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Tarkovsky and Architecture: A Dialogue

Stephen Zecher

Cinema and architecture are mediums through which unique human experiences may be imparted. Through these instruments, space and temporality can be sculpted and attuned. In film, framing, imagery, sound, atmosphere, and scene progression are used in concordance to create an event that transcends the typical human experience. This human experience with film, and the methods in which the director forms these potential experiences, have a similar relationship with the methods of architects. Specifically, the films of the Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky, create a perception of space and temporality that relate to architecture on a collective of six layers to be discussed in this essay. Tarkovsky’s films avoid the common didactic narrative and cinematography of general cinema; instead, they foster a unique potential for human curiosity and participation. The discourse of cinema with architecture allows then an interchange of ideas, of methods as well as an enlightenment and augmentation of architecture when examined through Tarkovsky’s films. This dialogue will be discussed through the aforementioned levels of human experience present in the relationship between the traits of Tarkovsky’s films and the traits of architecture.

Framing and Space

One of the most evident traits of Tarkovsky’s films is his framing of scenes. There is a certain approach to the composition and camera movement of the scenes of his films, which activates an awareness of space in the viewer. Tarkovsky frames his images as frontal perspectives with a single vanishing point. This compresses his images into two dimensions, similar to a painting. This is an element of Tarkovsky’s abstraction of cinematic representation.1 This is an element of Tarkovsky’s effort to, according to Vlada Petric, “makes viewers aware of [their] experiencing a work of art as a subjective transposition of reality.”2 The scene becomes a representation of reality through a different lens, and Tarkovsky’s films similarly become estranged representations of reality.

An unconscious peripheral vision is introduced in Tarkovsky’s films on multiple levels. Tarkovsky is not only concerned with composition, but with the ability to define space through subject and camera movement as well as spatial compression, expansion and through sound as well. The camera takes on a physical presence in the space of the setting instead of being simply a viewpoint, it becomes an element in how Tarkovsky maps the space of a scene and reveals it. The camera itself always moves along solely two axes and along only one of these at a time. The first is parallel to the picture plane; the second is along the perpendicular depth direction. This movement is slow and never with speed or urgency. This retains the two-dimensional, painterly abstraction of Tarkovsky’s compositions while creating a method in which to define space through movement and framing. In the second scene of Nostalghia a car drives across a landscape saturated by fog, the camera pans with it at first, tracing a path through the middle ground of the space before the camera stops and the car continues its movement out of the frame. The engine remains audible as the car moves through the space outside of the frame, turning and returning into the frame in the foreground. This movement and sound effectually expands the space of the scene outside the frame, creating an awareness of peripheral space outside the camera frame, which the viewer recognizes as present though it is not visually defined.3

Figure 1: the car moving through the diffused landscape.

An architectural example that directly speaks to this concept of framing is Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Family Tomb (1972). Certain passages and structures frame views both within and outside the site. One particular passageway and its opening frame a distant church above a field of corn and the even more distant Dolomite mountain range to create an analogous composition. The foreground of the grounds and Tomb, the cropped heights of the corn stalks in the summer, the church steeple and the mountains in the distance become a single composition and are compressed through framing and brought into the project visually.

Figure 2: the framed view

This concept of peripheral space is also conveyed even more thoroughly in the experiences of Gorchakov in his hotel room. When he initially arrives, the frame crops out the majority of the space. Gorchakov moves away from the camera, into the room, first opening a window looking out into the countryside, flooding the room with natural light and expanding the space. He closes the window, compressing the space, and switches on the overhead light, which flickers ineffectively before he turns it off. He moves back towards the camera to pass around the bed turning a on a dim lamp resting on a nightstand on the other side of the bed. The light begins to define and map spaces through light and shadow. Then entering the bathroom, he feels the wall while he enters, unable to find the switch. The sound of water dripping in the bathroom had been echoing through the room earlier in the scene, placing the bathroom in the context before it was ever visually shown. He enters the bathroom, exiting into a separate space and distancing himself from the camera as it holds its position, expanding the depth of the framed scene. He moves through the rest of the room, closely tracked by the frame, opening an armoire and then a Bible. Simple, but notable actions such as the flickering lamp, Gorchakov’s small effort to find the light switch, and the armoire imprint their placement and the action in the mind of the viewer. In the second scene of Gorchakov in his room, the camera now shows the entire space and all of the elements of the room are seen in the entire interior context. But the sound of rain and its distortion of light from a window create another peripheral space outside the frame once again. Gorchakov opens the window to the rain before laying in his bed, while the rain spills into the room, expanding the space of the scene once again.

