Monday 8 April 2024

Designed on Celluloid: Architecture in Silent Cinema

High Treason

Samantha Leroy, in charge of "la programmation et d’exploitation" at the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé in Paris asked me to curate a season on architecture and silent cinema. This short essay was written to accompany my 40-film selection for a retrospective which was held in conjunction with an architecture exhibition, dedicated to Renzo Piano's magical design for the Fondation's building in the south of Paris. – Ehsan Khoshbakht

A love story of sorts, the relation between cinema and architecture. Architecture saw in the cinema what it had dreamed of for centuries: being equipped with eyes more penetrating and observant than those of human beings, a tool that could examine architecture from every possible angle and measure it in time. Cinema, in return, found incredible potential in architecture when architectural monuments and soon studio-built sets added attraction, realism, and drama to the movies.

This programme explores the spaces of imagination, innovation, and thrill constructed in the collaboration between the two art forms in the silent period when, to a large extent, the nature of a relationship was defined with cinema using architecture as either attraction or enlightenment.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

Architecture as Attraction – Aside from early cinema’s slapstick construction site and lost-in-a-house gags, there was always a good deal of sophistication in using architecture. Long before the arrival of the phenomenon of Deconstructive Architecture by people like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, it was Buster Keaton who, in One Week, a two-reeler about prefabricated housing, offered the timeless vision of architecture going wrong. Unlike real architecture the smallest mistakes can lead to full-scale disasters, in cinema, the bigger the mistake the better the film.

Nieuwe Architectuur

Architecture as Enlightenment – Proper “architecture films” – films discussing and showing the architectural issues of their time –emerged in a series of daring non-fiction and experimental work towards the end of the 1920s, dealing with architectural questions and boldly using the new medium to champion new approaches to design. A sense of euphoric internationalism can be detected in films like Nieuwe Architectuur (Joris Ivens, 1929) and Wie wohnen alte Leute (Ella Bergmann-Michel, 1931) as if through architecture a world will be built anew in which the problems of poverty, disease and hunger will be dissolved. These films are alluring celebrations of the functionality of modernist architecture, studied in wonder even a touch of poetry by filmmakers such as René Clair, Walter Ruttmann, and Eugene Deslaw. In Die neue Wohnung (Hans Richter, 1930), one of the most innovative architecture films of the silent era, even the management of interior spaces and furniture turns into a comedy of manners, anticipating Mon Oncle. Stuffy furniture of the old days is thrown out to make room for sliding doors and convertible spaces. 

One Week

Modernist architects were prominently featured on film (Perret Brothers and Pierre Jeanneret) and some even built sets for film (Robert Mallet-Stevens designed Marcel L'Herbier’s L'inhumane, 1924). Even Lloyd Wright, the son of the renowned Frank Lloyd Wright, designed some of the sets for Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922) which bore no relation to his modernist Californian design he was known for, even if his Tinseltown work is still charged with inspiring imagination. The architecture in film was a playground for trying all that was impossible or forbidden in an architecture atelier.


The architecture films that were made towards the end of the silent period tended to compare the crumbling and derelict neighbourhoods of big cities to the bright and rational vision of "new architecture". Yet, there was, unknowingly, a dark side to this overzealous modernism. In L'architecture d'aujourd'hui (Pierre Chenal, 1930), the dictatorship of a modernist straight line is at work where the hand of Le Corbusier mercilessly cuts the map of Paris into two halves, showing clear disdain for anything old. 

L'architecture d'aujourd'hui

The recklessness and dogmatism of the new architecture gave way to more pessimistic visions of a future ruled by skyscrapers and straight lines in dystopian fantasies such as Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) and High Treason (Maurice Elvey, 1929). These are miracles of film architecture, designed and built in a movie studio, impermanent and existing only in fragments. But even when only painted backdrops, as in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), they have a transcending sense of space. Their imagination can fetch far and fabricate worlds as in orientalist fantasies  like The Thief of Baghdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924), also famous for its early use of a Production Designer, someone in charge of the architectural look of the film. It was then enough to tell a story, as in Safety Last (Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor, 1923), by simply linking it with a building. In Seven Footprints to Satan (Benjamin Christensen, 1929) the set design became the very puzzle that this joyful mystery film wanted to dazzle the audiences with. Cinema even realised it can turn the camera on the constructed sets, show their artificiality and still achieve an intensity worthy of F.W. Murnau. Pere Portabella’s groundbreaking Vampir-Cuadecuc (1971), actually a sound tribute to silent cinema, is when the film set finds a metaphysical dimension through a lens of a political dissident.


