Essay

Space and Time -The Experience of Architecture in Cinematic Works of Andrei Tarkovsky


Ross M Brown*

Edinburgh, March 23, 2014 (Alochonaa): Throughout the cinematic works of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, the relationship between space and time is explored in a manner that foregrounds the phenomenological basis of architecture. Themes of nostalgia, memory and decay are consistently recurring motifs that span the length of Tarkovsky’s career, from the shifting ambiguity of place within “Stalker” to the yearning for home implicit within “Nostalghia”.

Tarkovsky’s exploration of architectural space through a time based medium allows an authentic investigation into the tension that exists between space and time. This tension manifests itself in a division that results equally in the distancing of man from his homeland and the erosion of structures both literal and metaphorical.

Making reference to architectural theory and philosophy, the importance of architecture in the work of Tarkovsky will be analysed identifying parallels between film and the built environment. Paying specific attention to images of ruin within the film “Stalker”, examples from other cinematic works will be discussed as a means of gaining a deeper understanding of these recurring motifs and themes. The director’s own personal circumstances and political climate of the time will be alluded to briefly in order to place his work within context. This will result in an overall assessment of Tarkovsky’s architectural images and their continued relevance to both contemporary society and the modern psyche.

“At times we think we know ourselves in time, when all we know is a sequence of fixations in the space of the being’s stability- a being who does not want to melt away and who, even in the past, when he sets out for things past, wants time to ‘suspend’ its flight. In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time.”1

The Architecture of Cinema

The director, like the architect, assumes the role of constructing and overseeing a project which is carried out by a team of individuals who are specialists in their respective field. The overarching vision of the director is what holds these disparate elements together allowing the finished product to be read as a cohesive whole. Like architecture, which intends to direct movement through a physical space, the film maker must manipulate time in order to direct the viewers experience of a fictional or psychological space.

“What is the essence of the director’s work? We could define it as sculpting in time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble and inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not part of it – so the film maker from a ‘lump of time’ made up from an enormous…cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards what he does not need, leaving only what is integral to the cinematic image.” 2

Tarkovsky’s parallel with sculpture may as easily be related to the processes of architecture. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the audience enters into and subsequently becomes immersed in the body of the film as they would a building. The director arranges shots in sequence as the architect designs a floor plan, framing and confining, dissecting and condensing elements through which the spectator is encouraged to partake in the flow of movement. Similarly, both architecture and film possess the ability to effect the audience in a somewhat unconscious manner. This ability relies in their common tendency to manipulate what Richard A. Etlin defines as ‘existential space’;

“…architecture creates…enclosures for us in which the vertical middle axis remains empty…The spatial construct is an emanation of the human being present, a projection from within the subject, irrespective of whether we physically place ourselves inside the space or mentally project ourselves into it.”3

In this way, the hollows of time which create a film may be seen as the cinematic equivalent of the inhabitable negative spaces of architecture. The tendency to ‘mentally project’ oneself into a perceived space clarifies (in architectural terms) the relationship the viewer has with the fictional space of the film. The director’s conscious and meticulous manipulation of time is often used in a manner that draws attention to its passage. These long takes present themselves as temporal expanses which have the effect of gently beckoning the mind into the territory of fiction. In this respect, each of Tarkovsky’s films may be seen to act as a catalyst willing the viewer into a form of poetic reverie or daydream.

Further to this, Etlin’s quote touches upon the nature of mental and physical space as interlinked and interdependent. Bachelard outlines the flux between interior and exterior worlds;

“Our soul is an abode. And by remembering ‘houses’ and ‘rooms’, we learn to abide within ourselves…the house images move in both directions: they are as much in us as we are in them.”4

Through Gaston Bachelard’s quote, we are presented with human experience as a composite of internal and external realities. Within the mind, memories, dreams and imagined happenings blend with exterior, objective inputs. Film as a medium holds the ability to present a condensed view of the world that is authentic to our experience of reality. Through the choices made by the director, objective and subjective views are merged and overlapped resulting in a finished work that is a product of yet remains unburdened by objective reality. This relationship between interior and exterior worlds is distinctly architectural and helps explain the consistent use of the house image throughout Tarkovsky’s career. Within “Space and Place – The Perspective of Experience” Yi Fu Tuan explains;

