Interview with three MA students in Architecture and Urbanism (S1, S2 and S3 on the 1st of June 2012. All three were familiar with my thesis work from previous studio presentations and did therefore not need an extensive introduction to the topic. Their familiarity with my research may have compromised their objectivity, which I need to keep in mind when evaluating their comments.
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LK: You obviously know what I’m working with. So, what relationship do you think exists, just generally, between film and architecture?
S1: I think I always like to look at the role of the architect as a director in a way. You know, that outlines the boundaries of everyday life and, like, the backdrop for everyday life and its scenography. We’re born in a world that already exists and there are interesting questions that can come out of it, like what happens when you witness a change of scenography through disasters, when everything has to be regenerated and so on. I think there is a very strong connection between them, isn’t it?
S2: Film is all about space and that’s what architecture’s main priority is about; controlling the space of the user so film’s just, it has to use it as a backdrop for what it’s doing and it influences everything in the film. For most people it is a very conscious thing, as part of the film, but if it’s done wrong you know about it. When it’s done well you don’t.
S1: I think you’re right in saying that it’s manipulative in a way because the same way as a director, sort of, chooses the shots he wants to put together to convey a certain emotion, it’s the same thing with architecture. People aren’t really a part of what’s happening and the major decisions that are being made in the urban fabric so it’s a given.
S2: They’re both dealing with perception all the time and they’ve both got to successfully convey atmosphere, it’s all about legibility. […]
LK: So, how do you reckon they can influence each other? Do you reckon film can influence architecture directly or vice versa? [NK arrives] Sorry, we were just talking about architecture and film in general and how they can influence each other.
S2: I think it’s difficult for architecture to directly say it takes relationships from film. I think it’s a difference in the readings. I think architecture is an older sort of thing, so films come out in order to portray people living as part of architecture and it’s a much newer idea to use film as part in a building. It’s something that would only be from the last maximum 70 or 80 years. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, it’s not something that’s as common, but there’s things that they both deal with. Things are more cinematic these days we, were saying, with perspective and creating space.
S1: I think another thing they have in common is structure. It’s quite obvious, but if every film has a beginning and it sort of builds up to something…
S2: Sequential experiences
S1: Yes, exactly. Then it fades away and it makes an impression. So I think that’s both their role to create a sensation to a certain perception like you said before.
S2: Both things are a journey. I suppose both are trying to convey similar things about, I mean. Architecture is all through space. Film is drawing you through different environments and that is what good architecture does. Because if you’re in a good building you don’t have to worry about moving through it, it naturally draws you through and that’s what a good film should do as well. It draws you through the story and its environments as well.
S1: And I also think another connection is spatial temporal compression, which can happen, for example in the Trafford Centre where you’ve got a pastiche of thing, a mix match of elements. Film, well it depends on what type of film it is, but you’ve got montage that comes in here and determines the compression rate and everything is it is a long shot or a short shot and so on. That goes back to structure in a way, and the way that temporality is debated. But yes, I think that’s another point.
S2: I think actually the Trafford Centre is a good example, it goes back to your question how does film influence architecture, taking something like a shopping centre, like the Trafford Centre, is probably one of the most direct links to something like that. Because the way they directly try to draw you through and create this experience is probably more cinematic that anything else.
S1: It’s a promenade, almost.
S2: If you’re thinking of a typology, it’s probably a shopping mall more than a shopping centre. It’s probably the closest thing you’d get to it. Now, it’s probably closer to a blockbuster action film than anything else, but there’s definitely a relationship there.
S3: For me, I look at the two as to what are the main agendas or the main concentration and I find that both of them are film architecture are all visual things. They concentrate more about the appearance. And if you synergise the two, you find out that even in the modern approach to design of the buildings they consider on the how does it appeal to the human eye? I attended one of the lectures in Sandra Burslem theatre where the architect there said, you know, there are some perspectives you don’t want to take a photo of the building to appear on your website. So you need a special point where you can take a photo that can go on the website. So this one is just telling us architecture and film, they are all picturesque. They are concerned with the visual, they are all intertwined in one or the other.
