Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Log 11

Cynthia Davidson (ed) Log 11 New York: Anyone Corporation, 2008.

The 11th issue of log comes in black. The change though is not only in the color. It looks like the latest issue of the east coast based journal tries to point towards a ‘new’ direction in architectural theory. Not a surprise since theoretical discourse in architecture today is in a state of recession.

Log 11th’s attempt is metacritique. The idea of metacritique of course is rather vague by itself but the articles in this collection are trying to define the framework and to provide some examples. In that context one of the main points made here is the need to re-invent the political and social aspects of architecture which translates into a turn towards critical theory (it is no surprise then that in the footnotes we finds several references to thinkers like Adorno and Habermas). A return of critical theory in architecture today wouldn’t be of course very innovative; it would rather be a step backward. However, what makes things more interesting here is what in the editorial is called a “positive critique” referenced with Nietzsche’s double affirmation and proposed as an alternative to negative dialectics. I am not sure that after reading all the articles it becomes clear how affirmation and dialectics can go together but at any case there are several interesting articles selected here - like Georges Teyssot’s text on Aldo van Eyck’s Threshold (Aldo van Eyck’s Threshold: The Story of an Idea), Paul Hegarty’s On Fire: the City’s Accursed Share, Ana Maria Leon’s research on Tafuri and Klein diagrams (the Boudoir in the Expanded Field) and Pier Vittorio Aureli’s ideas about the ‘political and the formal in architecture’ (Toward the Archipelago) - that definitely promote critical thinking.
Read more!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Actualizing Ornament with Shape Grammars

by Magdalena Pantazi

In the past two decades, a shift in perception of the notion of ornament has occurred in architecture. Ornament, which was almost exiled from design for about a century, reappeared in architectural discourse and began to participate actively in the design process. The development of computer software seems to have had a significant impact on this shift: the use of new digital means in the design process introduced novel ways of approaching ornament design problems and, more specifically, renewed the architect’s interest in using algorithms to solve these problems. The use of algorithmic processes is expected to expand the potentialities of ornament design, leading to unique and novel artifacts. So far, however, little research has been done in this field and the reasons that led to the resurfacing of ornament in architectural design remain vague. This paper will examine the reappearance of ornament in architectural discourse and will argue that the emergence of computation facilitated this return. In order to examine how computation influenced the design of ornament I will study the way that shape grammars – a visually based computational design technique – introduce ornament into design. In this framework, I will attempt to develop a grammar for ornament design. In order to study the possible combination of the rules application and to produce many different results I will use the computer-based programming language processing.


The current architectural building production reveals the reappearance and active participation of ornament in the design process. This is in fact the result of a shift in the perception of the notion and function of ornament that has occurred in architecture over the past two decades. Toyo Ito’s Serpentine Pavilion in London and Herzog and de Meuron’s Library in Eberswalde, Germany, as well as the Prada store in Tokyo are only a few examples that demonstrate this change in the perception of ornament. In these works ornament is no longer just a piece of sculpture, but rather a piece of textile, a piece of structure, a piece of surface or a piece of image adjusted to the building’s surface. In this new context, architects experiment with ornament in an attempt to construct new aesthetic effects. In the Prada store, a diagrid with carefully selected concave glass panels gives a quilted effect to its exterior, while in the Eberswalde Library the repetition of images on the building surfaces creates a serial effect. The Serpentine Pavilion project creates a differentiation effect by combining ornament with structure in a construction “based on an algorithm that produces an irregular pattern that is then cropped.”1 As opposed to what was the case several years ago, ornament is used today as an element that underlies certain characteristics of the building and attempts to improve the architectural results.
Until now, however, little attention has been paid to the reasons that led to the reappearance of ornament in architectural discourse. In this paper, I will argue that the emergence of computation facilitated the return of ornament in architectural design.

Ornament is defined as “a thing used to adorn something but usually having no practical purpose.”2 This definition best illustrates the general perception of ornament in architecture: decoration elements added to an existing structure. During the course of the last two centuries architects used ornament as an additional embellishment layer in the overall structure of the building. The role of the Modernist movement along with its aesthetic premises of clarity, simplicity and hygiene was especially influential in this direction.

The status of ornament in architecture, however, was different before the eighteenth century. The Italian architects Vitruvius and Alberti considered ornament to be an essential part of the building that revealed the “creativity and the beauty of the cosmic order.”3 Furthermore, the possible ways through which ornament was related to buildings, for example the various transformations and applications of shapes that resulted in different architectural products, expressed the potential ways that a building could be realized. Antoine Picon’s view on the work of ornament in architecture sheds some light on the way ornament has participated in the architectural compositions and on the way it contributes to the creation of potential architectural results. He defines ornament as a “virtual dimension of work in architecture.”4

It is this characteristic of ornament, its “virtual dimension,” that brought ornament back to the center of current architectural discourse. The interest in this topic is renewed today because of the wide use of advanced computer software in architectural design process. Computer based design tools that are available for architects today, such as Computer Aided Design (CAD), expand the architect’s ability to experiment with various forms and their potential combinations. Additionally, the equipment that accompanies computers, such as 3D printers and laser cutters, provides the possibility of actually creating those forms with high accuracy. Along with the new means of design expression comes a new challenge for the architectural design process: the perception of design as an algorithmic process, “a computational process for addressing a problem in a finite number of steps. “5 The above changes, on both the practical and theoretical level, influence and may in fact determine the use of ornament in design.

The purpose of this paper is to reveal the influence of advanced computer software and of computational techniques on ornament design. The paper will explore the work of computational techniques in relation to ornament and will investigate how ornament is imported into architectural design through the study of a computational method of visual-based design, that of shape grammars6. In this framework, I will examine two ways that shape grammars address the ornament design problem: they facilitate the analysis and understanding of an existing style and aid in the creation of an original composition. Furthermore, I will develop an example that refers to the second way that shape grammars addresses ornament design, that of creating an original composition. Through this example I will examine a possible application of shape grammars in the programming language Processing.

Ornament: a virtual dimension

In his 2003 article “Architecture, Science, Technology and the Virtual Realm,” Antoine Picon discusses architecture as a non-static condition. He perceives architecture as a “creative principle enabling the constant exchange between the built reality and the domain of knowledge, precepts and rules.”7 Therefore, architecture is always in a state of change, and in that sense attached to “virtual reality”, a term that is used here in a way that is different from the current common usage. Picon defines virtual reality as “nothing but a potential awaiting its full actualization”8 and describes architecture in a similar way, as a condition that embodies tensions and potentials that wait to be actualized. Among these tensions and potentials, he places ornament and defines it as a “virtual dimension” at work in architecture.

Etymologically the word “virtual” derives from the Medieval Latin word virtualis that sequentially derives from virtus/virtue; “the capacity or power adequate to the production of a given effect; energy; strength; potency.”9 Thus, the term “virtual” describes production, effects or potentials that wait to be actualized. Very often, people use the term “virtual reality” as a way to describe something that is not real, such as an image or an environment on a computer screen. This, however, is misleading. Virtual reality is by no means the opposite of the real; rather it refers to the potential states of reality that wait to become actual. Pierre Levy makes clear the distinction between "realization," which is the transformation of the possible to the static, and "actualization," which "implies the production of new qualities a transformation of ideas, a true becoming that feeds the virtual in turn.”10 Thus, “virtual reality” describes potential realities; some of them can be realized and some of them actualized.

In this framework, ornament is a characteristic of architecture that embodies potentiality; in the abstract conception of the form of various motifs, natural or geometrical, ornament encloses a variety of possible applications. It is in the different combination of these motifs and in the possible positions that these could take in the construction that the virtual dimension of ornament lies. A designer actualizes one of these choices and underlies with this action a design intention.

Architects and designers always search for techniques and devices that could address and finally fulfill the desire for variety, potentiality, novelty and continuous change of ornament design. The ensuring of a variety of possible combinations and thus, a variety of ornament potentialities is crucial in the process of ornament design. Additionally, techniques that codify these potentialities and provide ways of organizing and further developing them, help architects to understand and handle the design information. If a designer has a wide range of choices and is able to experiment with them, it is likely that he/she would find the one that best underlies the design intention.

