Film, Architecture & The Archive

CAPSULE

architecture, archive, film, history

Film, Architecture & The Archive

Synopsis

From the early days of film sets and movie magic to virtual 3D systems in architectural practice today, cinema and the built environment have always innovatively overlapped. This Capsule features a variety of short- and feature-length films that examine historical modes of engagement between these two mediums, ranging from the intersections of Art Deco and 1930s movie theatre design to the promotion of modern architectural styles and urban planning. These films, as well as their accompanying photographs, drawings, scripts, and sets, have been selected from a range of collections within the United Kingdom, highlighting such themes as: early cinema tricks and architectural narratives; the advocacy of architectural styles; movie palaces and the Odeon; new materials and the experience of space; and the roles of gender, class, and the architect in postwar reconstruction. A combination of documentary, fiction, experimental and commercial films, these 20th century works operate in dialogue with the Festival’s 2021 International Competition. Ultimately, by mining the archive, this programme aims to excavate some of the historical foundations of this interdisciplinary practice, bringing compelling and lesser-known examples of Architecture + Film to a broader audience.

Programmed by

Josephine English Cook is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, where she specializes in intersections between architecture, cinema, and philosophy. She has held several positions in cultural institutions throughout the United States and abroad, working as a Graduate Curatorial Assistant at the Grey Art Gallery, NYU, a Curatorial Assistant in Modern and Contemporary Art at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and as the Commissioner’s Assistant for the U.S. Pavilion at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale.

This capsule programme has been created with the generous support of the Association for Art History

Section I

G.A. Smith’s trick film The House That Jack Built (1900) unfolds as a siblings’ spat leads to the untimely demise of a toy castle. Smith—a film director who had previously made his name with hypnotism acts—reveals a cinematic sleight of hand roughly halfway through the short reel’s run-time. Instead of continuing, the film seems to reverse, and the young boy who had gleefully knocked down his sister’s block tower appears to magically reconstruct it out of rubble.[1] In the movies, the past can be reconstructed, and architecture, miraculously rewound. This modest, one-minute-long film, made only four years after the first public presentation of a motion picture in the United Kingdom and five years after the first-ever display in Paris, reveals the myriad, fantastical ways in which material space is deeply affected by new cinematic technologies.

This capsule, Film, Architecture & the Archive, situates the themes that Smith’s film brings to light within a broader historical arc, featuring a variety of short- and feature-length works that showcase how early moving pictures anchored exchanges between film and architecture for generations to come. The films draw our attention to five interwoven topics: the use of cinema in spreading novel architectural ideas; new materials and the experience of space; movie theatre styles and the rise of the picture palace; the roles of gender, class and the architect in twentieth century design; and the use of film as a form of architecture in and of itself. These works, from Dawson City: Frozen Time (dir. Bill Morrison, 2017) to An Ultra Modern House (Pathétone Weekly, 1931), from New Architecture at the London Zoo (dir. László Moholy-Nagy, 1937) to Proud City: A Plan for London (dir. Ralph Keene, 1946) and Odeon Cavalcade (dir. Barry Clayton, 1973), divulge the different ways in which architects—and the built environment—have responded to the international growth of moving picture culture.

This capsule also contextualizes these films in their engagement with the archive. The recent feature-length documentary Dawson City, for example, actively tackles the specific intersections between film, architecture and historic collections—both on the shelves and in the street. The film weaves together the strange true story of a long-lost collection of 533 nitrate film prints from the early 1900s, which had been used as architectural infill in a gold rush town just south of the Arctic Circle—only to be rediscovered in 1978 when a bulldozer uprooted a parking lot. The film’s deft editing pairs snippets of these old prints with contemporary footage, newspaper articles, historic photographs and a score by Sigur Rós collaborator and composer Alex Somers, collaging these archival materials into something new. It also reveals how these original films contributed to the early building of Dawson City, an area native to the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin group and settled by prospectors in 1896 at the onset of the Klondike Gold Rush. As the final stop in a film distribution chain in the Yukon, this town was entertained by, documented in and constructed around its film culture. Due to the highly flammable (and therefore dangerous) nature of these early nitrate prints, they would eventually be tossed beneath a hockey rink. Dawson City showcases the unusual ways in which a film archive can not only anchor the social and economic stylings of a place, but also serve as a literal cornerstone for its architectural evolution.

