Achilleion: Legacy of an Empress


On 10th September 1898, the Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni murdered Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, in Geneva. As it turned out, the royal known as Sisi had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time: Lucheni’s target, the Prince of Orleans, never showed up. Instead, Lucheni sealed Sisi’s undying mythology: the heavenly beauty, beloved by the people, trapped in her fate and longing for privacy, was finally free.

Elisabeth, a Bavarian duchess, married Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria at the age of 17, against the wishes of her parents and new in-laws. Legend has it that Elisabeth and Franz Joseph fell in love at first sight and that the emperor was under Elisabeth’s spell henceforth, willing to forego even official policy to fulfill her every wish. To the dismay of the emperor’s mother – and apparently all the men at court – Elisabeth had the “audacity” to be politically active. What was even worse, in her critics’ eyes, was that she lobbied for Hungary’s independence, which was a thorn in the Austrian Empire’s side. Elisabeth married for love and not duty and famously hated official ceremony. Instead she loved horseback riding, an allegedly unrefined sport for an empress. Romanticized even during her lifetime, worshiped Sisi also lived off the monarchy’s riches, supposedly had a private bank account in Switzerland, and traveled through Europe, Anatolia and North Africa for decades.


In 1860, Elisabeth fell ill and doctors recommended a change of climate. She went to Corfu, the Greek island in the Ionian Sea. Between 1889 and 1891, she had Achilleion built, a palace in the Pompeian architectural style, which also paid homage to Greek mythology. Elisabeth reportedly admired Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War, and the palace became a manifestation of her love for Greece, its culture and its language. Until her assassination, Elisabeth spent many years living in this palace. Her daughter Gisela inherited Achilleion but sold it to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in 1907, who used it for diplomatic meetings with other European rulers. The Kaiser was forced to abandon the palace in 1914 and it was used as a military hospital during World War I. After WW I, Achilleion became the Greek state’s property who used it as an orphanage in the early 1920s and later held official functions there. During World War II, Nazi Germany took over the Achilleion and transformed it into one of their military headquarters. After WW II, the Hellenic Tourist Organization seized the property and between 1962 and 1983 leased it to a private investor who converted the ground level to a museum and the upper level to a casino. While the Sissi trilogy* never filmed on location in Corfu, the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only used the Achilleion for its casino scene. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the building hosted several diplomatic meetings. Today, the Achilleion is a museum.


Sisi’s life is common knowledge – films, biographies, and even a musical,** while painting the image of an impressive woman also perpetuate certain theatrical “facts”: the “evil” mother-in-law who “tortured” Elisabeth; Franz Joseph’s “self-effacing worship” of his wife; Sisi’s “narcissism,” her “unfounded passion” for Hungary’s political freedom or her “calculated” use of her beauty as a persuasive power. This woman’s life thus reads like a classic Greek tragedy with the Achilleion as a monument to Elisabeth’s mythology.

Both the palace and its mistress endured a turbulent life. Just like this building on a Greek island, the factual and/or fictional representations and thus Elisabeth’s spell persist over a century after her assassination. A fierce individualist, Elisabeth did what she wanted by defying rules designed to keep an empress – a ruler – “in her place.” Far from remaining demurely at court in Vienna, the restless traveler even had an anchor tattooed^ on her shoulder. Tragically, she paid with her life for her unapologetic strength, independence, and hunger for knowledge. The palace’s unwavering resilience – it endured transformation throughout a century and was finally molded to serve as a tourist attraction today – remains as a contemporary witness to this 19th-century feminist.


All images © Stefan Gart 2018

*) This 1950s Austrian production of three films representa Elisabeth’s life story: Sissi (1955), Sissi – Die junge Kaiserin (Sissi: The Young Empress, 1956), and Sissi – Schicksalsjahre einer Kaiserin (Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress, 1957).

**) Elisabeth, written by Sylvester Levay and Michael Kunze, is an Austrian musical production, which premiered in Vienna in 1992, and was performed all over the world until 2016.

^) Women and tattoos are a contested subject even today. See, for example, this article in The Guardian or this project on Instagram.