Figure 3: the first scene in Gorchakov’s room.

Figure 4: the second scene in Gorchakov’s room.

Scarpa’s Brion Family Tomb exemplifies this concept of peripheral space as well. The chapel on the grounds of the Tomb demonstrates these elements of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia quite thoroughly. As one moves through the chapel, certain elements can be interacted with that affect one’s experience of the chapel and situate the chapel within its environment. The most obvious of these elements are the openings into and out of the space. The physicality of opening the doors place them and the space in the psyche of the participant. Their opening and closing also compress and expand the space, creating or impeding visual axes as well as axes for physical movement that extend throughout the grounds. Behind the altar is an opening, which, particularly in rain, creates a similar sentiment to Gorchakov’s hotel room window. The sound of rain and its intruding into the chapel create a similar peripheral space outside the frame of the architecture.

Figure 5: opening behind the altar in the Brion Family Tomb chapel.

This peripheral vision is not only limited to the immediate environment as well, or the physical environment at all for that matter. Gorchakov’s hotel room also creates peripheral imagery of memory and dreams unique to Gorchakov’s experience. This will be expanded upon further into the essay.

Narrative and Temporality

Tarkovsky’s films relate to architecture in their treatment of narrative as well. Traditional narrative in cinema is primarily an organization of individual scenes into a chronological progression in a straightforward linear sequence with scenes of past, present and future made distinct and segregated. Tarkovsky’s narrative in Nostalghia and especially evident in another of his films, The Mirror, are instead collages of memory and the present, of dreams and reality. Tarkovsky’s narratives often do not follow a linear time sequence, but will be interrelated in a disjunctive time sequence. As Petric points out:

Instead of controlling the viewer’s attention by cutting from one image to the other, Tarkovsky emphasizes the temporal nature of reality, by means of which he transcends the commonplace signification of objects in order to reach something that the naked eye neglects or is unaccustomed to perceiving.4

Often the narrative or program of architecture is thought of as a linear experience that participants will singularly follow. There are two fallacies in this mindset of how to foster a human experience. Not every participant will experience architecture in the same manner, intellectually or physically, and providing a linear narrative in the first place is reductive. What the quotation above implies is that Tarkovsky’s collage of memory, present, and dreams as well as their lack of ability to be made cognitively distinct prevent the viewer from reading the image as simply a candid representation of reality. It becomes a more than an analog of reality, but something in which viewers may insert their own individual deliberations of what they believe they perceive.

This collage of scenes both in time and out of time creates the potential for a unique experience of each scene of Tarkovsky’s films and different methods of perceiving their connections. This is especially evident in The Mirror; the narrative of the film is partial with no clear connection or arrangement of the scenes. Actors play multiple roles and characters appear in timelines they should not be present in. Throughout the film, the opening scene of a man being cured of stuttering becomes apparently unrelated to the rest of the narrative, confusing the lack of a clear narrative progression even further.5 In Sculpting in Time, Tarkosvky’s written work on cinema and his films, he articulates that “the film image comes into being during shootings and exists within the frame, while editing brings together shots which are already filled with time.”6 The nature of time and narrative in the film becomes interpreted by the viewer and therefore given the significance of its composition by the viewer as well. This speaks to architecture as a possibility that space, instead of being assigned a linear narrative, can provide various potentials for discovery, environmental interaction, and participation. These constituents would be composed in manner that would not require a linear progression, but instead foster a unique, individual experience and meaning through the interaction and insight of each participant. This possibility for infinite personal interpretations is especially vital in architecture as it is the participant who determines the movement of their field of vision and the depth and scale of their interaction. In architecture one does not have the guidance of a cinematic director. Instead, one creates their own composition and sequence of events.