LK: So, how do you reckon then, in order to move a bit closer to where my thesis is at the moment, that disaster films and the idea of the apocalypse, how those kind of films and the ideas of dystopia, how do you reckon that can influence architecture?
S3: I have a very good understanding on how film influences architecture. I will take the example of cartoons, you know the production of cartoons and moving pictures. Do you know that most of the software we are using now developed from the idea of cartoons? So it’s like when they started developing this as film, cartoons, they developed the cartoons, their settings and then the software developer said I think we can use this idea to create software for the 3D rendering. And now it’s like the film industry has developed the architecture industry whereby now you can see visually. You can actually generate a model in a film while you’re moving. The architecture of the 3D moving images is actually coming from the film industry.
LK: So what advantages do you think that brings to architecture? It might be an obvious question, but…
S3: The advantage is that, it influences the efficiency of the field. You see? It’s like, you copy from this field and then you influence the other field. When you produce a product, an architectural product, obviously of these days one of the movie makers will come to say ‘Can we shoot a film from this location?’. So it’s like in both ways and many dimensions these two are interrelated and they influence each other.
S1: Maybe the idea between films and these sort of futuristic Sci-Fi films comes from the fact that we… well there is that sense… there are other things happening and maybe that is just a way for us to subconsciously get ready for it and come out with that sort of trying to imagine, figure it out because it’s something that’s out of our control so maybe starting to define to have control over it by starting to define it by creating the city as we would imagine it in films and maybe that’s just a way to… to prepare for something.
S3: And the other thing is that most of the architects, if they want to copy a design. You’ll find the best design in film. It’s a channel of communication, a visual communication. The film producers are actually particular in the buildings they select to shoot their movie. See? So you’ll find out that just in the watching of the movie’ What is this building?’. You try to find out and with the making of so many movies it’s like, it’s widening the horizon of architects and how to approach designs that appeal to the human eye. So, there’s just a striking link.
S1: It’s a hyper-real world, almost, that’s created through film. It’s sort of an exaggeration of our fantasies…
LK: So do you reckon people are going to start designing buildings that are gonna go straight into film, target their design almost, in order to have their films displayed for free in the cinema?
S1: To have their designs displayed, used as a backdrop for certain films?
S3: For me, I look at it like in the film making, there’s already an exaggeration of architecture. Architecture’s coming behind. You find out that in the creation of those… I’ll still take the example of cartoons. Those people explore and think, come up with their extraordinary shapes. So when you look at the cartoons you think ‘But this can be possible, how can we create it structurally?’, you see? So the film is actually ahead of architecture, so it’s like we’re trailing behind.
S1: Yes, I think it’s great because film doesn’t think about all these functional aspects necessarily; it just lets imagination flow and go to extremes, really extreme places like Jules Vernes for example. He wrote a book about the air balloon and then it actually got realised, everybody thought he was crazy at the time or the travelling in outer space and so on. There are people that foresee this sort of progress. I think in a way that this becomes embedded in the subconscious and people start going towards that direction in a way. It’s just putting things out there and I think that’s what film does.
S2: […] When people are watching film, it’s giving them a visual impression of what things are and what things should be like. Because architecture generally as an education doesn’t come in until later on in people’s lives, their ideas of how things are built and constructed are more and more over the last few decades being based on things in film. And things in film, although until more recently have been real constructs, film has the ability to shape them in its own way, to give them their own feeling and visualisation. Especially, on the side of things the way cities feel. So even, I’ll say like a sequential way, when they’re in a city, we know for a fact that they won’t be going street by street by street doing it. They’ll cut from one area to a completely different area of the city. But it’ll be one shot and the next shot between those and that’s creating a feeling of an urban environment that doesn’t exist. But it’s using real examples to create that contrast and it has the ability to do that, and that’s probably one of the strongest links that’s going to come as people bring their own ideas to the table. Everything is based on experience, so it’s going to be based on viewing things like that.
