Dec 13, 2017 in Art

Architecture and Film

Film and architecture have always had a co-relation as the two have always been compared since inception. Walter Benjamin in, ‘the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ (1935-36), suggests architecture could be a prototype of film as they both are taken and accepted “by a collectivity in a mode of distraction.”(Benjamin, 39). In this paper I will use the design-led research to learn more about how the film develops. Distraction, according to Benjamin, “is a form of experience that occurs incidentally, disjunctivism, and mostly unconsciously – absent-mindedly – rather than through the bright and thoughtful plan that traditionally characterizes the viewing of a painting…” (Benjamin, 78). Architecture in film brings out a conscious optical element to it which makes it all the more joyful. When combined, architecture and film stimulate the temporal modes of consciousness as well as the spatial modes. It significantly influences the form of viewing which is no longer static but develops the linear and narrative structure as well.  

Pursuing this as a design- led research will reveal the architectural richness in this film. Tati uses different characters to demonstrate his sense of architecture in the film. His character, Hocult, however, may not focus on what the tourists main concentration is; the famous building but on the ordinary activity which the masses wandering and working in the city are. By using architecture and distraction at the same time, Tati enhances the spectators senses and imagination. These two things represent a form of theater in those early years of cinema. Pre-screen films unlike later cinema, which is designed to capture the viewer’s attention to the illusion of narrative fiction, here they counted on the showmanship of the characters to address the viewer with spectacular sights which were accompanied with acclaimed theater interiors, as well, as live music. Here, the architectural aspect enhanced the multisensory experience of the performance. “The interior of the movie theaters served one sole purpose: to rivet the audience’s attention to the peripheral so that they will not sink into the abyss.” (Kracauer, 49)     

Jacques Tati’s film Play Time (1967) is a free-spirited, humorous satire set in the modern times set which depicts modern Paris though fictional. It opens with the citizens going about their daily tasks without any delays or waste. The characters in the film all move from scene to scene in the first part of the film. Here, the citizens are in a submerged pristine cityscape which is characterized by efficiency, openness and transparency. The set looks perfect, and everything is working in unison and is just perfect; there is no litter, all shoelaces are tied up and all is perfect. Equality in everyday life is seen as everything in the set is modular because the city appears composed of a set of standardized units. In this film, Tati displayed architectural modernity as a playground for humor, love and festive social encounters. He uses Paris’ metropolitan area to conclude its designated instructions for use. It shows also that even if a society is regulated and controlled as is the modern one, it cannot predict future events. This is successful and as Kracauer writes, “..the stimulations of the senses follow each other with such rapidity that there is no room left for even the slightest consideration to squeeze in between them….” (Bovil, 89)

In this world, every action is an ingredient in the mechanism of human patterns but for many machines, there is a margin of error. Tati uses a protagonist in the film, Monsieur Hulot who stumbles around the streets and buildings as if in a daze. Here he tries to identify his surroundings and eventually he chooses to ignore it. He is caught in the machine but he does not follow any of it and in his confused state, he peels away the layers of his modern world to discover how ridiculous it is. He discovers that a perfect world does not lead to success or cause it but chance encounters are what bring about people to the robot- like routines. The urban dweller here is then subjected to constant shocks and hyperstimulation which led to the difference between things. By using morder architecture, self- imposed poverty was not made to look sterile or reductive, it became effortless.

Play Time is celebrated for having some of the most amazing sets. Each scene is shot as a mock-up of a modern but hyper Paris with gleaming surfaces, floors, flat areas with melancholy furniture. He realized this using forced perspective which makes things that are near look further away and hence larger. He uses photographed facades to stand in for some of the structures fronts. In return, no reflections are in their mirrored panels. Some of the extras (casts) are filled out from 2D cut-outs of large photographs of people. These artifacts carry out the appearance of an ill- suited city for any human inhabitants. The city seems as though it is designed for pleasing power and not human habitation.

The people are reduced some atoms which are in a labyrinth of cubicles, glass walls, elevators, box- shaped apartments and similar walk paths. Over time, the film then breaks people’s patterns which are governed by their surroundings.  Tati on this said, “I am not at all against modern architecture…,” but he continues to explain his line of though by stating, “ I only think that as well as the permit to build, there should also be a permit to occupy.” (Chaise, 21).One such sequence is that of the ‘Royal Garden’ where Jonathan Rosenbaum is carefully placed and set for the opening night in an up market restaurant which slowly then turns into a friendly and relaxed evening through breakage and collapse. The people then learn to adapt to any change and enjoy it as they do it.

