The serendipity of architecture and time

Nader Sammouri
Nader Sammouri is an architect and writer who migrated from Lebanon to study global business in the cultural heart of Japan – Kyoto – in 2018. During this time, he learned about Japanese gardens, aesthetics and the general Japanese approach to the design of things. He is also a former TEDx speaker. His speech, held in Shimane, Japan, highlighted the significance of ‘capturing connections’ and finding the self through unrelenting courage towards experimentation.
Red Envelope is a series of journals published by LWK + PARTNERS and is a collaborative project between the practice and Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae.

Osaka-based writer Nader Sammouri explores the relationship between architecture and film as both archives of urban development, with a special focus on modern Japanese film.

Imagine life today without cinema. A sense of discontinuity would arise from a lack of visual links between our mental images of what architecture, structures and people looked like in the past and how they may evolve to look like in the future.

The collaborative effort to construct buildings in a city concludes architectural scenarios that define culture, space and time. While architecture houses our human stories, cinema records their narratives, unintentionally allowing viewers to witness the built environment vicariously. Spaces without architecture become elusive because architecture renders spaces real. With walls in a city, spaces become contained, measurable and inhabitable. They seize to exist. Without walls, there are no cities, and perhaps without film, there are no memories.

“We can’t catch hold of time, and thus we make movies,” said Kentaro Takeguchi, a Kyoto-based architect and the cofounder of Alphavilla Architects, an international award-winning architecture planning firm. He added: “Architecture is an element that undoubtedly has a major influence on movies.”

Takeguchi and his team are guided by a design philosophy of constantly challenging and pushing boundaries that define architecture’s relationship with its occupants, and in a broader sense, with the rest of the city. Just like how a film director curates scenes with cinematic frames to draw the audience in, Takeguchi deconstructs walls and floors, redefining form and function to provide new perspectives of living.

Architecture anchors human civilisation and serves as a canvas for the real world. With cinema, it is documented as history. Cinematography can also present endless vantage points reinterpreting civilisations and existing cultures, reconfiguring their images, and outlining the human condition as well as accumulating future possibilities.

Image courtesy of Aman Darwish

When investigating Japanese cinema, one can hardly fail to notice the architectural background that stages the movies and gives them a unique identity. Japanese film is distinctive in many ways, and at its core, it uses traditional Japanese-style townhouses and temples with their gently curved ceramic roofs in framing scenes, and as a backdrop for stories. All these elements render the culture real.

The acclaimed film director Yasujirō Ozu (1903–1963) presented the Japanese flavour by using traditional Japanese buildings and structures as visual anchors in his movies. By tracing his films one after the other, one can notice how they accurately document the mutational progress and recovery of post-war Tokyo, emphasising the relationship between space and collective memory. Cinematography, therefore, unintentionally archives the architectural style of the time.

Many incidents have shaped Tokyo city throughout history, from its establishment as a capital in 1603 to the great Kanto earthquake in 1923 (when Ozu was just entering the world of film), to World War II, which Ozu witnessed. One can assume that a life of continuously witnessing the elimination of architecture must have contributed to the rise of his films.

The Japanese house is very private. Fortunately, through film, storytelling penetrates the private perimeters. Many westerners were able to access Japanese culture through its cinema and observe its timeline. Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) emphasises Japanese lifestyle and its architectural elements with slanted ceramic roofs, stone lanterns, sliding Shoji screens, hanging scrolls, tatami mats, chabudai low tables, zaisu cushions and engawa verandas. These elements made Ozu’s movies an architectural catalogue for Japanese architecture.

Tokyo Story is an ordinary film, but what may have gotten people’s attention, especially westerners, is that it deeply examined an ordinary Japanese life far from the stereotypes of the geishas and samurais that were assumed,” Takeguchi elaborated.

The evolution of Japanese cinema also demonstrates how the materiality of the urban environment has grown rougher with time. Traditionally, the Japanese were advocates of delicate architectural textures that exist in harmony with nature, like flimsy paper, light-weight sliding screens, paper scrolls and straw-based screens and mats – something unique to Japan. With time, traditionally-used Japanese elements have declined, as modern movies increasingly reflect more ‘advanced’ concrete textures.

Is there no time for harmony with nature anymore?

“Old tradition doesn’t complement capitalism. Traditional Japanese architecture is close to the natural environment, but natural materials are being destroyed by resin and other chemical substances because the latter is more affordable, easier to maintain and requires less craftsmanship. From the vantage point of fast-paced capitalism, new and popular things are better. However, in the end, only sustainable matters stand the test of time,” Takeguchi remarked.

At the other end of the spectrum, Tokyo has also been depicted in countless local and foreign films as the futuristic icon of Japan – a symbol of modernism and progress, and an inspiration for both the Japanese and the rest of the world.

A popular aspect of Japanese productions is animation, which has gathered anime fanatics worldwide in the sub-culture of Otaku (おたく). With its meaningful spiritual qualities, Japanese anime never fails in archiving architectural details while adding twists of fantasy.

Makoto Shinkai is one of the greatest anime artists of our generation. His animated films like Your Name (2016), or Kimi no Na wa in Japanese, explores architecture in the utmost detail, making them wondrously animated. His style is grounded, showcasing architecture and the urban environment almost exactly as it exists in reality. On the other hand, Hayao Miyazaki’s representation of architecture in his Ghibli studio productions is rather special, as it breaks through the limitations of what is architecturally possible and opens the mind to new possibilities.

Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning animated film Spirited Away (2001), for example, accentuates concepts that lift the viewer to a whole new spiritual realm, like exaggerating the glow of the warm orange light on washi paper, casting its shadows under a local festival’s terrace parapet, or highlighting the beauty of moss partially covering a stone lantern, with Japanese characters meticulously engraved on it.

Thus, anime can copy the urban identity or exaggerate it, creating a sort of heightened reality. From there, it has the abundant potential of becoming an Olympic stage for human emotion.

Architecture in cinema takes a new realm in science fiction movies, breaking well-known boundaries with awe-inducing artifacts.

“When it comes to the classics, Star Wars and Blade Runner come to mind with their futuristic depiction of cityscapes and brutalism. Their visual motifs expand the boundaries of what we perceive as modern design,” said Takeguchi.

Blade Runner (1982) is a Hollywood science fiction film set in a dystopian version of Los Angeles in 2019. It is said that some of its city scenes were inspired by Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, particularly its narrow alleyways and neon lights.

Architecture is a frozen moment of a series of decisions that houses people, affects their outlook and shapes their physical reality. Cinematography unintentionally keeps reporting significant elements in our life, expanding the sense of time in our minds.

But what is cinema today? And how is architecture represented through it?

“For millennials and Generation Z, the perception of space has become virtual. Movies have become less necessary as the new television now exists everywhere in social media platforms,” said Takeguchi

With their video narratives, screens have evolved from cinema and television to computers, gradually inching closer to our minds and faces in the form of smartphones. What’s more to come? Virtual reality? Where we mentally set foot into and beyond the physical screen and advance to experience imagined architecture as reality? That is when time, space and architecture unite.

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 by LWK + 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.