Since the 2007-2008 academic year, the Ethics class at the School of Architecture (UIC Barcelona, Spain) has analyzed the cinematographic works of Alfred Hitchcock through the lens of architectural planning. In the following analysis by the class's two professors -- art theorist and historian Alfons Puigarnau and architect Ignacio Infiesta -- space is thought of as scenography, and the visual strategy is analyzed in relation to the script and the soundtrack with the intention of creating a deliberate atmosphere of suspense.
Geared for third year architecture students, this class studies the film director's vision as if it were one of the instruments guiding an architect's design. It's part of an analogy between the camera lens, which uses light, and the architect's pencil, which makes use of outlines. In fact, Hitchcock always emphasized the visual over the dialogue .
Learn more about the work of the students at the School of Architecture UIC after the break.
Traditionally, architecture courses have been divided into two types: those that offer a more technical approach to the profession and those with a theoretical focus. For many years, the School of Architecture at UIC has been making efforts to implement a practical component to all the classes that fall under the Área de Pensamiento (Thought Department) with a curriculum that can teach students the immediate usefulness of theory in an architect's own design process.
The course is composed of two complementary sections. In one part, art theorist and historian Alfons Puigarnau gives lectures that uncover different design strategies through formal composition analysis of the elements created by Hitchcock. At the same time, architect Ignacio Infiesta develops the practical part of the course, which is based on creating graphic representations that embody the idea of suspense in architectural space.
Architecture and Suspense: An Added Emotion for Designing
Leaving the space in suspense. This may be one of the more significant aspects of cinema that can contribute to architecture at the time of imagining/creating intensely emotional spaces. Hitchcock lays out architectural space like a model, in which the psychological content of a movie and the choreography of its dramatic movements are represented. . In the class, the films undergo a deep analysis to help the students develop architectural concepts that utilize strategies of suspense.
Suspense is a powerful method for keeping the viewer's attention, be it "technical" -a deliberate pause between an action and a result- or "psychological", where the mental process of the viewer prevails over the reality of the filmed action . It is for this reason that all good architectural design, like Hitchock's films, must develop one lone idea that finishes expressing itself in the moment in which the action reaches its peak dramatic point . In the class, this power to make the viewer tremble is something both cinema and architecture have in common.
Like Hitchcock says in his interview with Francois Truffaut, don't confuse suspense with surprise. Emotions are crucial ingredients for creating suspense. In order for there to be suspense it's necessary to understand the spatial layout, knowing that the end point is the surprise. For there to be suspense the space has to be honest, there has to be an element that makes the entire action tense, that makes the ending of this experience over this space unexpected. Suspense provides the perfect atmosphere for surprise.
1. PSYCHO: Blinds as an Element of Suspense
In Psycho (1960), we see one of the most common reoccurring ways of generating an atmosphere of suspense in Hitchcock's work: voyeurism or "to see without being seen." The image of Norman Bates watching Marion Crane through the wall separating his office from her room is seared into our minds. Dominating with a glance, without the other subject being aware, the dual personality of Norman, just like his affinity for taxidermy, makes us think of the potential of blinds as an element of architecture, representing this ambiguity between one mental state and another, between the union of skin with bone (taxidermy). The concept of voyeurism is also expressed architecturally in the movie by the symbolic prevalence that the Victorian house exerts over the deliberate functionality of the Bates Motel building.
Blinds are an in-between place. A place of suspense, they're always situated on the border between two halves: interior-exterior. Like Norman Bate's dissected animals, they are a living skin. It is also important to note the soundtrack by Bernard Hermann which, using only string instruments, leads us to think that we're able to create suspense with just sound.
2. THE ROPE: Design as Crime
Crime as the purest form of art. That's how Brandon and Philip discuss David's murder. The planning and preparation of the act can help us to lay out architectural spaces with this same methodology. Crime has the ability to speed up space, dramatically looking for an ending.
The Rope (1948) is the first film Alfred Hitchcock shot in Technicolor; chromatic emulsion at first accentuates the pastel tones and absorbs the cold colors, along the same lines as the nuances sought after by the director. This film isn't a narrative, but rather takes place in real time. The main strategy is the development of the action as if it were shot in only a single take, without being edited. The movie, if we consider it as an architectural project, can be understood in just one look, one continuous take.
The unity between time and space is absolute. Everything that happens in space corresponds to time, as we can see in the change in light of the diorama that shows New York City. The Rope has the narrative structure of a Greek tragedy: anticlimax -- beginning of action -- climax. The famous unity of action hypothesized in Aristotle's Poetics.
3. VERTIGO: Design as Transition
The Moebius strip is a reoccurring motif in Vertigo (1958). The spiral symbol appears in difference plot sequences: the bouquet of flowers, the rings of the sequoia, the 360º dolly zoom on the bedroom kiss, the closeup of Kim Novak's and Carlota Valdés' buns. The Moebius strip represents an eternal loop, but above all, the ability to travel across the same surface without changing planes. That is how Kim Novak's character moves, transitioning between the roles of Madeleine and Judy Barton.