It was perhaps an ironic touch that Auguste Lumière appeared in Démolition d'un mur (1896), not only as a metteur-en-scène but also a construction site foreman, ostentatiously directing both the film and the demolishing of a wall. Yet, the wall that is once demolished is soon re-erected thanks to cinema’s infinite possibilities for manipulating time (in this case, by reversing the film). The New – here the Cinematograph – arrives on the site of the Lumières’ factory in Lyon and the Old – a seemingly useless wall that once carried the load of a building – crumbles. Yet, the New lovingly and curiously looks at the Old and immortalises it. Playing with time, cinema rebuilds space.

The Thief of Bagdad

The Retrospective


The Birth of Film Architecture, TRT 73’

Démolition d'un mur (Lumières, 1896) 1' 30''

Polycarpe commis d'architecte (Ernest Servaès, 1913) 6’ 30’’

One Week (Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline, 1920) 24’

Nieuwe architectuur (Joris Ivens, 1929) 7'

Die neue Wohnung (Hans Richter, 1930), 24’

L'architecture d'aujourd'hui (Pierre Chenal, 1930) 10’


A Place in the City, TRT 65’

La tour (René Clair, 1928) 14’

Manhatta (Charles Sheeler & Paul Strand, 1921) 12’

De brug (Joris Ivens, 1928) 14’

Les nuits électriques (Eugene Deslaw, 1928) 12’

Wie wohnen alte Leute (Ella Bergmann-Michel, 1931) 13’


Expressionist Architecture#1

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) 77’


Expressionist Architecture#2

Raskolnikow (Robert Wiene, 1923) 150'


Designed by Architect

Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922) 133’


First Production Designer

The Thief of Baghdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924) 140’


Architecture of Antiquity

Quo Vadis? (Gabriellino D'Annunzio & Georg Jacoby, 1925) 135’


The Birth of a Monument

Shiraz (Franz Osten, 1928) 118’


Orientalist Fantasies

Geheimnisse des Orients (Alexandre Volkoff, 1928) 122’


Architecture of the Future#1

Aelita (Yakov Protazanov, 1924) 80’


Architecture of the Future#2

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) 155’


Modern Design

L'inhumane (Marcel L'Herbier, 1924), 125’


Architecture of Thrill#1, TRT 85’

One AM (Charlie Chaplin, 1916) 25’

Seven Footprints to Satan (Benjamin Christensen, 1929) 60’


Architecture of Thrill#2

Safety Last (Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor, 1923) 80’


Architecture of Fear#1

Le manoir de la peur (Alfred Machin & Henry Wulschleger, 1924) 67’

Le Manoir du diable (Georges Méliès,1896) 3' 20''


Architecture of Fear#2

La chute de la maison Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928) 62’


City Symphonies, TRT 80’

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Walter Ruttmann, 1927) 62’

Jazz of Lights (Ian Hugo, 1954) 18' [sound film with recorded music]


Films by László Moholy-Nagy (1926-36), TRT 70’

Berliner Stilleben (1926) 8'

Impressionen vom alten Marseiller Hafen (Vieux Port) (1929) 10'

Ein Lichtspiel schwarz weiss grau (1930) 7'

Architects' Congress (1933) 30'

The New Architecture and the London Zoo (1936) 16'


Mysteries of Architecture, TRT 63’

Het Alhambra (?) 7'

Chartres (Jean Grémillon, 1923) 13’

Bâtir (Pierre Chenal, 1931) 13’

Les mystères du château de Dé (Man Ray, 1929) 25’

Gnir Rednow (Joseph Cornell, 1955) 5’


Celluloid Architecture

Vampir-Cuadecuc (Pere Portabella, 1971) 75’ sound film with no dialogue except at the end of the film

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