Computers in the ornament-design process

As defined before, ornament belongs to the sphere of virtuality, an abstract field of thoughts that does not necessarily refer to specific and static forms, but rather to the potential results of their combinations. Designers expressed the ideas produced by the above process through sketches and drawings and further explored and improved the initial results by the same graphical means. The images and the environment that surrounded designers was their field of inspiration, a field that they tried to capture and translate into various ornament forms. Some designers were endowed with the ability to actually “see” the various form arrangements around them: that could discern the elements that consist these forms, detach them from the existing synthesis and combine them in a novel form of ornament. In many cases, however, the creation of ornament had nothing to do with novelty and rather referred to a mere copying process of existing forms. In the first case, designers explored the logic that governs a form so as to understand it and then applied it, transformed or not, to new synthesis, a process that led the architect and ornamental designer Owen Jones to the conclusion that “ in the best periods of art, all ornament was rather based upon an observation of the principles which regulate the arrangement of form in nature, than in an attempt to imitate the absolute form of those works.”11

Although there were cases where designers succeeded in understanding the logic of a form, the development of the work was limited to the methods of representation that were available at that time, such as sketches, drawings, plans, sections, facades or perspective and axonometric designs. Even in the creation of a physical model, the available materials and tools of each period were not always adequate in helping the designer to express himself/herself fully and develop further the ideas on the synthesis of ornament. As a result, some complex and complicate ornament arrangements were not expressed in their full potential.

In the last two decades, the ornament-design condition has changed tremendously. Advanced computer software has transformed architecture from a manually driven tool-based design to a computer-driven form-based design. This change occurred in sequential steps, with the role of computer differing each time. When computers were first introduced to architecture, the idea was that they could replace designers. This goal was abandoned, and from 1970 the machine was seen as architect’s assistant, a medium with which the design process, and as a consequence ornament design, could evolve.

On the practical level, new means of expression appear within the realm of the digital medium. First is Computer Aided Design, the well-known CAD system of design, that had as initial goal to speed up the design process and free the designer from the repetitive and monotonous parts of the design process. Additionally, CAD had the ambition of providing the means to explore beyond the manual design process. Secondly, the development of Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) and of prototyping machines provided another advantage to the designer in the construction of physical models. Designers were now able to construct a physical model of almost any shape in great accuracy. Through this process the designers were able to test issues related to construction strength, sustainability, friction and thus improve the model.

The development of design tools at the practical level is also reflected in the design of ornament. The introduction of new means of expression provides the designer with the possibility to represent complex forms and experiment with them both in the digital and in the physical world. The Advanced computer technology, however, has not yet reached its full potential. Its use in ornament design mostly refers to design representation and does not address to the development of a design idea. Therefore, the question is how advanced computer technology can go beyond representation and help in design composition. In order to answer this question, designers turn to theory and focus on the procedures that animate the development of form. The understanding of ornament design process becomes very important because “a procedure tells us how to carry out computations of a certain kind”12 and thus provide a deeper understanding of how form is defined and interpreted. Thus, the crucial question for designers is how and to which extent the abstract process of ornament design could be codified and translated into rules so as to create an appropriate input for the machine.

All this research on computational processes has renewed interest in algorithms. Although the algorithm may seem to be a new notion in architecture, that is not the case. On the contrary, algorithms are familiar to architecture; rules of designing, such as building regulations, instructions, or the program for a building, are few of the ways that architects use algorithms to address a design problem. Furthermore, algorithms can be used in design to solve, organize or explore problems with increased visual or organizational complexity; the use of algorithms allows the codifying of information, creating the rules in order to address a design problem. Thus, a computer device is not necessarily needed in an algorithmic process. However, if architects can transfer this process to a computer, they may produce interesting and unexpected results faster.

In this framework, various computational techniques have developed that tried to apply rules and create an algorithm so as to address the issue of ornament design. One of these approaches, that of shape grammars, tries to establish a different language of ornament design by finding different ways of arranging shapes and different ways of describing designs in an algorithmic process. The property of shape grammars is that the created algorithms are based on visual observations of form arrangements. This fact has a great impact on ornament design, because ornament is by default based on the visual effects of architectural compositions. The application of shape grammars on ornament design aims to explain design so as to improve its visual effects

Visual Based design -- The case of Shape Grammars in the design of ornament.

When someone uses the term “algorithm” and “algorithmic design,” he/she usually refers to a computational system of text, symbols and the equations between them. Design, however, mostly relates to points, lines and their possible arrangements to planes and solid geometries. Shape grammars were invented over twenty-five years ago by George Stiny and James Gips in order to combine these two seemingly contradictory fields, mathematics and design; shape grammars propose a way of calculating with shapes. Shape grammars were “one of the earliest algorithmic systems for creating and understanding designs directly through computations with shapes, rather than indirectly through computations with text or symbols”13. This language was invented so as to carry out spatial computations visually. It is a system that uses production rules so as to generate shapes and designs. A basic principal for the creation of these rules is that they are based on what we see. Shape grammars, thus, introduces a new way of approaching design through calculation and shows new paths of experimentation.

Ornament design deals by default with shapes and their possible arrangements in space. Very often the creation of ornament follows specific rules in respect to harmony and order of the composition. These rules, however, are not always obvious or are not consciously followed by the designer. Shape grammars provide a way of codifying the composition information in rules, through which form understanding is easier. Furthermore, new combinations of shapes and rules can result in different and novel ornament compositions.

Shape Grammars: Description
A shape grammar consists of rules and an initial shape.14 The rules apply to the initial shape and to shapes produced by previous rule applications to generate design. Thus, the basic components of a grammar are shapes of any kind, one dimensional, two-dimensional or three-dimensional. The arrangement of these shapes in space defines the spatial relations, which lead to the creation of rules that form the shape grammar. There are four possible spatial transformations that can occur between shapes: translation, rotation, reflection and scale. This process results in different designs.

There are two types of shape grammars: standard grammars and parametric grammars. The case of standard grammars refers to fixed spatial relationships; each rule is defined explicitly by a pair of shapes separated by an arrow. The shape on the left side of the arrow determines the part of a shape to which the rule may apply, whereas the shape on the right side of the arrow describes the shape that results after the application of the rule. On the other hand, parametric grammars allow a variation of spatial relations; instead of a specific shape rule, a wider rule in the form of schemata defines the shape relation implicitly. In this case characteristics of the shapes, such as line-length or angles between lines, can vary. The rules that control this variation result from values that are assigned to those variables.

Application of Shape Grammar to Ornament Design

The use of shape grammar in design addresses two architectural design problems. Firstly, shape grammars help designers to analyze and understand an existing style. Secondly, they allow the development of an original design composition, a process which involves the definition of new languages of design from scratch.

In the first case, shape grammars help the designer to construct the rules that will generate the existing designs and at the same time provide a field for creating new ones in the same style. Therefore, a designer first analyzes an existing shape, and then codifies this information into a set of rules – a grammar – that can be used to generate more shapes in the same general pattern. This property of shape grammars has beneficial effects on the design of ornament.

Ornament is attached to culture. Motifs, combinations of shapes, colors, exaggeration of forms or complete absence of them, all denote the expression of people, an expression related to the social and cultural condition of a geographical area in a specific chronological period. The design of ornament follows these cultural changes and adjusts its values to the social conditions and to the style of each period. Thus, design evolves in time; the act of passing from one stage to the next is followed by the loss of certain design characteristics, the addition of others, or the invention of completely new ones. In most cases, the basic rules that govern the synthesis of ornament remain the same for a long period of time, while their transformations serve as characteristics of areas of specific chronological period of time. The analysis and understanding of a specific style make possible the observation of the style’s travel through time and can result in its reuse in a new context in a new way.

The example of the “meander” motif on Greek geometric pottery is a very nice example that illustrates the beneficial effects of using shape grammars to analyze an existing style. A meander motif used in the ancient Greek period is transformed and used again in the twentieth century, in a new context. The only way to prove the connection between the two motifs is to find the common rules that characterize the two seemingly different compositions. The development of a shape grammar for the Greek meander, discussed on Knight’s article “Transformations of the meander motif on Greek Geometric Pottery,” reveals the basic rules that govern the synthesis of the simple meander design, which marks the beginning of the Geometric style. Knight presents the development of the meander motif through time and examines its transformations. She concludes that the use of the meander motif did not end in ancient Greek period, but continued and reached the twentieth century. The rules that define the basic meander motif made possible the recognition of a motif variation used by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier in his plans for the theoretical project “Radiant City.” The transformation of the meander motif, called redent, was the basic pattern for apartment buildings in the Radiant City. More complex patterns from the redent were produced in the same way that the Late Geometric Potters produced complex meanders: “rows of redents are stacked one on top of another and then shifted by different amounts to create different designs.”15 The second problem that shape grammars deal with is that of original design composition. In this process, the designer defines a vocabulary of shapes and a set of spatial relations between these shapes. Having as a starting point these spatial relations, the designer will try to generate designs by combining them in different ways. The implementation of this process in ornament design -- that is, the application of rules in a set of shapes -- could result in very interesting ornament compositions.

