Interview: The Symbiotic Connection Between Film and Architecture Explored with Dr. Juhani Pallasmaa

With more than two dozen books, 300 essays in over 30 languages and severalbuiltworks including Helsinki’s Kamppi Centre (2003-2006), Finnish architect, author and professor emeritus Dr Juhani Pallasmaa is among Finland’s most esteemed figures and theorists in the field ofarchitecture.His publication, The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema (2001), in particular, highlights the symbiotic relationship between architecture and otherartforms, especially cinema. “In its inherent abstractness, music has historically been regarded as the art form which is closest to architecture,” he wrote. “Cinema is, however, even closer to architecture than music, not solely because of its temporal and spatial structure, but fundamentally because both architecture and cinema articulate lived space.”

Here, Dr Pallasmaa offers further insight into the relationship between bothcinemaand architecture, and how filmic influences can be foundcolouringthe lines of our spatial experiences.

In The Architecture of Image, you write: “In many schools of architecture around the world, the most recent interest is cinema.” How has this interest manifested?

At large, architectureschoolseverywhere seem to be developing towards a strictly professionalistic orientation and an uncritical use of computerisation and other technologies. However, there are still schools, or individual teachers, believing in the importance of sketching and embodied participation, widerculturaland artistic thinking. They include studies in the experiential structures and strategies of other art forms in their pedagogic approach. Cinema is the art form that is closest to architecture as both are grounded in the notion of experiential, lived and existential space. Cinematic events necessarily create an interaction between the event, person and setting, which is, of course, the starting point of architecture. There are schools of architecture, like the Washington University in St Louis, which give courses in the analyses of cinematic techniques and expressions.

I do not necessarily suggest the making of films in architectural studies (although that could be very enriching), but studying the experiential and mental structures, the interactions of narrative and space, individual human character and the characteristics of place, as well as atmosphere and emotion.

You also write: “both architecture and cinema articulate lived space.” Can you expand on this?

Architecture and cinema are engaged in the integration ofspace(place) and life, and the interplay or continuity of material conditions and emotive evocations. In contrast to the abstract and humanly meaningless space of physics, lived and existential space refers to space that is experienced and interpreted through its purposeful human occupation.

Would you say that some of the most famous architects today are drawn to replicating the cinematic experience in their architectural work? Or is there a deeper connection between the two fields?

There are a few filmmakers who also studied architecture, such as Michelangelo Antonioni, as well as architects who have explicitly expressed their interest in cinematic techniques, like Jean Nouvel. I personally have not directly used any cinematic techniques in my design work, but I have often been inspired by cinematic as well as painterly works. All arts articulate the human condition and express its experience. Literature and poetry offer equally stimulating parallels to the realm of poetic thought.

You mentioned Jean Nouvel and John Portman as examples of architects who draw from cinema in their work – do you agree with the sentiment of their approach to building design? Do you have any points of contention with their work?

I mentioned Jean Nouvel especially because of his own explicit confessions and the apparent cinematic techniques in his juxtapositions and montages of spaces, structures, scales and details.

I mentioned John Portman solely for the reason that certain of his gigantic commercial spaces are similar to some spaces in early futuristic films, such as William Cameron Monzies’ Things to Come (1936).

For me, Nouvel’s architecture is very skilful and self-assured in its dramatics, but it lacks a human resonance, intimacy and humility. As for Portman, his architecture is too commercial and manipulative, although some of his spaces are visually quite effective.

Nouvel said: “Everything is theatrical. I have worked for a long time as a scenographer, even on social housing…scenography is the relationship between objects and matter that we want to display to somebody who is watching. In effect, in every building there is a way of proving a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view over the landscape, as in Lucerne. The use of the word scenography doesn’t bother me as long as it is used in the right sense.” What do you think of this quote? Do you agree or disagree? Do you have anything to add?

All architecture, from urban spaces to inhabited rooms, creates settings or scenes. Architectural entities are deliberately staged situations, and, consequently, ideas of staging and scenography are built into architectural imagery. At the same time, however, architectural settings are infused with the possibilities of use and with experiential and mental meanings. Architectural meanings are always about the world and the human situation, not about themselves or their author.

There are scenographic constructions for entirely closed and predetermined events, as in theatre, whereas architectural settings possess a distinct freedom, open-endedness and choice. The ethical virtue of architecture is to enable, liberate and stimulate.

What do you view as pitfalls to architects having a cinematic approach to built work?

All arts are engaged in human existential dimensions and issues. At the same time, every art form has its specific ontology, structure and focus. It is important to understand both the existential commonalities of the arts and their individual origins and evolutions. In his book ABC of Reading, the legendary modernist poet Ezra Pound argues: ‘[…] Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance… poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music […].’ We could add that architecture withers when it gets too far from the poetic world and myths

Cinema can be a powerful inspiration for architects, but regardless of the similarities of these arts, they are distinct and different arts. Architecture is also parallel with dance, as it directs and choreograhs our movements – physical, perceptual and mental, real and imaginary – through spaces and places. Yet, architecture is choreography only in a metaphoric sense.

Images courtesy of Aman Darwish

Can you share examples of successful cinematic architecture, as well as examples of unsuccessful cinematic architecture?

Due to the innate similarities of cinematic and architectural techniques, all impressive buildings are bound to project cinematic features. As I have suggested above, passing through a building is a cinematic experience with its characteristic dynamics, shifting scales, articulations of materials and details, and illuminations. Le Corbusier’s ’architectural promenade’ also has cinematic connotations. Architecture also provides panoramic views as well as zooms into spaces and details.

Alvar Aalto’s buildings, for instance, are very cinematic in their smooth choreography of movement, articulations of scale and intimacy, materiality and texture, details and light. In fact, Aalto was a founding member of a radical film club in Finland in the early 1930s. In my view, Aalto’s work is more deeply cinematic than the buildings of Koolhaas, or perhaps, Aalto’s architecture is cinematic in the classical manner of directors, such as Jean Monet and Orson Welles.

You said you’re working on a new book – could you share some information about it?

At the moment I am engaged in five new book projects in four countries: a collection of twelve essays in Greece; a book on my eight lectures at the University of Arkansas in the US; a book length conversation with a Chinese architect to be published in Beijing; a book on my design work and writings in the USA, and; a correspondence book between the ex-deputy-mayor of Helsinki and myself to appear in Finland. Besides, I have several books of mine being translated into other languages. Besides, I write a new essay every three weeks.

Read more from Red Envelope.

This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the fourth journal themed ‘ARCHITECTURE + FILM’. The Red Envelope journals are published byLWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.