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Sequences in architecture. How to use cinema to design the experience of space and time

Carla Molinari

54:15 min

THE SEQUENCE IS A METHOD OF COMPOSITION. It is a system of juxtaposition of a series of elements of similar nature, according to a meaningful scheme. It is a process that we define and recognize first and foremost as an interdisciplinary tool, a theoretical method of approach to the infinite possibilities of composition or creative construction.

Theorized by different scholars as useful system of composition, the sequential method makes possible to maintain the uniqueness of the elements organized in succession, creating at the same time a unified and meaningful total piece of art. Considering in particular architecture, the sequence allows to understand and to design the movement, the experience through space, and time. Similarly, in cinema the sequence permits to construct and to arrange the same idea of movement and experience. But how can cinema be used in order to express architectural sequences? In which way can this interdisciplinary system of composition be exploited to underline the main architectural qualities of a project through a video?

Nowadays, the several connections between cinema and architecture are too often used as simple set of references. The potentialities related to the concept of sequence demonstrate how strong and dense is the relationship between the two disciplines, and how could be powerful the use of cinema in order to describe architecture if the creation process is bounded to the same sequential method of design. In this text we analyze 4 videos, each one realized following a different kind of sequence. All these examples are perfect attempts of cinematic compositions which replicates the sequential method related to the architectural idea of composition.

SEQUENCES / of images

"In themselves, the pictures, the phases, the elements of the whole are innocent and indecipherable. The blow is struck only when the elements are juxtaposed into a sequential image (…) Only the film camera has solved the problem of doing this on a flat surface, but its undoubted ancestor in this capability is architecture." (Sergei M. Eisenstein, "Montage and Architecture", Assemblage no. 10 (1989): 117)

A sequence of images, exactly as envisioned by Sergei M. Eisenstein, is a tool - related specifically to cinema and architecture - to build knowledge and meaning arranging a series of visual frames. The single elements do not have any particular sense: the whole value, the true reason of the montage statement only emerges in the sequential juxtaposition.

In this regard, fundamental is the article "Montage and Architecture", written by Eisenstein between 1937 and 1940 and published posthumously, in which cinema and architecture are considered as two arts related by the practice of composing space and time. The distinction between the disciplines is defined by the terms "kinematic" and "architectural", defining "kinematic" an arrangement of objects that lies ahead the face of a fixed spectator, and instead "architectural" an assembly of visual phenomena arranged along a path defined by the movement of the subject. The sequence of images in cinema is a moving system in front of a static body, in architecture is the opposite.

In the video "Specific Atmosphere - itinerary #1", the itinerary proposed by Miguel C. Tavares has the courage to illustrate the “architectural” quality of the portuguese landscape, using only the "kinematic" system. The video is not based on the representation of bodily movements or actions, there is no story, there are no characters followed by the camera.

Tavares used the concept of sequence of images with all its cinematic potentialities, generating a movement induced by the mounting of frames. As theorized by Eisenstein, the sequential juxtaposition creates a new meaning, a series of relationships in between the single elements that arises complex and several values.

In this sense, the video Specific Atmosphere is totally defined by the cinematic tool, and its own potentialities. The physical, sensorial experience of architecture is not stressed by the video with some narrative structures, the movement is not physical but completely related to the mind, creating connections just with the sequence of images.

Still, the atmosphere reproduced is clear, vivid. The "kinematic" movement, based on a fix spectator watching a series of frames, creates a powerful panorama. Clearly, this method is perfect considering the main goal of Tavares's video: reconstruct a visual unity, a specific portrait for the mixed landscape of portuguese architecture. The sequence of images becomes indeed a fundamental instrument in order to re-compose a coherent sense between the visual fragments, still maintaining the value of each project. The simple plan pictures create a visual journey, a peripatetic and meaningful experience of the eye.

SEQUENCES / of actions

When Charles Eames in 1944 was interrogating himself about "What is a house?" the answer was a series of drawings of people occupied in several diverse actions.

Beyond the relationship between form and function, there are more dynamics methods in order to relate uses and space arrangement: the project, for instance, could be based on the value of experience and developed through a system of actions in sequence. The sequence of actions is a method of composition based on the construction of a rhythm tied to the accommodation of users and their activities, and considering the variability of time.

"Why don't you design the building in a way that is big enough to walking free, and not only in one predefined direction? We don't know if people will use it in the way that we wished. First of all functions are not clear, and moreover they're not permanent, they can change quicker than the building itself." (Mies van der Rohe, quoted in J.L. Cohen, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Bari: Laterza, 1996, p. 89)

In the video "10 things to make yourself at home in 30 sq. m", the living architecture is the main theme: the montage is not linear, the line of composition is defined by the character and by her personal reactions to space. The focus is on the potentialities of the house interacting specifically to the emotions, feelings and attitudes of the inhabitant. The sequence of actions used by Anna Positano and Samuele Wurtz is strongly bounded to the same concept of the project: the interior design of the small house is based on the idea of flexibility and open possibility to uses. The home becomes a playground defined on the will to give freedom to users, and at the same time the video plays ironically on the concept of functions, making an unusual funny list of actions: the space is transformed in experience.