In one of the films' most moving scenes we can also visualize the concept of transition in an effective fashion. The moment when Scottie follows Madeleine up the bell tower of the San Juan mission, Hitchcock plays with the zoom of the camera, which is nothing but a metaphor between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
In architecture the forms of transition are the consequence of previously affixed objects, and the practical necessity that the physical construction of a building imposes. For example, the walkway in the shape of a square of the transept floor in a church or the polygonal or circular form of a roof that results in a dome. The interest of a space in transition is how it changes from one form to another.
4. REAR WINDOW: Design as a Look
In Rear Window (1954), a tension is produced between who is looking and what is being seen -- all across a courtyard of a block of apartments. Hitchcock, in order to give special attention to optical objects, presents us with the theme of looking. Architecture as just a look may reach its greatest expression in a set of sections. It is precisely in the section where what is happening with a design is discovered, just like how they discover the murderer in Rear Window.
Alfred Hitchcock was a great editor of subjectivity. The ability to influence sight in future spaces, manipulating users without being seen, is also had by the architect when he is seen submerged in the process of project or pre-project design. In Rear Window, we also find a typically metropolitan view. Only in a metropolitan space could crime be considered a work of art. In ordinary city life anything is possible. The section in a metropolitan environment also explains the contradiction between the impossibility of being alone and the obligatory loneliness of anonymity.
5. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN: Design as Editing
It is said to be one of the master of suspense's few films that belongs to the film noir born during the Great Depression. Movies in black and white, chiaroscuro, work with the contrast between light and shadow, especially through overhead light. Strangers on a Train (1950) is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith of the same name. Unlike The Rope, this film is made up of many fragments. The task of editing, of uniting different takes without giving up a complete composition was very labor-labor intensive.
Is it possible to obtain suspense just through editing? Hitchcock shows us how in the first scene of the movie, where he intensifies and dramatizes what could be an every day action. The camera at ground level shows us the opposing movements of two different men going around the train. Only when the feet accidentally run into one another does the camera begin to make a vertical panorama and we can see the two characters' faces. The architecture of Enric Miralles is an example of work based on fragments, on notes, where lines appear that go weaving and uniting the work. The fragment always gives the possibility of exploring the matrix either of light or of its own material. The project is understood to be a process, even an unfinished one.
6. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (II): Design as a Magnetic Field
In Strangers on a Train, there is another theme that we don't want to leave out: the magnetism of architecture and its direct relation with the notion of suspense. The film is shot in Washington, a monumental city of great hubs and plazas. It's revealing to observe how in the movie the confrontation between two men (Guy and Bruno), is always obstructed by architecture. The monument has the burden of staging and of being the magnetic force that adds suspense to the whole scene. The architecture in this case acts an analogy of the domination Bruno exerts over Guy.
Also present in all of Hitchcock's movies is the mysterious relationship between central and periphery. That is, the relationship between small and large scale, where small objects take on different connotations after being immersed in a metropolitan context.
7. SHADOW OF A DOUBT: Design as Doubt
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is a movie made with a more primitive cinematographic language. It is defined as a psychological thriller. A man running from the law decides to go to Santa Rosa (periphery), in order to settle into a rural, naive and unsophisticated environment. Uncle Charlie is a fugitive who has doubt cast on his guilt concerning the murder of a "happy widow". But he is not the only suspect, which creates even more doubt. This concept of doubt expressed physically in the movie through the staircase, is one of the most meaningful parts of the film. You can leave from whichever stairway, so any one of the suspects could be guilty.
In Shadow of a Doubt, the main staircase is used to accentuate the violence of the interior space of the house. It suggests the difficulties of being in a dilemma: of having doubt between two options. The dilemma in architectural design always brings about a state of uncertainty, which could be considered as a design strategy. It would be logical to think this way, since modern architecture, in order to free itself from the load-bearing-wall, places itself in continuous doubt.
Françoise Truffaut, El cine según Hitchcock (Cinema according to Hitchcock), 1974, p.20; p.59
Steven Jacobs, The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock, 2013, p.10-15
Françoise Truffaut, El cine según Hitchcock (Cinema according to Hitchcock), 1974, p.66
- Steven Jacobs, The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock, Rotterdam 2013
- Hitchcock by François Truffaut, The Definite Study of Alfred Hitchcock by François Truffaut,(Revised Edition), New York, Simon and Schuster Inc., 1985 (1983)
- Th. De Quincey, On Murder as a Fine Art, London, Philip Alan & Co., Quality Court, 1925 (1827)
- S. Gottlieb (ed.), Hitchcock on Hitchcock. Selected Writings and Interviews, London, Faber and Faber Limited, 1995
- E. Trías, Vértigo y pasión, Vértigo y pasión: un ensayo sobre la película "Vértigo" de Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo and passion: an essay about the movie Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock), Barcelona, Taurus, 1998
Alfons Puigarnau graduated in Art Histroy with honors from the University of Barcelona and received his doctorate in 1999. Since 2001 he has been a professor of Esthetics at UIC's School of Architecture, directing the area of Thought.
Ignacio Infiesta has been an architect at the UIC School of Architecture since 2012, and is an associate professor at the same school. He has collaborated with AV artist Eugenia Balcells, collaborated on the recent sets of Carlus Padrissa, and is an architect at SSCV Arquitectos.