March 5, 2010
demolitionman thebirds
Still from Demolition Man, 1993 (source)


Suspend me in a deep freeze, and do not wake me until the year 2036. Outside, the air will be cleaner, exotic new flora will carpet the landscape and the once gray island of Manhattan will have transformed into a tropical paradise. Moving sidewalks will have replaced moving cars; never again will one have to enter into the dark subterranean world of subways, rats and mildew. Skyscrapers that once hugged the ground will instead hug the sky, piercing the clouds on their way up to the cosmos. A robotic workforce will perform the most menial of tasks, leaving humanity to leisurely stroll the verdant landscape. Diseases will exist only in history books, made extinct by improved human hygiene and etiquette (instead of toilet paper we will use shells, and sex will be performed through a virtual reality interface). There will be no more violence, no more crime, no more jails, and no more need for police (apologies, Sandra Bullock).


Awaking in this future, my unwashed body will seem all the more pungent, my words all the more unsophisticated, my desires all the more grotesque. But, despite this, just one kiss of my cracked lips, the slightest transfer of bodily fluids from mouth to mouth and this perfect future will come crashing down.


E. Sean Bailey


Stairs to Cathy’s Room, The Birds, 1963 (source)


Can architecture generate significance in an era where the meaning of form is unstable and difficult (or impossible) to communicate? A recent book titled The Wrong House by Steven Jacobs explores the role that architecture plays in the films of Alfred Hitchcock a.k.a. The Master of Suspense. Jacobs identifies the staircase as a critical architectural element in Hitchcock’s cultivation of suspense. While staircases are not specifically symbols of suspense, Hitchcock develops a method for manipulating them into performing. Jacobs writes:


Dynamic and spatially fragmented structures, staircases are often places of crisis and their pespectival effects seem to isolate and confine characters. A central spine of domestic space, the staircase presents itself as an arena for psychological tensions. Furthermore, in Hitchcock’s films, staircases lead to trouble since they accompany the cognitive hubris of the characters. Inquisitiveness drives characters upstairs or downstairs. In addition, Hitchcock integrates his staircases perfectly into his technique of suspense: each step advances but also delays the denouement.


Last but not least, the activity of climbing or descending staircases is also often connected to another recurrent Hitchcock motif: that of the hanging figure, which elicits anxiety from moviegoers and arouses suspense – a word derived from the Latin pendere, meaning ‘to cause to hang’. Being the art that, according to Schopenhauer, makes visible the relation between support and weight, architecture simultaneously defies and obeys gravity.


Hitchcock takes a layered approach to creating suspense: one which reinforces the psychological through the formal. He demonstrates that although it may not be possible to directly imbue architecture with meaning, there remain opportunities to explore the psycho-spatial potential of architecture.


Erandi de Silva






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