In the essay "From the doorstep to the common room" of 1926, Alvar Aalto gave to architecture a proper value of experience. The description of spaces is based on verbs, instead of nouns: the objects are substituted by acts. In this way, the handrail for the staircases of Viipuri's library is defined by two different parts: one for the experience of going up, and one for going down. The idea of architectural space is depicted by the multiplicity of actions, and no more on singular objects.

The video "10 things to make yourself at home in 30 sq. m" describes a similar attempt of the designer. The sequence of actions is not based on order, as there is no will to list all the possibilities of use. The opposite: the 10 actions ironically show the infinite and undefinable experiences related to the house. Composing architecture using a sequence of actions means to propose a building made by episodes and occasions, in which space is designed considering time, and defining a delicate series of rhythms. It means to define scenes and pauses, absences and presences, that constitute an organization ables to allocate the undefined possibilities of human actions.

SEQUENCES / of spaces

The concept of 'modern' space seems to be born in Germany in connection with the nineteenth-century aesthetic philosophy. In particular, the German term Raum - space - refers both to the simple definition of a circumscribed space - room - or in a more general sense to a dimension without limits, an absolute quantity.

Several theorists tried to underline an idea of ​​space deeply related to an inherent contradiction, that binds to a physical framework and simultaneously to an abstract one. From the theory of empathy by Friedrich Theodor Vischer, to the theories of Adolf von Hildebrand, and shortly after those of August Schmarsow: in all these cases, the common element is the will to explicit a space that is not limited to being pure geometric definition, but is associated with mental constructs based on bodily sensations and perception, and on experiential knowledge. In parallel to the process of revaluation of space, changed also the role of movement in architecture. The first elaborations on the theme used in fact the term "circulation", borrowing it from the medical context, to indicate not only the composition between elements, but also the possibility of an active and dynamic subject to move within the space.

From its earliest formulations, we can indeed point out that the concept of space is not limited to be a formal property, but it takes more complex connotations, already implicitly linked to temporal values and subjective experiences. As already acutely sensed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1795:

"You might think that architecture, as a fine art, operates only for the eye, but it should work primarily - and this aspect has received little attention - in relation to the human body movement. When, in the dance, we move according to certain rules, we have a good feeling and we should be able to create similar sensations in a person we drive blindfolded through a well-built home." (Adrian Forty, Parole e edifici. Un vocabolario per l'architettura moderna. Bologna: Pendragon, 2004, p. 288)

Composing architecture starting from an idea of sequence of spaces means to put the body as first reference of the architectural experience. The sequence of spaces is a tool to design and arrange all the spatial effects or qualities of volumes, considering not only the static appearance of a single room, but the movement, the journey all along the building. The video "Casa, Corpo sem fim" by Tânia Moreira David uses the body as instrument to measure the spatial qualities of the place, and the dance to explicit the concept of movement and dynamic relation with it. The sequence of spaces - and the related experiences - is one key element of the Endless house by Frederick Kiesler which inspired the video.

Progressively, we are invited to watch closer and closer the space and the body of the dancer. From the distance we recognize the figure and its movements, then we see closer the body, the face, the feet, the hands, and finally the reflection: the intimate interior part. The sequence of Casa, Corpo sem fim is a delicate journey which underlines the essential spatial elements of the project and their strong, deeply connection with the human body. The physical movement expressed through dance shows an experience that is not related to functions or specific actions, but it is instead linked to a series of perceptual events, linked to the emotional side of the subject.

narrative / SEQUENCES

In 1654 Madeleine de Scudèry published the novel "Clèlie" showing an emotional map, or "Carte de Tendre"; an unusual drawing with the Lake of Indifference, the Sea of Hostility and the Towns of Sensibility. It is a topographical representation of a series of sensations and experiences.

The idea to visually represent emotions or memories from the past is a suggesting and complex process, deeply bounded to a method of spatial association. Through this way it is possible to define the relation between the moments and the places in which some experiences happen, between time and space. It is an attempt of description of the physical dimensions considered as sets of life, a method shared by several arts, and strongly related to the system of storytelling, and indeed to narrative sequences.

A narrative sequence is a method of composition based on a balanced design of space and time. The elements arranged in sequence maintain their autonomy of episodes but being part of a whole narrative sense. The narrative sequence is a system to organize memories, to design architecture defining a storytelling of places.

"You will see how the told time is progressively moving close to the constructed space - and viceversa - until the moment in which the concept of narrative architecture, or architectural narrativity, will no more appears as a limit of a complicated process of approximation." (Paul Ricouer, Architettura e narratività, edited by Piero Derossi. Milano: Edizioni Unicopli, 2000, p. 9)

The video "Piscina Vizcaya" by Luis Urculo is a story. The building is described considering its architectural qualities as main objects, but all the elements are transformed through the narration: the spaces become places, and the details memories from the past. The project is a set for lived experiences.

