Show me a world unknown to me.

8/10/20239 min read

Camera Eye

My first experimental research-studio, Camera Eye, opened its doors to a group of international Masters students in 2004 at the Delft University of Technology. The project entailed exploring possibilities for using techniques and theories derived from cinematography in architectural design processes.[i] Its rationale was based on the observation that the relationship between architecture and film has often been narrowly interpreted, leaving much room for misinterpretation. Three fundamental errors caused this: medium specificity, triviality and representation. Each of these generate a number of consequences that extend into the realms of philosophy, art theory, filmmaking and, ultimately, architecture itself. The Camera Eye project served as a vehicle for elaborating the consequences of these three errors and offered some suggestions on how to circumvent them.[ii] The project’s aim was to rethink architecture’s relationship with filmmaking and examine the unexplored potential in the relationship between the two. Throughout this section, the studio’s chronology will provide a sense of logical progression. This progression is not merely a means to an end, since the process is much more significant than the final results. The studio had no predefined outcome to achieve, nor any directive regarding which medium should be used to express its outcomes.

To contextualise this cinematic research, certain presuppositions are essential. Throughout this description, ‘film’ refers to the medium, whereas ‘cinema’ indicates a specific (narrative) form of film. In this sense, film is not always cinema, but cinema is always film. In addition, I will always address film on its merits as a medium (not as cinema), and likewise architecture on its merits as a medium (not as a specific type of design). Although comparison between the two media is very useful at this level of abstraction, I will argue that it is particularly unhelpful to address the comparison between specific forms of architecture (the building) and film (the cinema). However, the cinematic approach of ‘moulding’ film into a ‘programme’ (cinema) has many similarities with moulding architecture (as a medium) into architecture (as a design). Although the processes used in the Camera Eye studio might appear to be a free exploration of the medium of film, they in fact share many similarities with the construction of cinema.

The first misconception is that of the inequality of media: of medium specificity. All too often the bond between architecture and cinema is indicated or exemplified through cases in which one medium is dominant and the other subservient. Common cases are films featuring architecture (film dominant) or films about architecture (architecture dominant). This situation becomes more complex when one medium formally serves the other, such as in films about architecture or the architecture for a movie theatre. In all such cases, the greater power of one or the other medium makes them unequal. Shifting the focus to their individual weaknesses will reveal instead what we can learn.

The second misconception relates to triviality. Often, architecture and cinema are compared on the basis of their programme (future narrative) or their history (past narrative). Even if an attempt is made to break through the layers of narration it is often the underlying structure (grammar) that is considered to form the essential shared domain. Yet it is not the outcome of that rupture that is the critical or smallest determinable common denominator: it is the relation between the two media that forms the even smaller common ground.

The third misapprehension concerns representation. As I argued earlier, representation serves only a limited purpose because it excludes many vital components in the design process. All types of modelling, delineation, demonstration and illustration contain critical flaws in that they disregard huge amounts of property-scale relations and information in favour of the scaling of one or a few elements. Film theorist André Bazin distinguishes between directors ‘who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality’. He describes this distinction as a function on two different levels of abstraction: ‘By “image” I mean, very broadly speaking, everything that the representation on the screen adds to the object represented there. This is a complex inheritance but it can be reduced essentially to two categories: those [directors] that relate to the plastics of the image and those that relate to the resources of montage, which, after all, is simply the ordering of images in time.’[iii] The former type of director considers the moving image to be a representation of reality, whereas the latter uses the moving image to create an illusion. We should consider, however, a third option. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek paraphrases a scene from The Matrix when he refers to ‘the third pill’ as being the alternative to this duality.[iv] Cinema should be regarded as something completely new, neither reality nor fantasy. As Žižek explains:

So what is the third pill? Definitely not some kind of transcendental pill which enables a fake fast food religious experience, but a pill which would enable me to perceive not the reality behind the illusion, but reality in illusion itself. […] Our fundamental delusion today is not believing in what is only a fiction, to take fictions too seriously – on the contrary, it is not taking fictions seriously enough.[v]

