Posts Tagged ‘Rome’

La Notte

Monday, January 12th, 2009

La Notte
1961, 122 minutes
directed by  Michelangelo Antonioni

Walking around Rome with the Eisenman studio, one strand of thought kept popping up, and that was the issue of voice. As in, how does a student find his own architectural voice in a studio environment populated with professors as strong and sometimes as fundamentally opposed as Eisenman and Krier? If you do any searching at all, you will find somebody somewhere who will tell you that the point of an architectural education is to help you find your own voice. Help us find our voice. It sounds almost dubiously altruistic, especially surrounded by anxious and aggressive classmates and equally-so professors. But what if, for a moment, we take this as true?


When Michelangelo Antonioni died earlier this summer and the obituaries rolled out of all the major newspapers, his seventy-some years of age and his thirty-odd films were boiled down to 900 words or less. “The Poet of Ennui,” “A Chronicler of Alienated Europeans in a Flimsy New World,” or “The Father of Modern Angst and Alienation,” were some of the headlines that ran in circulation.

What strikes me is the simultaneous power and insignificance of one idea. One idea, obsessively explored through an unrelenting curiousity, is a force to be reckoned. It is a force for no other reason than its self-propelling conviction. It is, however, only one idea. Like leaves of grass, each one is infinitely miraculous yet, when you scale back, sadly trivial. When history scales back on the giants of our field, like it did upon Antonioni, we’ll remember even the most important and complex and rich architects or artists for only one idea. You will be lucky if you can fight and argue your way through one idea.


It is through this discouraging scale of existence that any ounce of conviction gains its strength. To fully believe in something, in opposition to all of the conflicting evidence, of which there is undoubtedly no lack of surplus for, or the relativistic plurality of nature in general, is a feat indeed. Antonioni, to be necessarily reductive, explored distance: the distance between people, the distance between man and his environment, and the distance between an idea and its realization. Antonioni was originally trained as an architect, and it’s his sensitivity to space and landscape which makes him so resonate with architects.


So as the Eisenman studio wandered around Rome, talking about Deleuze, partial figures, part-whole relationships, and undecideability through the physical examples of Bramante, Borromini, Moretti, Pagano & Piagentini, like less glamourous (but certainly funnier) characters in an Antonioni film, the real discussion was about our ideas, their relation to us in this time and place, and our relations to each other. We were discussing distance and proximity, ideas and things. If we are lucky, we’ll find our ideas and argue for them beautifully.

As a note: the three films by Antonioni generally referred to as his “trilogy” are, in order: L’Avventura is the first film, La Notte is the second, and L’Eclisse is the final installment.

originally written October 2, 2007

2/23/2006: Meier-dom?: An American in Rome

Friday, December 26th, 2008

More film notes that I wrote almost three years ago.


Belly of an Architect (1987), 118 minutes

“Cinema doesn’t connect with the body as artists have in two thousand years of painting, using the nude as the central figure which the ideas seem to circulate around. I think it is important to somehow push or stretch or emphasize, in as many ways as I can, the sheer bulk, shape, heaviness, the juices, the actual structure of the body. Cinema basically examines a personality first and the body afterward.” –Peter Greenaway

“I don’t think we’ve seen any cinema yet. I think we’ve seen 100 years of illustrated text. If you want to tell stories, be a writer, not a filmmaker.” –Peter Greenaway

As far choosing movies for an architecture film series goes, this one was fairly easy. It has the word “architect” in the title, and is actually about an architect and his artistic trials. It is shot entirely in Rome, which some people believe is a city of continuing architectural significance (though Le Corbusier said in Vers Une Architecture: “To send architectural students to Rome is to cripple them for life.”) As it happens, the architect is an American working in Rome who encounters some difficulties, so it also fits within the semester’s theme of “Cultural Invasions.” And tangentially, it could be extrapolated to serve as sort of shallow (and more probably, meaningless) analogy of the work that Richard Meier did to get his Jubilee Church built in Rome (a competition that Meier won over Tadao Ando, Santiago Calatrava, Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman, and which is now the subject of its own documentary).

But if the selection of this movie for this series was so easy for me, it then begs the question, what makes a movie have architectural significance? What can students of architecture glean from a medium that is two dimensional and which relies most heavily on cinematographers, actors and writers—none of whom work directly on architecture?

I can tell you that I was loathe to screen this film for those reasons, plus a few others. First of all, I am not a fan of the director, Peter Greenaway, a filmmaker from Britain. Peter Greenaway is maybe one of the most ambitious filmmakers in regards to pushing the boundaries of film; he was trained as a painter, then worked as a film editor before making his own films; he has also written books, essays, and curated shows at international museums. And I am amenable to his ambition to free movies from their traditional bond to storytelling. The problem is his films are often unwatchable (full disclosure: I’ve only seen two of his films).

But the biggest reason I didn’t want to put this film on the series was that the link between architecture and film in the case may be too obvious on a very superficial level. Sure, it’s ostensibly about an architect, but that is not where the value of a film to the defensive field of architecture should remain. Greenaway has exhaustively documented artistic ambitions (I would hope architects have artistic ambitions, also), one of which is the relation of the body to his chosen medium. Could we not learn something from how he treats his subject, which is also the subject of our medium? He also has written about film’s dependence on the idea of “text,” which is something that has been known betwixt certain architects (ahem, Peter). So let’s try to get past the title and find something that inspires us architecturally.