind turbine components entails the use of metals whose fabrication often uses fossil fuels. The U.S. Energy Information Administration argues that “turbine blades, as most are currently constructed, cannot be recycled.”1 The electric cars industry is growing relentlessly. Europe is expected to have up to 30 million electric cars by 2030. They do not produce carbon dioxide emissions, but materials sustainability experts have raised concerns on the destiny of their lithium-ion batteries when they go out of service. Unlike the recycling capacity of traditional lead-acid batteries, the recycling industry for the lithium-ion versions has yet to be developed.2

How “green” are sustainable strategies that design, engineering, and geopolitical frameworks adopt to intervene upon urbanisation?

Figure 02. Residential Park, No-Stop City, project Plan, Branzi, Andrea, 1969 © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

The correspondences between Archizoom’s understanding of architecture as process and the focus on the production and recycling processes of sustainable products reveal the complex cultural processes involved in urban phenomena that contemporary architecture, or rather form-making, overlooks by reducing architectural form to an isolated object or product.

Architecture is not the only design discipline that overlooks the wide spectrum of cultural phenomena that comprise urbanisation. Architecture, landscape architecture and urbanism are arguably aesthetically blind. Their technocratic impetus while engaging urbanization omits that the progression of urban phenomena entails not only social, economic, political and technological transformations but also aesthetic changes and ethical dilemmas.

Contemporary architects are still trapped within rationalist and dualistic ontologies such as form versus function or human-made objects versus natural processes. They are insensitive to the non-hierarchical reciprocity between human and non-human life.

Contemporary architects, or rather form-makers, are still trapped within rationalist and dualistic ontologies such as form versus function or human-made objects versus natural processes. They are insensitive to the non-hierarchical reciprocity between human and non-human life formulated by the field of environmental aesthetics as “aesthetic engagement” and “aesthetic community.” As formulated by Arnold Berleant and explained by Emily Brady, the concept of “descriptive aesthetics” furthers “an environmental aesthetics that is intergenerational by drawing upon a global variety of stories and narratives, arts, forms of knowledge, cosmologies, and so on.”3 The field of environmental aesthetics can create an alliance with design to advance engaging and projective imaginaries vis-à-vis climate-related challenges. This alliance could pay attention to the aesthetics of everyday life that rationalist and technoscientific faith tends to overlook. First, Berleant’s idea of “aesthetic engagement” builds on pragmatism and phenomenology to explain that our aesthetic relationship with the environment is inherent rather than external. Thus, our social and urban relations with the natural environment are continuous rather than dichotomic; human beings are part of the environment, not its masters. Second, descriptive aesthetics can complement design imagination to interpret the past and “future aesthetic values, disvalues, and meanings” that climate change stores for future generations.4 This dual effort could create a variety of narratives produced by different social groups or even contrasting environmental, social, economic and political perspectives for the sake of inclusion - different cultural experiences and perceptions of urban phenomena also possess contrasting aesthetic dimensions. Today, urbanisation demands the consideration of economic, environmental, political, social and technological processes as well as aesthetic phenomena manifested equally at local and global levels, from the intimacy of human passions and the privacy of interior spaces to personal data and emotions shared in public, physical and virtual spaces.

How does architecture address the social dramas behind climate change, gender and social inequality or forced migration?

How does architecture address the social dramas behind climate change, gender and social inequality or forced migration?

The answer lies in the social, economic and political dimension of art and aesthetics to elevate human passions and social dramas to social and historical paradigms as the basis for a cultural critique formulated by architecture, landscape architecture and urbanism.

The previously mentioned social insensibility of design is only exacerbated by the overemphasis on technoscientific approaches such as LEED certifications or data simulation whose undeniable efficiency is methodologically indifferent to the dramas and passions behind urbanisation. Design has a great reliance on the seemingly “incontestable” power of rationality that differs from the critical progression of the aesthetic sensibility during the twentieth century against the metanarratives inherited from the European Enlightenment. In the 1960s and 1970s, Peter Eisenman in the United States, and Aldo Rossi in Europe, formulated the autonomy of architecture based on rationality, while art and aesthetics increasingly questioned the legitimacy of rational panacea.

The aesthetic sensitivity of the music theorist John Cage explored the tension between rational and empirical knowledge: “Ideas are either in the head or outside of it. I would rather think that the ideas outside the head open the head better than the ones inside the head.”5 The film director Michelangelo Antonioni highlighted the nonsense of rationality: “Mentally ill people see things that we cannot see. I do not believe in reason too much. Reason does not provide happiness; reason does not explain the world, or love, or anything that is important.”6 These ideas echoed a vehement nineteenth-century critique against rationality. “The most glaring daylight,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “rationality at any cost, a cold, bright, cautious, conscious life without instinct, opposed to instinct, was itself just a sickness. . . . To have to fight the instincts – that is the formula for decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness is equal to instinct.”7 Nietzsche’s madness, Michel Foucault argued, made possible that his “thought opens out onto the modern world.”8 The madness of Dadd, Nietzsche, Van Gogh and Artaud created “a moment of silence, a question without answer,” to trigger “a breach without reconciliation where the world is forced to question itself.”9 How can we explain that madness did not prevent Dadd or Van Gogh from mastering academic formulas and artistic canons? The irrationality inherent to rationality counters the predominance of thinking over feeling: “Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness, hard and unkind,” Charles Chaplin stated in The Great Dictator, “We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”10

In the first half of the twentieth century Le Corbusier asserted the following: “architecture and film are the only two arts of our time.”