In Daniel Libeskind’s Jüdisches Museum in Berlin (2001), this participant-formulated conception becomes apparent through the composition of the spaces in the lower level of the Museum. The museum contains two sets of spaces referred to as axes and voids. The first set, the three axes, are circulatory spaces that fork at the lower entrance into Libeskind’s addition to the Museum and cross at three points along their non-linear, collective path. Each of these paths exhibits personal effects of Jews who were displaced or murdered during the holocaust. These paths end in the aforementioned voids, spaces that are bare of any sort of program. The voids are uncomfortable spatially (the Garden of Exile space’s floor and concrete stele are excessively slanted and the floor of one void is covered with sculptural, rusted steel “faces”) and environmentally (all of the voids are not heated nor cooled and lack light other than sunlight entering through small slits) to the point of making the visitor particularly physically uncomfortable. It is through these traits that the spaces become evocative of what the participant interprets them to mean. While the context of the spaces in the museum is distinct, what each visitor introduces to their own interpretations vary.

Figure 6: the multiple paths of Libeskind’s Jüdisches Museum in Berlin, which end in void spaces of various potential meanings.

Experience and Meaning

As denoted earlier, the purpose of film to Tarkosvky is to “…penetrate the environmental facts, based on the director’s belief that the camera is capable of unearthing the hidden significance of the material world.”7 The philosopher Paul Ricouer describes this artistic productivity as “iconic augmentation,” the ability to create potential in art that transcends the figurative or symbolical nature of representation.8 In architecture, this is described by David Leatherbarrow as an adjectival augmentation of the latent potentials of a place through architecture.9 While every architect may find their own meaning in a work, its ability to be read metaphorically through these augmentations or perhaps inability in a precise manner at all provides the potential for individuals to find their own unique experiences in it.

Tarkovksy’s films resist an intellectually reductive reading of meaning, instead fostering an experience unique to each viewer, allowing for an infinite meaning. He believes that the filmmaker has no effect on the final meaning a viewer discerns in a film; it is through an individual participant’s experience that meaning is found. This experience is both sensory and intuitive, but is cognitively other than intellect. Tarkovsky wrote, “for the empirical process of intellectual cognition cannot explain how an artistic image comes into being – unique, indivisible, created and existing on some plane other than that of the intellect.”10

This is reflected in the fact that Tarkovksy overtly states that he employs no symbols or metaphors whatsoever in his work. Instead individuals introduce their own memory, experience, anticipations and meaning into the work.11 This becomes further evident in Tarkovsky’s description of the mise en scène:

It is crucial that mise en scène, rather than illustrating some idea, should follow life—the personalities of the characters and their psychological state. Its purpose must not be reduced to elaborating on the meaning of a conversation or an action. Its function is to startle us with the authenticity of the actions and the beauty and depth of the artistic images—not by obtrusive illustration of their meaning. …As soon as mise en scène turns into a sign, a cliché, a concept (however original it might be), the whole thing…becomes schematic and false.12

This view of the mise en scène of cinema, what is conveyed by the camera and its arrangement, can be directly related to architecture. Film directors must define a context for the scenes of a film and by doing so they create a place, the mise en scène. This creation of place is of course the very purpose of architecture; it is what is conveyed to the participant and its arrangement.13

The “authenticity of the actions and the beauty and depth of the artistic images” in Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia is conveyed through the events of the film, their authenticity, and the manner in which they are represented.14 These representative images can be related to experiences of reality in many scenes of the film, but there are certain scenes with visual elements that take on an overtly estranged or dreamlike quality. Vlada Petric describes this visual element as dream imagery, which is when the film becomes estranged from the nominal reality. Tarkovsky does this through an introduction of surreal context or events, transcending physics, as well as cinematic effects such as color changes and depth of focus. These are all qualities that may be associated with dreams, allowing the human mind to comprehend the images, but not on an intellectual level.15

Figure 7: dream imagery from The Mirror.

The ability of this imagery to convey an experience outside of the physical or visual realm as well as the rational human experience is the aspect that becomes productive to architecture. The aforementioned second scene from Nostalghia of Gorchakov in his hotel room continues into this dream imagery after the opening of the window to the exterior scene and weather. The progression continues from an expansion of the physical context to the context of Gorchakov’s memory and dreams, or his internal experience of the place. It begins subtly with Gorchakov’s wolfhound materializing from the door of the bathroom as Gorchakov drifts into a dreamlike state. The wolfhound walks over to his master, lying down at the side of the bed. While the wolfhound lies down, the sound of a glass bottle knocked over echoes as though the dog is truly physically present. The effect of the dream is made apparently existent as an event in the room and part of its experience for Gorchakov. The scene changes to a dreamed encounter between Gorchakov’s wife and his interpreter, Eugenia, who is in tears while they embrace one another. Eventually, Gorchakov wakes from the dreamlike state with his wife lying in the bed next to him. He then climbs off the bed, and his keys to his Russian home rattle in his pocket as his coat drops from the side of the bed. This instance is another connection to memory and a peripheral image outside of the present context.