Historic loss—whether on the fringes of deteriorating film prints or in the decay of material and memory over time—is at the heart of Dawson City. It is also at the center of architecture and film’s longstanding overlaps. This intersection has been heartily discussed in films, film festivals, graduate courses, individual articles and anthologies, but more rarely analyzed in book-length projects—particularly from the standpoint of architects’ adaptations of the moving picture.[2] These scholarly gaps have sometimes appeared in researchers’ use of the archive, as was recently noted in an exhibition catalogue for the show gta Films, organized in 2017 at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture, ETH Zurich. The organizers of the exhibition argue that films occupy a “paradoxical position,” having been preserved in architectural archives, yet remaining largely ignored in histories based upon those very archives. This condition, they write,

…corresponds to a general tendency in the practice of architectural history, where preference is given to static documents. This is all the more surprising considering the fact that during the twentieth century architectural practice embraced the moving image to treat spatial questions, a move that deeply influenced architectural discourse, documentation, propaganda, and teaching.[3]

This Capsule aims to further identify this recurrent gap in academic discussions of film and architecture, gesturing to the rich and varied ways in which these inter- and cross-disciplinary practices have critically affected the twentieth century development of both mediums.

[1] – Frank Gray, The Brighton School and the Birth of British Film (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 33, 198–201.

[2] – Two recent exceptions include David Escudero’s analysis of neorealist filmmaking and postwar Italian architecture, and Brian R. Jacobson’s exploration of film studio architecture before the rise of Hollywood’s studio system. See David Escudero, “Beyond Filmmaking: Searching for a Neorealist Architecture in Italy, 194X–195X,” The Journal of Architecture 24, no. 4 (2019): 441–68; and Brian R. Jacobson, Studios Before the System: Architecture, Technology, and the Emergence of Cinematic Space (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

[3] – Samia Henni, Andreas Kalpakci, Jacqueline Maurer and Daniela Ortiz dos Santos, gta Films (Zurich: University of Zurich, 2017), 1.

Film Programme

Dawson City: Frozen Time

Bill Morrison, US, 2017, 120′

Trailer

Synopsis

Dawson City: Frozen Time tells the bizarre true story of a long-lost collection of over 500 nitrate film prints dating from the early 1900s found buried in the permafrost at a remote Yukon mining town.

Bill Morrison’s haunting documentary links that gold rush town to the dawn of cinema. Using the amazing unearthed newsreels, silent movies (in some cases, the only copies in existence of films by D. W. Griffith and Tod Browning, among others) and documentary images of the town, Morrison conjures the birth of the modern age and creates a unique kaleidoscope of cinema and history. –Courtesy Second Run DVD

Section II

The second part of the Capsule, which features five films from the archival collection of the British Film Institute (BFI), showcases the disparate and fruitful types of engagement that have historically been made between architects, planners, filmmakers and artists. An Ultra Modern House, for example, takes a commercial, newsreel approach to the High and Over House in Amersham, Buckinghamshire (1928–31), which has often been described as the first major modern house in England.[4] Designed by Amyas Connell of Connell and Thomson (later Connell, Ward & Lucas), the concrete-framed structure was built for Bernard Ashmole, British archaeologist and art historian, in partial imitation of early European modernism. A controversial subject from the start, the house made an impression in this early 1930s film, which positions the startling stylistic innovations of large, white, unbroken surfaces, strip windows and fluid volumes in a positive, quotidian light.

In contrast, Moholy-Nagy’s 1937 silent film New Architecture at the London Zoo presents novel architectural design—specifically, the new animal enclosures by Berthold Lubetkin and the Tecton Group, particularly the Penguin Pool (1934)—from the vantage point of an artist. Moholy-Nagy, whose work is the subject of two other festival Capsules, including those on Alvar Aalto and the recent film The New Bauhaus (2019), lived and worked in London from 1935–37, during which time he expanded his photographic and filmmaking practices.[5] This resulting film often highlights artistic elements that are central to Moholy-Nagy’s oeuvre, from the rippling effects of shadows on concrete, to a camera POV that follows the curves and angles of the architecture or its low-to-the-ground animals’ movement, disrupting spectatorial expectations of a typical human gaze.[6] The film was developed specifically for an exhibition at MoMA, Modern Architecture in England (1937), after one of the museum’s curators Ernestine Fantl recognized that “no still photograph could do justice to the pool or its denizens.”[7] Lubetkin, however, was unimpressed with the result, labeling Moholy-Nagy’s filmic interpretation of his architecture an “aggregate of disconnected sense-data,” revealing the provocative tensions that can arise between different medium approaches to material space.[8]

Roughly a decade later, in the wake of wartime damage to cities like London, architects, planners and the general public were in dire need of postwar reconstruction plans—as well as a means to effectively communicate them to a broad audience. A number of documentary makers, adapting the earlier stylistic advances of John Grierson and his influential short film Housing Problems (1935), answered the clarion call, including in the film Proud City: A Plan for London. “London—the greatest city the world has ever known,” begins the grand narrator of this postwar work. The film, which describes idealistic visions to transform London in light of hefty bomb damage, advocates for the plans of Sir Patrick Abercrombie and J.H. Forshaw, chief architects of this unique proposition. Abercrombie in particular embodies the role of the visionary, scientific planner, whose expertise was presented to the public as a winning factor for postwar plans. Indeed, he also had a major appearance in Jill Craigie’s The Way We Live (1946), a similar feature-length film about the planning and reconstruction of Plymouth; the film opens with a line describing city planners as either “heroes or villains, according to your point of view.” Like in Proud City, Craigie, one of the first female directors in Britain and a feminist with an avid interest in suffragette history, uses her film to boost broad appeal for postwar plans—and their expert planners.[9]

Figure 1. John Alexander, Design for the interior decoration of a cinema auditorium, probably in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1930, drawing. RIBA Collections.