Ornament design deals with shapes and their possible combinations in new compositions. Shape grammars propose a combination technique, which defines a vocabulary of shapes with which the designer wants to experiment. The definition of certain relations in terms of rules between them may lead the designer to new compositional paths. A designer for example can select two rectangles as initial shapes and define a spatial relation between them . Various motifs could be generated in this way. Furthermore, if the designer carries out this computational technique in a computer with the help of the advanced designing programs, then he/she could quickly produce different results. Additionally, the computer can produce other complex motifs in new arrangements in space, motifs and arrangements that the human mind might not think of.

In both cases, shape grammars use a clearly defined set of rules to address the design of ornament. The repetition, however, of a specific set of rules and shapes, in the form of tiles, patterns and motifs, may lead to a monotonous ornament composition. Architects claim that the strict rules of shape grammars leave no space for ambiguity, which is an important characteristic of design, and thus may easily lead to meaningless repetition. It is this characteristic of shape grammars that serves as a main point of critique against them. Monotony, though, can be avoided if something unexpected happens – if, for example a new shape emerges.

Although shape grammars include by default the notion of “emergence” -- the appearance of something that is not explicitly identified in the rules that generated it -- Stiny and Gips did not refer to this notion from the beginning; it was not clear what was happening and thus they referred and treated anything unexpected as a “surprise”. It was only after Stiny realized that emergence is an essential part of design and thus a necessary condition for design that he started to examine possible ways that emergence could occur in shape grammars. Therefore, in shape grammars an “emergent shape is a shape that is not predefined in a grammar, but one that arises or is formed, from the shapes generated by rules applications.”16 In shape grammars, emergence involves not only the creation of an unexpected shape but also the appearance of parts of shapes in a computation process. That means that a shape is not perceived as a definite unit, but as a sum of many indefinite parts. For example, someone can see different shapes in the first shape in figure 9: two squares, four triangles, K shapes, polygons or various lines. According to Knight, this kind of emergence goes along with ambiguity where “shapes can be constructed from certain parts and then decomposed into their parts that become the basis for continuing the computation.”

In most of the cases, when a rule is applied on shapes, the results cannot be defined completely; we cannot predict all the possible derivations. The shapes overlap, intersect and combine their parts in many ways. As a result, new shapes appear that give an impetus for further exploration and experimentation. If it is true that “delight lies somewhere between boredom and confusion”17 then emergence is the vehicle with which we find delight in ornament design.

Practicing shape grammars with Processing.

As mentioned above, shape grammars provide a way of calculating with shapes. The designer defines the rules and then explores their various combinations. Although shape grammars is a computational method that do not necessarily needs a computer as it can be done manually, the use of computer facilitates the process because it produces different results faster and makes possible all kinds of combinations.

Today, the existence of various computer software gives designer the possibility of choosing the one that best fulfill his/her expectations. The present example uses the programming language named Processing, which is based on java and thus it is an object-oriented program. The aim of this attempt was to create a new ornament composition by applying shape grammars in the environment of Processing. The process of creating an original ornament composition needs a vocabulary of shapes and set of spatial relations between these shapes. In the present example the shapes are points, lines and planes. The set of rules defines geometric relations between these shapes.

A secondary goal of this project was to examine the possibility of finding rules and specific geometries in random composition. For this reason the process starts from a random arrangement of shapes and then the rules are applied in sequential steps.

The Process

At the beginning a random arrangement of shapes occurs. The example uses line as the initial shape. Then, the goal is to find relations that derive from the specific arrangement of lines. The process follows sequential steps. Although each step refers to the previous one, it creates a composition of each own, from which a new rule derives. Through this process the composition passes from points to lines and finally results to planes. The first step is to find the intersection points between the random arrangement of lines. Then the lines are erased and a geometric relation that links the points is defined. Each point is connected with a line with two other points: the nearest and the farthest. In the next step the intersection points are erased and pairs of lines are selected. The selection of each pair of lines is between lines of the maximum or the minimum distance. As the process goes on, a quadrilateral is created between the four points of the pair of lines and it is then filled with color. In the last step the lines are erased and I end up with a composition of planes.
Random arrangement of lines Find the intersection points Erase the lines_Keep the points
Create two lines from each point: Erase the intersection points. Select two lines The selection is between
To the nearest and to the farthest point. Keep the lines. the lines with the lines of min or max distance.
Create a quadrilateral between the four points Erase the lines.
of the selected lines_Fill it with color.


Ornamentation, seemingly absent for almost a century, has resurfaced in architecture in a new context and is leading to new forms. With the passing of the design of ornament from a manual driven process to a computer-driven, form-based process, new opportunities arise. In particular, the actualization of the ornament design process through the use of computational techniques, and more specifically the use of algorithms, increases the range of potential compositions of ornament that can occur. As a result, today, more than ever, ornament seems to have many more potentialities that wait to be actualized and is thus closer to fulfilling its “virtual dimension.”

A crucial point in this algorithmic process is how the ornament design information can be codified so that the designer can better understand and thus control the final results. The visual based computational technique of shape grammars provides a system of shapes and rules that attempts to answer the above question and introduce new directions in the design of ornament. The analysis and understanding of existing styles through the creation of appropriate rules provides the designer with the tools to develop new motifs in a new context. With shape grammars and their codification of forms and available shapes, the notion of diversification is intensified in design as opposed to the modernistic trope of homogenization. In addition, the creation of a vocabulary of shapes and rules from scratch could actually serve as the starting point for a novel ornament design, where ornament is not merely decorative style but a language to be communicated. This can be attained through shape emergence and ambiguity that defy any effort of classification and categorization when actualized.

In this framework, the combination of shape grammars with programming languages, such as processing could possible provide an answer to the crucial question of the codification of the ornament design information. Further research on the possible ways that these two techniques of approaching ornament design could be combined needs to be done, in order to achieve compositions characterized by specific logic. The properly structured starting rules will set the designer free to create different kind of compositions by combining the rules in various and infinite ways.
Decrease the number
of the starting lines
Increase the number
of the starting lines
Different results depending on the number of the number of the starting lines.

1 Farshid Moussavi and Michael Kubo, ed., The Function of Ornament (Barcelona: Actar, Harvard University,
Graduate School of Design, 2006).
2 The Collaborative International Dictionary of English, v.048, http://www.dict.org, accessed April 26, 2007..
3 Antoine Picon and Alessandra Ponte ed., Architecture and the Science (New York: Princeton Architectural Press,
2003), 298.
4 Ibid., 297.
5 Kostas Terzidis, Algorithmic Architecture (Burlington: Architectural Press, 2006), 65.
6 George Stiny, Shape Grammars (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).
7 Antoine Picon, "Architecture, science, technology and the virtual realm," in Architecture and the Sciences
Exchanging metaphors, ed. Picon A. and Ponte A. Ponte (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003), 298.
8 Ibid., 295.
9 http://www.m-w.com/dictionary, accessed April 26, 2007.
10 Pierre Levy, Becoming virtual: Reality in the Digital Age (NY: Plenum Press, 1998), 58.
11 Edgar Kaufmann, “Architectural coxcombry* or the desire for ornament,” Perspecta vol.5 (1959): 11.
12 George Stiny, “Computing with Form and Meaning in Architecture,” Journal of Architectural Education vol.39
No.1 (1985): 7.
13 http://www.mit.edu/~tknight/IJDC/frameset_abstract.htm.
14 George Stiny, “Computing with Form and Meaning in Architecture,” Journal of Architectural Education vol.39
No.1 (1985): 8.
15 Terry Knight,”Transformations of the meander motif on Greek Geometric pottery,”
http://web.mit.edu/neri/Public/Stiny, accessed May 1, 2007.
•16 Terry Knight, “Computing with Emergence,” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Deign 30 (2003): 125–
17 Ernst Hans Gombrich, The Sense of Order (Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1984): 9.
1. http://www.liaoyusheng.com/archives/architecture_design/.
2. http://www.nai.nl/e/extras_e/webfile_hdm/hdm_artists.html.
3. http://www.arcspace.com/books/architecture_now_3/architecture_now_3.html.
4. George Stiny, “Computing with Form and Meaning in Architecture,” Journal of Architectural Education vol.39
No.1 (1985): 8.
5. Terry Knight, ”Transformations of the meander motif on Greek Geometric pottery,” 152.
6. Ibid., 140.
7. ibid. 167.
8. “fixlecture1slides_final”, http://gb-server-1.mit.edu/search, accessed May 1, 2007.
9. George Stiny, “How to calculate with Shapes,” in Formal engineering design synthesis, ed. Cagan J. and
Antonsson E. (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1-2.