LK: So, bringing it back again, I’m obviously forcing it a bit but to the idea of things going wrong. Recently we’ve had more and more films, starting in the ’70s with a big disaster film hype and that was based on nuclear fears. Now we’ve had a big hype again with environmental disasters, diseases and all of these things. Do you reckon these things could somehow influence the way we plan our cities? The fact that we can now imagine things on screen, present it via mass-media to a really wide audience; spread this information - these ideas - really quickly, people starting to talk and think about it. How should that feed back into the way we plan our cities?
S3: I think that you can look at the horror films; if they give out pictures. […]
S1: I just think about sin-city, when you say “do you know a really dark environment?” and these topics, societies.
S2: I think it’s difficult to, say, directly learn from film as a medium. Because although it deals with many of the same themes as doing things for different reasons, there are things when you consider the sign of things going wrong in disaster films. Architecture is usually one of the first things, the things that our country covers, that start to go wrong. So, in an action film it’ll be destruction of the building, so even some things like Die Hard it’s all set in a tower block. If you go even further back, you’ve got a tower in Inferno which was probably one of the first ones. Architecture is very important to those films even though it’s at the forefront of it, even though it’s not explicitly talked about. As then you come more forward, as the disasters get bigger it’s more about things on the urban scale. There’s always things like traffic blocking up and things like that. So quite possibly if you’re going with learn[ing] things it’s… creating contingencies from that I think is almost a bit of an extreme idea, but it’s going “Ok, well, what are people’s greatest fears out of these things?”. Not being able to escape a city environment, not having safe areas in the city environment.. I mean there must be lots more to think through there. And it’s maybe looking at those in the urban design aspect and thinking “How could you, in a realistic aspect, alleviate people’s fears if there was a disaster?” So, I guess, in this age we’d be looking slightly different. I mean, everything in films goes on a slightly more science-fiction scale but in a real-life one terror’s a big important thing. If there’s a large-scale attack, how are people able to evacuate safely and create safe communities and, I suppose, rebuild is probably the last important thing from it - how are people able to come back into their environment?
S1: But I don’t think it’s just about the actual event and how people cope with it. I think what urbanism should do is also deal with their paranoias. So if the event is happening, these build up in people’s conscience. I think that’s quite important. Regarding what you said earlier, I was just thinking when they show in film when architecture crumbles it’s the ultimate destruction stage, so that when that falls you realise that that’s so fragile - everything is sort of lost, everybody freaks out when that’s gone. So, it’s holding life together and you feel that as long as that’s there and is intact we’re fine, in a way, we’ve still got a chance to save ourselves.
LK: So coming on from that do you think that architecture and urbanism can help to prevent and mitigate these kind of disasters. As long as we’re being clever with it, or just in general, or could we improve on it?
S2: I think it’s difficult to go along the path of preventing disasters. If anything, what films should stress is disasters are created in themselves and there’s nothing that’s exactly the same for.. but exactly what you say, it’s mainly only even people’s paranoia so they can live their lives; disasters are going to happen and because they’re so varied it’s difficult to prevent them. But at least we should at least be able to make people comfortable in an area even though something can happen and I suppose given.. it’s more likely as I said the opportunity to get out or rebuild is…
S3: …it’s like the film industry exposes our limited, our support for architecture is. Say for example the disaster film you would have a tall building that would collapse in a way. As an architect you would think ‘What kind of material can I use to design. Say if I move.. a building that can move away’, like the twin towers were hit by a plane. How can we create it that when a plane was coming the building moved away and the plane didn’t hit the building? So, there are no materials to construct what the films portray. There’s that gap on the paper and what is a reality, in the ground.