Cinematographic logic and its modus operandi can greatly contribute to more informed architectural practice if the three aforementioned pitfalls are avoided. The taxonomy of these dangers serves as the grid for the following part of this section and is interlaced with an account of the research process of the Camera Eye studio. As the research process itself is the main topic, I will not discuss the contents of the work that was produced. The Camera Eye project was the first of a series of experiments that challenged both architecture and film to reflect on the capacities (such as the manipulation of space and time) they each offer when collaborating together. Such truly interdisciplinary projects are beneficial to architects and filmmakers alike, since both can learn from the limitations and potentials of their métiers. Ultimately, such processes help pave the way for a more emphatic receptiveness and sensibility towards an affective approach to both architecture and film.

Dissecting the corpus: the disclosure of cinema’s parastrata

The Camera Eye research project was set up by Delft School of Design at the Faculty of Architecture, Delft University of Technology. The project aimed to connect theoretical research to practical design through the intervention of the moving image.[vi] Olga Vázquez-Ruano and I conceived the project content. The studio consisted of roughly five parts and took one year to complete. The initial phase of the research project was an elaborate introduction to the realm of cinema by a professional filmmaker, which laid emphasis on the design, construction and production of cinema rather than on its narrative, style or history.

The purpose of cinema is to create a new subjectivity, not an individual fantasy, but a type of ‘open source’ fantasy, more or less appealing to a large group of individuals. It is static, since it is already condensed into a narrative. Yet if constructed well, it leaves enough room for the audience to identify or sympathise with the protagonist, to reject the antagonist and to yearn for the mysterious. Cinema is very capable of producing ‘objects’, both in terms of fantasy as well as ‘virtuality’. This can be done by creating recognisable, yet non-experienced situations, or, in the words of Henri Bergson, ‘the past that has never been present’.[vii] Until the start of the course, the participants had only been familiar with the ‘fantasy’ side of cinema. For us it was essential to introduce them to the other side: cinema as ‘virtuality’. ‘Virtual’ in this context means the part of reality that is not actualised.

For the majority of the participants, this was the first time they were asked to regard cinema as a componential complexity with an intrinsic richness in processes and design issues and not solely as a monolayer instrumental vehicle for conveying narrative structures. This enabled the participants to connect with the theoretical realms of cinematic montage, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s five layers of montage,[viii] Vsevolod Pudowkin’s counter montage,[ix] D. W. Griffith’s visual narrative techniques of parallel editing,[x] and many more.[xi] This phase marked the transition from thinking in terms of narratives and linear plots to exploring sub-and counter-narratives, meta- and post-narratives, or what philosopher and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari called ‘transversal thinking’.[xii]

After this theoretical introduction to cinema, the participants were asked to conduct a deep analysis of one of a number of preselected, three-minute film clippings. These fragments were chosen on the basis of their variety of interesting features. Some have strong contrasts between the very static and the very energetic (Le Consequenze dell’Amore);[xiii] others have very subtle visual tricks (Citizen Kane),[xiv] mindboggling camerawork (Soy Cuba),[xv] conceptual freedom (2001: A Space Odyssey),[xvi] or exceptionally interesting editing (Surplus: Terrorized Into Being Consumers),[xvii] to name a few. The assignment was to extensively explore and map the large number of strata in the visual, audial, rhythmic, temporal and spatial dimensions, and in the active elements of movement, direction, sequencing and montage. This process took several weeks and resulted in precisely constructed diagrams, which in some cases contained over fifty distinguishable layers of data. The notion of data-cartography was exploited in several directions, which included the development of new types of time-chromatic and time-motion axes with none, one, or multiple centre points.