Unlike the autonomy of architecture that overemphasised its disciplinary parameters through the fundamentalist defence of architectural form during the second half of the twentieth century, film for Antonioni was not about sound or picture; it was “an indivisible whole” that extends in time resisting its mere figurative expression: “The people around us, the places we visit, the events we witness - it is the spatial and temporal relations these have with each other that have a meaning for us today, and the tension that is formed between them.”11

In the first half of the twentieth century Le Corbusier asserted the following: “architecture and film are the only two arts of our time.”12 Sigfried Giedion advocated for montage as a principle of Modern architecture that intended to be perceived as dynamic: “One would have to accompany the eye as it moves; only film can make the new architecture intelligible.”13 This comment referred to the housing complex at Pessac designed by Le Corbusier, who paralleled his own architecture to Sergei Eisenstein’s films. Le Corbusier and Eisenstein advocated for a barely explored alliance between cinema, architecture and urbanism a century ago.

Le Corbusier and Eisenstein advocated for a barely explored alliance between cinema, architecture and urbanism a century ago.

Bernard Tschumi and Enric Miralles advanced this investigation through The Manhattan Transcripts (1981) and photocollages, respectively. The former challenged disciplinary boundaries, while the latter focused on time and space. Tschumi studied the notions of event, movement, and space “to introduce the order of experience, the order of time - movements, intervals, sequences - for all inevitably intervene in the reading of the city.”14 It aspired to deviate from traditional modes of architectural representation such as plans, sections and elevations. However, the proposed drawings could not entirely deviate from the architectural aspiration of urban order in the first half of the twentieth century. Tschumi subjected the representation of movements, intervals and sequences to the order of a grid. This visual organisation was also transposed to the highly structured space in the design of Parc de la Villette. The grid of red steel structures (follies) that articulate the interaction of cultural and leisure activities arguably subordinated the unpredictability of the urban condition to the structure (rationale) of architecture. Miralles’ photocollages proposed, instead, an epistemological approach sensitive to the ungovernable urban condition. His photocollages rebelled against the restricted medium of paintings (frame), films (screen), and architectural drawings (sheet of paper). Their main content is the “action of space” rather than “action in space.” Miralles’ photocollages despised the single viewpoint of the film-like diagrams of Eisenman’s houses or Tschumi’s The Manhattan Transcripts (1981) to conform to the cubist logic as “a simultaneous croquis, like multiple and different visions of the same moment.”15 Tschumi used “I” (the first person) as an observer, while Miralles used “we” (its plural form) to represent a collective experience of the world that is closer to architecture as cultural endeavour than as form-making.

Tschumi used “I” (the first person) as an observer, while Miralles used “we” (its plural form) to represent a collective experience of the world that is closer to architecture as cultural endeavour than as form-making.

In conclusion, I acknowledge the barely studied alliance between cinema and architecture during the design process, a topic that goes beyond the scope of this paper. My future research efforts will explore the practical adoption of cinematic methods such as the Kuleshov effect and collages to address the challenges of urbanisation. Today, design relies on participatory methods to incentivize social involvement during the design process. However, this method is “external” to design - it fails to question and revise the epistemological horizon of design disciplines. In contrast, the alliance between cinema and architecture maximises the social sensitivity and pedagogical character of design to convey messages to society while scrutinising the advantages and disadvantages of traditional design knowledge and representation.

Figure 03. The head of Vladimir Lenin’s statue being dismantled, Berlin, November 13, 1991. © Bernd Settnik/AFP/Getty Images (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Unlike the Koolhaasian “depoliticization” of the Berlin Wall as architecture, Wolfgang Becker’s film “Good bye Lenin!” focused on the tension between the Cold War and human passions. Whereas ideological and disciplinary paranoia are indifferent to people’s lives, Becker showed that human emotions, passions and perceptions are not indifferent to the post-war ideological obsessions that divided the world, a country, a city and a family. How can architecture, or rather architectural form, respond to burning issues such as nuclear threats, merciless pandemics and ubiquitous climate-related challenges? In the 1970s, the Italian architect Massimo Scolari borrowed Camillo Boito’s words to define the then pathetic status of Italian architecture. Boito described the whimsicality of late nineteenth-century architecture as follows: “Nowadays, there is no architecture, only buildings and architects. Architecture, except in rare cases, is a plaything of the imagination, a clever combination of forms, a game of pencils, compasses, lines and squares.”16 In 1973, Scolari echoed these words to explain the “misery of recent architecture,” except in rare cases. His critique was triggered by the impossibility of the discipline of architecture to address collectively the cultural unrest of the second half of the twentieth century and the degradation of the modern city beyond technoscientific panacea.

