This article was originally published on Common Edge.
The field of architecture is not exactly a hot topic of study for most undergraduate students. The closest they might get to the subject is an art history survey course in which architecture is presented as a parade of styles across the millennia—just another form of visual expression.
A few years ago, I tried something different to raise the awareness of non-architecture students of architecture and its place in their world. The University of Hartford, where I am on the architecture faculty, invited ideas on new interdisciplinary elective courses, open to all undergrads, that would explore the relationship between two or more disciplines. I’ve always loved film, as many architects do. Partly it’s because film directors and architects operate in similar ways, marshaling the talents and expertise of large groups of people to create an environment to be experienced. In film, it is the mise en scene, literally what is in the frame of the scene; in architecture, it is the three-dimensional experience of space over time, places in which we act out our lives. Might a cinematic experience offer non-architecture majors a way to access architecture in its most visceral ways? To ponder how we experience the built environment, and the things we find there. What does it mean? How is it symbolic? What impact can it have on our wellbeing?
I collaborated with a colleague in the university’s cinema program (film scholar Robert Lang) to create what’s become a staple in Hartford’s interdisciplinary course offerings each semester for the past few years. “Architecture In Film” invites students to experience architecture as a character that might propel a film’s narrative, symbolize certain people in the movie, or transport us to worlds that we can grasp only through architecture.
For instance, it is difficult to convey the essence of a utopia or a dystopia without employing a strong architectural presence. Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis, makes tangible the utopia of those who conceive of and rule the city and the dystopia beneath the city’s surface, where the proles toil to make this metropolis function. These become real places to the film viewer. Or, how might a murder mystery unfold with the aid of architecture? Alfred Hitchcock shows us in Rear Window (1954), in which a single observer, who occupies a precise location in space throughout the movie, is able to collect clues about a mystery by watching the daily activities of his neighbors in a New York City apartment complex. How do gender roles govern our movements in urban places? The film version of E.M. Forester’s novel A Room With a View makes my students aware that men once had wide latitude to occupy virtually any urban space they wished, while a woman was consigned to visit certain city places only in the company of a gentleman. How has access to urban space based on gender, or race, changed, or not? And are places really haunted, or is it just a person’s skewed perceptions of such environments that make them haunted? Just watch Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and find out: the architecture and landscape of the Overlook Hotel is indeed a devious character.
Each of the 14 films we view in the course is prefaced with discussions of such issues, based on assigned readings drawn from insightful texts such as Donald Albrecht’s Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies (2000), Steven Jacobs’ The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock (2007), and—perhaps one of the best books ever about the built environment and film—Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema (2001). After each film, we critique the role of architecture as a narrative device. The focus is on the experiential aspects of architecture, expressed through six key features: space/scale, style/ornament, light, sound, color, and landscape. The human experience of architecture is open to any student, whether they study architecture or not. So, when we view Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), students pay attention to how the emotional connections between the film’s characters are expressed through the architecture. A scene in which Kane and his disenchanted wife attempt to converse across the cavernous space of their mansion’s living room makes it clear that, over the years, this couple has grown quite distant, physically and emotionally. The architecture shows us the emptiness in their hearts.
In their weekly written critiques of each film, I ask my students to comment on whether they’ve had similar experiences in the built environments of their own lives. The goal is to make a connection between the architecture seen in the film and examples from the places that a student inhabits. This also gives them tools to critique the architecture with which they interact, based on their own perceptions of it.
Architecture faculty typically don’t spend much time with non-architecture students; pre-professional and professional degree programs are populated with students who sleep, eat, and breath architecture. But engaging a business major, a cinema student, an engineering major, or a future psychologist about the built environment—as experienced through film, and their own lives—reminds me that, ultimately, design is not benign. It shapes our memories and our dreams, architect or not.