Architecture in Antonioni
In these times of pandemic, the importance of the space we live in and its impact on our wellbeing and our relationships with others takes on an even more prominent role. The starkness of public space completely empty of people makes it a sad, fragile environment and we have no choice but to seek comfort and consolation at home.
If there is one cinema director who shows the role architecture plays in society, it is Michelangelo Antonioni. Of particular interest is his famous trilogy of “The Adventure” (1960), “The Night” (1961) and “Eclipse” (1962), featuring his star actress Monica Vitti, and, later, “Zabriskie Point” (1970), which was one of his most relevant films in this respect.
In the constant dialogue between setting and action, the background becomes just as important, if not more, than the foreground, influencing characters and shaping their emotions. For Antonioni, modern architecture was cold and harsh for humans, making it difficult for people to interact and creating a state of apathy and boredom. In his trilogy, the action primarily concerns human relationships, incommunicability, and the cooling of affection, but at a deeper level the camera seems to draw our attention first to the setting and then to the characters, as if the two were somehow interdependent.
Architecture is often portrayed as a barrier separating people from each other. Focussing on dehumanising examples of architecture, Antonioni includes long scenes in which most of the screen is occupied by things like huge concrete walls, pillars or glass facades and the human element becomes irrelevant. Narrative sequences and the behaviour of the characters are defined by a mirror, a window, or even the furniture. We often see deserted cityscapes, or the rational, imposing fascist architecture of Rome with its huge flights of steps on a scale completely different to that of the protagonists. One of the scenes in a later film by the same director, “The Passenger” (1975), was filmed in the Casa Milá, in Barcelona, which provided a vibrant, fantasy setting for another such encounter.
In “Red Desert” (1964), Antonioni’s first colour film, he again focussed on relationships, this time in an industrial city. Here, grey tones contrast with carefully chosen bright colours, for example in the characters’ clothes and some representations of industrial pollution. This and other films also often include scenes in which characters have their backs to the camera, thus drawing attention the background.
In “Zabriskie Point” (1970), we see post-modern America through the eyes of two hippies. Here the landscape is dominated by advertising billboards and tall, austere buildings make human figures look smaller and less important in the screen image, while the excess of consumer items is treated with irony. In contrast, there is a famous scene showing couples lying on the sand—a symbolic metaphor suggesting that the desert is one of the few places where it is possible to escape from an alienated world.
Antonioni took the contrasts between city and country, modern and classic, industry and Nature, as a point of departure for the moods of his characters, who find themselves trapped in a world unable to meet their needs. As the director himself said, “we are saddled with a culture that hasn’t advanced as far as science”. Building a city that makes us feel as good as Nature does is a challenge. It can be done based on dynamic, green urban planning, with more and better public squares and gardens, but also in buildings themselves, by means of inspiring facades and motivating interiors. When we see pale, empty modern cities but lively historic city centres full of vibrant activity, it is a sure sign that something is missing in the former. The psychological importance of our surroundings is evident and, in this respect, architecture has a poetic dimension that enables it to arouse positive emotions.