Finally, Odeon Cavalcade describes the innovations in movie theatre architecture that gripped designers as soon as cinemas became commercially (and architecturally) viable.[10] Architects like Harry Weedon, Cecil Clavering, George Coles and Andrew Mather were frequently tapped for their innovative styles, which often adapted the works of Le Corbusier, Erich Mendelsohn and others for their 1930s, Art Deco-inspired designs (Fig. 1). Oscar Deutsch’s Odeon cinema chain, in particular, captured the public’s imagination, leaving a strong imprint in cinema style for decades to come—including in Ernő Goldfinger’s plans for an impactful Odeon cinema at Elephant & Castle, London, a brutalist structure by the namesake villain in Ian Fleming’s eponymous novel (1959; archival materials for this project can be found in the collections of the Royal Institute of British Architects/RIBA).

A number of behind-the-scenes networks connect these films. Connell, Ward & Lucas, for example, also exhibited in the MoMA exhibition that sponsored Moholy-Nagy’s film. Goldfinger published a text on Abercrombie’s postwar plans in 1945, and almost commissioned Moholy-Nagy to make a film about his architecture in the 1930s.[11] And George Coles, the respected hand behind a number of London-based movie theatres, trained as an architect at the Regent Street Polytechnic, the location of the first motion picture screening in the United Kingdom.

The connections that these archival films raise, both thematic and social, reveal the number of ways in which film and architecture have historically overlapped. A combination of documentary, fiction, experimental and commercial films, these 20th century works gesture to the impact that each medium has had on the other. How might a deeper analysis of this topic, and the collections that support it, further enrich our understanding of spatial practices, both historically and today? By mining the archive, this programme ultimately aims to excavate some of the buried historical foundations of this interdisciplinary tradition, bringing compelling and lesser-known examples of architecture and film to a broader festival audience.

[5] – Valeria Carullo, Moholy-Nagy in Britain, 19351937 (London: Lund Humphries, 2019).

[6] – Ashley Maher, Reconstructing Modernism: British Literature, Modern Architecture, and the State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 87–91.

[7] – As quoted in Richard Hornsey, “Penguin’s-Eye View—Lázló Moholy-Nagy meets Berthold Lubetkin at the London Zoo,” bauhaus imaginista 4 (December 19, 2019).

[8] – As quoted in Hornsey, “Penguin’s-Eye View.”

[9] – See Hannah Lewi, “Plans on Film: ‘Scene Five—Cut to the Professional Smoking His Pipe’,” Fabrications: The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historian, Australia and New Zealand 24, no. 2 (2014): 268–89.

[10] – For more on the early development of movie theatres in England, including the first construction boom following the Cinematograph Act of 1909, see Richard Gray, Cinemas in Britain: A History of Cinema Architecture (Surrey: Lund Humphries, 2011 [1996]).

[11] – Carullo, Moholy-Nagy in Britain, 24

Film Programme

BFI Archive Selection

Several directors, 83′

Synopsis

The House That Jack Built, 1900, dir. G. A. Smith, 1”

A simple special effect resolves a children’s quarrel. What little girl wouldn’t be put out to see her house, lovingly constructed from building blocks, destroyed by a mischievous boy’s hand? But when the film is played backwards, it looks as if the little boy is conjuring the house out of rubble. Peace restored. . . until he tries it again. By 1900, the audience would probably have seen this trick before—so perhaps the reversal represents the little girl’s wish that real life was as fun as the movies? –Courtesy the British Film Institute

An Ultra Modern House, 1931, 3”

When High and Over House was constructed in Amersham in 1931, it was as if a spaceship had landed in the suburbs. People stared in open-jawed wonder at this gleaming beacon of progress, and hungry news media reported in excited fashion. This Pathe newsreel has the lucky camera crew exploring the perfectly-oiled machine for living, and may tempt viewers to reconsider aspects of their home design.

