Recent advancements in digital technology, have not only deeply transformed the production of film and architecture but brought the two disciplines closer than ever before. The digital has allowed ground-breaking, if not hasty, changes in the way that architecture is not only produced, but also designed and conceived. In contrast, however, to the extensive use of computational design to interrogate the formal, material and structural possibilities of architecture, this article explores how new time-based media and computer generated imagery in film can unlock the story-telling, political and philosophical potential of architecture. I will focus on three projects – Agit-Prop (2014) by Liam Davis, Wates House (2014) by Daniel Cotton and my project Déjà vu (2009) – which combine techniques and tropes from both cinema and design as a means for reflection and commentary in architecture.
Originally coined by the German artist Hans Richter in the 1940s, the term ‘essay film’ describes an intimate, allusive and idiosyncratic genre at the margins between fiction and documentary. Richter poignantly suggests that the essay film makes the invisible world of thoughts and ideas visible on the screen; it produces complex thought-reflections that are not necessarily bound to reality, but can also be contradictory, irrational, and fantastical. Dealing with political and philosophical issues, the essay film is cinema at its most engaged and liberated.
Examining the three projects in comparison to examples of essay films that reflect on architecture or the city, such as Dziga Vertov’s, Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Wim Wender’s, If Buildings Could Talk (2010), and Alain Resnais’s, Toute la mémoire du monde (1956), my aim is to propose a new hybrid genre lying at the boundaries between architectural design, theory and film, what I call: the ‘architectural essay film’.