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Opening titles of the Building Sights series. Photo: BBC

Architecture and film have a kinship with one another. Practitioners and critics of both disciplines have said as much. Carl Theodor Dreyer argued that cinema’s closest relative is architecture. In 1965, late film critic Raymond Durgnat published an essay in the March edition of the Architectural Review that unpacked the relationship between the two and set out its contradictions:

It may seem paradoxical to compare the most mimetic (photographic) of the arts with the construction of a new reality, and dramatic art with a ‘Utopian’ one,” he begins, “yet the paradoxes hold.” “The cinema’s mimetic fullness (photography, movement, sound) permits the creation of a selfsufficient world. Like the architect, the film director weaves diverse media into a ‘new’ reality.”

Although architecture and film take different trajectories in their production, they are often seen to have an affinity with regards to the experiences they shape. Many architects explicitly cite the film editing process as an allegory to describe way their buildings are, or are meant to be, experienced. In Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect, filmmakers Markus Heidingsfelder and Min Tesch legitimately argue that Koolhaas’s (OMA’s) ability to create distinct areas of transition in architecture can be attributed to his experience as a scriptwriter – something Koolhaas himself alludes to. Incidentally, in 1969 Koolhaas co-wrote the most expensive Dutch film ever made, De Blanke Slavin, with childhood friend Rene Daalder, a protégé of Russ Meyer. Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa writes well on the commonalities between theatre, film and architecture. And, like Durgnat, often refers to the blend of realism and onirism that elicits the complex responses we have to both architecture and film.

Architecture, and place, has been conveyed as a peripheral subject, a romantic backdrop to portraits of city life by filmmakers such as Paul Kelly (See Review: How We Used To Live, 2013); poetically and irreverently by Patrick Keiller and John Smith; as examples of work in monographs, such as Inside Piano, My Architect and the long in production REM; and in an all too often generalised, reductive, uncritical fashion in TV docs – albeit informative to a general public. As the subject of scrutiny, architecture, especially individual buildings, appear uneasy under the gaze of a quizzical documentary lens. Conveying what a building is, and the experience of being in its presence, on screen is difficult; the tools needed to translate more than the buildings form through the medium of film have proven elusive.

In this article I want to discuss Building Sights. It originally aired on BBC channels between 1988 and 1996 in the form of nine-minute vignettes depicting modern buildings (and an aeroplane) in Britain. Each building is “sighted” and presented by its advocate – this may be an architect, poet, broadcaster, cartoonist, writer or critic – who champions (or defends) the style, social implications, symbolism, experience, frivolity, etc. These short films are educational, but they are driven by taste and an individual viewpoint. One film gives one version of one building.

When hearing something akin to a stream of consciousness, it is clear that the form of the documentaries readily fits our own experience of architecture. The sideways manner in which the presenters negotiate the buildings, and the lofty, superlative ridden language they use to comprehend them, which we are all guilty of, mirrors our own interaction with the built environment – which is, invariably, subjective and chaotic.

Now, cinema is well known for creating its own reality. The suspension of disbelief when we watch fiction films owes much to the fact that many buildings are perceived without meaning when they are removed from their original context. The feeling and purpose of a building is lost. Only the form remains to be augmented and rendered appropriate to its new setting. This is evidenced by the University College London Wilkins building, which as a film location has proven effective at portraying: the British Museum in The Awakening and The Mummy Returns; Bristol University in Starter For 10; the fictitious Bank of London in Thunderbirds; and various versions of hospital, to name a few. Its preferable dimensions, relative to the British Museum and the remarkably similar National Gallery (also by architect William Wilkins, and even described by Reginald Turnor as its ‘half-brother’), combined with the sobriety and power evoked by its archetypal image, are what have led to its repeated use as an indeterminate, authoritative building.

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Still from Doctor in the House (1954)

Building Sights arguably provides us with a range of archetypes through which we can begin to understand the modern landscape. We see houses, police stations, hospitals, places of business, scientific laboratories, and a bridge. We see the familiar shapes and environments we find ourselves in and we measure them against our preconceptions. Trellick Tower, for example, is understood through its demise, as a canonical participant of Modern architecture’s failed attempt to improve the standard of living. However, occasionally, a building is chosen that jars with our preconceptions and challenges the archetype.

Posy Simmonds delivers, and occasionally performs, a reading of the neoclassical Wood Street Police Station. She slowly penetrates the building, leading us through nondescript walkways, a museum, centre courtyard, stables, squash court–cum–emergency centre and control room, which is interspersed with stock footage of Venice, Polish cabbage, a conversation about light dust and tap dancing. Simmonds takes her cue from the architect, Donald McMorran, who apparently laughed at the thought of designing a police station as Italian palace. It would be easy for these eccentricities to overwhelm and undermine the building in question, but it only serves to make the programme more interesting.

