Luís Urbano: The Intersection of Architecture and Film

Interview with Luís Urbano, a member of the Steering Panel 2017

Luís Urbano in discussion with Karen Eicker about using narrative film to explore the intersection between architecture and film

Luis Urbano – architect, producer, director and academic – recently visited South Africa to participate in the first Steering Committee panel discussion for the Africa Architecture Awards, and as a guest speaker at the Architect Africa Film Festival 2016.

Urbano’s work explores the intersection of architecture and film, using the technique of narrative film to transmit the quality of architecture and building. His film, Sizígia, showcased at the AAFF2016, gives life and presence to Alvaro Siza’s iconic complex of tidal pools in Leça da Palmeira, through the visual, audio and emotive narrative that unfolds to a soundtrack completely devoid of dialogue or music.

He says, “As architects, even if we are not professional filmmakers, we possess the useful ability to frame perceptions in the same way that we frame a building through drawing. The way that architects think about creating a building is very similar to the way that filmmakers make a film.

In both disciplines, the end product is very expensive to create, so we cannot experiment with the real thing. Architects use drawings and models to communicate their intentions; filmmakers use storyboarding. And, when the real product is being made, only the architects and directors have the sole responsibility of organising the process as they are the only ones who have the whole image of the project in their heads. They are the ones who must guarantee that the integrity of the project is carried through from the original idea.”

This intersection between architecture and film is something that Urbano started to explore in his graduation thesis, beginning with a purely theoretical approach but then starting to use the language of cinema to explore the dimension of architecture. As a Professor in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Porto in Portugal, he began to encourage his students to use the language of film to explore the city of Porto through fictional ideas of the city.

He then started to organise 15-day workshops with other schools of architecture at Cambridge, Liverpool and Talin. The outcomes were a series of films of between 30 seconds and 5 minutes, some exploring urban fabric and others buildings – always using a narrative structure.

He then applied for a scholarship for a research project on the history of the strong relationship that existed in the 1960s between architecture and film in Portugal. Sizígia was born as part of this initiative. The film uses a very simple but clever story to depict the building as the main character.

Urbano advises that it is worth spending time on developing the narrative of the film before the process of filming begins. “Using just renderings, fly-through or video of the building without narrative is just showing the building – it’s not very inventive. Our perception of architecture and the way we memorise buildings is not a continuous path, so it requires planning and editing in order to make it more interesting for the audience. Focus on the atmosphere, surfaces and textures, and the opportunities that light and sound offer – rather than technical issues.

“Storyboarding – using drawings to depict the narrative – is an easy way for architects to visualise film. Architects have the capacity to anticipate because we are used to doing this with designing buildings. So design the film using drawing or photography before actually filming. And be prepared to spend time on editing, and participate in this process. Architects are used to editing spaces and joining together different textures and materials. Editing is probably the most important part of making the film, where the meaning and concept of the film are translated – so take control and be part of this process.”

As far as the soundtrack is concerned, Urbano believes that it is much more interesting to use the sound of the building and its urban context, rather than music, as the idea and experience of the film are transmitted more effectively. As cameras typically do not record good quality sound, it is probably necessary to record sound independently or build the soundtrack using sounds from a database of similar but better quality sounds in order to enhance the mood.

“It’s very important that this is not a gratuitous decision,” says Urbano. “For Sizígia, we only agreed on the sounds for setting the mood after the third composition, using sounds that weren’t even captured on site, like the cries of seagulls and the sound of children laughing. It was interesting to discover that people laugh differently in different parts of world – so we had to use the sound of Portuguese people laughing.”

Commenting on creating film for online platforms, like the Africa Architecture Awards, Urbano observes that the experience is completely different from being in a cinema where you go to intentionally see a film. “People disconnect very quickly. So the film must be short and immediately engaging so that people immediately relate. Social media has to do with velocity – after 1 or 2 minutes, if you’re not enjoying the film, you skip to the next.”

“In the last five years technology has changed a lot. On the positive side, students are now completely comfortable using mobile phones and small cameras, which they use in their everyday lives. On the downside, they are so at ease with the medium that, in the beginning, they don’t give proper attention to planning and framing because they want a quick outcome.”

By merging the world of the imagination and the creative media of drawing, writing and model-making, film has the potential to bring the communication of architecture into the future.

For more information on the work of Luis Urbano, visit .


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