“It is a common tendency to regard feeling and thought as opposed, one registering subjective states, the other reporting on objective reality. In fact they lie near the two ends of an experiential continuum and both are ways of knowing”5

The house image holds the ability to manipulate both ends of this experiential spectrum, providing a useful tool that can manipulate our sense of ‘existential space’. In this way, Andrei appropriates architecture in a manner that extends beyond each site functioning solely as a backdrop or setting for narrative action. Instead, the traditional focus upon narrative elements within film is dismissed in order to draw attention to the more subtle aspects of film making; space and time. These concerns, more commonly associated with the process of architecture, allow Tarkovsky to unlock the deep connection that man has with the dwelling place.

Dwelling and the Russian Disease

As outlined by Heidegger, Bachelard and Norberg-Schulz the aspirations of architecture extend beyond the primary concerns of providing shelter, warmth and protection from the elements. Beyond these core functions, all architecture intends to assume a stabilising character for both the physical and psychological aspects of its inhabitants. The house aims to provide an unchanging environment, a constant that reassures its occupants through its familiarity. In this sense, the home may be seen to function as an anchor in an uncertain environment, an existential foothold within a landscape of flux;

“According to Heidegger, one’s capacity to live on this earth- to ‘dwell’ in the phenomenological sense – is essentially an architectural experience. The very Being of being is linked to one’s sittuatedness in the world.”6

However, the concept of dwelling and the desired sense of “sittuatedness” that results is constantly under threat from the very catalyst that allows it; the passage of time.

These ideas permeate throughout Tarkovsky’s entire film-making oeuvre. Given the director’s own relationship with his place of origin, it is understandable that ideas relating to the problems of dwelling would provide the basis of his creative output. Whilst remaining intimately tied to his cultural identity and national heritage, Andrei found it increasingly difficult to work in his own country. Creatively confined by the Soviet screening board, he later defected to the West in order to direct his final films: “Nostalghia” and “The Sacrifice”. The 1983 film “Nostalghia” can be seen to provide a personal account of the director’s own relocation, albeit relived through a fictional protagonist.

The roots of the word “nostalgia” itself help to define the difficulties associated with dwelling. The dictionary defines nostalgia as “homesickness” or a “longing for something far away or long ago”.7 Made up from the Greek nostos meaning home, and algos meaning pain, Tarkovsky conveys nostalgia as a distinctly Russian trait;

“I wanted to make a film about Russian nostalgia – about the particular state of mind which assails Russians who are far away from their native land. I wanted the film to be about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots, their past, their culture, their native place.”8

Despite Tarkovsky’s articulation of a specifically Russian form of homesickness, the underlying themes of his work have a universal reach. The ideas explored by the director, such as the difficulty of finding one’s place in the world, have importance for every individual. Paying particular reference to the aforementioned philosopher Gaston Bachelard, amongst other theorists, we can begin to understand the primacy of the house image and its own universality. The attachment that one has with their own place of origin is reflected within images of domestic architecture. As nurturer and protector of the childhood environment the house plays the same role that the country should assume in adulthood. Similarly tied to ideas of identity and existence, the nostalgia for the dwelling place seeps into the surrounding soil on which the house is built.

The Nostalgia of the Stalker

The 1979 film“Stalker” presents us with a bleak Dystopian world where the possibility of any belief in the future has all but disappeared. The plot centres around a prohibited space called “The Zone”, a site which is said to possess miraculous properties that extend beyond the comprehension of science. At the centre of this “Zone” exists “The Room”, a place where the innermost desires of the occupant are manifested. The three characters who seek to navigate “The Zone” are Writer; a novelist who has lost his inspiration, Professor; a scientist who intends to make a discovery beyond that of his peers and Stalker; a guide whose relationship with the site assumes an almost spiritual dimension.