This exercise was not only meant to increase awareness of the complexity of a film as a finished product, but also to connect the audio-visual output to the aforementioned production process in such a way that the participants could recognise the consequential (im)possibilities of conceptual decisions and their function in the process of designing moving images as a whole. In simpler terms: everything you see or hear has to be produced. Every step of the production is complex from the start, and all decisions have a direct or indirect effect on the end result. Obviously, this resonated very well with the participants, since they were all trained architects. The analogy between architectural design and filmmaking became clear on an entirely different level. In fact, no attention was given to any of the narrative structures or storylines. The research process was not about what can be seen in the shop window, it was about what happened in the kitchen. It was also not about discussions on imagination versus fantasy or phantasy, where one is grounded in reality and the other is projected into reality. The enactment and embodiment of the virtual is dependent on the purpose: either to become actualised or to remain virtual. Virtuality is not the opposite of reality; rather, it is a way of producing reality.

The structures found in the film clips exemplified the existence of the sub-narrative structures that form the actual construction of cinema. Sub-narratives consist of all audio-visual content that is not part of the overt narrative. They might, for instance, be linked positively or negatively to the story that is being told, working either with or against the narrative. Very often the mistake is made of assuming that sub-narratives are the result of the narrative structure, whereas the opposite is true. It is, as with the planning and construction of a road, the user who creates the necessity for a street.

The main achievement of this design project was the paradigmatic shift that occurred in perceiving the strength of a medium as an argument for its ability to convey a narrative. A common perception is that there is something each medium does best, and that each medium should do what it does best. Both these directives anchor their authority in relation to the narrative. What the students came to realise is that both media (architecture and film) are excellent in organising sub- and post-narratives, and that there is ample overlap in the territories of both of these media when considered at these levels. In other words, what architecture and film do not share when ‘at their best’ (i.e., the narrative ability when architecture is a design and film is cinema) they actually can share when at their weakest: the sub- and post-narrative ability when architecture and film are ‘unformed media’.

Photo-credit: John Margolies, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. No known restrictions on publication.

Title: Supersonic Car Wash, Billings, Montana, USA, 1980.

[i] This research studio was constructed in collaboration with Olga Vázquez-Ruano. See: Boumeester, ‘Camera Eye’ in Architecture and Culture, pp. 87- 104.

[ii] Pieces of this research have previously been described in Hauptmann, The Body in Architecture, and Penz, Lu, Urban Cinematics, pp. 239-256.

[iii] André Bazin, What is Cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 24.

[iv] The Matrix, directed by Andy Wachowski (1999; Hollywood, CA: Warner Bros.).

[v] Slavoj Žižek in The Perverts Guide to Cinema 1,2,3, directed by Sophie Fiennes (2006; Virginia: Amoeba Film).

[vi] The Camera Eye studio opened in September 2004 as a one-year experiment. The project coordinators were Arie Graafland and Deborah Hauptmann, and the main instructors were Olga Vázquez-Ruano and Marc Boumeester. Additional teaching was provided by Siebe Bakker and Sang Lee. The guest critics of the project’s final review were M. Christine Boyer (Princeton University), Martin Zogran (Harvard University) and Roemer van Toorn (Berlage Institute). The project had twenty-six participants from twenty countries.

[vii] Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics (New York: Citadel Press, 1992).

[viii] Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form (Meridian Books, 1957).

[ix] Vsevolod Pudowkin, Film Acting and Film Technique, trans. Ivor Montagu (London: Vision Press Ltd, 1958).

[x] Robert M. Henderson, D.W.Griffith: His Life and Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).

[xi] The term ‘editing’ refers to the practical stage of constructing a film after the footage has been produced, whereas the term ‘montage’ refers to the entire (mental) process of this construction, including all the theoretical, philosophical, psychological, cognitive and artistic deliberations that are involved.

[xii] Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

[xiii] Le conseguenze dell'amore, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (2004; Rome: Fandango Films).

[xiv] Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles (1941; Santa Monica, CA: RKO Radio Pictures).

[xv] Soy Cuba, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov (1964; Moscow: Mosflim).

[xvi] 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubric (1968; Beverly Hills, CA: MGM Studios).

[xvii] Surplus: Terrorized Into Being Consumers, directed by Erik Gandini (2003; Stockholm: ATMO).