S1: Another funny thing which I just remember which was regarding how we, people, become so inspired by the architecture in film. It’s so hyperbolic and crazy that they want a piece of it. Hence the guy that built his own Hobbit hut from Lord of the Rings. […] and especially now with all the special effects it’s so well, these worlds, these parallel worlds, these fantasy words. It’s an escape for people, basically, from their daily lives. So they want a piece of that escape in their back yard or wherever it is. I think that’s another way to look at it - film is escape. That’s why it’s so popular in Cuba or in places where the political regimes are extremely powerful and censorship is very high and so on. So going to film was basically escaping, it was a rapture from the daily life, going somewhere else and travelling with your mind and with your eyes.
S2: I would say every entertainment is an escapism of some sort, and that’s what people want to do because it’s something other than their daily grind and lives. I suppose what film can sort of show in relation to architecture is that there’s no reason why architecture can’t be any different from that. Why can’t architecture be an escape for somebody? Their perception of space can be an escape from the way that they have to live their life.
S1: I think that film should stay as an escape. It shouldn’t become educational, it should preserve its status as something like that. I don’t know how to put it.
LK: Is it only escape though? At the moment, when you’re looking at pure fantasy film, is it necessarily only an escape or is it an expression of something that you can’t talk about in straight terms?
S1: It could be. It can be so many things
S2: Well, I suppose there are things that are metaphor in film but it’s difficult because we live in a very free society so it’s difficult to say that anything in film is dealing with subjects that we can’t deal with in.. well, you’re dealing on a personal scale or a societal scale, because usually films are all dealt with on a societal scale in some ways. Or, I suppose it is an inability to deal with some things where some things aren’t dealable with on a personal scale, but in other cultures film’s an important thing because some subjects are illegal, or—
S1: Film can be a voice, the voice of things that aren’t really said or are..
LK: So do you reckon all the reasons climate change and all of the disasters that have been going on, do you reckon they have influenced the contents of film lately?
S2: The film industry is an interesting thing in itself. I wouldn’t say greatly over the last ten - fifteen years. I think there’s been pretty much a status in the film industry for the past 25-30 years for film types, typologies and the way they’re done. I would say that disasters before then, yes. But up until now, there’s very few original ideas coming through in film, it’s mainly the re-imagining of other ideas of other films that have come through. It takes quite a lot for some film to be an original, new idea. […]
S1: I think that apocalypse has haunted humanity since [the beginning of time]. If it’s not aliens coming, it’s going to be the rise of the machine, like we just saw in Metropolis. People always had this fear and lived with this fear that we’re not going to be here, we’re not eternal, we’re not going to live forever. An end is coming, so as you said these are ways for us to sort of imagine it in different ways and get ready for different scenarios.
LK: So why do you think there is such a fascination with it? Whether it’s dystopia or the apocalypse or disasters?
S2: Doesn’t it come back to the human condition, the fascination with death? We know that we don’t last forever.
S1: It’s about the fact that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. I think that’s what it all comes down to. A book has beginning, a middle… everything had a conclusion. This idea of eternity, I don’t know what to say. I mean… Maybe it’s… People… Maybe it’s been built with religion and… Religion might have had an important part in it, in a way. Because it tells people that there is going to be a day when everything will, you know, whether it’s going to be the great judgement or whatever you want to call it. I know this is a bit off topic, but I think that’s when people started thinking about that sort of stuff.
S2: I would say there is a comfort in the idea of that to… to a lot of extents. Because you can go ‘No matter how bad we think things are getting, it all can then… It all can [get worse]’
S1: Yes, I think that’s very true. You know that there’s going to be a release at the end or something.
LK: So why do reckon it’s so popular at the moment? Because the number of disaster films are going up, there’s the spin off thing, the theatre productions put up, the images produced, we had the James Chadderton exhibition with Manchester being completely destroyed. It’s a really important part of popular culture at the moment.
