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Put a camera in your pencil case

Tszwai So

Cinematography would be as useful a skill for architects as drawing, says Tszwai So

Understanding inhabitation – this time of the skies in E-motion-Al City.
Understanding inhabitation – this time of the skies in E-motion-Al City. Credit: Tszwai So

My earliest recollection of experiencing architecture without knowing it was from a film I watched as a teenager called Chungking Express, the seminal work by hallowed filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai. Set in Hong Kong, it concerns two unrelated love stories told in a fragmented and disjointed style, favouring the details of everyday lives over a conventionally structured narrative. In Chungking Express I saw the normal life taking place in the exuberant built environment peculiar to Hong Kong: the cramped convenience store, compact domestic spaces, the filthy interiors of the infamous Chungking mansion. The film showed the spaces in which most locals grew up, but we often took for granted. 

Wong’s early works are inseparable from Christopher Doyle’s cinematography. Doyle used a hand-held camera to shoot many of the scenes, while borrowing the in situ neon and fluorescent lights to create the dreamy mood at night. The film was not about love, it was about the loneliness we all experienced living in cities; it was a cinematic experience of everyday life, and the banal building elements pertaining to it such as the windows and the doors were romanticised through Doyle’s lens. 

Back then I was simply enchanted by the cinematography and thought little of it, but years later I discovered Gaston Bachelard’s book, The Poetics of Space, in which he re-examines basic architectural components like the attic, cellar and staircase, focusing not on their purposes but on lived experience in those spaces. I realised that Bachelard was narrating the kind of architecture I saw in Wong’s film, and spaces could only be given the most meaningful and candid expressions not by the will of the architect, but the lived experience of successive occupants. 

Film has become increasingly popular as a medium to communicate ideas in architecture schools in recent years, favoured by many tech-savvy students of Generation Z. ‘All architects and urban planners should be trained in cinematography,’ architectural critic Herbert Wright once argued: ‘After all, they create the set for the drama that’s our day to day lives.’ Wright’s words remind me of Doyle’s pictures in Chungking Express.

Spaces gain expression from the lived experience of occupants

Some see film as an unexpected form of post occupancy study: ‘Film constitutes an accidental archive that makes visible how we live, love, work and sleep in buildings,’ said François Penz, professor of architecture at Cambridge who has forensically studied hundreds of moving pictures. Penz’s research has also highlighted a tendency to ignore lived experience in mainstream architecture.

In late 2019 as a novice in film making, I was invited to make a sketch set in Hong Kong, in collaboration with Chinachem Group, to represent the city at the now postponed Venice Biennale. The project took the film crew to where my journey began, Wong Kar-Wai’s Hong Kong – a city that, architecturally speaking, with all its flaws, is nothing short of magnificent.

The film is entitled E-motion-Al City, and part of it is about a two-year-old flâneuse  and her as a grown up finding the topography of her birthplace, Tusen Wan, with her feet. Film making and architecture do share a high degree of commonality in their creative and production processes, as both involve storytelling, meticulous planning and an eye for detail weaving every part together while preserving the integrity of the central theme. But just as you can’t assume someone who can ride a bike is good at skateboarding, film making and architecture are two very different disciplines. I experienced first-hand the differences while making E-motion-Al City, but architects nevertheless could learn a great deal from cinematographers: the way they understand colours, ambience and atmosphere; the way they document and communicate real experiences in the built environment. It brings us back to Wright’s point: like drawing, film making should be part of every architect’s education. 


One day while shooting E-motion-Al City, we spotted a plane that emerged from the rooftop of a high-rise and swiftly vanished. We waited for two long hours to capture another one with our camera. Exhilarated, we later told our colleague about the epic catch – only to be told there was a well-known mobile app tracking every aircraft in the sky.

Tszwai So is a founding director of Spheron Architects. Watch his film E-motion-Al City