Disegno Film Nights: Pascal Schöning on cinematic architecture


14 November 2012

Last night, Disegno held its first ever film night. Hosted at the RIBA, the architectural theorist Pascal Schöning introduced and screened The Limits of Control (2009), a Spanish thriller by Jim Jarmusch. Here, to give you a taster of the evening, we asked Schöning to tell us about the film and his theory of cinematic architecture.

Between 1983 and 2008, Schöning taught at the AA Architectural Association in London, where he ran a course on the school’s Dip 3 Unit. As part of this unit, Schöning worked with students to develop the theory of cinematic architecture: a form of architectural thinking inspired by and understood through films.

Cinematic architecture is the study of architecture in which reflections on fluid processes over time are prized over the consideration of static objects. For Schöning, cinematic architecture is a loose methodology which encourages people to think about architecture as essentially concerned with space and the events that occur in it over time, rather than a discipline concerned with physical buildings and materials.

Schöning is the author of two books about cinematic architecture: A Manifesto for a Cinematic Architecture (2006) and Cinematic Architecture 1993-2008 (2009), both of which are published by AA Publications. A third and final book in his cinematic architecture series is expected early next year.

Below, Schöning tells Disegno about his life, why he picked The Limits of Control and how it relates to his theory of cinematic architecture:

“I was born before the Second World War in Germany and lived in Rüghen. We were descended from the architect Friedrich Schinkel, and lived in one of his villas on the island. When the Nazis occupied the area as a military zone, my mother took us children and tried to escape to my grandparents in Hanover and Berlin. But those houses were bombed. Everything was destruction. I liked it as a child because it was like fireworks. You don’t realise as a child. Everything around me was related to process and narrative life. These were my only memories and influences.

When I was 20, I started studying architecture in Berlin. That’s where film came in. But I was never at the university, I was always at the television station and cinema watching films. One day, I went to the school’s director and said that we needed to study theatre, visual arts, film and everything else and combine that with architecture. He threw me out. But I believe that those fields are important fields to help define architecture. They’re random fields that influence decisions about architecture.

That’s where my teaching at the AA began. I became more and more interested in a general theory about cinema and architecture and the relation between them. Film is the only medium where you can show everything: the relation between people and objects, events. You can’t do that by drawing or by describing things.

Cinematic architecture is not just about using film or some sort of moving image to represent a built object. Lots of people do that. Rather, it’s about the use of this medium in the design process. It’s a way of thinking that includes processes, change and time. If you start on a drawing board, you’re starting from an object-based way of thinking about architecture. Using film and cinema is a way of breaking free from that.

I believe that Le Corbusier was the first cinematic architect. He introduced it without naming it. With La Roche (1923) and La Villa Savoye (1928), he used ramps, which are different to a staircase. A staircase is step by step in time, while a ramp is a continuous four-dimensional process. But one modern example of cinematic architecture is the Centre Pompidou (1977) in Paris. Everything that is movement or function in that building is put to the outside. It’s a very good example of cinematic architecture.

I like movement and that’s why I like road movies and Jim Jarmusch, and why I chose to show The Limits of Control. I didn’t choose a film which had influenced me before I began working at the AA, because there are too many. I chose one that came out after I had finished teaching. I think Jarmusch’s film confirmed my approach towards architecture. For The Limits of Control he walked through Madrid to find examples that he could then transform into things to use in his narrative. He walked through the architecture of Richard Rogers's Barajas airport and Jean Nouvel's Reina Sofía Museum, the Torres Blancas apartment block by Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza. It all gave him storylines. Everything he saw in Madrid became scenes. That’s what we sought to do with cinematic architecture.

The first book I wrote about cinematic architecture was a manifesto: the rules of the discipline. The second book shows the results of developing the theory with students at the AA over nearly 20 years and what they came up with. The third book will be a reflection about it after it exists. What is cinematic architecture? I want to see whether it exists, or whether it’s all just bullshit.”

Disegno film nights at RIBA are kindly sponsored by Molteni & C

The brochure accompanying the film night is sponsored by Fedrigoni UK