Between Fiction and Reality: Mars Architecture

The MartianThe Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

In 2015, The Martian envisioned the hardships of life on Mars. Since NASA unveiled their plans to send a human mission to the red planet by the 2030s, architects around the world have started to envision possible habitats for humans.

These include Martian-concrete and 3D-printed housing, forest domes, and underground structures.

Martian concrete

Martian concrete.

Forest dome 1

Forest domes.

Forest dome 2

Redwood Forest Domes.

3D printing 1

3D-printed housing.

3D printing 2

More 3D-printed housing.

Underground martian-architecture-3

And underground structures.

Not only NASA aspires to colonize Mars, the United Arabic Emirates are working on designs for the first Martian city.

First City

A simulation in Dubai will benefit their research.


Meanwhile, endeavors to inhabit another planet have inspired sustainable architecture on Earth.


Feeling wanderlust? Check out NASA’s Journey to Mars!

Spaces for Illness in ‘Bates Motel’

Bates Motel, currently in its fourth season, is a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Set in today’s world, A&E’s television show offers an intriguing thought experiment about how a teenage boy might become the psychopathic serial killer Norman Bates.
Season four’s first episode, “A Danger to Himself and Others,” sets the stage for subsequent representations of the professional treatment of (mental) illness and its spaces. Norman, after suffering another psychotic episode, finds himself restrained on a gurney in the Willamette county hospital’s psych ward. The hospital calls his brother, Dylan, who tells his mother, Norma. While Dylan goes to Portland where their friend, Emma, is having a lung transplant, Norma rushes to see Norman.
Throughout the episode, Norman’s space and treatment are juxtaposed with Emma’s. The Portland All Saints Hospital is a state-of-the-art facility with competent and benevolent doctors who treat Emma gently and execute a textbook operation to save her life. Emma is afraid, which everyone understands and accepts while also reassuring her. By contrast, the county hospital psych ward where Norman is held is a shabby and crowded place. His gurney is stationed in the corridor and a busy nurse tells him that he must wait in his restraints until a doctor has time to see him. The difference between the two hospitals is striking and further exaggerated by lighting and framing choices. A sickly yellow-orangey tint fills Norman’s space. This is a color code conveying Norman’s mental-health state that has flared up throughout the seasons whenever he moved a step closer to becoming Psycho’s serial killer.[1]
     Remarkably, warm yellow light, which is usually perceived to be soothing, is distorted in the psych ward to instill discomfort. A cut takes the audience to Emma’s room. While it is dark to emphasize her fear, it was shot with a perfectly adjusted white-balance, representing an ordinary world. The waiting area of the All Saints hospital is also spacious, comfortable, and quiet. The locked room where Norman is finally put under 72-hour observation – without any explanation let alone consolation – might be spacious but it is also menacing in its isolation.
     Throughout the seasons, Norma increasingly isolates Norman and hides him away at home. In season one, he can barely participate in school activities. In season two, Norma takes him out of school altogether and makes sure Norman will not get a driver’s license, further restricting his movements. Her misguided actions are to protect him as much as to keep him for herself. Her solution is to control him, the spaces he inhabits, and the people he socializes with. In season four, after Norman is released from the county psych ward, Norma locks him into her room. By episode three, “’Til Death Do You Part,” he is locked away in a room in a mental institution some place near the woods in the outskirts of town.

Pineview Mental Institution

    Norman has yielded to signing himself into the Pineview Mental Institution – to please his mother. But his admission is equated with signing away his privacy and civil rights. He is being locked into his bedroom and deprived of certain items like his belt. When he points out that someone took it and wants to know why, a patronising nurse tells him that “nobody wears a belt around here.” Norman, in this extraordinary place away from ordinary living conditions, behaves like an ordinary teenager: he is angry. Indeed, his anger is justified and would be seen as acceptable outside the institution. But in this confined and supervised place, any reaction by the mental patient is scrutinized with extreme suspicion. Behavior seen elsewhere as ordinary is here treated as a symptom of an illness. The lack of trust and autonomy becomes apparent in the facility’s layout and its regulations of behavior, which are designed to observe and control the patient at all times.
Norma, feeling like she abandoned her son, persuades Norman’s doctor to let her see him. This woman who ostensibly tailors all her actions to benefit her son cannot bear to not be in control. She knows that she is finally “doing the right thing” for Norman. He needs professional help to get to the root of his illness so that he may get better. And yet, for Norma letting Norman work through issues with outsiders proves most difficult. After pushing him to open the door (to commit himself), she is reluctant to let him walk through it. Perhaps not least because this would involve trusting health-care professionals with well-kept secrets, which could lead to both of them ending up in jail for murder.[2]

