USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Art, Architecture, and The Sign-Vehicle

Still frame from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Though seemingly disparate media, film and architecture share many similarities. Both deal with the concepts of narrative, sequence, mood, space, experience, time, place. Directors have long since employed these techniques in forwarding the concepts of their film – for example, Kubrick’s meticulous employment of perspective, sequence, and spatial implications in 2001: A Space Odyssey – yet some directors appear unsatisfied with the gaps left between architecture and film as a means of artistic expression. Peter Greenaway, director of The Belly Of An Architect and several other award-winning films, is one such artist who attempts to bridge the gap between film and architecture. Though The Belly Of An Architect is obvious in its reference to architecture as a thematic and narrative linchpin, its obsession with architecture and incorporation of architectural theory in the telling of its plot runs much deeper than the subject matter of its narrative.

Still frame from Peter Greenaway’s Belly Of An Architect

Indeed, one may consider The Belly Of An Architect a critique of film’s lacking desire to incorporate contradiction and complexity as a means of visual communication, to paraphrase a well-known publication by architect Robert Venturi. As Greenaway writes at the outset of Stairs 1 Geneva, released in 1994,

For me it is a frustration that cinema has no substance in the way that, for example, architecture and sculpture – even painting – have substance. And, as a consequence, I doubt whether cinema has any real history in the world. The passage of history effects inevitable material changes in an artefact. In that sense, cinema, or film, cannot profitably age, and it can have no intimacy with history. Even a very short history permits an object to attain provenance, heritage and cultural power. Even attain cultural magic, certainly cultural currency and usage. The physical touch of history, which is not necessarily inimical to the well-being of a cultural artefact, can ‘improve’ its substance and enhance its significance. … It could be argued that film fails to satisfy the very particular demands of the five human senses, which should be ignored at peril, because a lack of unique presence leads to the dissatisfactions of banal cloning, and a lack of material presence leads to the sort of disappointments and dismissiveness experienced by the thirsty in the presence of an oasis mirage. (Being Naked – Playing Dead: The Art of Peter Greenaway, 93-94)

In an effort to prevail over these supposed shortcomings of film as a medium, Greenaway infuses The Belly Of An Architect with a myriad of architectural and artistic signifiers to heighten the symbolic meaning of his film. As Michael Kokonis writes in his essay entitled “Peter Greenaway’s The Belly Of An Architect: A Bagful of Signs And Designs,[Greenaway tends] to put more emphasis on the significative power of his images, which, as sign-vehicles, communicate extra meaning through their inedical and symbolic properties.” The opening scene, for example, pins the the pivotal characters in the film between a myriad of architectural artifacts – the Pantheon in the background, an obelisk illuminated in the center of the frame, a representation of Boulee’s Cenotaph for Issac Newton in the foreground. These artifacts do indeed carry the historical weight which Greenaway discusses at the opening of Stairs 1 Geneva, each monument giving a sense of place to the film’s narrative (the Pantheon – Rome), an indication as to the film’s subject matter (the Cenotaph for Issac Newton – an exhibition on the work of Boulee himself), or an indication as to the character’s relationship to these architectural icons (situated amidst such artifacts, architects and artists).

Etienne-Louis Boulee, Cenotaph for Isaac Newton

More specifically, however, other patterns can be seen which compliment the postmodern architectural theory prevalent during the film’s conception. During the opening scene in front of the Pantheon, and indeed many others as found throughout the film, the camera frame is composed so as to lend a sense of monumentality to place. Whether watching from inside the protagonist’s apartment, or from outside the ruins of an ancient temple, Greenaway composes each frame – often in a symmetrical organization – almost as if the characters of the film are of secondary importance to the space they inhabit. This compositional technique is again a sign-vehicle, reminiscent of many of Boulee’s sketches for his work – gargantuan structures, astoundingly monumental in scale, all-consuming in their volume, employing symmetrical organization.

Still frame from Peter Greenaway’s Belly Of An Architect

Indeed, The Belly Of An Architect employs a seemingly endless series of visual references, motifs, allusions; at moments the viewer is reminded of sculptures or paintings which carry enormous weight as signifiers, Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, and Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker, among others. At times, these images clash with the film’s narrative, and at others seem to reinforce prominent themes found throughout its length. Greenaway seeks to give Architect a conceptual underpinning which goes far beyond a surface-level understanding of his work, and in so doing creates a film unexpectedly filled with the typically non-filmic qualities he describes above – history, complexity, contradiction.

Still frame from Peter Greenaway’s Belly Of An Architect

In turn, the film reveals rich parallel between postmodern architectural philosophy and its technique of visual communication, a methodology which transcends any surface-level allusions to architecture the film may otherwise appear to possess. Such attention to detail seems unconventional in a world of contemporary cinema heavily influenced by television and ruled by the hollywood blockbuster, yet it is clear that Greenaway’s work aims to propel filmmaking to new level of conceptual framework – one which speaks volumes of the close ties between architecture and film.


Filed under: Architecture, Psyche

One Response

  1. Taylor,
    The post is well informed and written, conveys a strong message and even strong critical thinking. However, what I think you miss in your analysis of Peter Greenaway’s attempt to materialize film is the feedback loop that this is presently playing on architecture (albeit several years too late).

    Check out Nic Clear’s Studio 15 work from the Bartlett School. He’s attempting to use film as a way to subvert overly re-represented intellectual stratas in architecture for the precise reason that film lacks any historicism and hence presupposition. What it’s opening up for him as well as others like Steven Ma, Greg Lynn, Hernan Alonso Diaz et al. is new discourse on the architecture of the near-future.

    So much of architectural theory, specifically in the way that it deals with urbanism and urban typology comes from a materialistic conception of the universe; we are moving masses and making spaces; our only method of manipulation is in teh tangible placement of program and the construction of societal infrastructure (even our language reflects an obsession with the built and made, with the facts of a city). How does the digital revolution change this? Can we critique urbanism from the point of view of the immaterial non-places of the city? Look forward to seeing the resultant of your group’s stay in Asia.


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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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