Gombrich, Ernst Hans. The Sense of Order. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1984.
Kaufmann, Edgar. “Architectural coxcombry* or the desire for ornament.” Perspecta vol.5 (1959): 4—15.
Knight, Terry. “Computing with Emergence.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 30 (2003):
Knight, Terry. “Computing with ambiguity.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 30 (2003):
Knight, Terry. ”Transformations of the meander motif on Greek Geometric pottery.”
http://web.mit.edu/neri/Public/Stiny, accessed May 1,, 2007.
Moussavi, Farshid and Kubo, Michael, ed. The Function of Ornament. Barcelona: Actar, Harvard University,
Graduate School of Design, 2006.
Picon, Antoine. "Architecture, science, technology and the virtual realm." In Architecture and the Sciences
Exchanging metaphors, edited by Picon A. and Ponte A., 292-313. New York: Princeton
Architectural Press, 2003.
Levy, Pierre. Becoming virtual: Reality in the Digital Age. NY: Plenum Press, 1998.
Stiny, George. “Computing with Form and Meaning in Architecture.” Journal of Architectural Education vol.39
No.1 (1985): 7–19.
Stiny, George. “How to calculate with Shapes.” In Formal engineering design synthesis, edited by Cagan J.
and Antonsson E., 20-64. New York : Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Stiny, George. Shape Grammars. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
Terzidis, Kostas, Algorithmic Architecture. Burlington: Architectural Press, 2006.
Thompson, D��Arcy. On Growth and Form. Cambridge: University Press, 2000.
http://www.liaoyusheng.com/archives/architecture_design/, accessed May 14,, 2007.
http://www.nai.nl/e/extras_e/webfile_hdm/hdm_artists.html, accessed May 14,, 2007.
http://www.arcspace.com/books/architecture_now_3/architecture_now_3.html, accessed May 14,, 2007.
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Monday, August 25, 2008

Blow Up: The Explosion of Meaning

by Katerina Tryfonidou

“They do not mean anything when I do them, just a mess… Afterwards, I find something to hang on to, like that leg today…” says the painter pointing at a part of the painting- a painting he did six years ago. “It’s like finding a clue in a detective story.”

Blow Up is a film by Michelangelo Antonioni that was screened in 1966. The film has a loose plot close to a detective story set in London in the contemporary at the time Swinging 60s. Almost at the same time when Blow Up was first shown, in the middle of the intellectual discourse about linguistics, French thinker Roland Barthes discusses about the imposition of meaning, and the distinction in works of art between what he calls Work and what he calls Text.

This text can be seen as an eclectic surgical section in time: it looks at the film and tries to understand it in the linguistic framework that was developing at the same time. It also goes on to argue that Antonioni was well aware of the ongoing semiotic discourse and that his film is a commentary about the creation of meaning, its imposition on art, and ultimately, the explosion of meaning.

1. Introduction

There is a scene in the beginning of the Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up, where Dave Hemmings, the photographer in the film and also the protagonist, asks a painter friend of his, Bill, what is there on one of his paintings. “They do not mean anything when I do them, just a mess… Afterwards, I find something to hang on to, like that leg today…” he says pointing a part of the painting- a painting he did six years ago. “It’s like finding a clue in a detective story,” he continues.

In this short monologue Antonioni briefly throws some light on the problematics about the representation of reality or the message of an image. In a very clever way, he also forshadows the detective story that is to be unfolded later on in the film. The issue of the construction of a narrative will be the main idea of the paper -either this is done by a sequence of photos or a sequence of shots- . Questions like “How do we impose meaning?”, “What is the relation between the signifier and the signified?” or “Can reality be reconstructed in a work of art?” will be haunting us throughout this short text.

2. Roland Barthes’ “From Work to Text

Roland Barthes writes the paper From Work to Text in 1971[i], five years after Blow Up’s first screening. He uses the terms Work and Text in the beginning referring to literary works but then expands the notions to painting, music and film. In this short paper Barthes introduces the idea of the Text and distincts it from Work, stating that Text is a broader idea, a more abstract one, a characterization that goes beyond the object. He goes on to define Text mainly by opposing it to Work, with an intention to define a new idea, thus being very explanatory, but without using any examples.

The research and literary work during that time forced the definition and articulation of text, as research was then talking about interdisciplinary-ity and fields sliding or blending in one another. In this frame of thinking, the Text is interdisciplinary because it emerges from the need to define notions with the tools of different disciplines[ii].

When Work is a fragment of substance, a material object, Text is a methodological field, a process and an activity. As Barthes says characteristically “Work can be held in the hand, Text is held in language.”[iii] That is, a work can be seen, exposed and demonstrated while a Text is the process of demonstration per se. A Work is meant to be consumed, it is an object or a product. Text, however, is the process of creating such an object, the process of breaking it, fragmenting it, superimposing it to others. In the notion of Text there is no focus on the subject and the object, this segregation does not exist, or better, it is not relevant, because it is the act and the process that the Text appeals to. Work can be seen as an organism that has certain characteristics, functions and potentials. The metaphor of the Text is that of a network, a combinatory system –to use, according to Barthes, a biological concept.- As a network it organizes different groups, ideas or works and subsequently redefines them. The metaphor of a network is also relevant to the etymology of the word text- textile, fabric, a woven material[iv]. The process of weaving together different elements approaches the idea of the Text as a process, a system and an activity, rather than a final outcome.

Blow Up has a lot of elements that makes one think that Michelangelo Antonioni was familiar with the semiotics and the linguistic research of the 60s. Although the latter cannot be proved, it is not impossible either: after all, Antonioni was known to follow closely the work of Adorno[v] and other philosophers. It can therefore be an anachronistic challenge to try to pursue an analysis of the movie in terms of whether it remains a Work or it can be seen as a Text.



one discipline


fragment of substance

methodological field

the object of demonstration

the process of demonstration

can be held in the hand

held in language



general sign

deferment of the signified

moderately symbolic

radically symbolic



father, auteur

no father, no auteur, author as a 'guest'



object of consumption

activity, production, practice

pleasure of consumption

pleasure without separation



Copy of a diagram done in a seminar at Harvard University by Professor Michael Hays

2. Signification_ Meaning_ Signified

As we have mentioned before, the ‘vague’ plot of the movie looks at the life of a teddy-boy photographer in London during the swinging 60s and focuses on an incident where he takes some pictures of a couple in a park. As he processes the negatives, he realizes that he has shot evidence of a murder.

Let’s take a close look of the sequence where the photographer develops the photographs and starts to unravel the mystery. In the first shot he enters his lab, he takes his utensils in order to start the developing process. This is a long shot where he is shown to take all his tools and gadgets without any rush. In the next shot the door closes and there is the door and a red lit light covering the whole frame. The editing here is sudden and sharp, from a long continuous scene where the viewers control most of the space and the protagonist’s movements, to a close up of the door and the light next to it. The same double shots are shown in a slight variation, with the photographer holding the bands of negatives, and the door shutting again.

In the next shot, there is the man going over the negatives on a lit surface with the help of a lens, and then with the natural movements of a professional, he puts it in the projector and projects it on a vertical white paper on the wall to have the photo printed. The shot is long, the camera steady again. The director shows the exact process, exposes all the equipment, surfaces and materials needed in order to understand that the printed outcome is the result of a very real procedure. The sequence continues with him going several times from his lab to the lounge to pin up the wet, sleek pictures he just produced. There is a juxtaposition of long takes of the photographer working to develop the photos and moving back and forth, and of the photos themselves. There are shots where there is the man watching the photos and then on the next shot there is the object he is watching, the black and white photos. There are times when the camera moves from one photo to the other and other times when this is succeeded by the editing. In this way the narrative is constructed little by little: first there is the couple playing romantically in the park, in the next photo they are hugging and in the third the woman’s gaze is captured by something in the bushes.

