The Relationship Between Architecture and Film
This article explores the relationship architecture and film. Films present us with a world and every facet of this world has to be designed – sets, costumes and props; even locations have to be selected. All of these elements are controlled by the production designer. The term ‘production designer’ was coined in 1938. The art director William Cameron Menzies was credited as production designer on Gone With The Wind. This film had several directors and could have turned into a mess. Visual coherence was maintained by Menzies and for that reason he was given the credit ‘production designed by William Cameron Menzies.’
Altogether, these elements are termed mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène is a French term that originated in the theatre. It means ‘putting on stage.’ In cinema it refers to all the visual elements carried over from the theatre – production design, sets and costumes. It also includes locations because that’s part of how the action is staged, but it doesn’t include editing because that’s not part of the staging. Mise-en-scène is a key feature of any film. It is rewarding to analyse films’ mise-en-scène and ask how it relates to contemporary architecture and design.
Despite this, very little work has been done on the interface between architecture and film. Film historians will discuss the mise-en-scène of films in so far as it conveys themes and ideas to the audience, but they won’t continue the discussion to ask how the production design was influenced by contemporary developments in architecture and design. They don’t have the expertise for that. Likewise, design historians rarely discuss the production design of films because it’s temporary and transient; it’s usually built for one film and then destroyed.
There are some books on this overlap between architecture and film. Dietrich Neumann’s book Film Architecture is a pioneering text. Neumann is a German scholar. It’s no surprise that Germans are leading the way in the discussion of film architecture because Germany was at the forefront of the experimental use of mise-en-scène thanks to the German Expressionist movement. There is also a book called Architecture and Film, which features some good essays.
Film architecture actually has an important function. It can contribute to contemporary architectural debates and help to visualise the architecture of the future – either to demonstrate the possibilities or as a warning of things to come. The new artform of cinema could visualise the intensity and excitement of life in the modern city. It could also represent the world of dreams and fantasies more effectively than any other medium. For this reason it was of interest to artists and designers.
This was recognised even in the early days of cinema. In 1915 Vachel Lindsay published a book called The Art of the Moving Picture, in which he argued that film could be a testing ground for new architectural forms and concepts. Film also shapes public perceptions of architecture. As a mass medium, film plays an important role in the way architecture is received and interpreted. Many films have portrayed Modernism as inhumane, and this has helped to shape the public attitude.
The key example is Metropolis by Fritz Lang. This is a nightmare vision of the future, a gargantuan technological city. Genuine architects like Antonio Sant’Elia and Le Corbusier were devising grandiose cities that could never be built in reality, but with the illusion of cinema, Metropolis showed how great and terrible these cities would be. Metropolis was a powerful anti-Modernist statement. The Spanish Surrealist director Luis Bunuel wrote: ‘The movies will be the faithful translator of the architect’s boldest dreams.’
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