Thursday, May 9, 2013

We don't need other worlds.

Solaris © The Criterion Collection
There are no blood-thirsty killing-machines aliens in this futuristic world; neither exotic extra-terrestrial women. Humans and human understanding of the world are the themes in which this film revolves around. Solaris (Солярис, 1972) is a soviet science-fiction movie by Andrei Tarkovsky, based on a 1961 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem.

The book was subject to other cinematic adaptations before and after Trakovsky’s. Lem’s novels are quite distinct in the science-fiction world due to his philosophical and existentialist approach; more than just describing new worlds and life forms, he asks himself for our necessities and desires as human beings in those situations. Two main leitmotifs are profusely explored in Lem’s writings. First, our limitation in the understanding of other intelligent life forms and in the communication with them. The ocean-like cloud of Solaris is an object of debate in the story, as whether it is alive or not, and if alive, intelligent or not. I would have to add that we have the very same trouble right now with the very life of our planet, in acknowledging rights and intelligence to non-human animals; so this effect would have to be multiplied when facing alien entities. It is actually extremely hard to imagine profound alien forms. Science-fiction mostly recurs to “humanoid” configurations with more or less plausible explanations and variations since, if we cannot interact with them, what would be the purpose of telling a story. Lem chose, in the visible world, what he found to be the most radically amorphous entity: an ocean-like cloud planet, and called it Solaris.

The second subject is the questioning of technology and the necessity of it. And it is in this second one where he approaches a profound existentialist position that I deem more alluring for architecture and for myself. In fact, Tarkovsky’s divergence over the book makes the film more interesting for our architectural eye.  Literature can be very descriptive of the places but cinema has to show it. The level of definition in film will give much more detail per unit of time: in some seconds we will perceive several pages of information, and that just for the environment. So Tarkovsky takes Lem’s interrogation about our being in the world to what are his and our field, cinema and architecture. Instead of entering directly the action in outer space, he offer us a background which is the one of mankind’s fundamental living space. A forest, the mesmerizing song of a river’s water, the fluttering sound of autumn leaves, the chanting of the birds and a wooden house which one can easily associate with Martin Heidegger’s hut; with Kris Kelvin walking around as a very own philosopher in Holzweg. “He takes a walk every morning for at least an hour.” “It's so pleasant here.  (…) This house reminds me of my grandfather's house.” This seemingly futile dialogue, this preamble, has behind it all the philosophical strength of Heidegger’s hut, and is used to confront it with another reality, the one in which Lem is submerging us into from page one of the book.

Solaris Tarkovsky Kelvin's hut
Kelvin's "hut" in the forest, just before he leaves Earth.

Solaris Tarkovsky Station
Solaris Station; innocuous space.

The space-station experience is quite the opposite of the hut: a soulless, colourless and pragmatic space of cold steel, aseptic plastic, with no spiritual purpose. Scarily, the architecture of the space station turns out to be very close to this diluted, white architecture with round shapes of early 21st century Japan. Space exploration becomes the ultimate metaphor of technology in its darkest appearance. Kubrick, in 2001: a space odyssey (1968), a film to which Solaris is usually compared, explored a completely different approach to man in space. It also summarizes the way how American science-fiction films before and later approach the idea of mankind in connection with the universe. On the one hand, the American Universe is a much optimistic place for human beings, where they can colonize other worlds; meet, communicate and even mate with other life forms. The technology is all-capable and either friendly or foe. Fewer times its necessity is questioned, which is the true issue.

On the other hand, the plot will stay inside the movie. This means is either a story in which everything is conclusive or with open questions or stories (where do the aliens come from? what will happen now?) but that are not getting out of the universe of the film. Solaris, in contrast, raises questions that are by purpose spreading outside the account of the film, even with quite relevance in our everyday life.

Are we made as such a separate entity of Earth that we can leave it? Can we live in outer space? Aren’t we confusing ‘surviving’ with ‘living’ almost in the same manner as the modernists before us? Conscious now of the perishability of our planet and our soul we, the scientific-era men and women, found comfort in the immortality of our race. But our existence is profoundly bonded to the conditions of our planet in a very short period of the geological time. We are made for the cabin in the woods, not for pressurised chambers in outer space. For the sounds of birds and water, and the whistle of the wind. Not the noise of machines, the reverberation of metal or the silence of emptiness.

Solaris Tarkovsky mirror
Kelvin, Hari and their images. Mankind looking for a mirror. Hari as a reflection of a person: does that even make any difference for the rest of us?

The film is slow. Very slow. Tarkovsky tries to leave you time to chew and digest events, environments and dialogues that explain these ideas. Some dense passages condensate in a very explicit manner the moral of the film, as in this discourse by Dr. Snaut character:
Science? Nonsense! In this situation mediocrity and genius are equally useless! I must tell you that we really have no desire to conquer any cosmos. We want to extend the Earth up to its borders. We don't know what to do with other worlds. We don't need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle to make contact, but we'll never achieve it. We are in a ridiculous predicament of man pursuing a goal that he fears and that he really does not need. Man needs man!
But even that extra time seems not enough; as Ebert stated: “Everything in the film needed to be seen in a new light. There was so much to think about afterwards”. Indeed that last paragraph would need a whole article per sentence just to contextualize its philosophical grounds.

