By Isaac Walsh

The title of Architect is a rather ambiguous one. What exactly does an architect do? Pose this question and you may receive a response that references language branching from architectural notation; words like ‘floorplan’, ‘elevation’ and ‘axonometric’. While accurate, such language can be limiting to an architect as it only communicates physical space within the parameters of a snapshot in time. Most architectural drawings tell you nothing of the other fundamental factors architects take into consideration; factors such as sound, light, movement and time. These principles at their core are the very foundation of what make up human experience within the architectural realm, and our perception of the world altogether. They are the reason why certain spaces feel the way they do.

What is Affect in Architecture?

One of the many roles of an architect is to manipulate the conditions of our world to generate a perception of space — perhaps this adequately describes what an architect does. A carefully curated percept is then experienced in a user’s mind as affect: thefeeling, emotion or mood that is brought on by an experience. To dig deeper into this concept, we can look to another creative profession that uses sound, light, movement and – most importantly — time, to achieve affect in their work. This profession is that of a filmmaker.

The Parallels Between Architecture and Film

Architectural space, though perhaps not obvious at first, is always time-based. Like other temporal media, such as film or even music, experiences that span over a period of time can be fundamentally changed by the way their formats are perceived, when compared to experiencing them within a limited context– for example as a single slice of time. One way an architect can guide a user through time is via the architectural promenade; that is a sequence of spaces as experienced by their user. By thinking like a filmmaker, architects can use the promenade as a tool to compliment the skills they’re already familiar with using to design spaces — not unlike a cinematographer composing a shot, or a scene that is built to guide the eyes of its viewer. 

The Abstracted Promenade

An examination of this idea was something I investigated during my second year of architecture school. The concept was to recreate the temporal qualities and cinematic affect of three thoughtfully composed film clips in sequence from beginning to end using traditional architectural communication tools and drawings. The scenes borrow from “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” by Peter Greenaway (1989), “Goodfellas” by Martin Scorsese (1990), and “Dreams” by Akira Kurosawa (1990). The affective qualities of each scene were modelled physically, photographed, and digitally composed on to an abstracted section drawing designed to lead users through a sequential narrative of light, movement, space, and time.

Applications to Architecture

The film promenade may in itself be interesting, but what does it do for us? The spaces discussed exist parallel to reality; they live independently and will never cross into our physical realm. So, what happens if we examine the concept of the architectural promenade from the perspective of the tangible world? What would a similarly abstracted section look like of a building that actually exists? How can we abstract an environment one can visit, see, touch, feel and experience in real time? This was the next part of my examination, using the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. The building is a space which subtly takes users through a narrative of affect, making it an ideal subject. The final drawing produced traces a path in the form of a sectional promenade linking physical space to a curated spatial narrative that speaks to us using a filmmaker’s toolset: the pillars of light, space and time.

Why Affect Matters

What do we gain from this examination of affect? Is the lesson that architects should not be limited by the realities of designing for the real world? Should we no longer be influenced by the importance of sustainability nor the social impacts of design? Do aesthetics and atmosphere outweigh building codes and budget costs? Certainly not. Such realities are here to stay and will always be fundamental to the role of the architect. However, it is important that we do not forget about the side of design that lets us think like filmmakers and allows us to push the boundaries of what architecture can achieve through human experience.

The Takeaway

This exercise does not suggest that every piece of media should be deconstructed and described as a parallel to architecture. Rather, it makes the case that all creative disciplines overlap in more ways than may be apparent at the surface. Architects, filmmakers, artists and musicians all use affect to appeal to the human psyche in ways that move us to form appreciation from new perspectives. So, the next time you consider the question of what an architect does, look closely at the atmosphere of your surroundings and take a moment to notice how they affect you. You may be surprised by what you find.