I just returned from the annual meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies in Philadelphia. This was my first Film Studies meeting, and I was attracted by this year’s conference theme, “Architectures of the Moving Image.” There weren’t a whole lot of architectural historians in attendance, as far as I could tell, but one of the two plenary speakers was Tony Vidler, one of the most prominent architectural historians in the country. His talk on Eisenstein and Le Corbusier pointed out a significant connection between Le Corbusier’s idea of the “promenade architecturale,” in which space is structured around framed views, and Eisenstein’s theory of montage – the piecing together of framed views.
On Saturday morning I delivered a paper entitled “The Heterotopia as Analytical Tool for Studying Architecture in Film: A Pedagogical Approach.” This topic comes directly from a course I teach called “Architecture on Film,” which I have offered twice at the University of Missouri. It’s been a pretty successful and popular course, and I have had a lot of fun with it. For those who have never heard the term “heterotopia,” it comes from the late French theorist Michel Foucault’s essay “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” which is a lecture he delivered in 1967. Foucault’s heterotopia is premised on an understanding of architecture as social space, that is, of space being defined socially through its use, rather than being defined physically by its form. Foucault created the term heterotopia to describe arrangements of space that “are endowed with the curious property of being in relation to all the others, but in such a way as to suspend, neutralize or invert the set of relationships designed, reflected or mirrored by themselves.”
I teach Foucault’s essay in my Architecture on Film course, comparing the films Grand Hotel (1932) and The Shining (1980). Clearly these films don’t belong to the same genre, and the hotels in these two films could not be more different. Rather, the contrast between them is highly effective for my purpose, which is to introduce architectural theory as a tool for film analysis. Both these films demonstrate the basic assumption behind the course on Architecture in Film: in the context of film, architecture does not simply serve as a backdrop or stage for the narrative to take place. Architecture conveys meaning in its own right, reinforcing emotional or psychological aspects of characters and themes, or even serving as a “character” in the narrative. The heterotopia theory explains the mechanism through which this happens.
The model of the heterotopia is in many ways better suited to the analysis of film than of architecture. In film analysis, the model of the heterotopia helps us to understand the transformation of characters, the moving forward of the narrative, and the creation of emotions (suspense etc.) as functions of space. It helps us to understand how a building can function like a character in a film, because of the effects it has upon the narrative, the characterizations, and all other aspects of the film.
Hotels are not the only kinds of spaces that function as heterotopias, either in film or in life. However, they undeniably function as “other” spaces – “other” to the spaces of our normal routine, spaces in which we form temporary, transitory social relationships and networks. Think about the professional organization at a conference hotel: we meet once a year, for a few days, and in that hotel space, the virtual community becomes a real, tangible community that exists in its physical form only away from our homes, away from the usual sites where our membership in that community has meaning (the classroom, the university office, the publications where our academic work is read, etc.).