University of Waterloo
School of Architecture
Arch 443 / 646
Architecture and Film 2007:

"How Uncanny"

Film gives us the rare opportunity to completely question all that has come to be accepted in terms of the language of architecture as well as architectural and historic convention. Vitruvius claimed architecture was composed of the triple essence: strength, utility, and aesthetic effect. Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639) quaintly changed this to, 'commodity, firmness and delight.' It would be safe to say that the majority of architecture that has been created to date has attempted to follow this dictate.

Throughout the history of film, we have seen a change in the ways in which architecture is used, portrayed and represented in film: from the scale models of the 1920s, through to actual sets, rendered backdrops, and now to complete green screen filming. This term we will view films with a focus on the creation of the set, and the varying impacts of these sets in the end result of the film.

More specifically we will be looking to define Masahiro Mori's notion of "The Uncanny Valley" as it relates to the creation of the architecture and setting for films. Mori's theory specifically focussed on feelings arising from the almost human representations in robots and androids. We will look at film sets through the same eyes. How does this theory relate to the use of scale models, painted sets, backdrops, computer generated architecture, greenscreening and combined methods, when they are used to represent "real space" in film?

The Architectural Uncanny was explored in the mid 1990s as a series of essays that focused on the Post Modern in architecture. Post Modernism, in its way of reflecting on the images of the past, sometimes in a very theatrical way, can be seen as a parallel of sorts with the creation of sets for film - that may use the past, present or create a future, in somewhat a similar theatrical fashion. Much Post Modern Architecture left the viewer with an odd feeling experience - one that was not based in "reality". Different means of portraying film sets, can create the same phenomenon.

Both of the above theoretical positions reference the explorations of the Uncanny by Sigmund Freud in the late 1800s. His references were specifically directed at the emptiness of urban space that left the user feeling uncomfortable. This referenced earlier contrasts that were studied from the idea of "the homely" - or comfort as expressed by the idea of "home", versus what had appeared in horror as the "unhomely".

"uncanny" topics
terri meyer boake
helen tout
reena mistry
alex chan
terry sin
susan varickanickal
aisling o'carroll
paula lee
sava miokovic
evelyn lo
kate gould
suzanne gibson
cassandra cautius
matthias heck
minwoo lee
david henderson
ben wong
adam brady
erin corcoran
melissa ng
jamie usas
john mcfarlane
chao lun wang
shannon ross
Filmography for the course
  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) discussion questions
  The Golem (1921) discussion questions
  Metropolis - Fritz Lang (1927) discussion questions
  Metropolis - Osama Tezuka (2001) discussion questions
  Playtime (1967) discussion questions
  Blade Runner (1982) discussion questions
  The Fifth Element (1997) discussion questions
  The Truman Show (1998) discussion questions
  I Robot (2004) discussion questions
  Renaissance 2054 (2006) discussion questions
  Sin City (2005) discussion questions
  A Scanner Darkly (2006) discussion questions
  Suggested Readings:  
  Vidler, Anthony. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1992.
  Vidler, Anthony. Warped Space. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000.  
  Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Originally published, 1899.
  Royle, Nicholas. The Uncanny. New York: Routlege Press, 2003.  
  Affron, Charles and Mirella Jona Affron. Sets in Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
  Paradoxa. Volume 3: The Uncanny. link  
  I think Sebastian, Therefore I ... Somersault. Film and the Uncanny. Leslie Stern. link

back to arch and film 2007


Student Uncanny Films:

As part of the course, students made films that incorporated the notion of the uncanny into the presentation. The links below take you to their uploads on YouTube.


"Goodnight Seattle!"
Evelyn Lo and Ben Wong

"Digital World Nightmare"
Paula Lee

Victor Hugo. La Maison Visionee. House at Pleinmont, Guernsey, 1866.

updated Saturday, November 15, 2008 4:49 PM