S3: Yes, but even if you look in the statistics of the real events of natural disasters, you would find out that the sheer scale of them are actually increasing and they are more frequent than previous[ly] If you look at the seismic issues, the earthquakes, you will find out that the magnitudes they are reaching now are actually hair-raising. So, to some extents when these things are happening and the exaggeration that the films give, it’s actually blows the whole picture out of proportion. To some extent, the films can actually mould the behaviour […] If the films are always showing us the dystopic scenes and what we are watching on every channel are dystopic scenes; war, crimes, you find out that even the architecture responds to that. How does it respond? More defensive planning, so on and so forth. And yesterday I was watching something on River Themes, and there’s a water barrier that controls the level of water. They say if they see the ice melt in the poles, those barriers are under distress. Something like that. So to design that, it informs them on what should be done to the new building. Should we go even higher? As the water rises, we should actually be in the top cities.
S1: At the same time, once they start addressing something like this, you know an end that’s coming, it becomes real. You know what I mean? The more it’s aesteticised and the more its shown as part of a structure, and of an urban… You know, you sort of make it real for everybody. I don’t know how to explain it… Because now it’s sort of a subject that floats in the air and people do movies about it and so on, but… I don’t know how to explain it, sorry.
S2: My take on it is, it’s probably got links to things like… There are reasons there are more natural disasters, but I think those things… the Earth’s cyclical, in a way. That works. I think it’s probably more based on society, societal. That’s how I feel it works. Things are difficult at the moment, economically across the world things are difficult. And films come to reflect that, because films are, if anything, meant for the time that they’re made. So, at the minute because things are difficult for us, we will do even more disaster films, because we’re going ‘Oh, look how bad it could be’. Whereas if you’re living in a time where things are easy, the films won’t reflect that as much because people don’t need to see when they’re living in an easy, nice life it going wrong. But people think that things are going wring they want to see that it could be a lot worse. So I would believe there’s a relationship between recessions and the amount of disaster films being made. Something like that.
S1: So as to put in a better light what you’re living, your daily life. That’s a good point.
LK: So… I’m trying to figure out which question to move on to, to make it as smooth as possible, but it’s not gonna work. So, do you reckon with all the recent climate change and disasters going on, have they had an impact on the way we look at architecture and urbanism?
S1: Yes, the issue of sustainability, is that what you mean? That it’s becoming increasingly high and that people are addressing it more and more. Is that what you mean?
LK: Do you reckon that’s connected to more frequent disastrous events? Are people taking it more seriously because they can see things going on?
S1: Yes, it’s about all the graphs and statistics that are fed every single day. That things are going to go incredibly wrong unless we change something. So yes, I think that’s connected.
S3: And again, with the disaster if you notice that the… Disaster areas, you know, the hitting and the magnitude and the type of disasters are actually different. And if you look at the responses to specific disasters you find out that each and every time there is an increased creativity in how the disaster is handles. For example, when the disaster hit Haiti, you find out that if you go to the re-planning, or even the tsunami, you know it like washed away the field of agricultural land, how is the new planning going to be to replace tat huge, massive loss? And again, you’ll find out that now it boils down to what kind of buildings are we going to build? If we have these disasters? Which materials are we going to invest in the structure. So, we’re now reinventing the whole way how we look at the design. What particular design should we put in what particular area. And what impact will it have when a disaster hits that thing?
S1: I think that’s about natural disasters, but you’ve got places that are completely damaged socially. The first thing that comes to mind is City of God, that film. So that sort of extreme violence and so on. And again I think that’s closely connected to the architecture and the urban corners that provides them places to make those things happen. That’s another way to look at disaster when it comes from these sort of cities.
LK: So by imagining all of these things, whether it’s films or whether it’s architects talking about it or any other professionals or people, do you reckon we can learn to prevent or mitigate them? By creating these imaginary scenarios and say ‘If this was to happen, if we do this and this and this, can we stop it?’