In the essay “Unscripted Performances,” David Leatherbarrow states, “The building is its effects and is known primarily through them, through its actions or performances. What is true for people is also true for buildings; character shows itself in what they do, in the decisions, choices or actions they take.” These actions and performances that take place in architecture he refers to as events. Events are not influenced solely technical elements or aesthetics, nor are they determined by the various expectations of people. Events are characterized as having mysterious beginnings and unexpected occurrences. These unscripted performances cannot be objectified, nor can they be quantified logically. To understand how to architecture affects these events, one must operate on a method other than pure rationality, much like how one comprehends Tarkovsky’s dream imagery. In Nostalghia, perhaps it was the atmosphere in the hotel room or his argument with Eugenia in the hall that influenced Gorchakov’s dream. But it is not definitively possible to determine, though Leatherbarrow asserts these variable events can be designed for if one approaches them obliquely. One must consider the experience of architecture for the participant from a phenomenological standpoint. Much like the oblique approach one must take to understand the imagery of Tarkovsky’s films.16

From Cinema to Architecture

The insight gained from this discourse with Tarkovsky’s work is one that is translated. Methods of cinema and architecture are not completely identical and do evolve quite differently in the respective works. This discourse more so becomes an exchange of poetics and an understanding of the comprehension and conveyance of the human experience. A context in which Tarkovsky’s work is extraordinary and one in which architecture can become equally prodigious.

Works Cited

Leatherbarrow, David. Architecture Oriented Otherwise (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008).

Minnis, Stuart. “Roughened Form of Time, Space, and Character in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 25 (2008).

Petric, Vlada. “Tarkovsky’s Dream Imagery,” Film Quarterly 43, no. 2 (Winter, 1989-1990).

Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema (Helsinki: Rakennustieto Publishing; 2nd Edition, 2008).

Tarkovsky, Andrei. Sculpting in Time (Texas: Univ. of Texas Press, 1989).

Tarkovksy, Andrei. Nostalghia. Gaumont, 1983.

Tarkovksy, Andrei. The Mirror. Ruscico, 1975.

1 Juhani Pallasmaa, The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema (Helsinki: Rakennustieto Publishing; 2nd Edition, 2008): 149-150.

2 Vlada Petric, “Tarkovsky’s Dream Imagery,” Film Quarterly 43, no. 2 (Winter, 1989-1990): 32.

3 Juhani Pallasmaa, The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema (Helsinki: Rakennustieto Publishing; 2nd Edition, 2008): 151.

4 Vlada Petric, “Tarkovsky’s Dream Imagery,” Film Quarterly 43, no. 2 (Winter, 1989-1990): 28.

5 Stuart Minnis, “Roughened Form of Time, Space, and Character in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 25 (2008): 243-246.

6 Vlada Petric, “Tarkovsky’s Dream Imagery,” Film Quarterly 43, no. 2 (Winter, 1989-1990): 28.

7 Vlada Petric, “Tarkovsky’s Dream Imagery,” Film Quarterly 43, no. 2 (Winter, 1989-1990): 29.

8 Vlada Petric, “Tarkovsky’s Dream Imagery,” Film Quarterly 43, no. 2 (Winter, 1989-1990): 29.

9 David Leatherbarrow, Architecture Oriented Otherwise (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008): 34.

10 Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (Texas: Univ. of Texas Press, 1989): 40.

11 Vlada Petric, “Tarkovsky’s Dream Imagery,” Film Quarterly 43, no. 2 (Winter, 1989-1990): 28-29.

12 Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (Texas: Univ. of Texas Press, 1989): 25.

13 Juhani Pallasmaa, The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema (Helsinki: Rakennustieto Publishing; 2nd Edition, 2008): 144.

14 Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (Texas: Univ. of Texas Press, 1989): 25.

15 Vlada Petric, “Tarkovsky’s Dream Imagery,” Film Quarterly 43, no. 2 (Winter, 1989-1990): 29.

16 David Leatherbarrow, Architecture Oriented Otherwise (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008): 49-52.