On entering “The Zone”, Tarkovsky punctuates the change in space by shifting palette. As the world outside “The Zone” is rendered in a muted sepia, the shift to colour imbues the area with sense of vibrancy and life. This reflects the Stalker’s view of the site as mysterious and otherworldly. The viewer is presented with a slowly shifting panorama which concludes with the edge of the frame resting against a broken power line. The dark form of the pole casts a crucifix like shape across the greenery of the background. As the cart the three characters are travelling in comes to a halt the Stalker proclaims;

“Here we are…home at last.”9

This scene is shortly followed by a passage in which the Stalker reacquaints himself with his territory. During this take, the Stalker walks off alone and proceeds to lie face down in the foliage, as though praying to the soil beneath him. This in itself contradicts preconceived or traditional ideas of spirituality, the Stalker’s attention is not directed towards the heavens but instead to the ground. This idea is reinforced later within the film when attention is directed towards a pool of water whose surface is littered with glass light-bulbs. The pool creates something to the effect of an inverted night sky, populated by a synthetic constellation of discarded bulbs. In both cases, the ideas of vastness and the infinite that usually relate to the sky are attributed instead to the earth. These ideas are reflected in Heidegger’s notion of dwelling;

“Poetry does not fly above and surmount the Earth in order to escape it and hover over it. Poetry is what first brings man into the Earth, making him belong to it and thus brings him into being.” 10


Image- Stalker lying in “The Zone”11

Society in Ruin

“Ruins are models or heralds of the disintegrating mind and collapsing principles of the age after the end of stable belief, the half-loved companions of post-religious man haunted by ghosts of faith”12

An image which is used extensively within most of Tarkovsky’s work is that of the architectural ruin. Given the director’s interest in critiquing the loss of spirituality and subsequent decline of society, the ruin functions as a potent metaphor for societal descent. Contradictorily however, the ruin may be also seen to function within his films as the place where the antidote also lies.

These contradictory sentiments may be seen as symptomatic of Tarkovsky’s time. Having lived through the destruction of war, the director must have witnessed the bombing and subsequent reconstruction of Russian cities. Fuelled by the energies of Modernism, areas of ruin spoke not only of the horrors of war, but also the possibility of renewal and rebirth. However, as can be seen in within the journey scene within “Solaris”, Tarkovsky may be seen to have remained highly sceptical of the faith put in urban regeneration made under the Modernist style that was favoured by the Soviets.

In “Solaris” the protagonist Kris’ journey to the planet is dramatically understated. Instead, Tarkovsky presents Burton’s journey on Earth from Kris’ father’s traditional rural house back into the city. By way of an extended take shot from the viewpoint of a car’s windscreen, we experience the dynamism of the urban environment and the effect Modernism had upon the Russian city. Through the substitution of Kris’ journey into space for the intercity journey, Tarkovsky may be seen to display feelings of alienation caused by the urban planning of the time. In the journey scene, the vast emptiness of space is likened to the concrete landscape of the Modern Russian city. Extending this parallel, both were marketed as symbols of scientific and State progress whilst masking the isolating and psychologically harmful realities of each. Seen in relation to this, Tarkovsky’s repeated use of the ruin motif can be seen as a nostalgic return to more primitive ways of dwelling. As stated by Tim Edensor;

“As residues of the past that have been rejected or by-products of economic progress, ruins can become the site of a critique of the ideology of progress, of the ever-more-stringent forward movement of history.”14

This scepticism of linear progress may be traced within the Stalker’s meandering movement through “The Zone”. After proclaiming that to forge a straight path through “The Zone” would be fatal, Stalker soliloquises;

“[The Zone] is what we have made it with our condition. It happened that people had to stop halfway and go back…”15

It is likely that this advice is chosen by Tarkovsky to extend out beyond the fictional world of the film. Given the Romantic connotations of the ruin as a symbol, it stands diametrically opposed to the ideals of Modernist architecture. Where the Soviet machine for living spoke of dynamism, rationality and the promises of the future, Tarkovsky’s images of ruin proclaimed the density of time and the possibility of redemption through a reconnection with spirituality and nature.

Although based upon the Strugatsky brothers novel “Roadside Picnic”, “Stalker” differs in a variety of important ways. “The Zone” within “Roadside Picnic” is said to be the site of an alien landing where the remains of a highly advanced technology manipulate and distort the landscape. The history of “The Zone” within “Stalker” however, is never explicitly explained by Tarkovsky. What lies there is merely hinted at through rumour and fragmented segments of information from the characters. This enables the viewer to relate to “The Zone” as both a physical and psychological space, an ambiguous environment which may only hold mystery within the mind of the Stalker.