     Norman is upset by his mother’s visit and goes to speak to his doctor. As he arrives at his office visibly distressed, the doctor’s secretary and a nurse immediately physically restrain him. They automatically treat him as a threat. Two male adults roughly handle this one skinny teenager even though he did not attack them – the patient is merely reacting to their fear of him. In episode one where he was strapped to a gurney although he remained remarkably calm and polite, staff around him displayed similar unease toward their mental patient. This behavior is puzzling because of its complete lack of empathy.
Bates Motel_Restraining Norman
    Comparing Emma’s physical to Norman’s mental illness, it becomes clear that one may be understood and cured while the other cannot be fully comprehended yet, which makes the recovery process more challenging. This uncertainty inspires fear. The usual human response to fear is wanting to neutralize the threat. In these cases, this is achieved by controlling the patient’s movements and his space. Instead of speaking to his therapist, the distressed Norman ends up locked in an observation room once more.
In season four, Norman has already turned into the psychopathic serial killer audiences know from Hitchcock’s Psycho. He just does not know it yet. But the audience does, therefore fearing him and what he might do is logical. Each episode delicately moves the story forward. The production, from lighting, sound, and framing to color themes and costumes, vividly conveys the characters’ experiences and their journeys through this fictional space. This television show can be categorized as drama and thriller, and as such it elicits strong emotional responses. And it is just that: fiction.
     Nevertheless, audiences may inhabit the show’s spaces and take part in this fictional journey. These representations of mental institutions and their patients inadvertently contribute to how mental illness and its treatment are perceived in society. Fictional representations certainly depend on the creation of extremes (the show’s county psych wards are shabby and saturated in eerie orangey light) and myths (mental illness is something to be afraid of). But these vivid representations perpetuate real prejudices. Within the show’s narrative, the mental-health professionals also do not know that Norman tends to kill people when he blacks out (after all, not everyone suffering from psychosis is secretly a serial killer). Their suspicion and indeed fear of what he might do is solely based on an exclusive categorization of them being people versus him being a patient. Episode one juxtaposes the spaces and treatment of physical and mental illness to show alarming contrasts. Due to the nature of the fictional narrative, these carefully established distinctions are all but forgotten by the time Norman arrives at the Pineview Mental Institution. For audiences immersed within the narrative and traveling through this often frightening space, it is easy to forget that mental illness is just that: an illness, and not something that needs to be feared or hidden.

[1] See, for instance, “What’s Wrong with Norman” (S1E3), after he has had another blackout, or “The Deal” (S3E5) when he steals a prolonged look at an undressing and unsuspecting woman at the motel.

[2] The show has created complex characters that are deeply flawed, which makes them all the more human. There is no doubt that Norma loves Norman, and that she desperately wants to be a good mother. In hindsight, Norma’s actions may have been wrong, and, as a mother, she is possessive and demanding. The show makes clear, however, that one cannot solely lay the blame for Norman’s murderous actions on his mother.