The Y-shaped house (which according to John Betjeman “scandalised all of Buckinghamshire”) was built for a leading academic by pioneers of modern architecture Connell, Ward and Lucas. Widely considered as the first Modernist house in Britain, it remains a landmark in every way. Pathetone Weekly was a cinemagazine owned by British Pathe that thrived on “the novel, the amusing and the strange”. –Courtesy the British Film Institute

New Architecture at the London Zoo, 1937, dir. László Moholy-Nagy, 16”

London’s position at the cutting edge of mid-1930s design is documented to striking effect in this silent documentary, co-commissioned by the London Zoological Society. The occasion was the completion of various new buildings at London Zoo and its Bedfordshire counterpart Whipsnade, designed by Berthold Lubetkin and his architectural practice Tecton. This was the second of two films made in Britain by Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy, a former teacher at the Bauhaus design school.

Clean, functional design was the key concern of the Modernist movement—even with buildings intended for animals. And though the stark white enclosures often proved to be impractical homes for their inhabitants, including the famous (now Grade I-listed) Penguin Pool, this beautifully photographed film is a testament to the idealism of its day. –Courtesy the British Film Institute

Proud City: A Plan for London, 1946, dir. Ralph Keene, 26”

“London—the greatest city the world has ever known”: the opening line sets a lofty tone for this film about the idealistic plans to transform London after the bomb damage of World War II. The chief architects, Sir Patrick Abercrombie and J.H. Forshaw, present their proposals to camera in what now seems a stilted manner. But their words are combined with some excellent footage of the best and worst of London.

The proposals are presented as an “idea” rather than something hard and fast; however the film spells out some detailed plans, particularly in the Stepney area. Coincidentally, this area had featured in another—very famous—film about slum housing, Housing Problems (1935). Little appears to have improved in the intervening ten years. The swelling music is a notable feature of the film, and the composer, William Alwyn, also had a lengthy career in the film industry, working on feature films like The Fallen Idol (1948), directed by Carol Reed. This government film is a public record, preserved and presented by the BFI National Archive on behalf of The National Archives, home to more than 1,000 years of British history. –Courtesy the British Film Institute

Odeon Cavalcade, 1973, dir. Barry Clayton, 37”

Leave behind the ugly modern multiplex and step back into the glamorous world of the 1930s picture palace in this charming documentary about Art Deco cinema architecture. Influenced by Le Corbusier, Oscar Deutsch created an iconic cinema brand and house style for his Odeon cinema chain. Designed by modernist architects Harry Weedon and Cecil Clavering, the distinctive buildings were anything but drab, with their sensual curves, glass, chrome and plush soft furnishings. –Courtesy the British Film Institute

About the Directors

Photo credit: Wolfgang Wesener

Bill Morrison has premiered films at the New York, Rotterdam, Sundance, and Venice film festivals, and multimedia work at major performance venues around the globe such as BAM, the Barbican, Carnegie, and Walt Disney Concert Hall. His films typically source rare archival footage in which long-forgotten, and sometimes deteriorated, imagery is reframed as part of a collective mythology. DECASIA (2002) was the first film of the 21st century to be selected to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (2017) was named to multiple critics’ lists of the best films of the decade (2010s).  His work has been recognized with the Alpert Award, Creative Capital,  the Foundation for Contemporary Art, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

Photo credit: BFI

George Albert (G. A.) Smith (1864–1959) first became well-known on the stage for his hypnotism act, before opening a pleasure garden in Hove where he put on magic lantern shows. In 1896 he enthusiastically embraced the new medium of cinema and became one of Britain’s first filmmakers, part of what’s been called the “Brighton School”. His film The House That Jack Built demonstrates his flair as a showman, and is remarkably self-conscious about its own technique, heralding its special effect with the card “Reversed”. –Courtesy the British Film Institute; All rights reserved

Photo credit:  László Moholy-Nagy in 1930. Photo by Hugo Erfurth

László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) was a Hungarian-born American painter, sculptor, photographer, filmmaker, designer, theorist and art teacher, whose vision of an art that incorporated technology and industry while consisting of pure visual fundamentals—light, texture, colour and a balance of forms—was tremendously significant for both the fine and applied arts in the 20th century. Having worked as a professor at the Bauhaus from 1923–28, Moholy-Nagy would go on to found the School of Design in Chicago in the late 1930s, which survives today as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Ralph Keene (1902–1963) was a British screenwriter, producer and film director. He is generally known for his documentary work for a number of government ministries, including films that he shot in the aftermath of World War II in what is now Cyprus, Sri Lanka and Iran.

Barry Clayton (1931–2011) was a British actor and director, known for films ranging from They Came to Wales (1970) to Count Duckula (1988).

With appreciation and thanks to Chris Barwick, James Linville, Bill Morrison, Agata Murasko, Charlotte Skene-Catling, Manuel Toledo-Otaegui and Corinna Reicher.

About Me

Theresa Jordan

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