Karl Sharro

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Trading Places: Architecture as Spectacle and Film as Realism

 

The division of labour that marked the roles of architecture and film under modernism has disintegrated. Architecture today is hyperactive and easily distracted, while film appears to be more thoughtful and attentive. Architecture at the hands of our celebrated starchitects has become a spectacle, while serious cinema aims for understanding. Architecture dismisses the stuff that cities are made from, while film delves more into them. It used to be that architects built cities and left it to film to imagine their destiny. Today architects build edifices that have no prospects, they are to be consumed here and now, until the next sparkling things comes along. Film no longer imagines that future, itís content with describing life as it is with a deep sense of inevitability. In all of this, we have surrendered the idea of the future and itís doing neither film not architecture any good.   

Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, FOA, and a host of others, the unusual suspects, build architecture that is not aimed at a subject, nor meant to be experienced. Architecture that is thought of and built as a film still, a frozen frame in a fantasy flick. Meanwhile their detractors have set their sights so low so as to make a virtue of their lack of ambition. Theyíre usually adherents of environmentalism, content with making us live in the same conditions they see unfit for cattle and poultry. Think of the man-made caves of BedZED, zero energy indeed, but also zero aspiration and zero character. 

Nothing is more indicative of architectureís distraction than its evasiveness when it comes to the question of housing. Cities are not made of monuments, but of the structures that cater to our daily needs. The extent to which we fulfil these needs with thoughtfulness and consideration determines how great a city is. It is scandalous that architects today cannot improve on designs that are hundreds of years old when it comes to housing. When those celebrated architects deal with housing, the result is a repackaging of permutations that have been circulating for decades with a shiny surface and a dull interior. 

Yet it is to monuments that these architects keep coming back. Monuments were important in cities because they reflected the values of that society and its aspirations. This is a level of meaning that is beyond the reach of our generation of architects, busy as they are with staging spectacles that have no significance to their audience. They experience them the same way they would experience a Hollywood blockbuster, as fleeting entertainment and transient phenomena. How apt that the biggest and most expensive structure that London has built in decades is an empty shell searching for a use. 

Meanwhile film, serious film that is and not Hollywood CGI fantasies, has picked up where architecture stalled in the 60s. Modernismís solution for universal housing has by now deteriorated so much to become the perceived locus of all manner of social problems. Council estates and housing projects have become very attractive for filmmakers. There is something about the crumbling concrete that encapsulates the parallel deterioration in society, and film is transfixed with that deterioration. Film has taken to dwelling at length at the problems of those who are trapped in such situations. Trainspotting, Red Road, and This is England are but a few examples. 

Whatís interesting about this type of film is that it is now more interested in the realism of the representation than giving reign to its imagination. Film has become less filmic, so to speak. Stanley Kubrick filmed parts of A Clockwork Orange in a housing estate that had been completed only two years before, but altered it enough to make it a plausible dystopia. That is a type of artifice in filmmaking that seems to have disappeared. Recent dystopias such as Children of Men have become modest in that respect, preferring to project contemporary anxieties and situations into the near future rather than drastically alter their presentation. 

Realist films, on the other hand, now pay very close attention to the lives of people trapped in dead-end situations, made sufficiently graphic by locating them in council estates. However, one cannot help but notice that such films have become almost myopic, and that the iconography of despair that they are portraying is limiting their range of vision. Would it be too much to ask architects to pay similar attention to the needs of their users? Do that with some optimism, and perhaps a new architecture that belongs to the city can emerge. Perhaps film then can set itself free, not by providing escapism but by offering visions of the world as opposed to realistic representations that only convey their makersí pessimism. 

How about letting architects build and filmmakers dream for a change?

 

Karl Sharro 2007 

 

Published as a column in Blueprint magazine: http://www.wdis.co.uk/blueprint/