Ex Machina’s Meretricious Transparencies

The brilliant sci-fi Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) received numerous awards as well as two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Visual Effects. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to his remote home to assist him in the evaluation of his latest invention, a humanoid A.I. he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan,[1] the megalomaniac genius with disconcerting misogynist tendencies,[2] wants Caleb to Turing-test Ava. The exchange is set up with Ava behind transparent glass and Caleb seemingly leading the conversation. But this is where it gets complicated. Why is Ava behind this boundary? Who is interviewing whom? And who is watching whom?
     Nathan lives in a remote location that is only accessible via privately hired helicopter. Shot on location at the Juvet Landscape Hotel, Valldal, Norway, Nathan’s house is a marvel of modern design. At its origin, modern architecture symbolized progress and, above all, transparency in its purest concept of accountability and clarity. Glass, along with steel and concrete, were the materials of choice to express these sentiments. In Nathan’s house, however, glass deprives individuals of privacy and imprisons them. Here, glass serves as a boundary while allowing observation. Ava is presented to Caleb like a toy in a display window. Nathan monitors Ava and Caleb via multiple security cameras. Caleb watches Ava on his flat screen TV. Transparency, ostensibly good, is here transformed into a tool for surveillance.
 Ex Machina_2
     The tables turn when Ava is finished with her strategic observations of Caleb, and indeed Nathan. She passes the Turing test with flying colours. It was her who had been gathering information and watching her apparent superiors. While glass limits her space and screens monitor her movements, for her, these boundaries become membranes rather than barriers. She uses the cameras to her advantage and breaks through the glass to escape her prison. She traps both Nathan and Caleb in her former enclosure without a moment’s hesitation, and skillfully hitches a ride with the private helicopter.
At one point during a conversation with Caleb he had asked her were she would go if she could leave. Her wish is to go to a busy junction and watch people. Blending in perfectly, synthetic skin covers her transparent body parts, she can now observe individuals to her heart’s content. Where will she go from here?
Ex Machina_3


[1] In Hebrew culture, the name means “God will give,” which is a nod toward Nathan’s God-complex and creative genius.

[2] One wonders if his endeavours to create artificial intelligence stop short of his wish to manufacture the perfect sex toy as exemplified by Kyoko: mute (because which sexist creator would want “his” woman to talk?), obedient (great cook and cleaner!), and beautiful. Did he get bored with her? What about all the other divine specimens of female anatomy hidden in his closet?

Water: Prerequisite for all life known to man

Ambition is a 2014 short film by Tomek Bagiński, available to watch for free on the BFI Player. In this film, which is set in the distant future, humans have learned to create with the power of their mind. But, the master explains, the key to all life remains water. Comets – celestial objects of ice, dust, and molecules – are the key to understanding water. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission was the first to explore a comet. The student has learnt this by accessing the information in an archive. In Ambition, the master teaches the student what is most important for any creation. Then, he declares her ready and she proceeds. First: water.

Particles controlled by the human mind to shape creations. (Ambition, Tomek Bagiński, 2014)

     The creation of water starts with fire. Not one shot of the film shows water in any form or shape. The mise-en-scène is filled with particles, dust, gradations of blue, wind, and fire. For all its importance, water is conspicuously absent. This inspired a few questions that I briefly address here. How does water affect people and their habitat? How is water used in fictional narratives?

Fire to create water. (Ambition, Tomek Bagiński, 2014)

     Water is the original shape shifter: fluid, solid, and gaseous. It exists in ephemeral states yet it is ubiquitously present. On Earth, anyway. How does it affect a city? How does it affect people? There are harbors with water routes for resources and transportation. There are fountains and pools for pleasure, and indoor plumbing as an everyday luxury in the western world. It takes gallons of water for the production of your morning latte. Rain, snow, and ice are obstacles to be avoided and removed during your daily city routine.
I am about 75% water. I complain about the rain. I love the snow, but not in the city. I don’t think about ice, only ice cream. I don’t know about water vapor in the air because it is invisible. Yet, without water, I don’t exist. The city does not exist.
In fiction film, water is rarely acknowledged unless it is part of a narrative that explores extreme circumstances. In Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015), a post-apocalyptic world has become a desert desperate for water. On the opposite end of narratives imagining a catastrophic future are films like The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004) or Waterworld (Kevin Reynolds, 1995). Frozen or liquid, too much of anything, even if it is essential, is still a bad thing.
Mad Max_Immortan Joe_Water

Immortan Joe releases a huge stream of water. (Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller, 2015)

The Day After Tomorrow

New York is frozen. (The Day after Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich, 2004)