“The Zone” is considered by the Stalker as a last hope for a desperate world that is barren of faith and devoid of meaning. Conveyed by the seemingly nihilistic views of Writer;

“The world is ruled by cast iron laws and it’s insufferably boring. Alas, those laws are never violated. They don’t know how to be violated. To live in the Middle Ages was interesting, every home had its house spirit and every church had its God. [But now] It’s so boring.” 16

These sentiments echo those expressed by situationist Ivan Chtcheglov in his essay “Formulary for a New Urbanism”;

“We are bored in the city…in the 20th century..our imaginations, haunted by the old archetypes have remained far behind the sophistications of the machines. The various attempts to integrate modern science into new myths remain inadequate…” 17

Further to this, Tarkovsky views may be seen to reflect those of Chtcheglov in that each seeks to criticise Modernist architecture’s detrimental impact on the soul. Chtcheglov states in a typically unrestrained manner;

“A Le Corbusier model is the only image that arouses in me the idea of immediate suicide.” 18

It is interesting to note that both the Stalker and the Sittuationist’s solution to these problems hold the psychological experience of space as their basis, be that by way of the dérive or the Stalker’s re-imagining of “The Zone”. Each suggests that through the re-engagement with immediate surroundings a bond can be reconnected between man and his place in the world.

Ruined environments lend themselves to the imagination easily in that they are incomplete and fragmented. This incompleteness allows the inhabitant to mentally rebuild the environment in any manner they see fit, in this case resulting in the Stalker’s spiritual rereading of the site. This connection depends upon the nature of absence which radiates within the ruin, an absence which is eagerly filled by elements form the interior landscape; desire, fear and hope. Philosopher Dylan Trigg examines the wasteland;

“In everyday space, the regularity and order of city life is broken by spaces which subvert and evade order. On the one hand, this is achieved in the inversion of what is already ordered. That, for the Situationists, is how the city becomes spontaneous; by rereading the city. On the other hand, a retreat from regularity into the space of ambiguity and uncertainty is seen as a critical space where the rationality of order is contested.” 19

Ruin and Spirituality


Image – On the outskirts of “The Room”20

Fundamentally, the ruin embodies a literal break down of exterior and interior traits. Through this break down, what is normally associated with our understanding of concrete reality dissipates and reforms. If the physical world relates to the nature of objects: their sense of weight, form, solidity and permanence, then ideas of spirituality or metaphysicality seem to relate in direct contrast to this; to notions of weightlessness, formlessness and transience. The ruin may be seen to act as a conduit between these two states, detailing the passage from what is confined, rational and singular to a opened-out, irrational and more fragmented state. This can be seen in the decaying environment of “The Zone” where elements from the outside (natural) world overlap with man-made constructions. Ruins are frequently associated with Romanticism (particularly within the work of the painter Caspar David Friedrich) and seen through this lens, the ruin may be seen to embody a change of state relative to the experience of the sublime.

The destruction of stone is commented on by Wilhelm Worringer;

“’Spirit…is the opposite of matter. To dematerialise stone is to spiritualise it.’ For Worringer, spiritual and spatial experiences were analogous in that they were fed by the senses and resistant to abstraction and representation.” 21

The stability of the architecture in “The Zone” is undermined by natural phenomena which render the environment amorphous, undulating and uncertain. This echoes the ambiguous ground the characters must traverse mentally in their pursuit of belief. Foliage sprouts and pools of rain water collect within the chambers on the outskirts of “The Room”, paralleling philosopher Dylan Trigg’s reading of ruined space.

“Ruins, overarching and bearing down from above, partake of this drone through annihilating the distinction between outside and inside”;

This distinction of interior and exterior is quantified later by Trigg as synonymous with being and non being.