In one of these shots where the photographer observes the images, he notices that something caused the girl to turn her face. From that point on, there starts a process of blowing up the photo, that is zooming in the image and printing one piece of it bigger and bigger. The sequence evolves as in the first half: lab work- pin up- observation- stills of the photos. In the last part of the sequence there is the narration of the story by the succession of the printed photos. Then, there is no photographer: the frames are composed of gros-plans of the photos in the order of the story which is unfolding, with partial ‘explanatory’ zoom- in. The scene is created with such dexterity that the spectators are driven with the same curiosity with the photographer to go from one blow up to the other in order to follow the story. Little by little the photos become hard to understand, as the resolution gets poor and the grain in the photos more evident. Yet the transition occurs in such a way that there is a perfect succession of the photos, the one photo poses a question that the next one answers; till we reach a point that more blow up does not bring us to a next step, because the photo becomes full of grains, like one of those paintings the photographer’s friend is painting.

The sequence with the blow ups can be seen as a commentary in the direction of the semiotic discussion in the 60s. In his article The Photographic Message, published in 1961[vi], Roland Barthes attempts an analysis of the impact of photography and in particular, of the press photograph. In this article he claims that from all the representational arts, photography is the one mostly linked with reality. Photography owns its credibility to the fact that, unlike painting or sculpture, “in order to move from reality to its photograph, it is in no way necessary to divide up this reality into units, and to constitute these units as signs, substantially different from the object they communicate”. A Photograph is of course not reality, it is reducted in many ways, but it stays a direct analogon of reality. Thus, for Barthes, the special status of the image can be seen: “it is a message without a code.”[vii] This statement regards the photograph as a mere signifier which does not incorporate in its identity a system of understanding it. It is the society, or the different cultures, Barthes will say later on in the article, that impose the signification and create the signified.

But there lies a paradox: although photograph is on the one hand a denoted message, a message without a code, nevertheless there is also a connoted message underlining in this sign. It is the result of the action of the creator, the style with which the photograph was taken, that refers to a certain culture and a certain historic time. Hence, the photograph comprises of two messages, the analogon of reality (denoted message) and the ideological or aesthetic message (connoted)[viii]. The paradox lies on the fact that it is culture and society that imposes signification on a photograph but nevertheless the photograph per se carries in its creation an amount of this cultural meaning.

To return to the film, when the photographer develops the first photographs, before the blow ups, he is able to see the photographs- signs as signifiers that bare a connoted message: there is a photo of a couple hugging in the park, flirting and playing. [Due to the connoted message of the society he lives in,] it is easy to impose a signified on the image that is in front of him. However, after he starts blowing up the photographs and putting them in order, a totally different meaning is revealed. He starts seeing another version of reality or –in the semiotic terms- he imposes another signified to each photograph. Eventually he creates a series of photos that narrate a very different version of reality: the couple in the park was being watched by a man with a gun who finally shoots the man of the couple. The photographer constructs this different narration by looking at the photos in a different way and by extracting from them some parts of their signifier.

The narration is constructed by looking at the photographs in the right order. The one photo leads to the other, and with every next blow up, another clue contributes to the unfolding of the narration. Therefore the photographs constitute a system where, each one of them is needed in the right place in the sequence in order for the story to be revealed. Antonioni wants to make this very clear and he does that by showing the opposite; what if some of the photos would be taken away? Later on in the story Vanessa Redgraves, who plays the woman of the couple, steals all the photos and leaves just one. However, the one left behind is useless as a proof of the crime. As Sarah Mayers- comments “It looks like one of Pete’s paintings.” The photo remains as a signifier, emptied by the signified it used to have when being part of a system. Exactly like Bill’s paintings: he first draws them and then as he observes them, he gives them a signified. Antonioni literary puts Bill’s character to say that: “They do not mean anything when I do them, just a mess… Afterwards, I find something to hang on to, like that leg today…” The fact that there is this commentary on paintings in the film is to strengthen the point Antonioni wants to make on imposing signification and on the creation of the narration.

When this point has been made about painting and photography, it is easy for someone to go one step further and make the same correlations about film. Indeed, Antonioni makes a commentary on semiotics in relation to painting and photography to connote the same about film. After all, the character of the photographer- creator bares many similarities with the role of the director- also creator of a narrative. In this movie, more than in any other one of his films, Antonioni talks about the art of film making and the construction of a narrative.

Throughout film theory, many theorists have approached cinema through the evolution of photography[ix]. Bazin talks about the proximity of photography to reality to go on and claim the same documentary function for the cinema[x]. In Antonioni, the bond between photography and film is more than evident: he handles the composition of the shots with an extraordinary attention on the mis-en-scene; every single shot can be isolated and treated as a photograph. The framing, the angle, the elements that constitute each shot are parameters that both a photographer and the director have to deal with. In both cases likewise, there are stills put in order to generate a sequence. As the character of Dave Hemmings isolates some parts of reality manipulates and reorganizes them so as they make a narrative, respectively the director selects fragments of reality and constructs his own version of it. With the metaphor of a photographer constructing a narration by revealing a different version of reality , Michelangelo Antonioni discusses the role of the director in the film.

3. The process of Photography, The Materiality of the Photograph

In the previous paragraph we discussed how the director makes a commentary on the process of film making. Antonioni films a man that constructs a narrative by focusing on un-seen parts of reality and by organizing them together. Apart from the use of the story in this direction, Antonioni uses other methods as well in order to make the connection of Blow Up to the making of a film. One of the techniques that he uses is his persistence in the process of developing photos.

In the film, there are many sequences, the most characteristic of which is the one of the blow up of photos, where the process of developing and printing photos is presented. All the different equipment is introduced, as well as the dark rooms with their special furnishing, lighting, etc. For the spectators, it is as if we experience a course of developing photos: the director analytically shows every stage of the process, from the developing of the film, to the projection of the negatives, to the manipulation with the chemicals for the printing. Going through the process, we understand that the photographs are the outcome of a very material, articulated, ‘hand-made’ process. The reference on different lens and lighting, as well as the shot where the photographer takes a picture of a picture are direct comments on the parallel between film making and photography.

Furthermore, Michelangelo Antonioni insists on showing the materiality of the photographs and of the process of developing photos. For Antonioni, the photograph is a sign that communicates a message. A part of this message, as in Barthes, exists in the signifier and another part of it is imposed on the signifier by a person, a group of people, or society. However, apart from these different messages, Antonioni reminds us that a photograph is also an object generated through a process and that it has certain material characteristics. When Dave Hemmings holds the photograph and goes to hang it on the wall, the paper is wet and slippery, water dripping from it. In other shots, the reflections on the glossy paper do not allow the image to be fully presented on the screen. Furthermore, the fact that the image has certain capacities in terms of resolution, and that the image has grains after the several zoom- in, also give hints about the materiality of the analogic photograph.

In Blow Up, a thorough study of the photograph is presented. We explore the different messages of the photographic image, the photograph as a sign that functions as a signifier and has various signified(s) imposed on it. At the same time, however, we are constantly reminded of the object of the photograph with its material qualities and limits, as well as of the process that led to its production. Through the exposure to the process of the development, Antonioni introduces what happens behind the screen of the film, and takes the discussion of the photographic message a step further: he thinks about the message of the film, what it can or cannot communicate, and how transparent the process of film- making can be.

4. Work _Text

In Blow Up, Michelangelo Antonioni presents a line of thoughts about the photographer and his relation to the photograph in order to make the transition to the auteur and his relation to film. The two dualities, one exposed and one connoted, is the one as the alter ego of the other. The first one is evident in the film by means of the plot, the second one by means of the framing, the angles, the camera movements, the composition of the shots. We could in the pursuit to understand the two pairs of interactions, the film is trying to transform from a Work to a Text, the way Barthes defined the terms.

A film is a priori a work, an object of consumption, in Barthes’ words[xi]. In order for it to function as a Text, it has to turn from a fragment of construction into a methodological tool. To do that, a work or film should generate a new approach, or suggest the tools for a new reading of the work. In this way, Blow Up can be considered a text, because it introduces a way of filming where the director makes his presence evident, and the relationship of the film maker and the film is explored. It can be seen as one of the films that fold into themselves, and which phrase the question of what film is about. Therefore Blow Up introduces a new way for the viewers of experiencing a film, not just to accept what is on the screen but to try to get a hint about the process of making the work of art.

