Ever since my first undergraduate writing class, when I wrote a paper on cafés and the homogenization of local culture, I have been exploring a notion of authenticity and place. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how this preoccupation has been the thread that ties everything together over the course of my professional and academic trajectory. Cities, the messy and always changing accumulations of identities, histories, and memories have always appealed to me. Attempting to understand what contributes to their rich sense of place is what led me to pursue Urban Planning as an undergraduate in addition to my current studies as a graduate student in Landscape Design.
Along the way, I’ve had the opportunity to take many courses in Film Studies. Cinema has always interested me for its ability to amplify the unique qualities of a place, pairing vivid images of the urban landscape with the stories of its diverse inhabitants. Years of dedicated cinephilia have shaped my understandings and experiences of urban places the world over — a nostalgia for the images and stories of films watched permeates my urban wanderings. Studying film has also influenced my approach to the design of cities; I can trace the inspirations, ambitions, methods, and aesthetics of many of my design endeavors back to a particular film. The research for an urban design strategy in Reno began with a viewing of John Ford’s The Misfits (1961). A landscape design proposal for a cultural performance center in Pittsburgh was indebted to the portrayal of August Wilson’s backyard in Denzel Washington’s Fences (2016).
Last year, my advisor Professor Chip Sullivan and I were awarded the opportunity to explore further connections between cinema and landscape design. This research allowed me the time and space to reflect on film’s role in the conception of cities, and led to my current thesis research which considers film’s suitability as a method in the design of the public realm within marginalized communities.
Moving images have been critical in shaping modern conceptions of today’s fragmented urban landscape. The images in films often preclude direct experience with a place or even a feeling. When one drives through the American West, he or she experiences the landscape through the windshields of Wim Wenders or the widescreens of John Ford. Moreover, society has become increasingly fluent in the filmic language, and our eyes have begun to interpret and ascribe meaning to the cinematic moments of everyday life. The view of a city skyline conjures up an orchestral score. A significant conversation casts a new, dramatic light on a place. In the movies, even the most mundane or idiosyncratic environments can be embedded with meaning.
The identities of cities are inextricably linked with their images. Once a film is produced, the images within percolate through the psyche of its audience, creating new associations about the place that it portrays. It is the accumulation of these associations that creates the mental image of a city. Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, for example, portray the now iconic image of San Francisco with its dramatic hills covered in beautiful, white architecture, or its bustling downtown lined with palm trees and well-to-do cosmopolitan crowds. These representations have, for better or worse, worked to develop and solidify the hegemonic conception of a city.
What is to be said, then, about the Bayview-Hunters Point, a historically working class, African American neighborhood that has not traditionally figured into the mainstream image of San Francisco? While it certainly identifies with the steep hills and surrounding views of the Bay, the community’s cultural values and identity are underrepresented. Not until poet James Baldwin’s (still virtually unknown) 1963 film Take This Hammer, was the Bayview District dignified with its own representation. The gentrification taking place within San Francisco is increasingly threatening the strong identity of the community portrayed in the film. Can a landscape design project use filmic techniques to project a new image for the Bayview-Hunters Point?
The dynamic qualities of film — always in motion and composed from disparate fragments — make it especially suitable for replicating perception and memory. Perhaps more so than in any other art form, successful films can resonate with past lived experience, allowing us to recollect memories and thus, strengthen our identities.
Throughout the history of motion picture, filmmakers and theorists have explored cinema’s capacity to express memory. Director Terrence Malick, for example, is celebrated for producing imagery that is personal and subjective, yet tactile enough to be emotional and meaningful to his audience. Is Landscape Architecture able to truly capture, portray, and produce memories in the ways that films can? In their book Landscape Narratives, Jamie Purinton and Matthew Potteiger use the analogy of a memory palace, or the rhetoric device by which one maps memories onto a spatial complex, to show how urban design can function mnemonically. Perhaps designed elements in the public realm can function to recollect the memories of a neighborhood, merging or superimposing layers of the past onto the present.
If film has become the definitive medium of our time, shaping the way we perceive the world around us, then it is due time for landscape designers to consider its role in the design process. In the Bayview District, the remnant urban space that has resulted from the stratum of values over time presents an appropriate opportunity to study film’s relevance to the work of landscape design. Filmic thinking provides methods for reconciling or providing narrative to the fragmented and undefined nature of these sites. When spliced together, recollection images may help these fragmented sites to function mnemonically like the chambers of a memory palace and ultimately to contribute to the authenticity of the place.
Gene Stroman is a Master’s student in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning. With a previous degree and professional background in Urban Planning, he is especially interested in cities and the way in which places accrue meaning and cultural value over time. Gene is currently serving as the managing director for Ground Up, the Department of Landscape Architecture’s student-run journal.