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The Greatest Glory – Architectural History and Cinematography

August 12, 2013

As an architectural history MFA candidate at The Savannah College of Art and Design, I am required to complete four studio-based classes during my program. However, there is little restriction when it comes to selecting which classes those may be, so the question became what do I take? I was lucky enough to participate in the only architectural history studio course in the Winter quarter of 2013. We pushed boundaries creating models, working with photography and digital devices to create an exhibition centered on the historical Savannah riverfront. It was a great experience, geared towards my profession in a very evident way. But now what? One studio down, three more to go. What else would pertain to architectural history without it being an architectural history class? I’ve taken numerous drafting classes before attending SCAD, and graduate drawing seemed too simple as I already draw and sketch.

What it eventually came down to when selecting my second studio is that I am a film enthusiast. I love watching movies, and I’ve always been interested in the process. One of my good friends went to SCAD for film, and I watched him complete his MFA project in 2006. I moved with him to Los Angeles and found a job working as an interior designer for a film studio. There, I caught glimpses of the industry in ways I never thought I would. But I was always on the periphery of the action. I decided taking a film class would finally test my application of a process that I’d previously only been a spectator in. It was also a hope that I could tie this into my degree, but I was unsure at that point how that would happen.

Jessica Archer_greatest glory_motion media project_spring 2013_3croppedSo, in the Spring quarter of 2013, I signed up for a cinematography and editing class through the Motion Media Department at SCAD. There, I got my first experience at what blending digital media and architectural history could look like. For our fourth project, we were required to take a poem “that seems to resonate the most with your personal experiences and sensibility.” This would then be spoken over a poetic visualization of the work that was to be “personal, original, and convey your interpretation and impression of the poem.” Most, if not all, of the project had to be filmed using a Sony FS100 camera. Technical requirements including correct lighting, white balance, and exposure were to reflect our previous training.  Voice over talent had to be found to read the poem, and if appropriate, a musical score was also to be selected keeping in mind copyright agreements.

Starting the project, I sifted through my collection of poetry books. I had found a few concepts that sparked my interest, but didn’t ring true to my experiences. I started to over-analyze the situation, and when you have a deadline of three weeks, over-analyzing the beginning of the process is not a good move.

It finally occurred to me that this was the project in which I could start to infuse architectural history with film. “You’re an architectural historian, Jess! That’s where your sensibility lies,” I thought. Back to the drawing board: what written treatise best expresses architectural history’s resonance to me? What came of this thought process was John Ruskin. In the “Lamp of Memory” of his Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin describes in a very rich, poetic way how vital architecture is to society; not because of the brilliance of its construction, but its endurance over time. As an architectural historian, it can be difficult, and sometimes impossible, to piece together the story of a place because that endurance is sadly not certain.  After reading through his work, the following excerpt spoke to me the most:

“For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity. It is in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things, in the strength which, through the lapse of seasons and times, and the decline and birth of dynasties, and the changing of the face of the earth, and of the limits of the sea, maintains its sculptured shapeliness for a time insuperable, connects forgotten and following ages with each other, and half constitutes the identity, as it concentrates the sympathy, of nations; it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and color, and preciousness of architecture and it is not until a building has assumed this character, till it has been entrusted with the fame, and hallowed by the deeds of men, till its walls have been witnesses of suffering, and its pillars rise out of the shadows of death, that its existence, more lasting as it is than that of the natural objects of the world around it, can be gifted with even so much as these possess of language and of life.”

Click on the YouTube video below to View the completed work:  

I decided to juxtapose Ruskin’s inspiring words of conservation and a building’s “lasting witness against men” against sites around Savannah that have lost their character because of the destruction of architecture.  Through previous research, I knew many lost buildings of Savannah that were now sites of modern highways, parking lots, or buildings. I selected four sites: The I-16 flyover which used to be the Union Depot railroad site; Ellis Square: a rehabilitated square of the original 24 in Savannah that was, for most of its urban existence, home to the Old City Market; the new DeSoto Hotel that replaced the original in the 1960’s; and the parking lot where the Wetter House used to stand on the corner of Oglethorpe and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. I had found good photographs of each site from when the buildings were still standing. Contrasting these against footage I filmed of each site in their current state, it was then my task to edit each of the before/after sequences together in a dynamic way.

I found a voice over actor, Brian Wallace, on He provided me with a stellar performance of Ruskin’s words, invoking a sense of urgency and deep thoughtfulness through his intonation and rhythm. I paired this with a slow, simple piano piece from Kevin MacLeod, a musician who provides hundreds of short instrumental pieces to use for free from his website. The editing of the footage, voice over, and music then became my task to artfully piece together. Utilizing Adobe After Effects, I added a grainy and slightly antiqued effect to the new site footage. Adobe Photoshop was then used to colorize portions of the original building photographs, as well as to create a sequence of pictures that slowly removed pieces of the photograph. Once incorporated into After Effects, I timed the photographs so that the pieces removed themselves to reveal the current building footage underneath. The timing also coincides with the musical tempo, and Mr. Wallace’s voice over was then laid on top to provide the spoken audio to the footage.

I’m very pleased with how my project came out. Having little experience with filming, editing, and visual effects, I received an amazing compliment from my professor. “It’s hard to evoke emotion for buildings, but you have succeeded.” I was surprised at first, because for me, I can get excited or saddened when I research a site’s story. The story is what moves me, what encourages me to further my studies. It is important, because even if the buildings do not last, as Ruskin advances through his writing, I feel it is our job to make the memory of the building or place last in every other form we can manage. However, for someone like my professor and classmates who are not invested in architectural history, it can be difficult to get the same sense of importance. I am glad I could share part of my experience with them, and induce strong emotions. It has furthered my career goals in that while I want to write and research, I also want to continue to evoke this emotional investment to those outside of the profession.

My thanks to Brian Wallace and his voice over talent, Kevin MacLeod’s music, my classmates of MOME360/709 for their critique and input, and especially to Professor Dominique Elliott, who guided and encouraged me through a difficult but extremely rewarding class. Timidly, I had thought of dropping the class because the lack of knowledge I had in cinematography. After speaking with Professor Elliott during the second class, I felt more confident in continuing under her guidance. If I can offer any advice to those students unsure of what courses to take during their college career, I say this: Don’t be afraid to take chances and explore other venues of expressing your given profession. There are surprising opportunities that can lead to a richer understanding and appreciation of it.

Editor’s note: Jessica Archer is currently an M.F.A. student in the Architectural History department at SCAD.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 17, 2013 12:49 pm

    Sounds great! I am only surprised at your professor claiming that it is hard to evoke emotion for buildings, as I am convinced they talk, and yell, and curse, and coddle in aggressively assertive manners. DR


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