     What about outer space? Well, for one thing, we don’t do laundry in space. Water behaves differently in zero gravity. And a big part of space exploration is the search for water and inhabitable planets that man can potentially colonize. Research for NASA’s Journey to Mars shows that the red planet held vast oceans in ancient times, which makes it an ideal candidate for further exploration.
In The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015), a human mission to colonize Mars faces considerable obstacles. Before they are forced to leave the planet in an emergency, the astronauts manage to create the basic structures for human inhabitation. This includes housing, transportation, lots of plastic, duct tape, and their trash. Just like any other city on Earth. The situation changes when one astronaut is stranded on the planet and has to grow sufficient food to survive long enough for the rescue team to arrive. Nothing grows without water so he creates an environment that is essentially a tiny eco system. Here too, the creation of water starts with fire when the astronaut burns rocket fuel in his new greenhouse. Without fire, there is no water. Without water there is no survival.
Fictional narratives that explicitly explore the relationship of humans with water invite viewers to contemplate H2O and what its availability or scarcity may mean for individuals’ daily routines. While not all narratives focus on water per se, they address vulnerabilities of human existence. This short exploration into the representations of water onscreen indicates that, if it is part of the narrative, it is because there is too much or too little of it. Otherwise, if there is just the right amount of water, it is a life-giving luxury that is taken for granted.
The Martian_Fire and Water

​A failed attempt to create water with fire. (The Martian, Ridley Scott, 2015)


Plausible Spatiality: Interior Layouts and ‘Scandal’ (S4E10)*

* This blog post contains spoilers!
Film and television ask the spectator to suspend disbelief. This is true not only regarding narrative or character construction but also in terms of the cinematic world. Fragmentary space is stitched together to form a unified whole. Moving images, whether set in the past, present, future, or even outer space, aspire to invent a verisimilar world by assembling unconnected spaces into a coherent, integrated place. This illusion of the wholeness of space on-screen is created by the interplay of cinematography, editing (or lack thereof in tracking shots), and set design. Art directors plan the construction of logical spatial relationships even before the shooting of the film begins.[1] Production design plays a crucial part in the construction of cinematic worlds. Yet spatial continuity vs. discontinuity is an understudied subject in film and television, which instead tends to focus on editing techniques or the mise-en-scène in connection with thinking about set design.[2]
In most American productions that use the continuity editing system (unobtrusive cuts), fragmentary imagery is perceived as a verisimilar place and is thus not usually questioned. Rarely is there a noticeable glitch in the cinematic layout. Perhaps when this does occur, it is noticeable because one has grown familiar with a particular spatial imaginary that is now breached. An example of such spatial discontinuity recently materialized in the American television show Scandal. The political drama, currently in its fourth season, centers around Kerry Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, who is a former White House Communications Director now running her own crisis management firm. In episode 10 of season 4, “Run,” Olivia Pope is abducted from her apartment and taken to an undisclosed location. In the following brief discussion of the opening sequence, I pay particular attention to the plausibility of the layout of Olivia’s apartment and the floor it is on.
In over 60 episodes throughout 4 seasons, the viewer has never seen a particular corner of the entrance hall to the two apartments on Olivia’s floor. Only three out of four sides that make up the square of this space are known: (1) the elevator, (2) Olivia’s apartment entrance door, and (3) her neighbor’s apartment entrance door. Number (4) is presumably a wall between this entrance hall and Olivia’s hallway to her bedroom.

Olivia dances in her living room next to the entrance door and the hallway to her bedroom.