Process, activity and practice were some key words for the notion of Text. Barthes stated that “the Text is experienced only in an activity of production.”[xii] In Blow Up this activity of production is presented in different levels: first –and superficial- the developing of the photos in the plot, with the hand made process and the use of the equipment; second, the process of film making as a metaphor of photography; and third, the more general idea of reconstructing reality and imposing new meaning by means of film and photography. In various levels and readings in the film, certain parts of reality are chosen, blown up or manipulated and then put together again to construct a version of reality- a representation or a new text. The process of working in several layers –the plot, the role and presence of the director, the semiotics analysis- constitute a plurality that according to Barthes differentiates a Text from Work. Of course there are many works that function in different levels of meaning, and that does not turn them into Texts; however, Blow Up has the ability to suggest a tool, a mechanism or a network in order to weave the different threads of thought together. The activity of production or representation is studied in many different aspects: photography as production and representation, film as production or representation, and therefore it constitutes a passage from one meaning to the other.

Another of Barthes’ main arguments in the definition of a Text addresses the relation of the subject to the object. Barthes believes that in art there should be no distinction between reading and writing, playing music and listening to music, creating and experiencing. The two activities should be merged into one, the way children play a game or the way pagan rituals were held. Hence when talking about a Text, there is no respect for the author, because the Text is open to be broken, understood or changed by everyone. It does not belong to the author, the author can return to the Text as a guest, no longer privileged or authoritative. To better understand this point, he gives the two examples- the only ones that exist in the paper: Aristotle and the Holy Scripture are Texts that have been read, interpreted and changed without any attention to the authors. For Barthes, the Text should ask the question of who is producing it, so that audience and creator blend the one in the other[xiii].

In this sense of the Text, Blow Up does not fit in the definition. Although it tries a lot to involve the audience into the discussion of the construction of a narrative or the representation of reality, by nature it cannot resist the gap between the audience and the work. Blow Up was a film in the theaters, and people watching it are used to face it as an object for consumption, even in the case it causes interesting discussions and problematics. Blow Up has not managed to cancel the distance between the audience and the work on the screen. This is a challenge that Blow Up, or film in general, hasn’t yet achieved.

We can say that Blow Up balances between being a Work or a Text, in the way that Barthes phrases the terms. It goes beyond a work as an object for consumption, but does not succeed to be characterized as a Text. After all, as its title suggests, Blow Up constitutes an explosion: an explosion of images, signified(s) and meanings. And as an explosion it can be a very strong dynamic starting point, but it needs more elements so that the explosion can signal a new era.

[i] Barthes Roland, From Work to Text” in Image-Music-Text, ed. by Stephen Heath, Noonday Press Ed., 1989.

[ii] Barthes Roland, “From Work to Text” in Image-Music-Text, ed. by Stephen Heath, Noonday Press Ed., 1989.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] In the movie La Notte, by M.Antonioni, one of the characters asks the other what did he think of the new book by Adorno.

[vi] Barthes Roland, “The Photographic Message” in Image-Music-Text, ed. by Stephen Heath, Noonday Press Ed., 1989.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] And others of course, see in other fields the precedents of film: Eisenstein believed that architecture is more than any other discipline related to film: When a person moves in a building or walks a certain path, his eyes create framings and editing in the same way that the camera and the director ‘see’, frame and edit sequences of images. (Eisenstein, Montage, October,)

[x] Bazin Andre, The Ontology of the Photographic Image, in Film theory and Criticism, ed. By L. Braudy and M. Cohen, Oxford University Press, 2004.

[xi] Barthes Roland, “From Work to Text” in Image-Music-Text, ed. by Stephen Heath, Noonday Press Ed., 1989.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Barthes Roland, “From Work to Text” in Image-Music-Text, ed. by Stephen Heath, Noonday Press Ed., 1989.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Space of Films, Space of Movie Theaters

by Katerina Tryfonidou

This paper is very special for me because it was my very first effort on critical discourse about space and film at a highly challenging -and therefore stressful- academic environment like that of Harvard University. It was written in January 2006 influenced to a certain extend by the inspiring conversations with Professor Giuliana Bruno. And as a very first effort it is enthusiastic and ambitious: I touched upon quite a lot of issues, always trying to stay under the discussion of physical spaces and spaces of the mind and body.

I study two different kinds of spaces: the physical space of the interior of a movie theater and the experiential space that a film creates when seen in a movie theater. Using two specific examples, the first movie theaters of the Western world in the beginning of the 20th century on the one hand, and a 2003 film by Tsai Ming Liang on the other hand, I argue that in both cases the notions of interiority and exteriority are challenged.

TRACK 1: Questions

I can’t say if it is an attempt to find my identity in a multi- ethnic environment like the academia in the United States, or a patriotic show- off, or maybe none of the two, but I would like to start this text with the Acropolis of Athens; and I would rather not consider this attempt of exposing my thoughts as a mere text, but more as a journey, a journey into thoughts of other people, thoughts of mine and a journey into time. As a vehicle for this journey, I will choose to use space.

Space is a notion with a variety of meanings, characteristics and qualities: space as an architectural expression where people live, drift into or out of, experience feelings and emotions, but also space that each one of us mentally creates, such as the social space of the city, the private space of our intimate thoughts, or the space formed on the screen when watching a film. All these spaces, so arbitrary defined and so unique for each one of us, usually have a three dimensional ‘representation’ in the city[i]. The merging of the architectural spaces like a street or the interior of a building with the mental spaces of individuals or of groups of individuals, particularly interest me in this journey I am about to expose. How different spaces are formed and the way they interact with one another is the kind of questions that will be traced throughout the way, sometimes with the illusion or confidence that they are led to an answer.

But let us start from scratch and stubbornly go back to the Acropolis of Athens, an architectural complex which reached its final form during the 5th century B.C., the Golden Age of democracy in ancient Athens. It is a religious group of buildings situated on a rock in the middle of the city, where the Athenians worshipped Goddess Athena, the protector of the city.

The way the buildings are situated on the Rock as seen on a plan or a bird’s eye view, do not follow any logic, they seem scattered randomly over the place. A visible geometry or any kind of rational spatial organization are absent, and one can question the presence of any logic or structure behind the design. It is only at the level of the walker that the Acropolis sense and structure is obvious. One understands the reason why each building is situated where it is only when taking the route that leads from the city up the Rock to the religious complex. The buildings are revealed one by one, and presented to the walker from a certain angle. Seen from a perfectly calculated point of view, the Acropolis creates the desired effect of harmony, balance, and ‘metron’.

Understanding a place by moving into it, or towards it, is an issue film is very much related to. In this very idea lays the notion of different spaces coexisting or being formed by the walker. When the physical body moves in space, and thus uses this movement to experience the space, to feel it and to understand it, then a narrative is created. The body creates its own ‘story’, a ‘story’ composed of views, and framings that the eye creates, but also composed of thoughts and emotions that the ambience evokes. All the senses play a role in this collage of experience, and the final result – if ever exists such a point as final point- is a spatial narration.

But isn’t film such a narration as well? An assemblage of views and frames that challenge the audience to feel not just with their visual sense but with the whole body. The result of this challenge might be called the film experience, and the creation that is being held on the screen is actually the creation of space where the audience is asked to enter.

Eisenstein argues that the only difference between a person moving into a space and a person watching a film is that in film the body movement is being replaced by the camera. Apart from that, the sequence of views, the control of the picture and the participation of the person , all lead us to talk about spaces in both cases, architectural spaces and film spaces. The sequence of images, the movement and the necessary presence of time define a very strong bond between cinema and architecture. In order to make this point, and also in an attempt to trace cinema’s ancestors, Eisenstein uses the example of the Acropolis of Athens:

The Greeks have left us the most perfect example of shot design, change of shot, and shot length (that is, the duration of a particular impression). Victor Hugo called the medieval cathedrals “books in stone” (see Notre Dame de Paris). The Acropolis of Athens has an equal right to be called the perfect example of one of the most ancient films.

And then goes on,

It is hard to imagine a montage sequence for an architectural ensemble more subtly composed, shot by shot, than the one that our legs create by walking among the buildings of the Acropolis.

