Movies Architecture

Cinem(a)rchitecture :
signifying the imaginary city in film

Natasha Higham


space15x1.gif (36 byte) [01sep1999]

Six years ago, the opportunity arose to write two short papers on the reproduction of architecture in different media. An interest in both theatre and cinema influenced the first essay, which emerged as a collection of ideas and theories exploring the possible existence of a relationship between architecture and film.

Entitled Cinem(a)rchitecture, a title I coined from the inseparable nature of the two arts, the paper was based broadly on the writings of both film theorists and architects, injected with philosophy and psychology. Seminal influences worth noting were Sergi M. Eisenstein, Le Corbusier and Lacan; a filmmaker, an architect, and a psychoanalyst respectively. This paper evolved slowly over the years into a thesis - Cinem(a)rchitecture: signifying the imaginary city in film.

The thesis was primarily a research study investigating the use of architecture in cinema as a communication tool and involved six case study films. It highlighted the use of architectural signifiers by the directors to convey their personal visions and statements, as well as the physical processes behind the creation of film architecture. The study also introduced ideas and theories on how film audiences use architectural signifiers to construe meaning and tested to what level of success audiences perceived the director's intentions.

Relationships: Film and Architecture

Ever since the Lumiere brothers' first experimental films in the late eighteen hundreds capturing everyday events and images of the city, film and architecture have been deemed inseparable. (1) Cinema and architecture are distant arts, dynamic and static respectively, whose complex relationship gives life to each other. Sharing a mutual respect for the parallel processes involved in producing their works, the creators behind these two expressions have an understanding that one will always benefit the other. (2)

Their relationship is strengthened further when the 'languages' they use to communicate are compared. Romer recognised this in the 40's declaring architectural metaphor essential to filmic imagination. (3) It is this conscious use of architectural language in film as a communication tool that underlies my study. More specifically, the 'unreal' factor associated with cinema lead the study to focus on the imaginary city in film in order to investigate exactly how audiences perceive fiction and to what level of cognition.

Architecture gives film it's believability; setting the mood, character, time and place for the action while inextricably providing sequential cues- the temporal unity
(4) of a scene shot at different times, in different locations and from different camera angles. Film provides architecture with an outlet for realising visions that can never exist and conjures up experiences that in reality have not occurred. Freed from reality's financial, logistical, and legal constraints, an ideal medium has been created for utopian visions and different approaches to architectural design. (5)

Image 1- Images by Eisenstein reflecting Choisey's theory on processional journeys- denying a pedestrian or audience a focal point, & thus pushing them on to seek the next.

Image 2 - Metropolis: the city by night.

Our experience of architecture has become habit, a subconscious part of everyday life. Film has likewise become part of our subconscious memory, shading our impression of places we have never experienced and in many cases never will; influencing to the point of dictating how we should feel, think and operate in a particular space. Wright quips that when films are set in New York the background is so dominant, and so instantly recognisable, that it cannot help but become almost an honorary member (6) acting to validate the plot. If this is true then how do audience members make the cognitive leap between what they see and what they understand?


The field of Semiotics, the study of 'language' as a collection of signs, forms a basis for other interrelated theories on image perception that together assist in understanding audience perception. Semiotics is the process we use to construe meanings from a library of codes and signs developed in our early years. Both film and architecture operate as languages, communicating via a library of signs. These signs can be broken into two parts: the signifier, which is the physical manifestation of a sign; and the signified; the thoughts, ideas and notions of what the signifier embodies. (7)

Film can present a single image and capitalise on the many signs attached to it to create different meanings. A rose is a rose is a rose… but depending on the context it can express love, romance, a garden, an innocent girl and so on. This is something that other 'languages' cannot do as successfully.
(8) Different people may perceive an image differently according to the meanings attached to the image in their library of signs and experiences.

For example, a question posed in the research questionnaire asked the respondent to name a current day city that best epitomised the imaginary film city they were shown. For Metropolis some respondents answered "New York" because of the skyscrapers and the shape of the buildings. Others answered "Tokyo" because of the frenetic pace of Metropolis. Still others answered that the chaotic road system and sky bridges made them think of "Los Angeles".

On answering this question respondents often commented that although they had not physically visited the cities they named, these were the images they associated with each. They had thus attached many signs, codes and meanings to these cities, even somewhat subconsciously.