In the episode under consideration, Olivia is snatched from her living room in a matter of seconds and disappears. Jake, a trusted friend and recurring lover, soon discovers that he is left alone in the apartment. He proceeds to run after Olivia and turns his attention to the hitherto unknown fourth wall, which is revealed to offer a door to a fire escape stairwell, and starts what will be a futile pursuit to street level. Meanwhile, it is subsequently revealed, Olivia is actually hidden in her neighbor’s apartment. The kidnappers (and scriptwriters) have thus concocted an ingenious plan that aligns the spectators with Jake as well as anticipating his fruitless actions and leaving the viewers feeling deceived, frustrated, and astonished. The sequence first builds suspense through the abrupt change in tone from careless ease to life-threatening situation, and then by proceeding to withhold information and unraveling the actual events in well-timed stages. At first, the spectators are aware of what Jake seems to know and are encouraged to fear for Olivia’s wellbeing. Only when Jake returns to the apartment and takes immediate action to find her, the viewer learns how the events have really been coordinated, finding out about Olivia’s surprising whereabouts.
The sequence seamlessly sutures together unconnected spaces through unobtrusive cuts and a soundtrack fusing all fragments to create a wholeness of this specific place. Thus the spatial discontinuity is masked through the urgency of the situation created by this key plot event (narrative development), Olivia and Jake’s reactions (performance), and musical motifs signaling danger (sound). In this sequence, the question of spatial verisimilitude is moved to the background to create viewing pleasure. Spectators are encouraged to feel emotional involvement towards their heroine’s predicament rather than question the invented physical world.
If one does consider the layout of Olivia’s apartment, one realizes that the fire-escape door is impossibly placed: the door would in reality lead straight into her hallway. If one were to further question the spatial layout of the entire floor, it would become clear that the neighbor’s living room also overlaps with Olivia’s bedroom. Nevertheless, this sequence entertains by creating an imaginary wholeness the spectator is discouraged to assess. Instead, the narrative is foregrounded to disregard spatial coherence. This brief example shows that the perception of space in film and television requires the suspension of disbelief not merely regarding plot or characters but also in terms of spatial integration in the construction of its physical world.
Scandal_S4E10_Outside Apartment

The kidnappers peak through the neighbor’s door viewer: elevator (right); Olivia’s open apartment door (opposite); open fire escape door a.k.a. wall of Olivia’s hallway (left).

Scandal_S4E10_Fire Escape

Jake runs down the fire escape stairwell a.k.a. a different set location.


The neighbor’s apartment invaded by the kidnappers: Windows where logically there is (a) Olivia’s bedroom or (b) the fire escape stairwell.


Physical layout of Olivia’s floor showing the impossibility of spatial continuity nevertheless created through editing techniques.


[1] For a discussion of set design in film, particularly 1930s European cinema, see: Sue Harris, Tim Bergfelder, and Sarah Street, eds., Film Architecture and the Transnational Imagination: Set Design in 1930s European Cinema, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014).

[2] See, for example, John Gibbs, Mise-en-Scène: Film Style and Interpretation (London: Columbia University Press, 2002); or David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 10th ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2012).

Person of Interest: Site-Seeing 2.0

The establishing shot is a device of the filmic language to situate the viewer in cinematic space. Here, I briefly trace the history of this practice of filmic mapping and discuss its use in the American television show Person of Interest. Currently in its fourth season, Person of Interest is a science fiction crime drama revolving around secret agents, a billionaire tech genius and the prevention of violent crimes in New York City with the help of an A.I. mass-surveillance system.
From its inception, film sought to take its spectators to new, and exciting locations on far-reaching journeys. Giuliana Bruno, in her seminal book Atlas of Emotion, contends that film transports the spectator to these locations, turning them from voyeurs into voyageurs. She argues that the visualization of filmic travel, through the simulated cinematic movement in space, turned sightseeing into site-seeing.[1]
Traditionally mainly used at the beginning of a film, the establishing shot, just like a map used by the traveler, introduces an unknown location thus making it familiar. To further inform about and position the viewer in the filmic space, actual maps or street signs were used.

Person of Interest is a show that reframes the mapping of space while challenging attitudes towards the question of who is looking. Throughout each episode, the viewer is presented with an abundance of establishing shots, almost obsessively tracking every move of the characters while illustrating the possibilities of modern mass-surveillance techniques. Its two A.I. characters, the Machine and Samaritan, do not simply offer the viewer reassuring security by informing them about their current location. These images make it very clear that the spectator is being situated within the cinematic space as well as being watched. These two differing A.I. characters, one ostensibly imbued with ethical values, the other obviously weaponized, further problematize the importance of who is watching and with what agenda.
In its treatment of terrorist threats, the show also re-appropriates the practice of sightseeing. In “Control-Alt-Delete” (S4E12), various historical landmarks in downtown Detroit become merely endangered sites flagged by Samaritan’s all-seeing gaze. This representation of the mapping of space is Person of Interest’s dystopian vision of site-seeing 2.0.