Tarkovsky reinforces this sentiment within “Stalker” during a scene in which the camera slowly pans into an alcove in the vicinity of “The Room”. We are presented with a confined space where a black Alsatian lies whimpering. As the camera gradually edges into the space, a sprig of greenery is illuminated by a door just left of the shot which continually opens and closes, returning the scene to darkness. The skeletons of an embracing couple lie at the end of the alcove entwined with the plant, creating an image that simultaneously presents death and rebirth, being and non being. Here we presented with the transient nature of the ruin, a memento mori which serves as a reminder of the mortality of all structures at the hands of time.

Andrei mentions in his memoir entitled “Sculpting in Time” that cinema is

“a mixture of the basest material substances such as we tread every day”22

and that

“the image is tied to the concrete and the material, yet reaches out along mysterious paths to regions beyond the spirit.”23

It therefore makes sense that he should present the search for belief that underpins “Stalker” within a ruined, almost banal, wasteland setting. Like the Stalker himself, Tarkovsky aims to produce profound effects from what may at first be seen as crude environments and materials. However, that is not to say that Tarkovsky intends some alchemical process where the material itself undergoes a transformation that distances it from its original state. Instead the image remains ‘tied’ to its initial source. He has stated in interviews;

“We can express our feelings about the world around us either by poetic or descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically…A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while a metaphor is an image. Metaphor is a being within itself, it is monomial. It falls apart at any attempt of touching it.”24

This recalls Gaston Bachelard’s distinction between two forms of imagination: the ‘material’ and the ‘formal’. In the essay “Water and Dreams”, the formal “creates all the unnecessary beauty it contains” whereas the material “is productive of germs…where the form is sunk in substance…”25; the material imagination relates to “direct images of matter…precisely those forms given in matter and inseparable from it”.26

Tarkovsky’s use of the ‘material’ image therefore intends to convey meaning which is engrained and inseparable from its initial form. Seemingly archaic images of fire, water, wind and the ruined building are motifs which reappear throughout the director’s career. Each share a common basis in that they were all essential entities for the evolution of early man. The ruined building, as primitive hut or shelter holds a strong poetic attachment to all due to its quintessential role in survival. The same may be said for the other aforementioned elements. By appropriating these loaded materials, the director intends his images to operate on a level that pre-dates language. This helps us to understand Tarkovsky’s seemingly aloof response when questioned regarding the role of symbolism in his work;

“…Whenever I declare that there are no symbols…those present express incredulity. They persist in asking again and again, for instance, what rain signifies in my films; why does it figure in film after film; and why the repeated images of wind, fire, and water?…Of course rain can just be seen as bad weather, whereas I use it to create a particular aesthetic setting in which to steep the action of the film. But that is not at all the same things as bringing nature into my films as a symbol of something else.”27

These primitive images are not signs that point toward a meaning that lies out-with their nature, instead their meaning lies in our human experience of such phenomenon. This is how the films of Tarkovsky gain their emotional potency; through their directness with which they communicate with the human psyche.


Image- Submerged objects in “The Zone”28

The process of erosion may be seen to physically chart the passage of time. In “Stalker” we are presented with an extended take detailing a pool in which a variety of items are submerged below the surface of the water. These include fragments of machinery, a Russian icon painting and a handgun. Although functioning as fairly straightforward symbols of human endeavour and history; relating to industrialisation, art, religion and war, it is the manner in which these items are presented that is most interesting. Tarkovsky positions the camera perpendicularly to the surface of the water causing a dramatic flattening of the field of depth. This transforms the sense of cinematic space into that more associated with painting as the materiality and texture of each surface is scrutinised. Throughout the cameras slow movement across the surface, each item unfolds singularly filling the entire screen for a few seconds until slipping from the frame. In this manner, each object acts more like a marker of time’s passage. Tarkovsky suggests that all human endeavour is largely futile when confronted with the infinite expanse of time, echoing Heidegger;

“What is presumed to be eternal merely conceals a suspended transiency, suspended in the void of a durationless now.” 29

House and Mind, Re-establishing Orientation


Image – Domenico’s abode30

In “Nostalghia” the madman Domenico within lives within a ruined building where rain water pours freely through holes in the ceiling. Here, Tarkovsky uses architecture in order to convey the disjointed state of Domenico’s mind. The camera follows the path of the main character, Andrei, as he gently edges into the building. At this point the viewer is confronted with a view through an open window which reaches far into the landscape beyond. As the camera descends towards the floor, we notice that the rolling mountain range seen through the window is echoed by mounds of earth which litter the room. Tarkovsky slowly zooms into this landscape in miniature until any view of the exterior vanishes from the scene. This has the effect of obscuring our sense of scale, what was initially an imagined landmass eventually stands in place of the original panorama. Similarly, Domenico’s interior landscape has enveloped and obscured any sense of the outside reality.