On first watch, the attraction of these films is the partiality of the presenters. Personalities from the eighties and nineties give narrations, voiceovers and piece to camera orations about their chosen architecture. Although occasionally peppering their texts with titbits of architectural and social history, these are ultimately personal reflections – such is the nature of scriptwriting: everything is a reflection of the self – and you find yourself enjoying the subjectivity. For, as was eloquently put by Jonathan Meades in BBC Four’s Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry:

Because architecture has no language, it requires no translation. We glance at architecture, we stare at it, we scrutinize it, we react to it; we may feel frightened, we may feel awestruck, we may powerless in the presence of vastness and blankness. But, whatever properties we invest it with are the products of our sensibility, our reason, our wonder, our despisal.”

In the case of the films on Alton Estate, Trellick Tower and Alexander Fleming House the presenters offer rebuffs to the conventional wisdom of the time – positioning themselves in direct opposition to the sour public opinion of modern architecture. Political exigencies, the planning authorities and the Prince of Wales all held the ear of public discourse on architecture at the time, and these shorts offer a codicil to the accepted failure of modern architecture – attempting to preserve the image of their building, if not directly defending the movement itself. Notably, Britain’s émigré architect par excellence, Erno Goldfinger, authors two of these buildings – well known brutalist structures Trellick Tower and Alexander Fleming House – which, in light of nybrutalism’s popularity, may be of interest to those lamenting the affronting charm exuded by such buildings and their haptic, often injurious, béton brut.

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Grey matter: Jonathan Meades outside Wotruba Church, Vienna. Photo: BBC

In the essay Hamas & Kibbutz Jonathan Meades tells us:

The films I make are dramatis personae, plays without players. They are, unequivocally, not about places, but about the ideas that place foment. The directors I work with then conspire with me to create what may or may not be the truth, or a truth, about them.”

Ignoring the fact that Meades is of the opinion that place is not something made by architects (rather the result of interstitial accidents between buildings and urban bricolage) and therefore not directly applicable to the architect authored buildings in the Building Sights series, there are two things to take from this. Firstly, as is evident from Meades’ television films, there is a lot to be said for valuing ideas over assessment, and opinion over classification. This is a trait shared by many architectural writer-presenters. Ian Nairn never wrote according to the taxonomies of style, he thought them trivial. In Building Sights place becomes malleable, bendable by will of the authors to represent something other than what a building is – because, after all, what is the is?

In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino recalls the account Marco Polo gave to Kublai Kahn regarding the city of Zaira:

In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stair-ways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past.”

We can say that cities are physical constructs, but as Henri Lefebvre states: the social construction of cities and places is a vital element in how people see the environments that surround them. Representations of places evoke the imagined as well as the real.

Damien Hirst makes no distinctions between the real and the imagined when he examines the Worsley Medical Building in Leeds: a place he drew cadavers as a student. He combines his nostalgia for the building and the contradictions he sees between the building and the body to illustrate a part of his understanding of death. His narrative is flawed in its inconsistencies, but it fairly appropriates the salient outer features of the building and it’s macabre purpose to bring into focus something other – feelings, impressions, memories – that are in a way more real, or of more importance to the viewer, than an account of its dimensions and materials.

Jools Holland somewhat challenges Marco Polo and Lefebvre in his account of One Canada Water, also known as Thatcher’s cock. He assiduously bombards the viewer with factoids about Cesar Pelli’s postmodern tower in a desperate attempt to say as much about the building as possible. It is perhaps his perception and the vocabulary he uses that says more about the building than the stats though. His enthusiastic capitalist proselytism, only ever speaking in measures of size and money, illustrates why I enjoy these films. There is a potency, accompanied by an indifference to balance. A palpable sense of personal taste.

Going back to Meades, the second thing to take from his quote is the collusion he shares with his directors. In Building Sights the presenters are clearly in control of the final product – likely because they wrote the scripts to which the films adhere to – but it’s clear that directors dictate the pace and wit of the finished product. Dark graphic novel–like visuals in the film on Trellick Tower produce an intentioned mood, reifying the doom that pervaded the collective consciousness of the time towards brutalism. Timely cuts to disgruntled occupants of Alton Estate and inspired shot locations, including a bath, in the Hauer/King House make for amusing viewing. One of the most irreverent films is on Janet Street Porter’s house in Clerkenwell. It was directed by future Meade’s conspirator, David F. Turnball, who worked as Director–Producer on the Further Abroad and Even Further Abroad TV series.

The pidgin architecture speak in Building Sights is easy to deride, but there has always been a divide between the profession and the general public; more films like these could aid the posterity of architectural discourse within the public domain. Producing informative and/or opinionated films that bridge the gap between groups that do not share a common language. As a form, these short vignettes, centred around one person’s observations and ideas about a building or place, seem congenial to a trading of thought that is all too rare.

A selection of the films can be watched on BBC iPlayer until November 2014. Most are also available on YouTube.

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Reeling The Real is a new community dedicated to the discussion, promotion, and celebration of documentary film-making.

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