Eisenstein, 1989[ii]

Architecture and film are both about space. Architecture uses the three dimensional space of the city as the platform for its expression, while film has the two dimensional screen as a means. Both of them however go far beyond the space of their ‘tools’ and both of them introduce the users or the audience in very different worlds and spaces. Having the participation of the person as an indispensable condition, new spaces take shape. Spaces that coexist, that are superimposed or intersected; spaces that fold into one another, thus creating others. This unique phenomenon caused by film or architecture and the human beings who experience them, can be considered as the spectacle. As it may seem obvious for the film, spectacle exists in many other cases, and among them, in architecture. The walk up the Acropolis is a spectacle per se, one that the body and the space create together. It is one of my goals in this journey to try to trace how these spectacles are formed and how the folding of spaces in the city and spaces in film fold to form the experience of the spectacle.

With this Ithaca in mind, and the journey always as the focus, I will examine spaces particularly designed to create a ‘film effect’, such as the first buildings designed to host films: the movie theaters of the 20s. And I will later reverse this condition to see what happens when such a place becomes the protagonist on the screen; in Tsai Ming Liang’s film “Dragon Inn” a movie theater is the heart of the film, its main essence, where everything starts from and where everything leads to. With the examination of these two interactions of film space and architectural space, I will try to see how spectacle is formed and how different spaces can fold into each other to cause the spectacle.

Tracing the film’s past, before it was even invented as film, will help our journey because it will give hints about the way this experience was formed and handled in the past, beginning from the Renaissance theaters.

TRACK 2: Metropolis and the Picture Palaces

The rise of the metropolis coincides the birth of film; that is, the moment the city changes its image, its rhythms and its population, is the moment that the moving pictures are invented. This is not merely a coincidence. Film appears into the metropolis as a product of the metropolis, as if the city needed it to represent itself. The first moving images are mere representations of the big cities or of the technological ‘deeds’ that changed the city’s paces. Indeed, the moving pictures showed panoramic views of the city, crowded streets, or the new means of transportation such as the underground an the trains. The thematic of the first films focus on the new image of the city. The camera depicts in a way the flaneur’s gaze. The people in the cities stand astounded in front of this brave new world that is being created and in an attempt to familiarize to it, they walk in the streets, use the public spaces, drift around as Benjamin’s flaneur does. The crowded public spaces, the new vitality that the trains and cars suggest, the tall buildings and the steel structures all seem amazingly new. This gaze of amazemement and excitement, this look towards a new condition is very accurately depicted in the films of this era. Film finds in the city its favorite subject, as if the metropolis is the protagonist in every shot. On one hand, it is the city that represents itself with a totally new means, and on the other hand it is film that does its first steps in creating images of space[iii]. Film is urban a priori.

It is very interesting to see where these very first films are being shown, the spaces that host them. At that time, the moving pictures were part of a stroll in the streets, as people would enter an arcade, or a small store just to see some minutes of moving images. Film was considered a quick entertainment, approachable to anyone. It had to do with the movement in the streets, and it was part of a peripatetic experience.

The moving image becomes a part of the public life. It takes place initially as apart of the events in the streets or in the arcades, and it follows the fluid movement of the city dweller as he walks in the city stopping to anything that attracts his attention.

With the broader impact film had to the people of the big cities, it starts to have buildings created to host it. Little by little a transformation of the places of the screenings is held: from the streets and the arcades to the shops, warehouses and deserted hotels, film in the 20s has found a place on its own, the movie theater, a building built especially to house film. The movie theaters are created following the typology of the theaters or the Vaudeville theater buildings, entering at the same time the category of entertainment targeted to the higher classes of the society. When film “leaves” the streets and enters new buildings, this is not without consequences. Film becomes a spectacle of the interior, rather than of the street.

The movie theaters are luxurious buildings, with an access on the interior decoration. The border between the outside and the inside space is strong, and thus the relation with the fluid movement in the city is lost. The film spectacle has less of the spontaneity of the first years’ panoramas, and comes closer to the theatrical experience.

If one takes a closer look at the architecture of the moving theaters, especially of the interior architecture of the hall were the screening takes place, one would be amazed to see the variety and the ‘bravety’ of decorations. Heavy ornaments frame the screen and the walls, and baroque style decorations are found where the walls meet the ceiling or on the columns. The most usual theme for those decorations is nature. Leafs, flowers and fruit, colorful and three dimensional, give to the halls an oneiric impression of nature. Tropical scenery was often one of the favorite subjects as well, thus implementing traveling. If the walls were in a picturesque manner representing nature, the ceiling was undoubtedly the representation of the sky. Its blue color and the drawing of stars suggested an ‘outdoor’ experience in an otherwise very enclosed space. The exaggerated effort in creating a space reminiscent of the outdoors natural landscapes calls for a need to create a space similar in effect as the space of the film on the screen.

Cracauer argues that the movie theaters of the 20s in Berlin succeed in distracting the audience to such an extend that the attention is no longer at the center, that is the screen, but rather on the periphery, on the hall. He calls these theaters picture palaces or palaces of distraction and comments on the effect these places have on the audience:

This total artwork of effects assaults all the senses using every possible means. Spotlights shower their beams into the auditorium, sprinkling across festive drapesory rippling through colourful, organic looking glass fixtures. The orchestra asserts itself as an independent power, its acoustic production buttressed by the responsory of the lighting. Every emotion is accorded its own acoustic expression and its colour value in the spectrum.

Cracauer, Cult of Distraction[iv]

Cracauer explains these delirium of colors, light and d├ęcor as a necessity so that the people in the audience find their own place in the spectacle, in order to identify their position in these two merging spaces: the space of narration on the screen and the space of illusion in the hall. As he clearly states “The interior design of movie theaters serves one sole purpose: to rivet the viewer’s attention to the peripheral, so that they will not sink into the abyss[v]

It is very interesting to notice the word abyss that Cracauer uses in order to describe the world on the screen. Falling into the abyss is an image that suggests a movement into space. Here the German thinker creates a very spatial image that implicates movement, entering and falling... in film. In a unique way this phrase talks about the creation of space in the film, and how the audience enters this space. In fear of being lost in the world of film, or falling into its abyss, one needs to have another space to stick on as a hint of where one previously was. In this case the heavy ornament of the movie theater creates the counter-balance of the interiority of the screen, thus suggesting a natural, sublime exteriority.

It seems as if the journey of the viewer into film should not be without a point of reference to where he started, and this is typical of many mythical dangerous journeys in unknown worlds.[vi] The entering into the unknown world of film, in order for it not to be without return, needed to be distracted by another space equally interesting and inviting. The idea of traveling is present in both worlds, both the interior world of the screen and the exterior one of the ‘exotic’ movie theater. One of the most pictorial cases that show the overlapping of those two spaces of travel is the case of the movie theaters in the States during the late twenties and thirties. There was at the time a trend of Egyptomania, and many movies were shot on the theme of the mysteries of the pyramids and the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt[vii]. The movie theaters therefore were decorated in an Egyptian-like manner, with golden colors and shapes reminding the Egyptian architecture[viii]. It would be as if the space depicted on the screen has passed that delicate border and invaded the space of the movie theater.

As we see from the Egyptian- like films and movie theaters, it is not easy to tell whether the creation of an exteriority helps the audience not to ‘fall into the abyss’ or whether this scenography merges so well with the film’s interiority that the audience is fatally doomed to travel into it. No matter what the case is, what is most interesting is the relation of the two spaces, and their interaction in provoquing the audience’s senses. There is no point in trying to compare them, but rather see them as a whole, as the intersections of different spaces that create the spectacle. Indeed, one can see these two spaces as two layers superimposed to cause an illusion, one that the film narrates.

The peripatetic experience that the film suggested in its first steps, when it was still part of the street’s life, is now transformed to a different type of movement. Although the spectator has lost his movement into the space of the city, yet in the movie theater of the 20s and the 30s another kind of traveling is implied. It is a mental, sensual travelogue that the space proposes, a transaction from the urban environment of the city streets, to an environment of exotism, sensation, and reverie. The illusion of the film blends with the illusion of the movie theater and together they suggest a voyage of distraction.

TRACK 3: Tsai Ming Liang, Goodbye Dragon Inn

Up to this point we have argued on the merging of the space of the movie theater and the space that the film creates, giving examples from the first days of cinema and from the early architecture of the movie theaters. Let’s make a big step into time now, and let’s travel to a movie theater in Taiwan of 2000, old and decaying.

In Tsai Ming Liang’s film Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) we watch the parallel lives of people that find themselves in an old movie theater on the day of its last screening. The people from the audience, the female ticket clerk and the projectionist, all trace different itineraries in the movie theater, which at times intersect with one another. Many of the characters, as the Japanese tourist or the old actor for instance, stay mostly in the cinema hall and watch a movie- others wander around lost in their thoughts.