[1] Bruno, Giuliana. 2007. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso.

On the Edge of Your Seat

Are you as excited as I am about the new ‘Don Draper’ bench in midtown New York? It is a recently unveiled piece of public art created to celebrate the acclaimed AMC TV show, Mad Men, about an advertising agency in 1960s New York, and surely an ideal selfie-spot for any fan. As I wait on the edge of my seat for the final episodes to air over the coming weeks, I am wondering how inviting this bench might be? Situated on a public square in front of the Time & Life Building in Manhattan, it does look rather dapper, as well as roomy and comfortable. Promising you the opportunity to become a part of the Mad Men world and its desirable lifestyle, this piece of art expresses the essence of the show: Not only by paying tribute to its iconic character and opening sequence, but also by masterfully promoting itself. After all, advertising is what mad men and women do best. Buying into the glam and glitz, fans indulge in the consumerism that rose to international heights in the postwar boom years.
But what happens if an individual is unable to join the capitalist frenzy? Is social distance equated to spatial distance? Is it fair to assume that this ‘public’ art is for ‘everyone’ or are there perhaps members of the public that are less ‘desirable’ occupants of this space and its bench? In summer of last year, several articles in the press, such as this[1] and this one[2] in The Guardian, discussed the impact of anti-homeless architecture designed to repel such ‘undesirable’ groups from using street furniture and to prevent anti-social behaviour. In his article, Stimulating the Senses in the Public Realm[3], the architectural historian Iain Borden questions this desire to control the character of a public space. He explores issues of ownership of public space, the right to use it, and how it may be used. These articles explore the notion that public spaces are designed to determine people’s actions[4]. Furthermore, even in our mass-communication age, marginalized groups such as homeless people are simply not part of the picture: they are very rarely represented in the media and thus rendered invisible. Since they have no buying powers, their ‘desired actions’ seem to be to stay out of sight and off the public architecture. Given the plight of tens of thousands of homeless people in New York alone, this discrimination is striking in its invisibility.
A recent initiative in 2014 in Vancouver invited homeless people to use specially designed public benches. As I am preparing for my first trip to New York, I am wondering how likely it is that homeless people will be welcomed on this particular bench in Manhattan?

– Sigrid Preissl


[1] Omidi, Maryam. “Anti-Homeless Spikes Are Just the Latest in ‘Defensive Urban Architecture.’” The Guardian, June 12, 2014. Accessed April 3, 2015.

[2] Quinn, Ben. “Anti-Homeless Spikes Are Part of a Wider Phenomenon of ‘Hostile Architecture.’” The Guardian, June 13, 2014. Accessed April 3, 2015.

[3] Borden, Iain. 2005. “Stimulating the Senses in the Public Realm.” In What Are We Scared of?: The Value of Risk in Designing Public Space, by Charles Landry, 20–33 and 44. London: Cabe Space. pp. 22-23, 29.

[4] See Borden and Quinn.

Silentium: Ornaments and Crime Scenes

Silentium (Wolfgang Murnberger, 2004) is an Austrian crime film set in Salzburg. Brenner, a former police detective turned private gumshoe, is hired by a high-society widow to investigate her husband’s alleged suicide. In the course of the film, Brenner unearths a network of crime and corruption involving the most important institutions that have constituted the essence of this city for centuries: the Catholic Church and the Opera.
Salzburg’s baroque buildings take its visitors back to the era of 16th-century Italian architectonic expression of the triumph of the Catholic Church. The city also has a long and internationally renowned history of music, which it celebrates through frequent festivals in grand settings. In Silentium, woven into and hidden beneath the ornamental façades of Salzburg’s built environment, as well as its theater performance, are the most heinous crimes. To expose the city as illusion, I consider Janet Ward’s work on urban visual culture in 1920s Germany. In Weimar Surfaces, she identifies the cult of surface: external appearance (in architecture, advertising, film, fashion) without substance. She contends that in this era transparency was sought through the functionalism of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which rejected the visual codes of ornamentation from the past[1].
The film emphasizes throughout that nothing is as it seems: an alleged suicide is calculated murder to keep the silentium (silence) about sexual child abuse by a bishop; a humble priest helps the homeless by day and organizes murder, sex trade, and corruption by night; a brilliant opera singer enjoys raping virgins. Navigating through this existence of Sein (to be) and Schein (to seem) is Brenner, the reluctant hero undeterred by neither high art nor high society.
The pious architectural past is juxtaposed with the criminal present. The recent sexual assault allegations against the bishop of the Christian boarding school, Marianum, permeate today’s crime scenes. On the surface, the Marianum is a place of benevolence and religious worship. Magnificent surroundings honor the presence of God. Underneath, however, are cold and dark basements devoid of any adornment – spaces ideal for committing as well as hiding crimes.

