Sci-fi films break ground for discussion

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By Owen Wood 

Bruce Willis speeds through the air in a flying taxi while cops in hot pursuit blast him with machine guns.  It’s a climactic moment in the movie The Fifth Element and nobody is paying attention to the architectural details is in the backdrop, a futuristic New York City.

Well, almost nobody.

Last Wednesday, the department of architectural and landscape design’s 1999 film and lecture series began with a screening of The Fifth Elementand a post-film discussion.  Winston Chong, a Ryerson graduate and project co-ordinator for Young and Wright Architects in Toronto, used science fiction films to explore ideas about the future of architecture.  He was brought to Ryerson by Yew-Thong Leong, an architecture professor and vice-chair of the Toronto Society of Architects (TSA).

“I spoke to Yew-Thong about how I translate my knowledge about film into architecture and he thought I was capable of comparing the two and maybe getting message across to the students,” says Chong.

Leong says the series gives students a complete picture of architecture.

Architects, like filmmakers, use many design elements, including scale, emphasis, contrast, colour and texture.  Leong says when architects concentrate purely on the function of a building and ignore these elements, there’s a negative impact on the people who live and work within it.

“If the whole focus is on architecture and we miss the opportunity to discuss cultural issues then we are left with nothing but filling cabinets for people to go in and out of,” Leong says, using the housing projects of Regent Park and the Jane and Finch areas as examples.

Another of the ideas discussed last week was the importance of using familiar elements in futuristic movies so that there’s something the viewer can relate to.  Although The Fifth Element used a mailing system that worked as fast as e-mail does today, conventional letters were still used.  Despite Paradise City, a vacation resort on a planet far from Earth, being an enormous sail barge that sat in the sky rather than in the sea, the opera theatre within it remained based on design used today.

“With whatever new things we come up with we must bring back something familiar,” Leong says.  “Every science fiction movie ever made has a human in it because if you take the human out of it, it might as well be about the mating habits of tigers.”

Applying the idea to architecture seems a stretch a first, but the point of the series is to expose students to new ways of seeing their work.

“You have to twist yourself to think a certain way,” says Clinton Hugh, president of the architecture course union (ACU) which is helping to organize the series.  “The first time I saw The Fifth Element I didn’t grasp the parallels with architecture.  But after I saw the film the second and third time, I could see the use of space and the openness of the building and the old opera house.”

This isn’t the first even of its kind to come out of the architecture building.  Guest speakers have periodically come to Ryerson to talk about their work.  Last year, Leong put together a panel of five architects, filmmakers and music composers to discuss parallels between film and architecture.  Junior Wilson, ACU vice-president, says these lecture are worth attending even for students outside of the architecture program.

“At last year’s lectures, interior design students, film students, history majors and architecture students were all in one room discussing architecture and film,” says Wilson.  “All of them had a different point of view based on their field of study and all of them were right to a certain degree.”

Hugh says subjects beyond architecture and film can also be interpreted in different way depending on a person’s field of study.

“The other day I was sitting with three RTA (radio and television arts) students and they were talking about Oprah and how the camera angles were off,” says Hugh.  “Whereas an architecture student would discuss the use of space or how the furniture completes the room.”

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