The film takes place internally into the movie theater. This mere fact consists a paradox. The situation with which the spectator is usually acquainted to is the screen- movie theater relation explained before. But in this film, a unique event takes place: the same situation is represented on the screen, with other spectators who watch a film inside the film. This self-referential condition creates a misoriented, dizzying effect. The spectator wonders of his role in the whole spectacle, which is the audience and which is the movie? Where are the limits of the screen’s space? If these questions were already difficult to be answered in the palaces of distraction of the 20s, Tsai Ming Liang puts the discourse one step closer to the abyss. The spectator can be drowned in the sea of the screen, ignorant of its limits. In Goodbye Dragon Inn there is the extreme condition of the blending of the space of narration and the space of the movie theater inside the film. There are several long shots of the spectators looking at the screen, or other shots of the movie theater taken with the camera ‘turning the back’ to the theater’s screen, reminding the paradox.

This choice is per se a comment on space and on the merging of spaces. Tsai Ming Liang wants the audience to think of its place in the movie theater. It is a case where the spectators find a space in the film where their participation is needed; the spectators are asked to add their thoughts, reveries, memories and emotions into the long stables takes. There are certain moments in the film that the action totally stops, and the image either almost freezes, or there is a periodical movement repeated continuously. Two such takes are the take of the empty movie theater that stays with the audience for quite some time, or the scenes where we watch the woman walking with the same rhythm and the limping movement, practically making a promenade in the building. The time where no action happens is actually the time where each one of the spectators is asked to participate in the film, and add his/her own thoughts and emotions, thus creating an intimate, private space. In the same way that the characters in the Taiwanese movie theater drift around carrying with them their memories, the spectators are asked to contribute as well. The mirror effect inside and outside of the screen implied with the long take of the empty movie theater could be another way of showing how the space in the film is a reflection of real space.

This notion is quite similar to the flaneur’s promenade in the city, or Eisenstein’s way of experiencing architecture through movement. The woman in the film has such a peripatetic experience when she wonders around the theater, with or without a reason – it doesn’t matter. She feels the space and mapping out her own itinerary, thus leaving a trace. Her physical movement is not only necessary but in a sense redeeming. The audience sympathizes with her effort and her pain when going up the stairs, so as the importance of the body experience is accentuated.

The film or the spectacle of Goodbye Dragon Inn could never be complete without the psychological landscapes of the spectators. The space is left for the people who watch the film to define and use, to move into it, as the characters do. It is a topos of privacy, but which is at the same time very public. It is where the movie theater of Tsai Ming Liang and our movie theater become one, blend into one another, and the two topoi create a single one.

TRACK 4: Interiority/ Exteriority

Tsai Ming Liang’s movie theater has a lot in common with the movie palaces of the first decades of the moving images. They are both very introvert spaces, very self –referential, but in an interesting way, controversial they open themselves to the outer world.

Talking in architectural terms, movie theaters do not have any windows or other kind of openings. When entering such a place, when crossing the border, the only window to the world is the screen and the interior space. The screen is some kind of an ‘eye’ that allows the spectators to look at another world, but also a ‘gate’ for the beginning of their travel. And the interior space, as we have already noticed in the movie palaces act reinforcing the idea of movement and of traveling.

In Goodbye Dragon Inn the movie theater does not have any of the glory and luxury of the movie palaces in the 20s. It is a decaying building that is left to ‘die’ free of any attempt of embellishment of renovation. The feeling that it reflects is of a body dying, with merely any life left into it. The people that are in it adjust to this sense of lifeless-ness: at some points, as it is also stated by one of the characters, it is difficult to tell if they are alive humans or just ghosts, spirits from an other era. However, if we break the crust of the surfacial image of the movie theater, we will notice that some of the most important qualities that the idea of a movie theater stands for, are there in both cases.

The movie theater of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a very introvert space, a place of total interiority that functions as a unique microcosmos. All the information that the film gives about the outside is that it rains, as if the outer world is nothing but water. An interior space like this movie theater surrounded by water seems a lot like an island. Indeed some characteristics of an island suit perfectly the conditions narrated in the film. The movie theater gives the impression of a place highly inaccessible for people who do not belong to its ‘microcosmos.’ It has very strong boundaries –water boundaries- and there is a feeling that the people in the movie theater are there forever, time functions in a different way in that world. Isolation is another characteristic of an island also present at the movie theater of Tsai Ming Liang. Not only nobody can enter it but it also seems very far away from ‘real world’ abandoned in its own state. The only element that can enter or exit is water: the element of fluidity and the means by which the theater becomes an ‘island’ is present in and out. It penetrates the building, and causes ‘catharsis’: there is a scene where the man takes buckets full of water and throws them out of a window. This is a relieving scene, as if much of the gathered tension, the anger, the unfulfilled desires and the unexpressed emotions are exiled out of the world of the movie theater with a strong, dynamic gesture. Seen as a beautiful metaphor, when the buckets are full, someone has to cross the boundary and throw the water into the outer world, so that the system can continue to exist.

In the case of the space Tsai Ming Liang narrates, water is the element of the exterior space that penetrates into the interior. In the case of the movie palaces, there are also elements of exteriority that are incorporated in the space. All the scenographic elements of nature and of the sky that are being used as decorations can be seen as a way that the enclosed space incorporates in itself elements from the exterior. The natural or tropical motifs, the design of the sky in detail, even the Egyptian decorations – all of these suggest that the enclosed space has selected certain elements of the outside to “open” its boundaries. The voyage is being done via the mind and the film on the screen, but the body also participates being in a space of in-between: an interior space that holds representations of the exterior- a place that prepares its inhabitants for the journey.

The movie palaces and the movie theater of Tsai Ming Liang’s are interior spaces that “open” themselves to the exterior not by conventional means, but rather with the use of iconography and the necessary participation of the user. Through the ambiance the space suggests, the mind travels and the enclosed space gets more open than any other. Spaces as such existed in the past and represented the need of narrating and of traveling –in a way forshadowing film. Such places existed in the Renaissance, usually related with the need of the Renaissance thinkers to depict the whole world in one single room or surface.

TRACK 6: Epilogue

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has worked a lot on the notion of interiority and exteriority. For him, the words ‘interiority’ and ‘exteriority’ go beyond their spatial signifier. He describes as interiority a system that is defined by some kind of order or structure, a system with hierarchies, one of stability. For Deleuze, interiorities do not exist without exteriorities, that is some elements outside the structure of the system, that have the tendency either to resist the existence of the interiority, or try to destroy its structure.

When elements of the exterior manage to intrude an interiority, then happens the fold. That is the interiority is forced to move, to change form, to fold. And this state of movement, of unstability, of constant redefining – the folding- is the cause that creates everything new. A new quality is being born only by “creating an interior space absolutely coexisting with the outside on the line of fold[ix].

The spaces of spectacles represented on this journey, starting from the Acropolis, to the movie palaces and Tsai Ming Liang’s movie theater are in a sense folded spaces. For they are spaces that give to the interior a whole new meaning, opening it to exterior worlds of memory, emotions and thoughts. Such places make us think about spectacle not just in terms of what one sees on a stage or a screen, but as a collective experience created with the participation of everyone in the room… and the room itself!

[i] I use the urban condition as the setting of my research.

[ii] Eisenstein S., Montage and Architecture, in Assemblage, v.10, 1980.

[iii] Bruno G., Atlas of Emotions, Verso, NY, 2002, pp.21.

[iv] Cracauer S., Cult of Distraction in The Movies, President and Fellows of Harvard College, USA,1995, pp.324.

[v]Cracauer S., Cult of Distraction in The Movies, President and Fellows of Harvard College, USA,1995, pp.326.

[vi] I cannot help but think of the mythos of the Minotaur: the mission of Theseas was to enter the labyrinth in order to kill the beast Minotaur. Theseas was given the edge of a clew of string to hold, when entering the labyrinth. His girlfriend, waiting in agony at the entrance of the labyrinth would hold the one edge, and Theseas would unfold the clew in his way inside so as not to lose his way. The reference of taking a hint of the exterior world when entering an unknown space is evident in many stories and myths.

[vii] Lant A., Haptical Cinema in October, v.74, fall 1995, pp 51-52.

[viii] It is very interesting to see how the Egyptian style has many similarities with the Art Deco movement of the time, but this is already another journey on its own…

[ix] Deleuze, Gilles Foucault Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, pp. 117

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