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Arts & Culture

When a Movie’s Scene Stealer Is the Scene Itself

Architecture Course Explores Parallels of Making Films and Making Places

By Maggie Haslam

Stills from "Rushmore," "Children of Men," and "The Mirror"

A new course studying the use of architectural space in film focuses on movies such as (from left) "Rushmore," "Children of Men" and "The Mirror."

Most cinephiles agree that Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of a man in a wheelchair held captive by his apartment—and his own devices—stole the show in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “Rear Window.” But architecture Professor of the Practice Peter Noonan offers a different take: one where the claustrophobic quarters of urban apartment living literally build the suspenseful plot that makes the 1954 film required viewing.

Bucolic suburbia, a postapocalyptic city and a childhood home are just some of the settings that earn top billing in Noonan’s popular design seminar, “Architecture & Cinema: Place + Film,” where via settings in celluloid, he challenges students’ perception of place and how we inhabit it.

Through the reels of 28 films—from the dystopian black comedy “Brazil” to the sublime “Lost in Translation”—students explore how directors navigate and use built space to create a story, elicit emotion and create atmosphere. It’s a craft, said Noonan, that closely mirrors their future role as architects.

“Film is a fairly new medium, a little over 100 years old, but we’ve been making dwellings for millennia,” said Noonan. “What we film is deeply connected with how we dwell and how we live our lives.”

The class, which is offered most years since 2015, fills to its 15-seat capacity quickly, often with a waiting list. It is taken primarily by graduate architecture students, but it is open to other students with permission.

Each week, Noonan and his students consider a different theme through the lens of two cinematic classics: “Do the Right Thing” and “Magnolia” show the juxtaposition of urban and suburban life; “Chinatown” and “Bladerunner” depict the same city—Los Angeles—at different times; “The Tree of Life” and “Roma” explore domesticity and what defines home.

Noonan explained that the techniques used to make a good film are similar to those required for a good building: Examining the “long shot,” a continuously running scene filmed in a single take, helps students better understand the architectural technique of promenade, which maps the user’s pathway through a building or space. The “montage,” a sequence of short shots used to create a mood, tell a story or condense time, is very much like an architect’s technique of representation, with storyboarding and images used to convey a design idea.

Through an architect’s point of view, students in past years have broken down the terrifying tricycle ride in “The Shining,” the deceptive domestic takeover in “Parasite” and the chaotic final escape from a war-torn city in “Children of Men.”

The process, said Ken Filler ’16, has helped him think about places more spatially and consider the narrative and atmospheric quality of the designs he presents to clients, skills he has taken into his practice at Gardner Architects in Washington, D.C.

“I think sometimes we look at our buildings as objects, but in film, you’re immersed in the space through the lens of the camera and thinking about the user a little bit more,” said Filler, who took Noonan’s inaugural course. “I think we could certainly do more of that in the design process too.”

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