How can architecture, or rather architectural form, respond to burning issues such as nuclear threats, merciless pandemics and ubiquitous climate-related challenges?

How legitimate are Boito’s and Scolari’s diagnoses today when architecture seems to navigate adrift in a plural era disgusted with metanarratives such as modernism and postmodernism? How effective are individual design efforts such as those of design offices named after their proud founders, to address climate-related challenges that demand collective responses?

The enviable collective memory of architecture maximises its historical sensitivity while it limits its adaptive capacity to tackle evolving cultural challenges, such as climate change and gender, racial and social tensions. On the other hand, the resemblance of cinema to life conveys messages to society while it limits its capacity to produce specialised knowledge. Paradoxically, all virtue is flaw.

Bio

Miguel Lopez Melendez’s research combines architecture, art, environmental aesthetics, landscape architecture, philosophy and urbanism. His research and teaching activities at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) comprised architecture and urban projects in Latin America and the United States, and courses on history and theory of architecture and landscape architecture. He holds a Doctor of Design degree and a Master of Architecture in Urban Design from Harvard University GSD and a Bachelor of Architecture from Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico (ITESM). His dissertation, titled Urbanism and Autonomy, studied the term “autonomy” in postmodern urban thinking through Peter Eisenman’s and Aldo Rossi’s oeuvres. It documented the cultural engagement of “autonomy” as adopted from philosophy, art and political theory to contradict the unjustified disciplinary detachment of architectural autonomy from cultural concerns. He formulated a culturally sensitive urban autonomy to address the challenges of urbanization such as climate change, with a perceptible aesthetic sensibility.

Notes

1 “Wind explained: Wind energy and the environment,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, accessed October 10, 2022, [link]
2 Emma Woollacott, “Electric cars: What will happen to all the dead batteries?” Accessed October 10, 2022, [link]
3 Emily Brady, “Learning from Aesthetics of Engagement,” The Journal of Kitsch, Camp and Mass Culture, Volume 1 (2022): 39.
4 Brady, “Aesthetics of Engagement,” 39.
5 See the documentary “A Year With John Cage - How To Get Out Of The Cage (2012)” by Frank Scheffer, Accessed on March 29, 2021, [link]
6 Michelangelo Antonioni, et al, The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema (New York; St. Paul, MN: Marsilio Publishers, 1996), 192.
7 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, Kindle Edition, 2005), 166.
8 Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization (New York: Random House, Vintage Books Edition, Kindle Edition, 1988), 273.
9 Ibid, 273.
10 See Charles Chaplin, The Great Dictator (United Artists), 1940.
11 Michelangelo Antonioni, “The Event and the Image,” in Michelangelo Antonioni, et al, The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema (New York; St. Paul, MN: Marsilio Publishers, 1996), 51.
12 Quoted by Pete Collard, "The Modern Art of Filmmaking: Architecture On-screen at MoMA," Film, Fashion & Consumption 7, no. 1 (2018), 8.
13 Ibid, 9.
14 Bernard Tschumi, The Manhattan Transcripts, New ed. (London; New York, N.Y.: Academy Editions; St. Martin's Press, 1994), XXIII.
15 Enric Miralles, Obras y proyectos (Madrid: Ed. Electa, 1996), 173.
16 See Massimo Scolari, “The New Architecture and the Avant-Garde,” in K. Michael Hays, Architecture Theory since 1968 (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1998), 126-145.

Bibliography

“A Year With John Cage - How To Get Out Of The Cage (2012)” by Frank Scheffer, Accessed on March 29, 2021, [link]

Antonioni, Michelangelo, et al, The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema. New York; St. Paul, MN: Marsilio Publishers, 1996.

Brady, Emily, “Learning from Aesthetics of Engagement,” The Journal of Kitsch, Camp and Mass Culture, Volume 1 (2022): 39.

Chaplin, Charles, (film) The Great Dictator (United Artists), 1940.

Collard, Pete, "The Modern Art of Filmmaking: Architecture On-screen at MoMA," Film, Fashion & Consumption 7, no. 1 (2018), 8.

Foucault, Michel, Madness and Civilization. New York: Random House, Vintage Books Edition, Kindle Edition, 1988, 273.

Miralles, Enric, Obras y proyectos. Madrid: Ed. Electa, 1996, 173.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, Kindle Edition, 2005, 166.

Scolari, Massimo, “The New Architecture and the Avant-Garde,” in K. Michael Hays, Architecture Theory since 1968 (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1998), 126-145.

Tschumi, Bernard, The Manhattan Transcripts, New ed. London; New York, N.Y.: Academy Editions; St. Martin's Press, 1994, XXIII.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Wind explained: Wind energy and the environment.” Accessed October 10, 2022. [link]

Woollacott, Emma. “Electric cars: What will happen to all the dead batteries?” Accessed October 10, 2022. [link]

Published
18 Nov 2022
Reading time
18 minutes
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