Further reading:

Tarkovsky, Andrey (1989). Sculpting in Time: reflections on the cinema. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-77624-1

Skakov, Nariman (2012). The Cinema of Tarkovsky: Labyrinths of Space and Time. I.B.Tauris. ISBN 978-1-84885-630-1

Dan Schneider column, mostly for Americanised audiences:

Late Roger Ebert’s column at Chicago Sun-Times:

The Criterion Collection releases Blue Ray and DVD restored editions:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rise of the Red Dragon

Raise the Red Lantern © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.
RAISE THE RED LANTERN (大红灯笼高高挂) is a 1991 film directed by Zhang Yimou, whose career as director started with the extraordinary Red Sorghum (1987). As part of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers he is responsible of the rise of Chinese film industry to world awareness. After various “misunderstandings” with the political authorities of the country he is devoted since the last decade or so to gigantic budget movies to fuel the nationalistic needs of China. That means either elevate the old Hong Kong B-movies to mainstream expression of Chinese identity or weeping for how bad they were thrashed by the Japanese in WWII. If you thought Hollywood movies were chauvinistic, think again.

But there is still a place for uniqueness, and there is where this film is transporting us. Raise the Red Lantern is the story of a wife caged in a wealthy man’s house. And by house we have to understand the real old style home for a family and servants; some 300 rooms. With this plot, we are forcibly confined through the seasons inside the architecture of this household, which is a remarkable example of traditional Chinese courtyard. Yimou makes use of the scenery to show how different activities were carried in the house; whether private, inside; public, in the courtyard; sneaky, around the borders and rooftops. The semiology of the gate, also omnipresent in Chinese architecture, has also its rites.

Raise the Red Lantern - Qiao Family compound - courtyard
One of the courtyards at Qiao's compound where the film was shot.

The film was shot on location inside Qiao Family compound. The courtyard layout, the most developed strategy for a house, is well spread in China. The hutongs of Beijing were on the verge of extinction but now they are becoming sought for. But the compound (in Chinese daiyuan, “grand courtyard”) is of a different category. It is the amalgam of dozens and even hundreds of courtyards and buildings, to house and entire extended family (up to cousins in several degrees with their own families), employees, goods and visits. Qiao’s compound is located in the province of Shanxi, and is a part of many others in this region. They were situated at the entrance of China, where the Silk Road ended, and where these families make fortune. After the war and the Cultural Revolution the families were dispossessed and they disbanded. Some of them meet on a regular basis.

Qiao’s compound is now a museum. Another close by example is the huge Wang family compound. A wall enclosed village just for this family. All compounds are more or less close by the ancient city of Pingyao, a magnificent well preserved city.

Raise the Red Lantern - Pingyao
Old street in Pingyao.

So because of this film, instead of going to Xi’an, to look at terracotta figurines I can see anywhere, I hired a van (with driver) in Beijing, drove west for a ridiculous price, visiting Wutaishan, one of the most sacred Buddhist sites (where I slept) and then arriving the next day at Pigyao. Crossing through the gates of Pingyao was one of the most mesmerizing experiences, mainly because after all the socialist architecture outside I didn’t expect that degree of preservation. I stayed at the Yide hotel, where I met Europeans that come back almost yearly. You sleep on a traditional bed, in a room giving to a courtyard… with red lanterns. The food in the hotel and the city are wonderful. You are not treated as a cash dispenser like in Beijing or Shanghai; you are almost an attraction. Unfortunately in higher season is overcrowded and that is getting the city damaged. Chinese tourists move as they are, in millions. From Pingyao you can schedule visits to the compounds you like, with local guides speaking English. One of the best experiences that you can have discovering architecture, especially making the trip on the road, not the highway, so you can see the fields, the mines, the cities and what is life outside the touristic places.

Further information:

Robert Ebert article in the Chicago Sun Times

Qiao Family compound

Wang Family compound

Pingyao city

Yide hotel, Pingyao

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Entretien avec Henri Lefèbvre

Interview with Henri Lefèbvre (French language, 35 min.) who briefly explains his thoughts on the urban question and dwelling, and his vision of space.