S2: I think it’s very difficult to plan contingencies against things that have no happened at all before. Because, if you’re in an earthquake zone, like in Los Angeles, they… I can’t remember when the last one was, but it was quite a long time ago singe the last major one they had. And they’ve spent all that time preparing their architecture and they way the city is planned. It’s all built around is there is another massive earthquake that they have there. But … for the argument that they should start developing for, say, a massive health disaster. It’s difficult to make contingencies for something that may never happen. It’s all the likelihood of things. And that’s the problem with films. Films generally like to take the viewpoint, they tend to throw something in that has never happened to see how people cope with it. Now, the only extent I could see that on the architecture and city scale is to create, to not take specific sorts of disasters but take the points of what people need to do in a disaster. Take those and create plans around those. So, people need clean water, people need access to health care, shelter, things like that so in a disaster people are able to access that, create contingencies around that rather than the specifics. The biggest thing I can see is that film can teach us what our biggest fears are. […] We can learn from those fears and then create contingencies around those in the city.
S1: I agree, I think you’re right. You have to deal with it first in order to be able to prepare for it again.
S3: And again, there are some films that are actually coming from real studies. For example, archaeological studies whereby the excavation, the review, that maybe there was a huge volcano that swept the whole town.
S3: Yes, like in great magnitude. So in that scenario, it’s actually… How can architecture prepare, or even engineering prepare for that… It’s almost impossible.
S2: I guess on things like that, if it’s a disaster on a scale that can’t be combated itself, it’s enabling people to relocate with the least amount of hassle. That’s the other thing films play on a lot is the.. if people do need to leave somewhere quickly, is the lack of people’s ability to do that and people getting trapped in bad situations due to numbers of people trying to leave. And that happens..
S1: But at the same time, if you increase the connectivity between points, when you have, in the case of Contagion, something you don’t want to happen. I think it’s very delicate in a way.
S1: I don’t know, I’m just trying to think of all disaster films I’ve seen.
LK: Well, then talking about Contagion, because that’s a film, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, made part funded by NGOs in the aftermath of the swine flu and the bird flu. Do you reckon we can use film as a tool to almost passively educate people? So whilst they’re watching this film and kind of enjoying it, Contagion is not very enjoyable as a film, but you still learn a lot from it. You learn to wash your hands, you know where to go and if this should happen, here’s who you should talk with. Do you reckon it’s realistic to actually try to use those kind of strategies on a larger scale?
S2: I don’t see why not but it’s more like the language of the film, how that changes. So if it’s just a normal thing to warn people through film then that becomes part of the societal thing around them. I’ve not seen Contagion but I know about it. On things like sort of that scale, it’s difficult for the idea of, because these days the world is a link, it’s all about linking itself to other things. Some cities are completely dependent on linkages to other sources […] I think films on those scales teach on a different level, so things we shouldn’t be doing in the first place. So government shouldn’t be developing smallpox, resistant strains of smallpox. Why are you doing it? Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.
S1: Don’t go to into the forest when Jack the Ripper is there!
S2: Exactly, yeah.. But I don’t know what the place is in architecture for that sort of thing. I couldn’t say.
LK: Do you reckon film could create a sense of familiarity with things? So that when we face them, we can say ‘Hmm.. I saw this in a film once…’ Well, maybe not that explicitly, but ‘Hang on, I can deal with this, I kind of know what’s gonna happen even though I’ve never been in this situation before’.
S1: They certainly prepare you in w way.
S2: Yeah, I think.. if you’re in a situation where you’ve not got much food and water, everybody knows through film these days you ration your water. You ration your food. It’s the first you try to do. Most things you don’t pick that up from… It’s not like people are reading survival guides, generally. It’s more.. what the successful survivor does in a film. Well you don’t go upstairs if you’re in a dark house and you think somebody might be up there with a big knife…
S1: You don’t waste liquids…
S3: Once, I watched a film where there was an earthquake and people ran under the tables. So when we had an earth tremble at the university at home, and I just… I just rushed under the table. Maybe when the floors collapse… with the legs of the table you can have some space for the excavators to find you. So you can easily learn just like that in films.
S2: I’ve got things like that too. The archway of a door, it’s one of the safest places to be. It’s very strong, the archway of a door. So it’s a good place to be.
LK: That’s all the questions I wanted to ask you, so unless you’ve got something else you want to talk about…