Tati also displays a keen awareness of architecture and we can say that he plays an architect in this film. He uses glass and steel to create a surreal purgatory which has a glistening environment. This purgatory finally gets a name; ‘Tativille’. This is an area which Tati himself revealed to take pride in it and even described it as the ‘star of the set’ more than all his characters on set. (Bovill 57)   

Characters as Architecture

Monsiuer Hulot belongs to the lineage of clowns in the modern film industry as an archetype. Every single one of his movements in the film brings up a series of motions. It is then up to the viewer to choose his point of focus in the movie. It is always the smallest movement in the film that raises the bar of the film and enhances the flow of images. Tati ensures that his characters display lurches which are slanted, strides, or shuffles. He uses humor like, having his tall stature wear tiny shorts. His characters are those which we can easily identify with. They are typical, idiosyncratic, uninteresting and disheveled types. Hulot has an umbrella, suitcase that is seedy, a pipe,and a hat which hardly depicts a modern object.

Hulot passes gingerly through the film viewing the world mistrustful as if doubting its materiality. Hulot does not react with rapid speed but rather it takes him a longer- time to face the consequences. By using a look- alike, Tati also plays around with the doubleness .The look- alike goes ahead and says, “I am not Hulot, ridiculous!” (Fuss,180). This makes the movie functional in the film’s reflective, disorienting and duplicating architecture. In the film, the city is banal, complex and incredible “…the absurd is presented as if it were self- evident, …in order to strip the self-evident of its power.” (Fuss, 16)

The paths of the tourists and Hulot occur by chance throughout the film. Due to these circumstances, a relationship eventually develops between one of the tourists and Hulot. The young lady is one who is amused by everything she lays her eyes on. This distinguishes her from her colleagues because of her sense of humor and her manner of independence.  This relationship may serve as a symbol of just the natural forces that are around. The natural circumstances may even be found within the enforced circumstances and eventually overcomes the artiface. The lady in a part notices similarity of objects such as the bending street lights against the sky to the flower.  The characters are not filmed showing much emotion but those that show some stand out from the rest of the characters thus enriching the film further. This is a form of architecture which helps bring out the characters distinct differences.

The film’s major settings are lobbies and interiors of some high rise buildings just like the air terminal. The interiors of the high- rise buildings are also interchangeable which brings in the familiarity angle. In play time, there are no traces of lack of progress anywhere. Everything is evenly developed which creates a new world which was colonized by the forces of modernization. Here he has guides who lead the enthusiastic flocks of people through the labyrinthine cubicles which are controlled in their counting, efficiency and space. Patterns dominate the lines of flight like when Holut finds himself in a ‘room’ which apparently is a gliding escalator.  This is another good use of diversion which brings out a different aspect to the movie and it also transports the viewer to a new location gradually.    


Play time has no plot if viewed in the traditional sense. This film is more of a study of a city and what would happen to it under any kind of pressure than an entertainment film. Through mockery of modern architecture, playtime creates the elegant urban landscape as well as an aloof about it. He created architecture through geometry and use of materials throughout the film. In this piece of work, Tati can be viewed as an architect since he had all the structures built from scratch for the film. He built a studio city which was figuratively a mock city in the Paris suburb of Orly Sud. Tati uses solids and frames in his film to bring about layering by using techniques such as cubism, surrealism and even purism. Just as the film begins so does it end with the focus of the camera being the sky. This may be translates as a symbolic meaning which defines the sky as the only constant and as a representation of nature. The best quote would be Tati’s own in reference to the movie by Chion,” …In the first half of Playtime, I lead the people to understand the author’s guidelines.” He also continues to state, “..Everybody is filmed as if moving in straight lines and feeling prisoners to their surroundings.” This was his opinion on the use of architecture in his scenes. (Chion, 11).

In the end, the film acts as a counterpart to any reasonable behaviors that may be expected from any technological advances. As such a case, a scene in the ‘Tativille’ where the characters react in a hilarious way to dysfunctional gridded hyper efficient value, yet it is still a representation of warmth, understanding and adaptability. The conclusion from this is that human nature cannot be controlled or bottled up but rather should be allowed to grow in its own way. It also explains how human behaviors are controlled and predicted by the world that it is placed in. Hence, for a certain turn out, the context in which we are in very much contributes to how one ends up. Hulot and the other revelers, end up victorious over the sterility and culture brought about by the modern world.  Tati smiles at the newly created modern world/ design by using humorous architectural problems. He displays  modern architecture as a source of joy, surprises and a space full of functionality with minimal changes to anything. Finally Tati’s take on modern architecture was,“ Modern architects would love typists to sit straight, would also like everyone to take themselves very seriously. In the first part of the film, the architecture plays an essential role but gradually, warmth, connection and understanding as well as the person I defend, take over this global scene and then neon advertisements make their entrance and the world starts to spin and it all ends up in a merry-go-round. There are no more conventional angles at the end of the film.” (Chion, 11)

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