The psychologist Carl Jung is noted for likening the structure of the brain to that of the house;

“The upper story…was erected in the nineteenth century; the ground-floor dates from the sixteenth century…in the cellar we discover Roman foundation walls, and underneath the cellar [is] a filled in cave…That would be a sort of picture of our mental structure.”31

Domenico’s dwelling is literally deranged as aspects usually associated with the cellar have ascended into his everyday living quarters. Darkness permeates the scene, cobwebs soften each corner and pools of water collect on the floor. Despite the dereliction, as in any ruin we are reminded of its previous ordered nature. Tracing through the residues of the structure, the past clarity of the interior becomes distinct through absence. These sentiments are used to reinforce our understanding of Domenico’s character. Previously a mathematician, his demise is translated into the nonsensical equation daubed on the back wall;

“1+1=1”

Within “Nostalghia” Domenico’s madness is seen as the result of the time in which he lives, his means of retreat from a reality that is morally corrupt and destructive. His view of society is reflected by the protagonist, poet Andrei Gorchakov, who sympathises with Domenico. Upon taking the advice of Domenico, Gorchakov seeks to cure societies ills through the performance of a ritual. This ritual, recalling the Stalker’s dérive, involves a considered and slow movement through physical space. Gorchakov is advised to travel from one side of a thermal pool to the other whilst holding a lit candle. At the end of the film, despite Domenico’s insanity, Gorchakov believes his view of the world is not entirely without truth and undertakes his request.

Within both “Stalker” and “Nostalghia”, Tarkovsky’s underlying message is essentially the same; the experience of time and space is paramount to living a life with meaning. Through the narrative of each film, redemption is ultimately found by re-establishing a poetic connection with one’s immediate environment; by finding place within the detritus and rubble of the post-religious society within which man dwells.

These ideas have even stronger relevance today as technological advances increasingly erode our sense of place in the world. In an environment that is increasingly disjointed through the isolating forces of mass communication and the widespread availability of global travel, rootlessness may be seen as the modern epidemic;

“…[we are] awash in a landscape of mobility that eschews connections to particular plots…[which] has left us without much of a foothold.”32

Catalysed by the constant stream of twenty four hour news coverage and the increasing reliance on virtual space, the connection between space and time is progressively undermined within the contemporary sphere. Tarkovsky recalls a public debate in his diary;

“Almost every speaker asks why they have to be made to suffer all through the three hours of this film…It is because the twentieth century has seen the rise of a kind of emotional inflation. When we read in the papers that two million people have been butchered in Indonesia, it makes as much impression on us as an account of a hockey team winning a match…The channels of our perceptions have been smoothed out to the point where we are no longer aware…The point is that there are some artists who do make us feel the true measure of things. It is a burden which they carry throughout their lives, and we must be thankful to them.”33

It is in relation to this statement that we can understand the continuing importance of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre; through his ability to make us feel “the true measure” of life itself.

At the end of “Stalker”, the quest of each character is not in vain despite their inability to cross the threshold of “The Room”. After their return from “The Zone”, the three men sit quietly within the bar, their constant bickering obscured by an air of gentle reverie. The viewer, having also undertaken their journey, equally assumes this prayer-like state. If like Pascal we are to believe that “All of human unhappiness stems stems from one thing, not knowing how to remain in repose in a room”34, then perhaps this is the where the essence of the director’s work lies; in his ability to create beautiful cinematic images which go some way towards re-fusing our human experience of space and time.

* Ross M Brown is an Edinburgh based artist who investigates architectural space through the medium of painting.

** Alochonaa.com is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of Alochonaa.com’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@gmail.com

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