The film’s most monstrous criminals circulate in and enjoy the most splendid surroundings. Golden ornaments, light, and luxury mislead the characters as well as the spectators. The sumptuous festival hall and a 19th-century mansion become the setting for great deceptions by opera stars and criminals alike. Nevertheless, as Brenner perseveres, the facades start to slowly crumble, if only metaphorically. In the end, the city’s urban fabric remains magnificent with its religious and musical essence intact, while the experience makes transparent the true depths of human nature.


[1] Ward, Janet. 2001. Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014)

From the first frames, Jim Jarmusch’s 2014 film, Only Lovers Left Alive, juxtaposes the cycle of the eternal with the ephemeral. Night-sky stars transition into an endlessly rotating vinyl record. Bird’s-eye views of the eternal lovers Adam and Eve spin into and out of each other. The desolate, decaying Detroit is contrasted with the physically deteriorating yet vibrant Tangier. New and old technology, rock and classical music, vampires and humans: all represent past and present; life and death – two seemingly opposed yet entangled sides of one element. The lovers are exuberant and restrained – Eve displays childlike fascination with everything and Adam gloomy rejection of life itself. In a sequence that takes place before Eve travels to Detroit, she sensually dances to Adam’s music. He is recording in his house studio as his song transitions from diegetic to extra-diegetic music, and image and sound melt into each other to transcend space and time, connecting the lovers. As the paradigmatic elements of Einstein’s entanglement theory, which is a recurrent theme in the film, Adam and Eve are intertwined even when continents apart. Their eternal love defies ephemeral humanity and corrosion, and triumphs in the cycle of life and death.


Detroit’s architectural decay is a physical expression of Adam’s apathy and his disdain for humanity’s destructive tendencies. Humans, whom he calls zombies, have not only managed to contaminate their water but also their own blood. Lingering in the past, Adam can only admire what has been lost, refusing Eve’s continuous turn of the hourglass and embrace of the present. His passion solely awakens as he talks of forgotten centuries or vanished beauty. When he takes Eve to the now derelict and sadly re-appropriated “famous Michigan Theater”, they marvel at its lost splendor. Low-angle shots of the faded luxurious ceiling are accompanied by Adam’s sorrowful recounting of the theater’s history. Built in the 1920s it stands on the exact same spot where Henry Ford first built automobiles. In its prime, the theater could seat over 4,000 people for concerts and movie showings. Adam states that “mirrors used to reflect the chandeliers” and as the camera perpetually caresses the remains of the theater’s walls the audience is transported to the bright lights, ordained mirrors, elegant guests and splendid entertainment of the past. When the camera slowly pans down to reveal Adam and Eve in the center of the dark and desolate building, it leaves this past to descend into the present: now the former theater is merely a car park. This architectural decline not only illustrates Adam’s longing for bygone elegance but also demonstrates Detroit’s economic bankruptcy.

Only Eve recognizes the city’s ambivalent landscape. Its desolate streets are seemingly devoid of all life. Yet, as she joyfully discovers throughout her stay, it is filled with wild animals and plants that should not be there. Just like Adam and Eve’s lives are intertwined – his apathy and her fascination forever connected – so too are industrial ruin and thriving nature. Eve’s driving force throughout the film finds beauty in destruction and recognizes that one has to adapt to the eternal cycle of life and death. Broken records that will never spin again and contaminated waters are a part of the city. For Eve, a smashed guitar reveals its inner beauty and the Spanish Inquisition was fun – and Detroit will rise again.