A soberly dressed middle-aged man is staring at an architectural model, an expression of earnest concentration on his face. "Psychologists have said that man's neurosis comes from too much contact with other humans," he states grimly. Gesturing towards the model, he concludes, "This won't happen in my city." The scene – from the 1960s film Beat Girl – is an unintentionally comic summation of the idea of the architect as deluded visionary, intent on inflicting his or her theories on society. Models play a central role in these delusions. They are an attempt to predict the future, projections of an alternative world that is much easier to control than the messy one we inhabit.
Architectural models are not always produced by architects though, and they are not always about the future. Gabu Heindl and Drehil Robnik's film Mock-ups in Close-up: Architectural Models in Film, explores the various roles they have played in film. It is a kind of taxonomy of the architectural model constructed through an epic collection of movie scenes in which they appear.
The film is an ongoing project, an archive that is ever expanding to include not just new films but recently discovered old ones too. Its current running length is 135 minutes and features 170 clips. Its premise is seemingly straightforward: the clips must be from feature films and only the scene in which the model appears is included. They are arranged chronologically – from 1915 on – and whatever editing decisions have gone into the choice of films or their precise order is left unstated.
This iterative methodology results in some rich juxtapositions and revealing adjacencies. There is a point during the 1970s when virtually all the films featured seem to be directed by Michael Winner. And who knew that Ben Stiller had starred in so many scenes where architectural models provide the comic punchline? The rubbing-up of European art films, obscure B-movies and Hollywood schlock provides an amusing sub-plot too. Any project that combines clips from François Truffaut's L'Homme Qui Aimait les Femmes and Herbie Goes Bananas is all right by me.
As co-director Drehli Robnik said in his introduction at the Architecture Foundation's screening of the film, at the Barbican this May, history enters by the back door in this project. Shifts in social and cultural values become apparent through changes in the roles of men and women, attitudes to authority and optimism about the future.
War films predominate during the 1950s and 60s, and these clips feature a succession of Nazi officers contemplating Albert Speer's model of Berlin or British commandos pointing at miniature representations of impregnable Alpine Schlosses. Later, the heist film comes into its own, and the model becomes a vehicle for other kinds of dreams and ambitions.
During the 1980s and 90s, there is a rash of American films exploring corporate life where the models are invariably of garish pomo office blocks and riverside condos. These include Michelle Pfeiffer struggling with a small child and a large model of a César Pelli-esque skyscraper in One Fine Day and Richard Gere fussing over the fenestration on his house design while his naked girlfriend lolls idly on a bed in Intersection.
Throughout these clips, the model stands as a symbol of hubris or as an accident waiting to happen. The collapse of self-deluding dreams is an inevitable part of the film's narrative, often expressed in the destruction of the model itself.
Despite Heindl and Robnik's aspiration towards completism, there are obvious gaps in the choices. Where, for instance, is the miniature Stonehenge from Spinal Tap? There are deliberate omissions too. Many films use models as backdrops, particularly in science fiction when the scene is entirely imaginary. Such blurring between reality and fantasy is of little concern to Heindl and Robnik. Their interest in models is highly literal and conceptually rigorous. It is more a character in the film than a prop, another actor on the stage rather than the stage itself.
The resulting film is far from straightforward or literal though. Heindl and Robnik describe it as a psychedelic experience and it does indeed induce a kind of semi-hypnotic state. The cutting and splicing of a series of unrelated but often very similar scenes – some no more than a couple of seconds long – makes for a disorientating experience. There is no narrative arc or forward motion, just an endless series of returns as if the same characters are doomed to repeat the same scene in different formats for the rest of their lives.
There is then a neat fit between the film's form and its content. Architectural models are representations that attempt to fool us into believing that they are the real thing. They are illusions into which we are repeatedly drawn and we remain suckers for their verisimilitude.
First shown in London on 18th April 2013 as part of the Architecture Foundation's Architecture on Film series.
Gabu Heindl and Drehli Robnik