The will to transform the new building in an old object, already bounded to the story of the place and the life of the people, is expressed perfectly with the cinematographic tools. The voice-over, the numerous colored flashes, the shelled images: everything is used in order to recreate the sensation and atmosphere related to a tale from the past. At the same time, the montage is composed through the superimposition of a story: the scattered images of the landscape, the interior spaces, and the children using the pool, acquired a sense only in relation to the narrative line, and the series of episodes is arranged around this main core.

Furthermore, the role of the building to be first of all a swimming pool dedicated to the children living in the area, becomes the reason why the story is actually a fairy tale. Proper ogres, coming from fair away and dressing in a strange manner, are acting in a mysterious way: the children are curious and afraid, but finally there is a happy ending. The project will become (or already became?) a positive, good place for the community.

As Ricouer well described there is a strong point of connection between architecture and narrativity, exactly based on the construction of space and time. While architecture designs space, narrativity designs time: both disciplines trying to define a specific moment of these infinite dimensions. The universal time, as the geometric space, could be elaborated only in relation to experience, considering a dialectic between any instant and the moment, or between any point and the place. The narrative sequence is the perfect compositive method to arrange the video following an idea of interrelation between designed spaces and times, between places defined by lived experiences and moments which will become memories.

Specific Atmosphere - itinerary #1

Miguel C. Tavares

An atmospheric itinerary across Portuguese architecture.

Each space has a specific atmosphere. In this film, the director Miguel Tavares presents an atmospheric itinerancy across Portuguese homes and public spaces. Tavares' film is accompanied by music composed by José Alberto Gomes specifically for each setting. As the film sequences through different locations, each piece of architecture reveals its peculiarities – while maintaining a larger story of tranquility and beauty. Through suspension and slow pacing, a portrait of contemporary Portuguese architecture is revealed.

The "Casas de Campo" designed by André Eduardo Tavares stands in a rural village in Trebilhadouro, and is a respectful rehabilitation of an aged house to touristic functions. The second project, the Casa de Balazar designed by Nuno Merino Rocha, is also in the rural countryside and balances historical structure with newer additions. Next, the scenery shifts from countryside to city to explore the "Casa RV" designed by Marta Rocha and Fabien Vacelet. The building is in the Vila Nova de Gaia suburb and distinguishes itself with its volume and aesthetic. "Two Houses for S" designed by colectivoMEL is a renovation: in an old building from the XIX Century, ancient permanences from the past stand aside new details in the renovation project. The house in Praça de Liége designed by Luisa Penha in Porto, instead, declares its modernity at the first glance of the concrete façade. The houses in Pinheiro Manso in Porto, designed by Serôdio and Furtado Arquitectos shift the focus from private housing to residential units; volumes are distributed following the mark of a pre-existing garden. The school in Leça do Balio designed by aNC arquitectos brings the observer into a public space while the film blends live recordings with the music, revealing the activity throughout. The fireman headquarters designed by Alvaro Siza in Santo Tirso is given an overall portrayal before the camera focuses on the details and objects used by the firemen. The Graham's renovation project designed by Luis Loureiro + P06 shows a rehabilitated ancient production structure. The film ends by showing a redesigned public space by Paulo Tormenta PInto in the Bairro do Lagarteiro social housing complex in Porto.

Specific Atmosphere is a film series featuring projects selected for the exhibition Habitar Portugal, produced by the Portuguese Architects Association. Each chapter is composed by a collection of short films assembled into a mid-length film. The first ten videos featured in the Specific Atmosphere #1 feature buildings located in the Metropolitan Area of Porto.


Architects: André Tavares Arquitecto, Merino Rocha Arquitectos, Marta Rocha and Fabien Vacelet, colectivoMEL, Luisa Penha, Serôdio, Furtado Arquitectos, aNC arquitectos, Alvaro Siza, Luis Loureiro + P06 Design, Paulo Tormenta Pinto
Mentioned projects: Casas de Campo no Trebilhadouro (2009-2015), Vale de Cambra; Casa de Balazar, Póvoa de Varzim; Casa RV, Vila Nova de Gaia; Duas Casas para S. (2012-2014), Porto; Casas na Praça de Liége, Porto; Casas no Pinheiro Manso (2004-2012), Porto; Escola de Leça do Balio (2008-2013), Leça do Balio; Quartel dos Bombeiros Voluntários, Santo Tirso; Reabilitação das Caves GRAHAM's 1980, Vila Nova de Gaia; Reabilitação do Espaço Público, Bairro do Lagarteiro
Project location: Portugal
Music: José Alberto Gomes
Curators: Luis Tavares Pereira, Bruno Baldaia, Magda Seifert
Copyright: Habitar Portugal 12-14, Ordem dos Arquitectos

Portugal 2016
Duration: 31'17''