The semiotics of architecture presents the fact that architecture is primarily to function and then to communicate, and operates on these two different levels of signifiers. It is understood that people must understand the root sign to expand their meanings of architecture. In one of Eco's discussions he shows that the stair came to mean a change in level. Both the stair and the lift are used in several of the case study films to symbolise 'level'. In Metropolis, Bladerunner and The Hudsucker Proxy, levels convey class segregation between the wealthy and poor, the successful and the unsuccessful. The 'underground' versus the 'topside' in 12 Monkeys conveys disaster. Respondents knew that the desolate city of Philidelphia had experienced a horrific event although they could not necessarily pin point exactly what the catastrophe was. Director Tati in Playtime simply used level changes to show the confusion one can suffer in absurdly modern architecture.

Continuing with semiotic theories, the Icon, Index and Symbol help break down both architecture and film in relation to signifiers, depending on how the signifier and signified and a third part, the referent, interact.
(9) Architecture uses a mix of all three to stimulate meaning whereas film is found to favour the use of the Index, the most connotative of the three, to communicate ideas. (10) Architecture and film relate in their use of signifiers but do so through different means and for different operations and outcomes.

Case Studies: The City in Film

The fascination with the portrayal of the city in film began early, the most passionate period of which occurred in the 1920's as part of the Weimar Republic's frenzied expressionistic filmmaking era. Perhaps because of the strong symbolism associated with city architecture, these built environments proved to be sophisticated agents for political statements, entertaining messages from the state of the environment to the adversaries of technology with social unrest in between. Filmmakers knowingly mesh key images that will conjure up not just a recognisable city but the traces and histories that make it believable on celluloid. The storyline would not be complete without this full picture. Architecture hence becomes entwined in this storytelling process. (11)

The six case study films were chosen for their portrayal of the imaginary city and were used to test audience perception of the information inserted intentionally in film in the form of signifiers. The film's aims and goals were researched including the director's and design producer's vision, the important messages they wished to highlight through their work and how they were conveyed in the films. This information helped frame the questions posed to audiences after they had viewed the case study films to judge their perceptions. It also aided in categorising the films into three main genres: exploded reality, fantasy, and science fiction.

Most of the research verified that the 'architecture' used to create the film cities is an important tool in conveying the film's essence. The research testing showed that everything from mood to plot and character development can be portrayed by architectural signifiers. Architecture is definitely a powerful agent that directors utilise consciously in presenting the storyline.

Research Findings

Image 3 - Playtime: hospital or airport? Tati used different architectural signs common to certain types of buildings to show his audience how absurd modern architecture can be.

Image 4 - The Hudsucker Proxy: Mussberger's very intimidating office displaying his power and wealth as the corporation's director.

The testing conducted involved sample groups viewing film sequences cut from the six case study films according to strict criteria. The participants were required to complete a questionnaire which recorded their perception and understanding of the film material shown. Hence the director's intentional use of architectural signifiers to aid comprehension was analysed. The questionnaire provided a common plane for prompting audience response and as a reliable method of recording of data for collation and analysis.

Two key findings arose:

1. Architectural signifiers are used by directors and producers as an integral tool in communicating their visions and thoughts of film and in conveying imaginary cities.

2. Audience members do perceive the majority of information that directors intend via architectural signifiers.

Other minor findings which would benefit from further research with larger sample groups included:

Image 5 - Bladerunner: filming the model of the Tyrell Corporation Building.
1. Perception of film material does not differ greatly between different age groups;

2. Perception is not enhanced by prior viewing of the material; and

3. Respondents of certain disciplines had different perception levels.

This last finding was deduced from research between film and architecture students and I won't divulge whom was more perceptive!

It seems that many of the findings resulted from differing levels of general experience and knowledge, not prior film exposure as first believed. This only strengthens semiotic theories purporting that people construe meaning by combining signs and 'experiences' from their library. The findings also support the idea that film research is formulaic to a film's successful understanding.

The thesis results have implications for both disciplines. Firstly it proves that the creation and use of film architecture is an important part of the cinema process. Secondly it verifies Neumann's statement that film can play an important role in the reception, criticism and dissemination of architectural ideas
(12) throughout society. Lastly, it supports the notion that architecture actively communicates, which infers that the creation of real architecture must remain a respected and carefully considered process as it holds enormous energy that can subconsciously colour peoples' lives.