From the series URBANOSE, chapter 15. © L'Office National du Film du Canada, 1972

This video inaugurates the integration of Space Frames blog and youtube channel.
In this very first occasion we "frame" the vision of a thinker as recorded in a succinct speech.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Human scale

TOKYO STORY (東京物語 ,Tokyo monogatari, 1953) by Yasujiro Ozu. It is unanimously considered one of the greatest films ever made. It deserves this appraisal even being a very simple story. Two parents and their sons. Two generations disjointed between tradition and modernization in Japan, a topic explored profusely by Ozu. What makes him, and the film, interesting for architecture was probably not intentional. It is Ozu’s characteristic camera shots that introduces the spectator inside the film so well what makes us “be” inside the scene and observe it as architects, as well as we observe everyday life. The camera barely moves; it is placed so we observe a scene but not in the old theatrical way. Life passes through the lens, being part of the plot or not, in the same way we observe life passing through in our routine. We are even introduced into a place where the act has not yet begun, the characters being still outside it, so we have time to become acquainted with the space. Ozu uses also a characteristic camera style, the “tatami-mat” shot, in which the camera height is placed low, about the eye level of Japanese people seated in their distinctive manner. This way, the spectator is placed at the same level as the characters, being part of the scene (we are seated as required by etiquette even though we may not know how) avoiding odd angles. And also, as Donald Richie explains", it eliminates depth and makes a two-dimensional space", a form of avoiding this odd angle our eyes have that shows the place we step into and which usually have no meaning in the development of things.

The movie was filmed in Tokyo, Onomichi (Hiroshima) and Atami (Shizuoka). Ozu tried to show the dichotomy tradition-modernity also with this sets. But although it is probably not a film I would select to illustrate some specific architecture, it is a master piece of the art, and as such, and for the specific camera work of Ozu, I believe it clearly demonstrates how film works with spaces. That is also the real test for architecture. Not as the object to be shown, but the object that allows things to happen.

Kyoko: -Isn't life disappointing?
Noriko: [smiles] -Yes, it is. 

The Criterion Collection © 2012

Further information:

The Criterion Collection trailer in Youtube

Roger Ebert full article on Tokyo Story

Nygren, Scott: Time Frames; Japanese cinema and the unfolding of history. Minneapolis: University of Minesota Press, 2007.
Richie, Donald: A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Tokyo: Kodansha, 2005 2nd ed.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

On phenomenology …deconstruction …architecture.

-Or what is this all about.-

For each of the above terms a philosopher, an architect and any other person, each may have their particular interpretation of them. With the isolation of the disciplines, to a certain degree, the development of particular technobabble will hinder or prevent mutual understanding, especially for the non-initiated. Having in mind that well-versed scholars may find the following discourse as absolutely preposterous, I excuse myself on the grounds of, firstly, needing a plain lexicon for the ordinary reader and, secondly, my keeping the strength of my ratio to more specific topics.

Phenomenology, from ancient Greek φαινόμενoν (phainómenon, “that which appears") and λόγος (logos, “study”), is thus roughly the study of the structure of experience. Although long present as a philosophical term, it was redefined as a method and movement in itself by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). In Husserl’s conception, phenomenology is the systematic reflection and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear (are experienced). The main point of this idea is the understanding of a world as related to a point of origin of all experience -oneself. Thus, as opposed to a Cartesian interpretation of the world, space for instance is not an infinite and abstract frame but rather an experience of our being, built since the first grasping of a newborn; limited, with different empathic values according to differently experienced places.

This connotation has gained popularity in architecture, roughly opposing the hypothetical conception of a Cartesian building, responding to given, abstract ideals of beauty, answering only to its own logic, to a phenomenological one, in which a building is experienced from the point of view of a human being and its materials, form and dispositions are anticipated as experienced from this observer.

As a philosophical term it was adopted and transformed, especially by Heidegger, who converted it into a methodology in charge of redefining the essence of being. The main goal of phenomenology is to overcome traditions. The whole human culture is based on learned behavior, with a reason to exist. In time we forgot those reasons and if they are still applicable. Heidegger calls for the ‘Destruktion’ of these constrains so we reach the essence; for that, we have to go back in history step by step, in a process of ‘de-building’ (Abau) with which we can see the essence of what we study according to each moment in history and today.

Derrida took the concept of ‘Abau’ and translated it into French ‘déconstruction’, which was loosely adopted by an architectural discourse in crisis and hungry for ideals to seize. Unfortunatelly, this Abau is often applied to architectural objects, not to the essence of architecture, which seems still veiled.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

About Space Frames

Space Frames is a cross-platform transdisciplinary exercise intending a phenomenological deconstruction (Abau) of our perception of space, comprehended as the existential support of our being-in-the-world, our dwelling.
Throughout the successive assemblage (Verbindung) of disjointed representations of life and built environment in different media, the notion of dwelling will be disclosed by itself so as to permit its better understanding.

Cinema will initially have a prominent, nearly ubiquitous place here, as it can be considered one of the most truthful renditions of architecture into media, just second to corporeal experience.
Besides the critical analysis of architectural and anthropological depictions in films, other human expressions such as sounds and music, dances, books and written pieces (thoughts), sports and the arts and crafts in general, will be illuminated under the frame of its spatial gist.
Blockbuster movies and buildings are not into consideration in this space.  The frame ought to be used to look through it, not just to be displayed alone, devoid of meaning.

Although this is a mostly personal project, its open presentation might be of interest for the public development of transdisciplinarity between the humanities and may eventually become open to different collaborations and approaches.