Both architecture and film operate as agents in disclosing hidden aspects of society, the unexpected collective 'unconscious'.
(13) They revel in the dreams of society but are at the same time the divulgents of repressed information. The psychology of film and architecture's relationship is therefore more important than we care to admit.

Image 6 - Bladerunner: Deckard arrives at the Mayan / cathedral like Tyrell Corp. building.
Neumann proposes three roles film architecture plays in cinema; as a reflection and commentary on contemporary developments, as a testing ground for innovative visions, and as a realm in which a different approach to the art and practice of architecture can be realised. (14) Cinem(a)rchitecture encompassed all three guises and studied them collectively in an attempt to define the limits of architectural signifiers in film.

Architecture and film in a sense need each other to exist on certain levels. Architecture aids film in communicating with its audience. Film aids architecture by inspiring the average film goer to take an interest in their built environment and to experience within the realms of cinema what they may never experience in real life. Film also returns to architecture a mass medium where both the trained and untrained can become the critique; where architects and wanna-be architects can realise dreams that cannot be constructed in reality.

By increasing our understanding of the relationship between film and architecture, we are enhancing our ability to express via architectural elements our complex ideas and visions on cities. This is the path I believe film must take to keep the unreal and imaginary 'alive' for its audiences.

Natasha Higham


Webb, Michael. (1987), "The City in Film", Design Quarterly, vol.136, p5.
(2) Grigor, Murray. (1994), "Space in time: Filming Architecture", in Toy, Maggie (ed.), Architectural Design: Architecture and Film, London: Academy Editions, p17.
(3) Vidler, Anthony. (1993), "The Explosion of Space: Architecture and the Filmic Imaginary", in Asemblage, no.9, p46.
(4) Ingersoll, Richard. (1992), "Cinemarchitecture", in Design Book review, vol. 24, Spring, p5.
(5) Neumann,Dietrich. (1996) "Editor's Notes", in Neumann, Dietrich (ed.) Film Architecture: set designs from Metropolis to Bladerunner, Munich: Prestel-Verlag, p. frontispiece.
(6) Wright, Amalie. (1995) Triple-Fronted and Two Faced: Suburbia in recent Australian Films, University of Queensland,p2.
(7) Threadgold, Terry.(1986), "Semiotics - Ideology - Language", in Grosz, E.A.; Halliday, M.A.K.; Kress, Gunther & Threadgold, Terry (eds.) Language Semiotics Ideology, Sydney: Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture.
(8) Monaco, James. (1977), How To read A Film: the art, technology, language, history, and theory of film and media, New York: Oxford University Press, p127.
(9) Jenks, Charles. (1980) "The Architectural Sign", in Broadbent, Geoffrey; Bunt, richard & Jencks, Charl;es (eds.) Signs, Symbols, and Architecture, Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, p80.
(10) Monaco, Op Cit, p133.
(11) Colimina, Beatriz. (1988) "Introduction: On Architecture and Publicite", in Architectureproduction, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, p22.
(12) Neumann,. Op Cit, p8.
(13) Jormakka, Kari. (1987), "Semiotics: Architecture, Sign, Design", in Datutop, no.11, p54.
(14) Neumann, Op. Cit, p7.


1. Eisenstein, Sergi M. (1989), "Montage and Architecture", in Assemblage, no.10, pp. 110-131:120, fig. 8.John Wiley and Sons, p80.
2. Neumann,Dietrich (ed.). (1996), Film Architecture: set designs from Metropolis to Bladerunner, Munich: Prestel-Verlag, p34, fig.5.
3. Photograpy by author. Film: Playtime, (1967), Director: Jaques Tati, Spectra Films, France.
4. Photograpy by author. Film: The Hudsucker Proxy,(1994), Director: Ethan Coen, Warner Bros., U.S.A.
5. Neumann,Dietrich (ed ). (1996), Film Architecture: set designs from Metropolis to Bladerunner, Munich: Prestel-Verlag, p44, fig.1.
6. Photography by author. Film: Bladerunner, (1982), Director: Ridley Scott, The Ladd Company / Warner Bros., U.S.A.

[Compiled from a lecture presented by Natasha Higham at the Queensland University of Technology, April 1999. Copyright 1999 Natasha Higham. All Rights Reserved.]




in rete